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Africa Chronology

Hieroglyphics become Standardized

 2650-2575 BC


Thousands of languages have evolved over time.  They range from romantic, to Germanic, to pictorial, to guttural noises.  The written language has evolved in the same way.  Not only do the actual words change, but the style and the pictures and the letters of languages have changed as well.  Egyptians used a written form called hieroglyphics, which was a pictorial language.  Their written language is perhaps one of the most unique, in that it never completely established a firm set of letters, like an alphabet.  It always showed the meanings of words through use of signs and pictures.  Although hieroglyphics became standardized during the time of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE), they continued to evolve all throughout Egyptian history. 

Back to "Ancient Egypt" Chronology

Egyptian history is divided into three time periods: the Old Kingdom, Classical Egyptian, and Late Egyptian.  Many of the texts preserved from the Old Kingdom were written on pyramids.  The content was mainly religious, dealing with the directions to the after-life for the king, or prince, or whoever happened to be buried within the pyramid.  Autobiographies, written by the elite within the society, were also recorded during the earliest kingdom. The next period of time, Middle or Classical Egyptian, was known for its formal texts, many also being religious.  There is an enormous increase in hieroglyphic signs, and the writing was much more philosophical.  (Loprieno 2137)  Late Egyptian writing consisted of historic records, entertainment, and wisdom literature.  Another script evolved during this kingdom, called demotic, which is a cursive script of hieroglyphics.  Writings throughout this time period were very analytic.

The written form of hieroglyphics also evolved over time, starting with pure pictography.  Pictography is the use of various pictures or signs to portray the meaning of a word, and ultimately a sentence.  While many other languages that used pictography became more and more abstract, Egypt remained true to its use of pictures and signs.  "Every object or living thing that could be drawn was used as a sign or character in Egyptian writing..." (Mokhtar 15).  In order to say the sentence "The Pharaoh is praying,"  the scribe would draw a picture of that particular pharaoh in a prayer stance.  These pictures are called word-signs, because a single sign suffices for a whole word.      

These word signs, however, were not capable of displaying emotions, such as love, or the act of remembering.  In order to overcome this dilemma, Egyptians had to use two other principles: homophony- words that sound alike, but mean different things, and ideography- using a symbol to represent an object or idea.  The words, thus, were broken down into sounds, and joined together to make other words.  So many words were made in this way, that it was difficult to read, and so another method of writing evolved

This form was called phonetic complements, and was made up of 24 word-signs that each have only one consonant.  These signs indicated the phonetic reading.  Each of these 24 simple signs were the beginnings of an alphabet, but the Egyptians never brought their language to this stage.  Instead, they used determinatives, to establish the category of each word.  Verbs were followed by the action being portrayed.  Abstract concepts were proceeded by the sign of a papyrus roll.  Nouns were followed by the object being described. 

Hieroglyphics were used to record the spectacular and the mundane.  Great historical accounts were preserved on temple walls for posterity, along with other religious inscriptions.  Funerary text were written on royal tombs.  Informal texts were written on less valuable objects, such as pottery, papyrus, and pieces of limestone.  Stories, both short tales and long epics, were recorded in abundance, and not only to entertain, but also to inform.  Propaganda literature was widespread during the Middle Kingdom.  Wisdom texts contained advice from the wise to the foolish.  Poetry was also widespread, along with hymns to gods, business documents, legal records, and information about mathematical and astronomical texts.  Letters talked of people's private, personal lives, and give huge insight to what normal, every-day life consisted of. 

The writing of hieroglyphics spanned a huge length of time, always changing, always evolving.  The form always stayed the same, though: always pictures, always signs.  Egyptian writing is one of the most elaborately written languages, and is beautiful in both its form and content.  The Egyptians have recorded stories, letters, poetry, religious documents, directions to the afterlife, history, and much more, all through the use of simple pictures and simple signs to create a complex written language. 


    Loprieno, Antonio, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Language, Writing, and Literature (MacMillan: New York, 1995) pp. 2137-2142.

    Mokhtar, G., General History of Africa, Ancient Civilizations of Africa, vol. 2 (Unesco: Heinemen1981) pp. 14-18.

    Walters, Colin, The Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations, (Mayflower Books: New York, 1980) pp. 43-44.

Edited,  Researched and Written by: 
Sarah Mylander
December 11, 2000

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