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.
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.