The “Alphabet”

Alphabet is in quotations because the ancient Egyptian language contained twenty-five consonants where each consonant could represent a single sign closely resembling an alphabet.  Such signs are called uniliteral (“one-letter”) hieroglyphs.  These twenty-five signs would consititute an Egyptian alphabet but they were never used as such, only in combination with other signs.  Egyptologists need to be able to write about Egyptian words and to compile dictionaries of them. To do so, they use a system of transliteration: that is, a set of alphabetical symbols that represent each of the uniliteral hieroglyphs. Egyptology has used several systems of transliteration since the time of Champollion. Two are commonly in use now: the British and European systems. A third system, found in the publications of E. A. W. Budge, is now outdated, but is useful to know because many of Budge’s books are still in print. A fourth system, without special signs, is used for computerized texts called Manuel de Codage. The special signs in these systems are called Diacritical Marks. A diacritic is a glyph added to a letter, or basic glyph. The term derives from the Greek διακριτικός (diakritikós, “distinguishing”). Diacritical marks may appear above or below a letter, or in some other position such as within the letter or between two letters. The main use of diacritics in the Latin alphabet is to change the sound value of the letter to which they are added.

The table below shows the uniliteral hieroglyphs of Middle Egyptian, along with their common transliteration and the names by which Egyptologists commonly refer to them. These signs are among the most common of all Egyptian hieroglyphs; every text contains some of them, and most words were written with one or more of them—some words, only with them. It is important to know that some hieroglyphs do not have equivalent sounds in English. For English speakers, the sounds given here are approximate to English sounds. The first five sounds roughly correspond to vowel sounds in English, although they are not used in the same way as vowels are used in English, and they are considered consonants in Middle Egyptian. The IPA which stands for International Phonetic Alphabet is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on the Latin alphabet. It was devised by the International Phonetic Association as a standardized representation of the sounds of oral languages. 


Hieroglyph Description
of Glyph
de Codage
G1 G1 Vulture A A ʔ

M17 M17 Reed leaf i i j
M17+M17 M17M17 Double Reed leaves y y i
D36 D36 Arm a a ʕ

G43 G43 Quail Chick w w w
D58 D58 Foot b b b

Q3 Q3 Stool p p p

I9 I9 Horned Viper f f f

G17 G17 Owl m m m

N35 N35 Water Ripple n n n

D21 D21 Mouth r r r
O4 O4 Reed Shelter h h h

V28 V28 Twisted Wick H H ħ
Aa1 Aa1 Placenta? x x x

F32 F32 Animal belly and tail X X c,ç

O34 O34 Door bolt z z z
S29 S29 Folded cloth s s s
N37 N37 Pool S S ʃ

N29 N29 Sandy slope q q q
V31 V31 Basket with handle k k k
W11 W11 Jar stand g g g

X1 X1 Small bread loaf t t t
V13 V13 Tethering rope T T
D46 D46 Hand d d d
I10 I10 Cobra D D
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