Hieroglyphs Tutorial: Word Order

Hieroglyphic script conforms to certain artistic and linguistic standards and rules which seem to have been established very early in Egyptian history. A hieroglyphic inscription is arranged either in columns or in horizontal lines.

When the script is arranged in a column, it is always read from the top down. However, if script is written horizontally, the signs can be written right to left, or left to right. The key is to check which way the animals and/or Gods are facing. If the figures face right, the script reads right to left. To further complicate translation there are no no punctuation marks or spaces to indicate the divisions between words, which are sometimes arranged unconventionally for artistic effect or to adapt to restricted space.

Phonetic complements and Honorific transposition

The bi-consonant and tri-consonant signs are often complemented by single consonant signs that repeat elements of previous signs phonetic value. The extra signs are known as phonetic complements. Usually, it is only the last consonant of the multi-letter sign which is repeated. Another idiosyncrasy of the Egyptian language is honorific transposition in which the sign for a god or King is placed first out of respect.

The word incense displays both these features. Although the word is “senetjer” (s-nTr), the hieroglyph for god (a flag representing the sound nTr) is written first. The single consonant letters spell out “s-nT-r”, and the flag hieroglyph duplicates the sounds “nTr”. It is also likely that the flag acts as a determinative, but is not placed at the end of the word purely because of the system of honorific transposition. There is also the further determinative of three grains of sand indicating that the word is in some way related to minerals and is plural.

snTr - incence

snTr – incense

Verbs, subjects and objects

The word order in a basic sentence is Verb-Subject-Object. This does not change if the subject is a suffix pronoun rather than a noun as suffix pronouns are always attached to the word they relate to. However, if the subject is a noun and the object is a dependent pronoun, the dependent pronoun is placed before the noun. If the subject is a suffix pronoun and the object is a dependent pronoun the suffix pronoun will come first followed by the dependent pronoun. Finally, if there is a phrase which incorporates a preposition and a suffix pronoun it will also be placed before the dependent pronoun.

This sounds very complicated, but hopefully the following examples will make it clearer! (The word “iw” is an auxiliary which is not translated – more on this later!)

word order

Hieroglyphs Resources

Copyright J Hill 2010