How to Read Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A British Museum Curator Explains

If you want to learn to read hiero­glyph­ics, you must first learn that (with apolo­gies to the artists behind “You Nev­er Knew”) there are no such things as hiero­glyph­ics. There are only hiero­glyphs, as the British Muse­um’s cura­tor of ancient writ­ing Ilona Regul­s­ki explains in the video just above, and hiero­glyph­ic is the adjec­ti­val form. You may remem­ber Regul­s­ki from anoth­er British Muse­um video we’ve fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, about what the Roset­ta Stone actu­al­ly says — which she knows because she can actu­al­ly read it, not just in the ancient Greek lan­guage, but in the ancient Egypt­ian one. Here, she explains how to inter­pret its once utter­ly mys­te­ri­ous sym­bols.

It would take an incu­ri­ous view­er indeed not to be cap­ti­vat­ed by their first glimpse of hiero­glyphs, which pos­sess a kind of detail and beau­ty lit­tle seen in oth­er writ­ing sys­tems. Or at least they do when carved into stone, Regul­s­ki explains; in more every­day con­texts, the impres­sive arrange­ments of owls, ankhs, bas­kets, eyes, and bread loaves took on a more sim­pli­fied, abstract­ed form.

Either way, it makes use of a com­plex and dis­tinc­tive gram­mat­i­cal sys­tem about which we can draw a good deal of insight from exam­in­ing a sin­gle inscrip­tion: in this case, an inscrip­tion on a lin­tel glo­ri­fy­ing Amen­emhat III, “one of the most famous kings of ancient Egypt.”

Those who feel their his­tor­i­cal-lin­guis­tic curios­i­ty piqued would do well to vis­it the British Muse­um’s cur­rent exhi­bi­tion “Hiero­glyphs: Unlock­ing Ancient Egypt,” which runs until Feb­ru­ary 19th of next year. If you can’t make it to Lon­don, you can still go a bit deep­er with the video below. Drawn the Great Cours­es series “Decod­ing the Secrets of Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs,” it fea­tures Egyp­tol­o­gist Bob Brier’s break­down of such rel­e­vant con­cepts as phonet­ics, deter­mi­na­tives, and ideograms, as well as guid­ed exer­cis­es in sen­tence trans­la­tion and name translit­er­a­tion. After demon­strat­ing admirable hiero­glyph­ic pen­man­ship (cer­tain­ly com­pared to most mod­erns), Brier leaves us with a home­work assign­ment — just the sort of thing the ancient Egyp­tians them­selves were doing a few mil­len­nia ago.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Writ­ing: From Ancient Egypt to Mod­ern Writ­ing Sys­tems

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

What Ancient Egypt­ian Sound­ed Like & How We Know It

An Ancient Egypt­ian Home­work Assign­ment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Tru­ly Time­less

3,200-Year-Old Egypt­ian Tablet Records Excus­es for Why Peo­ple Missed Work: “The Scor­pi­on Bit Him,” “Brew­ing Beer” & More

A 4,000-Year-Old Stu­dent ‘Writ­ing Board’ from Ancient Egypt (with Teacher’s Cor­rec­tions in Red)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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