Transliteration of Ancient Egyptian
In the field of Egyptology, transliteration is the process of converting (or mapping) texts written in the Egyptian language to alphabetic symbols representing uniliteral hieroglyphs or their hieratic and Demotic counterparts. This process facilitates the publication of texts where the inclusion of photographs or drawings of an actual Egyptian document is impractical.
It should be emphasised that transliteration is not the same as transcription. Transcription seeks to reproduce the pronunciation of a text. For example, the name of the founder of the Twenty-second dynasty is transliterated as ššnq but transcribed Shoshenq in English, Chéchanq in French, Sjesjonk in Dutch, and Scheschonq in German.
Due to the exact details regarding the phonetics of ancient Egyptian not being completely known, most transcriptions depend on Coptic for reconstruction or are theoretical in nature. Egyptologists, therefore, rely on transliteration in scientific publications.
As important as transliteration is to the field of Egyptology, there is no one standard scheme in use for hieroglyphic and hieratic texts. Some might even argue that there are as many systems of transliteration as there are Egyptologists. However, there are a few closely related systems that can be regarded as conventional. Many non-German-speaking Egyptologists use the system described in Gardiner 1954, whereas many German-speaking scholars tend to opt for that used in the Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache (Erman and Grapow 1926–1953), the standard dictionary of the ancient Egyptian language. However, there is a growing trend, even among English-speaking scholars, to adopt a modified version of the method used in the Wörterbuch (e.g., Allen 2000).
Although these conventional approaches to transliteration have been followed since most of the second half of the nineteenth century to the present day, there have been some attempts to adopt a modified system that seeks to utilise the International Phonetic Alphabet to a certain degree. The most successful of these is that developed by Wolfgang Schenkel (1990), and it is being used fairly widely in Germany and other German-speaking countries. More recent is a proposal by Thomas Schneider (2003) that is even closer to the IPA, but its usage is not presently common. The major criticism levelled against both of these systems is that they give an impression of being much more scientifically accurate with regard to the pronunciation of Egyptian. Unfortunately this perceived accuracy is debatable. Moreover, the systems reflect only the theoretical pronunciation of Middle Egyptian and not the older and later phases of the language, which are themselves to be transliterated with the same system.
In 1984 a standard, ASCII-based transliteration system was proposed by an international group of Egyptologists at the first Table ronde informatique et égyptologie and published in 1988 (see Buurman, Grimal, et al., 1988). This has come to be known as the Manuel de Codage (or MdC) system, based on the title of the publication, Inventaire des signes hiéroglyphiques en vue de leur saisie informatique: Manuel de codage des textes hiéroglyphiques en vue de leur saisie sur ordinateur. It is widely used in e-mail discussion lists and internet forums catering to professional Egyptologists and the interested public.
Although the Manuel de codage system allows for simple "alphabetic" transliterations, it also specifies a complex method for electronically encoding complete ancient Egyptian texts, indicating features such as the placement, orientation, and even size of individual hieroglyphs. This system is used (though frequently with modifications) by various software packages developed for typesetting hieroglyphic texts (such as SignWriter, WinGlyph, MacScribe, InScribe, Glyphotext, WikiHiero, and others).
With the introduction of the Latin Extended Additional block to Unicode version 1.1 (1992) and the addition of Egyptological alef and ayin to Unicode version 5.1 (2008), it is possible to fully transliterate Egyptian texts using a Unicode typeface. The following table only lists the special characters used in various transliteration schemes (see below).
Egyptological alef, ayin, and yod
Three additional characters are required for transliterating Egyptian:
- Alef (, two Semitistic alephs, one set over the other (Lepsius); approximated by the digit ⟨3⟩ in ASCII);
- Ayin (, a Semitistic ayin);
- Yod (, i with a Semitistic aleph instead of the dot, both yod and alef being considered possible sound values in the 19th century).
Another two proposals were made regarding the Egyptological yod, the eventual result of which was to accept the use of the Cyrillic psili pneumata (U+0486 ◌҆ ) as one of several possible diacritics for this purpose. The other options use the superscript comma (U+0313) and the right half ring above (U+0357). OpenType tables in fonts will be necessary to support the combination correctly.
Examples showing the Cyrillic option and the reverse sicilicus option are given below:
|Cyrillic psili pneumata||I҆
|Right half ring above||I͗
The Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale adopted its own Unicode-based transliteration system. It uses the Middle English yogh ⟨ȝ⟩ (Unicode U+021D) for alef (hamza), ⟨j⟩ or Vietnamese ⟨ỉ⟩ (Unicode U+1EC9, i with hook above) for Egyptological yod, and a reverse sicilicus ⟨ʿ⟩ (Unicode U+02BF) for ayin.
As the latest stage of pre-Coptic Egyptian, Demotic texts have long been transliterated using the same system(s) used for hieroglyphic and hieratic texts. However in 1980, Demotists adopted a single, uniform, international standard based on the traditional system used for hieroglyphic, but with the addition of some extra symbols for vowels (which are frequently indicated in Demotic) and other letters that were written in the Demotic script. The Demotic Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (or CDD) utilises this method. As this system is likely only of interest to specialists, for details see the references below.
- de Cenival, Françoise. 1980. "Unification des méthodes de translittération." Enchoria: Zeitschrift für Demotistik und Koptologie 10:2–4.
- Johnson, Janet H. 1980. "CDDP Transliteration System." Enchoria 10:5–6.
- Johnson, Janet H. 1991. Thus Wrote 'Onchsheshonqy: An Introductory Grammar of Demotic. 2nd ed. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 45. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Tait, William John. 1982. "The Transliteration of Demotic." Enchoria 11:67–76.
- Thissen, Heinz-Josef. 1980. "Zur Transkription demotischer Texte." Enchoria 10:7–9.
Table of conventional transliteration schemes
The vowel /ɛ/ is conventionally inserted between consonants to make Egyptian words pronounceable in English.
Samples of various transliteration schemes
The following text (rendered using WikiHiero) is transliterated below in some of the more common schemes.
<hiero>M23-X1:R4-X8-Q2:D4-W17-R14-G4-R8-O29:V30-U23-N26-D58-O49:Z1-F13:N31-V30:N16:N21*Z1-D45:N25</hiero> [Unicode: 𓇓𓏏𓊵𓏙𓊩𓁹𓏃𓋀𓅂𓊹𓉻𓎟𓍋𓈋𓃀𓊖𓏤𓄋𓈐𓎟𓇾𓈅𓏤𓂦𓈉 ]
(This text is conventionally translated into English as "an offering that the king gives; and Osiris, Foremost of Westerners [i.e., the Dead], the Great God, Lord of Abydos; and Wepwawet, Lord of the Sacred Land [i.e., the Necropolis]." It can also be translated "a royal offering of Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, the Great God, Lord of Abydos; and of Wepwawet, Lord of the Sacred Land" [Allen 2000:§24.10].)
Erman and Grapow 1926–1953
- ḥtp-dỉ-nśwt wśỉr ḫntỉj ỉmntjw nṯr ꜥꜣ nb ꜣbḏw wp-wꜣwt nb tꜣ ḏśr
- ḥtp-dỉ-nswt wsỉr ḫnty ỉmntỉw nṯr ꜥꜣ nb ꜣbḏw wp-wꜣwt nb tꜣ ḏsr
Buurman, Grimal, et al. 1988
- Htp-di-nswt wsir xnty imntiw nTr aA nb AbDw wp-wAwt nb tA Dsr
- A fully encoded, machine-readable version of the same text is:
- ḥtp-dỉ-nswt wsỉr ḫnty ỉmntjw nčr ꜥꜣ nb ꜣbč̣w wp-wꜣwt nb tꜣ č̣sr
- ḥtp-dj-nswt wsjr ḫnty jmntjw nṯr ꜥꜣ nb ꜣbḏw wp-wꜣwt nb tꜣ ḏsr
- ḥtp-ḍỉ-nśwt wśỉr ḫnty ỉmntjw ncr ɗɹ nb ɹbc̣w wp-wɹwt nb tɹ c̣śr
The Egyptian hieroglyphic script contained 24 uniliterals (symbols that stood for single consonants, much like English letters) which today we associate with the 26 glyphs listed below. (Note that the glyph associated with w/u also has a hieratic abbreviation.)
The traditional transliteration system shown on the left of the chart below is over a century old and is the one most commonly seen in texts. It includes several symbols such as alef (ꜣ) for sounds that were of unknown value at the time. Much progress has been made since, though there is still debate as to the details. For instance, it is now thought the alef (ꜣ) may have been an alveolar lateral approximant [l] in Old Egyptian but was lost by Middle Egyptian. The consonants transcribed as voiced (d, g, ḏ) may actually have been ejective or, less likely, pharyngealized like the Arabic emphatic consonants. A good description can be found in Allen.
|Sign||Traditional transliteration||Phonetic values per Allen (2000)|
|Say||Notes||Old Egyptian||Middle Egyptian|
|<hiero>A</hiero> 𓄿||Egyptian vulture||ꜣ (3)||a||called alef or hamza,
a glottal stop
|[l] or [ɾ]||silent, [j], and [ʔ]|
|<hiero>i</hiero> 𓇋||flowering reed||ı͗||i/a||called yod||an initial or final vowel; sometimes [j]|
|<hiero>i-i</hiero> 𓇌||pair of reeds||y||y||called yod or y||no record||[j]|
|<hiero>y</hiero> 𓏭||pair of strokes
or river (?)
|<hiero>a</hiero> 𓂝||forearm||ꜥ (ʾ)||a||called ayin,
a voiced pharyngeal fricative
|perhaps [d]||[ʕ]; [d] perhaps retained in some words and dialects|
|<hiero>w</hiero> 𓅱 or <hiero>W</hiero> 𓏲||quail chick or its
||[w] ~ [u]|
|<hiero>b</hiero> 𓃀||lower leg||b||b||[b] ~ [β]|
|<hiero>p</hiero> 𓊪||reed mat or stool||p||p||aspirated [pʰ]|
|<hiero>f</hiero> 𓆑||horned viper||f||f||[f]|
|<hiero>n</hiero> 𓈖||ripple of water||n||n||[n]||[n], sometimes [l]|
|<hiero>r</hiero> 𓂋||human mouth||r||r||[l] or [ɾ]||[ɾ], sometimes [l]
(always [l] in some dialects)
|<hiero>h</hiero> 𓉔||reed shelter||h||h||[h]|
|<hiero>H</hiero> 𓎛||twisted wick||ḥ||h||an emphatic h,
a voiceless pharyngeal fricative
|<hiero>x</hiero> 𓐍||sieve or placenta||ḫ||kh||
a voiceless velar fricative
|<hiero>X</hiero> 𓄡||animal belly and tail||ẖ||kh||a softer sound,
a voiceless palatal fricative
|<hiero>s</hiero> 𓋴||folded cloth||s||s||Old Egyptian sound for
"door bolt" is unknown,
but perhaps was z or th
|<hiero>z</hiero> 𓊃||door bolt||[z]|
|<hiero>S</hiero> 𓈙 or
<hiero>N38</hiero> 𓈛 or
|<hiero>q</hiero> 𓈎||hill slope||ḳ or q||k||an emphatic k,
a voiceless uvular plosive
|<hiero>k</hiero> 𓎡||basket with handle||k||k||aspirated [kʰ]
in some words, palatalized [kʲ]
|<hiero>g</hiero> 𓎼||jar stand||g||g||ejective [kʼ]|
|<hiero>t</hiero> 𓏏||bread loaf||t||t||aspirated [tʰ]|
|<hiero>T</hiero> 𓍿||tethering rope or hobble||ṯ or tj||ch||as in English church||palatalized [tʲ] or [t͡ʃ]|
|<hiero>d</hiero> 𓂧||hand||d||d||ejective [tʼ]|
|<hiero>D</hiero> 𓆓||cobra||ḏ or dj||j||as in English judge||ejective [tʲʼ] or [t͡ʃʼ]|
Gardiner  lists several variations:
|<hiero>V33</hiero> 𓎤||bag of linen||g||Appears in a few older words|
|<hiero>Aa15</hiero> 𓐝||possibly a finger||m||Originally biliteral ı͗m|
|<hiero>S3</hiero> 𓋔||crown of Lower Egypt||n||Originally ideogram nt for 'crown of Lower Egypt'|
|<hiero>U33</hiero> 𓍘||pestle||t||Originally biliteral tı͗|
- Carsten Peust, Egyptian Phonology: Introduction to the Phonology of a Dead Language (Göttingen, 1999), 127.
- Peust, Egyptian Phonology, p. 50, 99ff.
- Everson, Michael. Proposal to add 6 Egyptological characters to the UCS, 2000-08-27
- Everson, Michael and Bob Richmond, EGYPTOLOGICAL YOD and Cyrillic breathing, 2008-04-08
- Everson, Michael, Proposal to encode Egyptological Yod and similar characters in the UCS, 2008-08-04
- Allen, James P. (2000). Middle Egyptian: an Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77483-7.
- Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1973). Egyptian Grammar, 3rd. Ed. The Griffith Institute. p. 27. ISBN 0-900416-35-1.
- Allen, James Paul. 2000. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Buurman, Jan, Nicolas-Christophe Grimal, Michael Hainsworth, Jochen Hallof, and Dirk van der Plas. 1988. Inventaire des signes hiéroglyphiques en vue de leur saisie informatique: Manuel de codage des textes hiéroglyphiques en vue de leur saisie sur ordinateur. 3rd ed. Informatique et Égyptologie 2. Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres (Nouvelle Série) 8. Paris: Institut de France.
- Erman, Adolf, and Hermann Grapow, eds. 1926–1953. Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache im Auftrage der deutschen Akademien. 6 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs'schen Buchhandlungen. (Reprinted Berlin: Akademie-Verlag GmbH, 1971).
- Gardiner, Alan Henderson. 1957. Egyptian Grammar; Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. Oxford: Griffith Institute.
- Hannig, Rainer. 1995. Großes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch–Deutsch: die Sprache der Pharaonen (2800–950 v. Chr.). Kulturgeschichte der antiken Welt 64 (Hannig-Lexica 1). Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern.
- Schenkel, Wolfgang. 1990. Einführung in die altägyptische Sprachwissenschaft. Orientalistische Einführungen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
- Schneider, Thomas. 2003. "Etymologische Methode, die Historizität der Phoneme und das ägyptologische Transkriptionsalphabet." Lingua aegyptia: Journal of Egyptian Language Studies 11:187–199.
- Manuel de Codage: technical details of electronic transliteration of Egyptian texts
- Unicode-based transliteration system adopted by the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale. Description and downloadable keyboard layouts.
- Online encoding converter for converting ASCII-based transliterations into Unicode.