During the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom, there were about 750 to 800 signs in use. Some signs had a phonetic value, others had one or more ideographic meanings and an occasional sign would have a phonetic and an ideographic meaning, depending on its context. By the beginning of the Greek-Roman era, the number of signs was drastically increased to several thousands, and the meaning of individual signs was increased as well.
Some signs that used to be ideograms before, obtained phonetic values based on the variety of words the ideograms represented. Thus the sign , used as an ideogram in words meaning "child", "youth", "be young", ... obtained, among others, the phonetic values ms from msj, "be born, give birth", m from ms, nn or nw from similar sounding words meaning"child", n from nw or nn, x from xj, "child", and so on...
Due to changes in pronunciation, the phonetic values of most signs evolved as well. The sign which used to have the phonetic value t, became used in words were normally there would have been a T, a d or a D. The sign which used to have the value d, was written in words where one would expect t, T or D. This particular evoluation is already present in Middle Egyptian texts.
The sign with the phonetic value S was used for x, and vice versa, whence the sign could also be used with the phonetic value S, ...
Some of the new signs were a variation on existing signs. Thus the sign which represents two lips seen in profile was a variation of the classical sign which represents two lips seen from the front.
New signs could also be derived from existing ones using the pars pro toto principle, where part of an existing sign was used as a variation on that sign. The eye-ball, for instance, was a used as variation on the eye .
Other new signs were a combination of existing ones. Thus the sign combines the solar disk (the solar god Re) and the child (son) to write "son of Re", where we encounter yet another possible meaning for the hieroglyph representing a child.
New signs could also be the result of a (deliberate?) misinterpretation of groups of sign on a hieratic original. Thus the hieroglyphic group was written as one sign in hieratic and then converted back into hieroglyphic as .
To write one word, several combinations of different signs could be chosen. Practical motivations, such as the space available to write the words, and religious or mythological motivations would often determine the choice of signs. Thus we find the sign , which is a combination of the solar disk (the solar god Re) and a cat (reading mi, derived from the word miw, "cat"), which reads mi ra and translates as "like the solar god Re", an expression usually written as . This particular sign, however, is more often than not used in ritual scenes on temple walls where the forces of evil threaten the very existence of the temple. It represents the solar god Re as a cat, and as such, the solar god himself is a dangerous creature who annihilates the forces of evil. As a representation of belligerent solar god, the sign itself helps in repelling these forces of evil and thus participates in the meaning of the ritual scene (see also: Writing and Magic).
Another example would be the writing of the name of the god Ptah, ordinarily written as , but in some texts also as . The choice of each sign can be explained by its phonetic value: the first sign (on top) is read p, the second (below, left) t and the third (below, right) H. But if we know that the first sign also represents the notion "heaven", the second "earth" or "coming into existence" and the third "infinity (in numbers)" this particular writing of Ptahs name gets a different meaning all together: "an infinity of heaven and earth", or in other words a constant renewal of the creation of heaven and earth and thus a reference to Ptah as creator of the universe. The third sign, the sitting man with upraised arms, also represents teh god that stands on the earth and raised the heavens, yet another image of the creation of the world.
One of the ways to write the word "Nun", the name of the primaeval waters out of which the entire creation came into existence, is . The hieroglyph representing a child can be read n(w)n, the lake determines the meaning of this word. The image of a child rising from the water also symbolises the appearance of life out of the primaeval waters.
This sort of writing is often called "Ptolemaic" writing, because it is mainly found on monuments that are dated to the Greek-Roman era. This name, however, does not mean that "Ptolemaic" writing was invented by the Ptolemaic rulers or by the Greeks who came to live in Egypt.
It is mainly, but not solely used for inscriptions on the walls of temples, such as the temple of Horus in Edfu. These texts were composed by Egyptian priests, not by Greeks, not even influenced by Greeks. The tendency to use the hieroglyphic writing in this manner predates the Greek conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great. The increase in the number of signs and their meaning shows us not a decaying and dying culture, but an inventive and creative mind bent on honouring Egyptian gods in a typical Egyptian manner.
- So-called "Ptolemaic" writing -
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Last update: 25 July, 2009