Saturday, January 25, 2020

A History of Writing ... Egyptian scribes

The Egyptians developed a form of writing that was chiseled or engraved in stone.

This writing was not really a true alphabet, but rather a pictography, a set of symbols called hieroglyphs. Hieroglyph means sacred carving.  The pictures may have represented the actual objects shown or they may have been a symbol for the beginning sound of the things pictured.  Sometimes they worked like a rebus, a picture puzzle that uses picture words to sound out the real word intended.  

Elaborate pictograms were engraved and painted on great stone monuments or walls.  A simpler form of writing called hieratic was used to write on papyrus, a kind of paper made from water reed plants.

Great kings and other important people had their names written as a cartouche.  The letters of the name were written or inscribed vertically, top to bottom, and circumscribed with an oval outline.  The example below simply says “name”.  

You can create your own cartouche at

No one knows for sure how the Egyptian language sounded.  We transliterate the symbols into our own alphabet for convenience only.  Many scholars believe the Egyptians carved pictures to represent their ideas before attaching sounds to the symbols.  It was only later that they chose some of these pictures to actually represent the hard sounding consonants in their language.  Using fewer symbols that actually represented these sounds made it much easier to master reading and writing.


Eventually the Egyptians learned how to make paper to inscribe a more simplified form of writing.  In ancient Egypt, most writing was reserved for priests and temple scribes.  They drew with a kind of brush made from the same reed plant used to make their paper, the Papyrus plant.  Their writings are called Hieratic.

Hieratic means sacred or priestly.  Hieratic writing was simplified for use in record keeping and preserving information in texts.  Eventually hieratic writing evolved into demotic, an even simpler cursive form of writing that served the wider population for administrative purposes.  Later still, the Greek Alphabet was adapted for use with the Egyptian language, and became a writing system called Coptic.


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