So you want to read hieroglyphs?
If the answer to this question is no, please move along. Nothing to see here.
If you do…read on.
In previous posts I have mentioned hieroglyphs, how the ‘code’ was cracked by Champollion and how I am (like so many others) trying to learn to read them. Often my colleagues will sigh when they see me spend my half hour lunch break scribbling away with a pile of books next to me. Why do I do that? Am I crazy? Possibly, but the main reason is that I think it’s fun. Keep this in mind: you need to spend a little bit of time on a regular basis to get your head around it. Practice makes perfect.
When you first learn a new languange – and that’s not something everyone gets to do! – you have quite a hurdle to overcome. You have to learn to read it, speak it, write it, understand it, not to mention the vocabulary you need to get into your head before you are eloquent enough to use the newly acquired language. Not so with hieroglyphs.
I didn’t realise it at first, but you only have to read them! Ancient Egyptian is a dead language, no one speaks it anymore. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know what it sounded like. You can learn to write the hieroglyphs if you want. I would recommend it, but you can survive without that skill. The vocabulary? Don’t worry, there are sign lists, dictionaries, even mobile apps for that.
You could get away with being able to recognise the signs, looking them up in a list and then using another list or book to see what the words mean. The only thing you then also need to be able to do is determine where a word starts and ends. Done. You’re reading hieroglyphs.
Ok, this is a little too simple, you think? Well, it doesn’t have to be. My best friend learned to recognise, read and translate the Offering Formula in just over one hour! Formulaic texts are very recognisable and, of course, often the same or very similar and these can be learnt quickly.
If you want more than that and really read hieroglyphs, you will have to put more time into it.
The Offering Formula on the limestone stela of Sirenenutet (British Museum).
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The beauty of it is that you can take this as far as you want. There are various ways of learning, the most common being through books.
Quite often How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A step-by-step guide by Mark Collier and Bill Manley is suggested. I have this book and can attest to its quality. However, when you are a true beginner you may struggle with it. The explanation of the hieroglyphic system and grammar is quite detailed. I found it’s necessary to have a good grasp of English grammar. English is not my first language, so I found myself translating grammatical terms in order to understand what I was trying to learn.
Eventually I was told about Bill Manley’s book, Egyptian Hieroglyphs for complete beginners. In this book Manley approaches the subject slightly differently and also a little slower. He starts with the Offering Formula and then slowly moves on. After working through this book your knowledge will be basic, but that base will be solid. After I finished this book I picked up Collier and Manley’s book again and found it a lot easier to understand.
When I started to translate less standard texts I found A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian by R.O. Faulkner a valuable book to have. Note that it’s a concise dictionary, so you won’t find every word in there, but it does have the arguably most common ones.
If you need/want a bigger and better list, you can always opt for Gardiner’s sign list. This can be found in his book Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs. The grammar is somewhat outdated, but the list is still very much loved and used. It’s also available online. I suggest you search for the format you prefer if you wish to use this list in its online form.
A quick word on the works of Wallis Budge: don’t buy these books. Reputedly they were never very good, but by now they are positively outdated and should not be used for the study of hieroglyphs.
(Edit on 9 May 2013: If you are curious they are available online, so you can still have a browse without having to spend any money on it. Volume 1 and Volume 2)
There are other books out there which offer methods to learn hieroglyphs. I could list them here, but, unfortunately, I haven’t read them so can’t comment on how useful they are. The advice I’d like to give is to ask people who already know how to read hieroglyphs which method and sources they used. Try to look at as many books as possible and decide what would likely work best for you.
I did mention there are ways besides books. There are groups online which are dedicated to learning hieroglyphs. There are also groups which meet on a regular basis, so people can learn together. Once again, you’d have to do some research to see which groups are nearby (if you want to meet like-minded people) or which group would suit you best.
I have had the priviledge to attend a few study days through the Society for the Study of Ancient Egypt. Dr Glenn Godenho, who happens to teach hieroglyphs on the online certificate course I am currently doing via Manchester University, has given three days so far and managed to simplify the system to such an extent I have by now finished both aforementioned books. I have been told the SSAE is the only society in the UK which currently offers these days, but if you are a member of another society, why not ask them to organise something similar?
Last, but not least, there are websites which explain how the system works. Some have lessons or modules so you can try to learn it bit by bit, like chapters in a book. Other websites only give a general overview. Again, you have to decide what suits you best.
For the record, I have no intention to provide in depth information or even lessons on hieroglyphs on this blog. That’s not what this blog is for. However, I do intend to look into further books and will review them as I buy, read and use them. Watch this space!