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Skip to 0 minutes and 4 seconds Let me give you an example of how the system works. I’ll give you and ancient Egyptian word, a genuine ancient Egyptian word. We’re going to look at the ancient Egyptian word for letter. So a letter as in the sort of thing you write to your pals, that kind of thing. So here’s the word for letter. You can see in front of you now. Look at the Hieroglyphs. You’ve got four Hieroglyphs there. First of all, you’ve got a rectangular shape, that’s the one we’re going to read first, and that gives you the SH sound. The sound itself is a body of water, a pool, or something like that.

Skip to 0 minutes and 35 seconds That’s what it’s supposed to represent, but we’re not interested in pools, or water. It’s the SH sound that that gives us that’s important. Underneath that, you can see a human arm. Again, we’re not interested in human arms, it’s the sound that arm represents that we’re interested in, and it’s an A sound. Next along, we’ve got a little semicircle. That’s an ancient Egyptian loaf of bread. Now you know what I’m going to say, we’re not interested in loaves of bread. It’s the sound that that represents, and it’s a T. So there’s a SH- A- T, shat, the ancient Egyptian word for letter. Now, you’ll notice that it might look a little bit funny.

Skip to 1 minute and 12 seconds The ancient Egyptians didn’t actually write vowel, so that A sound isn’t quite a vowel. It’s a semi vowel or a semi consonant. This may have been pronounced slightly differently. It’s one of the problems we face. Because no vowels were written, we don’t know exactly how these words were pronounced. There’s no direct kind of contact back to ancient Egyptians pronunciation from any of today’s languages that we can really draw conveniently, although we do have some clues. So the ancient Egyptians word for letter is shat. But you’ll notice another sign there. There’s a fourth sign, and that sign is a piece of string. These are one of the most helpful signs you can come across when you’re translating Egyptian words.

Skip to 1 minute and 50 seconds They’re called determinatives, and they help to determine the meaning of the word you’ve just read. So it’s a little picture that has something to do with the meaning of the word shat. Now you might ask yourself, I know shat translates as letter. How does a piece of string help me to translate shat as letter? Well, you’ve got to think like an ancient Egyptian. This is an ancient Egyptian way of writing and wrapping up a letter. So you write letter on a piece of papyrus, you fold it up, you seal it, and then you wrap some string around it. So for an ancient Egyptian, a piece of string is a perfectly acceptable determinative for the word letter.

Skip to 2 minutes and 30 seconds For an ancient Egyptian, that would say letter or would lead them to translate it as letter. I mean we’d expect a little envelope but of course, the ancient Egyptians didn’t have little envelopes. They used a piece of string instead.

Working with Hieroglyphs II: the Alphabet and Basic Nouns

As you have seen, as well as being ideograms (pictures of the things they represent) hieroglyphs can also be used alphabetically. This Ancient Egyptian Alphabet will help you in the upcoming quiz activity.

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Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

University of Liverpool