Uniliteral signs are signs that have the phonetic value of one consonant. They thus represent a single sound. The Ancient Egyptians did not write any vowels. On occasion they used some of their consonants to render vowels in foreign names and words, but this is rather exceptional.
It should also be pointed out that the Ancient Egyptians rarely wrote words using only uniliteral signs (see the section "Writing Words"). This is the reason why the uniliteral signs can not be considered as an alphabet, for the word "alphabet" implies that each sign represent either one consonant or one vowel and that words are written using only these signs.
The list below provides all uniliteral signs used in Middle Egyptian. The column "Sign" gives the actual uniliteral sign.
The column "Transcription" provides the transcription of this sign. The column "Remarks" gives some hints about the pronunciation of this sound. The last column, "Nr." refers to the signlist as provided by the Egyptian Grammar of Gardiner.
The order in which the signs are presented is also the order that is used to sort words in dictionaries.
Originally, and represented two similar but distinct consonants. During Middle Egyptian, the difference between these two consonants has faded and the two signs become interchangeable.
The sound l is missing in Ancient Egyptian. To render it n, r or the biliteral sign rw could be used. This was usually the case for foreign names and words.
Transcription, sometimes also called transliteration, is an international convention between Egyptologists to represent the consonants of hieroglyphic writing as a single Latin character. The advantage of this is that the pronunciation of a word becomes more clear. The sound S, for example is pronounced as sh in ship. Rendering this sound as sh, however, would be ambiguous because it would not longer be clear if one is to pronounce it as in ship or while distinguishing the s and the h.
Transcription also allows us to render sounds that are unknown in other languages, such as our own. Examples are A and a which are known to Arabic and Hebrew, but not in English or French.
Another advantage of transcription is that it is easier to recognise roots and classes of words derived from such roots. If one were to transcribe the verb sDm, "to hear", as sdjm, one might think that it consisted of 4 consonants instead of 3, which might make a difference in the conjugation of that verb.
In an international community, there is also a great need to standardise the way hieroglyphic is rendered. Without such a standard, the sound x, for instance, might be rendered in English as kh and in German as ch, whereas the French would take ch for S. There would also be no easy way to distinguish x from X this way.
It is therefor important that you familiarise yourself with transcription, as it is used not only throughout this site, but also in all Egyptological publications. You will also need to have the transliteration font installed on your computer to be able to view this transcription.
The absence of vowels in hieroglyphic writing makes it impossible to know how the language of the Ancient Egyptians really sounded. There are bound to have been regional differences in vocalisation, as is shown by Coptic: in the northern region, the word for god was nou+,pronounced nooti, while in the South it was noute, pronounced noote (with a mute e in the end).
In addition, as long as the language of the Ancient Egyptians was a living language, it evolved and changed, just like any other living language. This is clear from its grammar and it is certain that this evolution also impacted the pronunciation of words. The cuneiform transcription of the name of the god Amun, dated to the 18th and 19th Dynasties, was Amaana, while the Greeks, some 500 years later, transcribed this name as Amoun. Thus an Egyptian living at around 3000 BC probably would have had a very hard time understanding an Egyptian from the Ramesside era.
Two Egyptians living at around 3000 BC, one in the Delta and one in Hierakonpolis probably would have experienced similar difficulties because of the regional differences discussed above.
All we have of Ancient Egyptian words are their consonantal skeletons. This, along with the fact that some consonants are not used in western languages, makes it hard to pronounce Ancient Egyptian words. In order to cope with this problem, Egyptologists have come to the following convention:
A is read as a long a
i is read as ee in reed
j is read as ee in reed
a is read as a short a
w can be read as w or as oo in good
a mute e is placed between the consonants to make the words easier to pronounce.
Thus Ax.t is read by Egyptological convention as aakhet, rn as ren, Htp as hetep, imn as eemen and itn as eeten. We do this knowing that the actual pronunciation by the Ancient Egyptians is very likely to have been very different. From cuneiform texts that render some Egyptian names, we know that the Egyptian court of the 18th Dynasty pronounced imn as Amaana, imn-Htp as Amanhatpi and itn as yati.
Unfortunately, these cuneiform transcriptions are extremely rare and only give us a snapshot of the pronunciation of a few names and words during the 18th and 19th Dynasties. They also lack an indication of which syllables were stressed and which were not and are likely to be interpretations into Akkadian or Hittite of an Egyptian name. They only give us the smallest glimpse at how the language of the Ancient Egyptians may have sounded, but not enough to actually reconstruct it.
It can, therefor, not be stressed enough that the "Egyptological pronunciation" is in no way whatsoever an effort to speak Ancient Egyptian and that Ancient Egyptian can not be spoken (anymore).
- Uniliteral Signs -
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Last update: 25 July, 2009