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Lesson II : Basic signs (1)

1) Different types of signs

Although it used pictures as a means to transport ideas and thought, hieroglyphic can not be considered as merely pictographic.  In a purely pictographic writing, each sign means what it represents. For instance, a sign representing a cow would convey the meaning "cow", the image of a man would mean "man", and so on. A big disadvantage of this type of writing is that it can only be used to refer to material things. Writing words with a more abstract meaning is near impossible.
The number of different words that can be written with a purely pictographic writing is thus very limited.

To solve this problem, hieroglyphic basically distinguishes between two types of signs:

  • ideograms are signs that mean what they represent. One ideogram can represent more than one word, or it can represent a more general sense and not a specific meaning.
  • phonograms are signs that have a phonetic value. They represent one, two or three consonants.

Most words were therefore usually written by combining phonograms and ideograms. The phonograms would make up the consonants of the word whereas the ideograms conveyed the word's meaning. This combination not only provided hieroglyphic writing a great flexibility, it also allowed a better distinction between words that consisted of the same consonants.
Because the Egyptians only wrote consonants and not their vowels, several words would be written in the same way, even though they may have had different meanings. For instance, the verbs "to seek" and "to act stupidly" both consisted of the consonants w + kh + '. The difference between the two different verbs can be conveyed only by adding some ideograms to the written consonants. Thus the verb "to seek" could be determined by an ideogram representing running legs, whereas the verb "to act stupidly" was determined by a sign representing something bad.
To write the word "fool, a man who acts stupidly", it sufficed to add the ideogram representing a man to the verb "to act stupidly".
Ideograms added in such a way to phonetically written words are called determinatives because they determinate the meaning of the written word.

Not all words were written in this manner, however. Very common or short words were sometimes written by using ideograms or phonograms only. Words that were normally written with phonetic signs only are pronouns, some prepositions, such as "in" or "on" and so on.
Some signs were used both as ideograms and as phonograms. The word for house, for instance, consisted of the consonants p+r. The sign that was used to write the word "house" could also be used as a phonetic sign to represent the sound pr.
When such a sign is used to represent what it means rather than a sound, it is often followed by a small vertical line, the so-called stroke-determinative. For instance, when the sign that represents a house is used to convey the word "house", it will be followed by a stroke. A stroke-determinative thus indicates that the preceding sign is an ideogram and that it means what it represents.
A stroke-determinative can also be used as a space filler. In that case, it does not necessarily indicate that the previous sign means what it represents.

2) Some ideograms

The following is a non-exhaustive list of signs that were used as ideograms. Several of these ideograms have a more general meaning. As noted above, some of these signs may also have had a phonetic value. These are covered in the following lessons.

Sign   General meaning
02_man_01.gif (182 bytes) man, person
02_woman.gif (148 bytes) woman
02_people.gif (213 bytes) people, mankind, Egyptians
02_man_02.gif (175 bytes) child, (to be) young
02_man_03.gif (171 bytes) old man, (to be) old, to lean
02_man_04.gif (165 bytes) man of authority
02_man_05.gif (162 bytes) noble person, dead person
02_man_06.gif (152 bytes) god, king
02_man_07.gif (188 bytes) king
02_bird_01.gif (161 bytes) god, king
02_snake_01.gif (132 bytes) goddess, queen
02_man_08.gif (163 bytes) be high, rejoice, support, exalt
02_man_09.gif (156 bytes) praise, pray
02_man_10.gif (160 bytes) force, effort
02_man_11.gif (193 bytes) eat, drink, speak, think, feel
02_man_12.gif (174 bytes) lift, carry
02_man_13.gif (203 bytes) be weary, weak
02_man_14.gif (184 bytes) enemy, foreigner, rebel
02_man_15.gif (200 bytes) enemy, death
02_mummy_01.gif (150 bytes) to lie down, death, bury
02_mummy_02.gif (115 bytes) mummy, form, likeness
02_body_01.gif (110 bytes) head
02_body_02.gif (126 bytes) hair, mourn
02_body_03.gif (122 bytes) eye, to see
02_body_04.gif (126 bytes) nose, smell, joy, contempt
02_body_05.gif (114 bytes) ear, to listen
02_body_06.gif (105 bytes) tooth
02_body_07.gif (116 bytes) force, action, effort
02_body_08.gif (121 bytes) offer, present
02_body_09.gif (118 bytes) arm, bend, cease
02_body_10.gif (162 bytes) embrace
02_body_11.gif (123 bytes) phallus, beget, urinate, moisture
02_body_12.gif (115 bytes) leg, foot
02_body_13.gif (117 bytes) walk, run
02_body_14.gif (119 bytes) move backwards
02_body_15.gif (91 bytes) flesh, part of the body
02_body_16.GIF (109 bytes) tumour, odour, disease
02_animal_01.GIF (187 bytes) cattle, cow, bull
02_anmimal_02.GIF (182 bytes) savage, storm
02_animal_03.gif (136 bytes) skin, mammal
Sign  General meaning
02_bird_02.gif (174 bytes) bird
02_bird_03.gif (156 bytes) small, bad, weak, negative
02_fish_01.gif (141 bytes) fish
02_snake_02.gif (129 bytes) snake, worm
02_plant_01.gif (113 bytes) tree
02_plant_02.gif (152 bytes) plant, flower
02_plant_03.gif (106 bytes) wood, tree
02_plant_04.gif (132 bytes) corn
02_plant_05.gif (126 bytes) grain
02_nature_01.gif (109 bytes) sky, above
02_nature_02.gif (100 bytes) sun, light, time
02_nature_03.gif (142 bytes) night, darkness
02_nature_04.gif (112 bytes) star, night, time
02_tool_01.gif (139 bytes) fire, heat, cook
02_boat_01.gif (146 bytes) air, wind, sail
02_nature_05.gif (89 bytes) stone
02_nature_06.gif (113 bytes) copper, bronze
02_nature_07.gif (109 bytes) sand, minerals, pellets
02_nature_08.gif (146 bytes) water, liquid
02_nature_09.gif (108 bytes) lake, channel
02_nature_10.gif (96 bytes) irrigated land
02_nature_11.gif (124 bytes) road, to travel, position
02_nature_12.gif (133 bytes) desert, mountain, foreign land
02_weapon_01.gif (85 bytes) foreign (country or person)
02_building_01.gif (115 bytes) town, village (in Egypt)
02_building_02.gif (107 bytes) house, building
02_building_03.gif (106 bytes) door, to open, to close
02_furniture_01.gif (145 bytes) box, coffin
02_boat_02.gif (162 bytes) boat, ship, navigation
02_cloth_01.gif (146 bytes) clothe, linen
02_cloth_02.gif (111 bytes) bind, document
02_weapon_02.gif (119 bytes) knife, cut
02_tool_02.gif (114 bytes) hoe, cultivate, hack up
02_stroke_01.gif (87 bytes) break, divide, cross
02_vessel_01.gif (93 bytes) cup
02_loaf_01.gif (120 bytes) loaf, cake, offering
02_vessel_02.gif (130 bytes) festival, ritual
02_book_01.gif (110 bytes) book, writing, abstract things
02_stroke_02.gif (65 bytes) one, stroke-determinative
02_stroke_03.gif (113 bytes) plural, several, multitude


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