There were in general three uses to which a given hieroglyphic might be put (though very few were used for all three purposes): as an ideogram, as when a sign resembling a man meant
man or a closely connected idea (thus a man carrying something meant
carrying ) as a phonogram, as when an owl represented the sound m, because the word for owl had m for its principal consonant or as a determinative, an unpronounced symbol placed after an ambiguous sign to indicate its classification (e.g., an eye to indicate that the preceding word has to do with looking or seeing). As hieroglyphic developed, most words came to require determinatives. The phonograms were, of course, the controlling factor in the progress of hieroglyphic writing, because of the fundamental convenience of an alphabet .
In the Middle Kingdom a developed cursive, the hieratic, was extensively used for private documents where writing speed was essential. In the last centuries BC a more developed style, the demotic, supplanted the hieratic. Where the origin of most hieratic characters could be plainly seen in the hieroglyphics, the demotics were too conventionalized to bear any resemblance to the hieroglyphics from which they had sprung.
See A. H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar (3d ed. 1957) N. Davies, Picture Writing in Ancient Egypt (1958) E. A. Budge, Egyptian Language (8th ed. 1966) H. G. Fischer, Ancient Egyptian Calligraphy (1983) W. V. Davies, Egyptian Hieroglyphics (1988).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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