Introduction to Egyptian

🏷  Egyptian intro · meta-info   —   by Gerry · May 2019 · 2442 words

Ancient Egyptian is a language with many similarities to the Semitic languages, including a consonantal script, many common words such as numerals, plus several common prefixes & suffixes. It is written in a hard-to-read glyph script which makes constant use of homophones, which could be called official puns.

Egyptian hieroglyphic script

The most famous feature of the Ancient Egyptian language is the hieroglyphic script. Glyphs in this script basically come in 4 categories:

  1. Regular letters, also called uni-literals. They work like Latin letters and represent one simple phoneme, the sound taken from the object seen in the pictogram. For example, the barn owl 𓅓 represents the letter M. It is a phonogram, used only for the phonetics, in words which have nothing to do with owls.
  2. Determinatives, “category” pictures attached to the end of a word to label it, e.g. a man 𓀀 after people’s names, or a crossroads 𓊖 after city names. Determinatives are logograms, since the glyph is used for the depicted object.
  3. Ideograms, where such a picture sometimes stands for the entire word and phonetic letters are omitted, e.g. 𓀙 for the entire word “aristocrat”, which would be spelled sr in letters. Ideograms are also logograms.
  4. Multiliterals, multi-literal phonograms, where one single glyph stands for several phonemes (bi-literals for 2 letters, tri-literals for 3). This is the oddest category, as scribes often wrote the multiliteral, and then the individual simple letters again. The many different readings also open up possibilities for cryptography & cryptocracy.

Egyptian & Semitic

While Egyptian is not a Semitic language, it is more similar than most would think. Like Semitic dialects, most words can be derived from triliteral or biliteral word roots. Many grammar elements are similar or identical, such as the M-prefix, R/L-prefix, the N-prefix, the T-suffix.

There are also surprisingly many words that appear in both languages. Sometimes these are clearly loanwords, but quite often the words seem to be native to both languages. Those words could stem from archaic languages, that preceded the canonized forms of Egyptian & Semitic. Examples are the root √pn for “turning”, and the root √nks for “cutting”.

Homophones in Egyptian hieroglyphs

Ubiquitous use of homophones is the central feature of Egyptian hieroglyphic script. There are simple regular letters for atomic phonemes like in all other scripts, but it’s the multiliterals which made the script so mysterious. The concept is very simple, but can provide a near undecipherable encryption. I’ll explain it here, with a few examples.

Most ancient & archaic scripts used a small set of pictogram letters. Each stood for the initial phoneme of the depicted word, so we have some homophony involved here: E.g. the Semitic letter Gimel depicts a “curve” called gimel (as in curve-backed “camel”), and only stood for the initial phoneme G of that word. Semitic Aleph depicts an ox, also called aleph (“alpha” male), and represents the initial phoneme.

Egyptian script had those simple letters too: The Egyptian glyph I10 𓆓 depicts a cobra, called ḏt in Egyptian, and usually stands for the initial phoneme of that word. Egyptian texts thus contain a lot of cobras, but that does not mean that the Egyptians liked or worshiped poisonous snakes, as is often claimed. The cobra was simply used as a letter because it was such a well-known word.

In contrast, the multiliterals stand for all phonemes of the word they depict, but only for the sound of that word, not for the meaning. Egyptian script is therefore full of pictures which have nothing to do with the content. However, sometimes (not always) the depicted word is indirectly related to the words written with it, via word roots. This is my own opinion, and typically not stated in Egyptologist literature.

Example for “duck” & “son”

One good example for a multiliteral is the biliteral glyph G39 𓅭: It depicts a duck, and stands for the word (also given as ). It is most commonly used to write the words for “son” & “guardian”, both also pronounced . Of course sons & guardians are not ducks. It’s just a glyph.

However, there’s a possible link through a common root: When you analyze word roots, you’ll quickly see it’s often not a coincidence when words are spelled similar.

One feature of ducks is that they protect their young very well: The mother duck often has the ducklings walk in single file behind (in German walking in file is called “goose march”). Ducks also build their nest on the ground, and thus have to guard it very fiercely. It’s therefore possible that the Egyptian words for “duck”, “guardian”, “son” are all etymologically related, derived from the common meaning of “protection”. “Protector [bird]” could have been a nickname of ducks.

And we can be sure that at least the word for “son” is definitely related to the word for “guarding”, because children need to be “guarded”. Of the many words for “child”, emphasizes that a child needs to be protected, as a protégé of sorts. The German word Schützling meaning “protégé” is likewise used for children.

The aristocratic Egyptologist Alan Gardiner mocks the search for etymological links explicitly in his Egyptian grammar. But he got it wrong, probably on purpose. It’s not that the glyph word is derived from the meant word, but that both are derived from a common root.

[…] combines correct notions of the meanings of many hieroglyphic signs with the most grotesque allegorical reasons for those meanings. Thus, the goose 𓅭 symbolizes ‘son’ because of that bird’s intense love of its offspring, the hare 𓃹 serves to write the word for ‘open’ because the hare’s eyes always remain open, and so forth. Fantastic explanations of this type appealed all too readily to the medieval mind […]​

Alan Gardiner: Egyptian grammar

Homophones as encryption

The importance of texts encoded via homophones cannot be underestimated. If you browse the list of puns I’ve collected, you’ll see that ancient & modern elites have alays used homophones as a very cheap method to encrypt their secret messages in public names & texts.

In theory, homophone-code seems like an efficient way to write words: You substitute the entire word with a pictogram that’s pronounced the same, and everyone can read it. However, if you study Egyptian texts, you’ll quickly notice that the script is anything but efficient or readable. On the contrary: It seems very convoluted, and didn’t save many letters at all: As mentioned before, the scribes often wrote multi-literals which stood for several regular letters, but then still wrote the actual letters next to them.

On top of that, we have the official theory that our modern European letter systems all evolved from the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, via Phoenician letters. In other words, very simple writing systems evolved out of a very complicated system.

I’m not sure, but I’ve gotten serious doubts regarding this theory. If you look at other ancient writing systems, it seems many simple-letter systems have been around simultaneously, such as Byblian or Luwian, and the many systems labeled Proto-Semitic. All of them had a very small set of letters, each derived from an image depicting a word with that letter’s phoneme.

I’d therefore suspect that the complicated Egyptian system really evolved out of simple-letter systems, and not vice versa. The reason may have been to make the writing complicated on purpose, and thus unreadable for most commoners. The aristocratic elites and their employed scribes could then relatively freely record all sorts of nasty secret schemes to scam & exploit the common population.

Egyptian puns

It’s known that Egyptians used homophone puns and other wordplay, though it’s hard to find officially admitted examples.

The Book of Gates is said to contain some puns: rmṯw “humans” are said to be rmyt “tears” from Horus’ eye, because the words are written somewhat (but not quite) similar. And ˤȝmw “Syrians” are mentioned together with ˤȝ-mw “great water”. (Egyptologists are still debating what the puns for Nubians & Libyans are, they seem less straightforward.)

If you look at the glyphs, you’ll see that the glyph spellings are not similar at all, because of the used multiliteral signs.

In some cases, the arrangement of the glyphs themselves may be of importance: James Allen mentions that the word m-ẖnw “inside” was sometimes spelled as the loosely similar mw-ẖr-nw “water under pot” — though not by writing those words, but by putting a “water” glyph under a “pot” glyph! Such arrangements may be near impossible to decrypt, and even here the similarity is “fuzzy” with the additional R. Our only hope is that the Egyption scribes themselves would have been confused as well, if they had used this too often…

You are the tears of my Brilliant Eye
in your name of ‘human beings’.

ntṯn rmyt ȝḫt.j
m rn.ṯn nj rmṯw


Erik Hornung: The Egyptian Book of Gates

Great is the water of him who created,
you say in your name ‘Syrians’.

ˤȝ mw n sḫpr
jn.ṯn m rn.ṯn nj ˤȝmw


Erik Hornung: The Egyptian Book of Gates

The preposition m-ẖnw “inside” (literally “in the interior”) is usually written in a straightforward fashion as 𓅓𓄚𓈖𓏌𓉐 (with the “house” determinative), but scribes sometimes wrote it with the signs 𓏌𓈗 instead; this derives from an ancient Egyptian pun: the signs are to be read “water” (mw) “under” (ẖr) “pot” (nw), and this obviously sounded similar to the word “inside” (mw-ẖr-nw = m-ẖnw).

James Allen: Middle Egyptian

Egypt and spookery

Since I analyze ancient spooks, and claim that our modern spooks are their direct descendants, one big question is: Are our modern spooks the descendants of the Ancient Egyptian elites?

Judging from modern spookery, the answer would be simply “No”. Today’s crypto-aristocrats are overwhelmingly using Semitic names & puns, not Egyptian ones. Those few modern spook puns that are found in the Ancient Egyptian language (e.g. number 2, fasces, Eye of Horus), are also found in Semitic. I’ve found no direct spook reference to Ancient Egypt. Rather, the spooks are always referencing Latin, Greek or Semitic punnery, and don’t seem to know about Egyptian links. Our modern cryptocracy seems to have evolved from post-Egyptian empires, most importantly Ancient Phoenicia.

But that does not mean Ancient Egyptian elites were straightforward rulers, who ruled cruelly but honestly. They were definitely cryptocrats, just a different kind. Best proof is the punnery found in Egyptian god names: All gods are puns, often about nasty things. Amun means “hidden”, and Osiris means “power”. Who would worship “hidden power”, and invent such names? Definitely not open & honest rulers. More examples of spooky punnery are the shuti crown or the Son of Ra title.

So in summary, I’d say the Ancient Egyptian rulers were something like proto-spooks. They practiced deceptive rulership, and even secretly rubbed it in their subjects’ faces through hidden puns, like today’s spooks. The difference was that they still openly showed off their incredible power. Later generations of rulers found that their subjects would work harder if they didn’t know everything could & would be taken from them. Aristocratic power was then concealed under more layers of deception. The Ancient Egyptian system was gradually dissolved, and ultimately abandoned with the faked death of Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra VII (most later spooks being official descendants of her clan). Without the help of commoners, the difficult punny-script fell out of use, though records may have been kept.

However, Ancient Egypt had been a global & well-networked superpower for millennia. We’ve also seen the rulers were already cryptocrats. So I’d assume Egyptian elites were at least one of the groups that steered the transition from “open power” to “hidden power”. I’d wager their bloodlines were never interrupted, and are still present in today’s more powerful spook clans. But traces from pre-Ptolemaic, truly-ancient Egypt to anywhere else seem very well hidden. Likewise, there’s massive censorship surrounding pyramids and other megalithic buildings. It seems these secrets are withheld even from lower & mid-level spooklings.

Much more can be said about Egypt and its secrets, but we’re just starting on our journey here. If you’re interested, you can browse the Egypt section. I bet you’ll already be amazed at the many spooky links that we didn’t know of. Have fun!

Tagged Egyptian languages

In my analyses, I tag the following languages & scripts as Egyptian:

Technical notes

For my cited dictionary entries, I render the Egyptian glyphs as Unicode characters. Sometimes my source does not provide the glyphs, and then I can give only a transliteration or transcription. In other cases, the glyphs are so rare that there is no Unicode character defined for them. In that case, I’ll just give the Gardiner glyph number.

A special font is needed to render the hieroglyphs. This is provided as a file and linked to on the website via CSS, so in theory it should work automatically. Problems may arise if CSS is missing or turned off for some reason, or if your browser forbids using linked fonts. Also, this only works for the webpage. If you copy the text into an editor and don’t have a proper font installed on your system, you will only see white tofu boxes.

The Gardiner glyph numbers (e.g. A1 for the man 𓀀) are currently provided as tooltips. You’ll only see them on a PC, but not on mobile devices.

Transliteration of Egyptian letters

I use the following Latin letters to transliterate the Egyptian letter-type glyphs. This is typically not a 1:1 transliteration of any given Egyptian spelling, but of a spelling where multi-literals would not be used.

my transliteration mostly follows the standard, except for 𓄿 / 𓂝, which I denote by the old-fashioned ȝ / ˤ (as opposed to the official signs / which display horribly or not at all with most fonts).

Egyptian letterMDC codeMy transliteration
🏷  Egyptian intro · meta-info