Activity: Write Your Name in Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Egyptian hieroglyphs weren’t quite the same as the letters of the English alphabet. There were over 500 commonly used hieroglyphs for a student to learn. Some represented a single sound, but others represented more complicated sounds, or even a whole word. Some hieroglyphs don't make any sound at all; they tell you what kind of word the other hieroglyphs are spelling out. For example, after the name of a woman, the scribe would draw a little image of a woman; after a man's name, a little image of a man. Many Egyptian names make little sentences such as Nes mut, which means, "She belongs to the goddess Mut."
When writing out the names of foreigners that wouldn't have any particular meaning in the Egyptian language, Ancient Egyptians would sound them out.
- Deconstruct a name into its phonetic components
- Understand the difference between letters and sounds the letters make.
- Draw symbolic representation of sounds.
For over 5,000 years, people in Egypt used hieroglyphs to write their language. For most of that time, a scribe would have to learn about 500 signs in order to be able to read and write well. Most ordinary people didn't know how to read or write, though they might be able to read and write their own names, or recognize the names of their kings, which were surrounded by a loop that we call a cartouche.
Sometimes, Ancient Egyptian names were actually short sentences that expressed their parents' hopes for their new child, or their gratitude to the gods for a safe and healthy birth. For example, the name of a famous king, Ramesses, means "the sun god, Re, caused his birth."
Hieroglyphs are not used quite the same way that letters in the English alphabet are. When writing their names, ancient Egyptians could sometimes take shortcuts and write the symbols for gods or common words, but when writing the names of foreigners, they would have to sound the names out. This could be difficult, since other languages sometimes had sounds that Egyptians found hard to make. If you have ever learned to speak another language, you’ve noticed that not all languages have the same sounds. Sometimes, the Egyptians just had to get as close as they could to the sound of the foreign name.
- scrap paper
- good paper
- hieroglyph key [PDF]
- pen or marker
When you write your own name in Egyptian hieroglyphs, it's important to "sound" it out and not write it letter for letter. Sometimes a sound can be spelled different ways. For example, George and Judith both start with a 'juh' sound.
Write out your name the way you usually do on a piece of scrap paper.
Look for these tricky things in particular:
- Silent letters in your name. If there are letters in your name that are not sounded out, don't write them in hieroglyphs. Look for silent letters in your name and *put a line through them*.
- Some hieroglyphs stand for two letters. Does yoru name have a 'sh', 'ch', or 'th' sound? You will only need one hieroglyph for these. Look for these letter combinations and *circle them*.
- If you have double letters in your name, say your name out loud and listen to hear if the double letter is really sounded out twice. If you don't hear the letter twice, don't repeat the hieroglyph. *Underline* any double letters in your name that are only pronounced once.
- Remember that not all languages have the same sounds; you may find that there is a sound in your name that is not in the ancient Egyptian alphabet. Do your best to break down the sounds -- for example, ancient Egyptians did not have the letter ‘x’, so in foreign names, the sound was represented by using ‘ks’.
Write your name out again using the sounds in your name instead of the letters. Remember the tricky things to watch out for.
Use the hieroglyph key [PDF] to find hieroglyphs to match each sound in your name. Write each hieroglyph beneath the corresponding sound.
Note: If you want to show that your name belongs to a boy or a girl, you can add one of these symbols:
Figure out a nice arrangement for your hieroglyphs. They can run left to right, right to left, or up and down, and the Ancient Egyptians liked their names to look nice, so they would try to group the signs to fit into a neat square or rectangle.
Fun fact: Hieroglyphs can be written from left to right (like English), right to left (like Arabic, Hebrew, or Urdu), or even top to bottom (like Chinese). However you write them, all the faces of the figures should be pointing in the same direction. To read the hieroglyphs, read in the direction that moves toward their faces.
Draw out your hieroglyphs on a clean sheet of paper.
Enclose your name in a cartouche if you want to show that you are royalty!
- Long signs can be written above one another.
- Use pencil until you have your name the way you want it before going over it with ink.
How does the number of hieroglyphs in your name compare to the number of letters?
Do you find it easier to write your name in hieroglyphs or English?
How long do you think it would have taken a scribe to learn to read and write 800 hieroglyphs?
What would it be like to work as a scribe in Ancient Egypt?
- List some things you might have to read on a daily basis in order to get through your day (reading a cereal box, reading instructions on a piece of technology, reading directions when travelling, reading ingredients on a package, etc.). Now imagine that, as in Ancient Egypt, we have more than 500 commonly-used letters, vowels are usually left out of the words, the writing system was very complex, and there were no public schools to teach people to read or write. Brainstorm some ideas on other ways we could communicate the information in your first list.
- Do the student's answers reflect an understanding of phonics?
- Has the student correctly identified the silent letters, diagraphs, and doubled letters in their name?
- Does the student's hieroglyph reflect an understanding of phoenetic construciton?
- Is the student's hieroglyph aesthetically pleasing?
Put your new hieroglyph skills to the test while decorating a miniature mummy case!