Many thousands of years ago, picture writing was used. Pictures of objects, animals, and people were drawn to represent things and ideas. In Ancient Egypt, lists of the king’s possessions were written down using pictures. For example, a picture of a cow would be drawn next to a number (also represented by a picture) to show how many cows he owned.
The signs used in picture writing are called hieroglyphs. Just like the letters we write with, they are signs that stand for something we can understand. In fact, hieroglyphs are a little bit like some of the road signs you can see today. These also use pictures to represent an object or idea, like a picture of a deer to mean “wild animals”.
The word “hieroglyph” is usually associated with the Ancient Egyptians because their written language was the most fully developed hieroglyphic system. However, theirs was not the only language to use hieroglyphs. Ancient peoples including the Hittites and Sumerians from western Asia, the Aztecs, Maya and other Native Americans all wrote using hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphic writing was inscribed into surfaces such as walls, monuments, tombs and clay tablets. It was also painted on walls or written on papyrus—a type of paper made from reeds.
There were two types of sign used in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. They are called “ideograms” and “phonograms”. An ideogram represents an object or an idea. This could be a picture of the Moon, to mean “Moon”, or to mean the idea of “month”. A phonogram is a picture that represents a sound. This type of hieroglyph could represent one single consonant or two consonants in a row. Vowels were not written down in Ancient Egyptian.
Most words were written using both ideograms and phonograms. An ideogram of a house meant “house”. An ideogram of a pair of walking legs meant “go”. These two ideograms combined with a phonogram meant the verb “to go out”.
Inscriptions of hieroglyphs were made up of nouns, verbs and other parts of speech, just as we use today. Egyptian hieroglyphs were written either vertically or horizontally. When written horizontally they were usually written from right to left but also from left to right. The direction the pictures of animals or people were facing showed whether to read the hieroglyphs from the left or the right. The signs that made up each word were arranged in groups.
The signs used in most Native American hieroglyphs are called “logograms”. Each logogram represents a whole word. As the scripts developed, words that sounded the same but had a different meaning (like in English “eye” and “I”) used the same hieroglyph.
Maya hieroglyphs also used some phonograms, to represent sounds. Unlike the Ancient Egyptians, they wrote vowels as well as consonants. One phonogram represented a consonant plus a vowel.
The Maya usually wrote their hieroglyphs in two vertical columns. The script was then read from the top right to left in a zigzagging pattern down the columns.
HISTORY OF HIEROGLYPHS
The Egyptians began using hieroglyphs in about 3000 bc (over 5,000 years ago). Their language was written using hieroglyphs until around ad 394. In the last few hundred years of use, phonograms were used much more in inscriptions. At the same time as the hieroglyphic script was being used, a cursive script written in a flowing style called “hieratic” developed from it, in around 2755 bc. This began to replace hieroglyphic writing done on papyrus. Another script called “demotic” came into use later on. Hieratic and demotic were simplified forms of hieroglyphic script.
Hieroglyphs took a long time to write. Despite this, they were still used by Egyptians for inscriptions on monuments and statues. The picture signs were attractive to look at and could be used as a way of decorating monuments, rather than using the simpler hieratic or demotic scripts.
The Maya hieroglyphic script was in use from at least 250 bc, perhaps several hundred years earlier. It continued to be written by Maya people for almost 2,000 years, until at least the 16th-century ad. Today, some Maya have begun to learn the script again.
CRACKING THE CODE
Reading hieroglyphic inscriptions on monuments, tombs, and clay tablets have told historians a lot about life in Ancient Egypt. The reason we know what the different hieroglyphs mean is that these old scripts have been translated by language experts.
For a long time it was thought that Egyptian hieroglyphs were just ideograms, that is, they only represented objects and ideas. In 1799, a French soldier in Egypt discovered something called the Rosetta Stone. This is a slab of stone with an inscription on it praising the Ancient Egyptian king Ptolemy V. The same inscription is carved in three different scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. Scholars could already understand the Greek text perfectly, so they were able to compare this with the hieroglyphic and demotic scripts to help translate them. In doing this they discovered that not only were hieroglyphs used to represent objects and ideas but sounds too.
In 1822, a French Egyptologist called Jean François Champollion worked out that the two Egyptian scripts (hieroglyphic and demotic) had written sounds in them. The code of hieroglyphic writing was finally cracked, and other inscriptions could be translated correctly.
The hieroglyphs of the Mayan script have also been deciphered and tell us about how the Maya lived. Mayan hieroglyphs have been found inscribed on pottery, bark, and stone, as well as on manuscripts. However, there are still some signs that remain a mystery to this day.