A quick glance at the list of ideograms and phonograms provided in the previous pages shows that several signs tend to be ambiguous. can be used as an ideogram denoting "face" and as the biliteral sign Hr. has two possible phonetic renderings: Ab or mr, and can be the biliteral rw or occasionally the uniliteral l.
Perhaps in an attempt to cope with this ambiguity, the Ancient Egyptians used uniliterals to repeat some or all of the consonants that make up bi- and triliterals. Thus is read Ab because the additional b confirms the reading Ab for the sign in front of it. Similarly, is read mr because the added m and r confirm the reading mr for the same sign.
This principle is also applied for bi- or triliterals that do not appear to be ambivallent. The biliteral can be accompanied by the uniliteral n to form the group , mn. In the same way, the triliteral can be combined with the uniliterals f and r resulting in , or even with n, f and r, resulting in the group , both combinations having exactly the same reading as the triliteral sign without any additional phonograms, nfr.
Biliterals are only exceptionally used to complement the phonetic value of triliterals. The group , mAa combines the triliteral , mAa with the biliteral , mA.
Phonetic signs that are used to complement the phonetic value of other signs are called phonetic complements. One phonetic complement usually represents part of the phonetic value of the phonogram it accompanies. Thus one uniliteral may complement one bi- or triliteral, and one biliteral may occasionally complement one triliteral, but one biliteral is not used to complement another biliteral, nor can a uniliteral be a phonetic complement for another uniliteral.
The combination of phonetic complements to a particular phonogram can represent the entire phonetic value of that phonogram. Two examples have already been given: mr and nfr. Another example is , bA.
From these examples it is also clear that phonetic complements can follow, precede or encompass the sign they complement. This does not mean that the position of phonetic complements was completely arbitrary. Usually, signs representing the latter phonetic part of a phonogram would follow that phonogram whereas signs representing its start might be placed in front of it. Esthetic considerations as well as the desire for conformity have also determined the position of phonetic complements.
The use of phonetic complements is not mandatory. Any bi- or triliteral can be written without or without additional phonograms. The number of phonetic complements is also not fixed. This is why nfr can be written without any phonetic complement, with f and r or with n, f and r. Another example is bA that can be written without any phonetic complement as , with both consonants repeated as or with only the last consonant repeated as .
It is important to note that phonetic complements merely confirm one or more consonants of bi- or triliterals. They normally are not read themselves. Thus is read mn and not mnn. The additional n is a phonetic complement and is not read.
Not every uniliteral sign that is written before or after a bi- or triliteral is a phonetic complement to that sign. The group for instance, has f and r as phonetic complements, but t completes the word and does not repeat the phonetic value of nfr. The group in this example is read nfr.t.
The fact that it are mainly uniliteral signs that are used as phonetic complements does not imply that uniliterals were only used as such. The name of the god Ptah, for instance, was usually written with uniliteral signs only: ptH.
- Phonetic complements -
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Last update: 25 July, 2009