In the field of Egyptology, transliteration of Ancient Egyptian 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 Scheschonk (Scheschonq) in German.
Because exact details regarding the phonetics of Egyptian are not completely known, most transcriptions depend on Coptic for linguistic reconstruction or are theoretical in nature. Egyptologists, therefore, rely on transliteration in scientific publications.
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 ägyptischen 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 leveled 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.
There are 24 consonantal phonemes distinguished in Egyptian writing,
following Edel (1955) transliterated and ordered alphabetically in the sequence:
ꜣ j ꜥ w b p f m n r h ḥ ḫ ẖ z s š q k g t ṯ d ḏ.
A number of variant conventions are used interchangeably depending on the author:
The following text is transliterated below in some of the more common schemes.
(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 ḫntj 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:
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 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.
Cenival, Françoise de (1980). "Unification des méthodes de translittération". Enchoria. 10: 2–4.
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).
Yod (, i with a Semitistic aleph instead of the dot, both yod and alef being considered possible sound values in the 19th century).
Although six Egyptological and Ugariticist letters were proposed in August 2000, it was not until 2008 (Unicode 5.1) that four of the six letters were encoded:
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). An new attempt for a sign called LETTER I WITH SPIRITUS LENIS was made in 2017. Within the Egyptological community objection were raised concerning this name.
The Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale still recommends its own Unicode-based transliteration system. It uses the Middle English yogh ⟨ȝ⟩ (Unicode U+021D) for alef (hamza), a reverse sicilicus ⟨ʿ⟩ (Unicode U+02BF) for ayin, and ⟨j⟩ or Vietnamese ⟨ỉ⟩ (Unicode U+1EC9, i with hook above) for Egyptological yod.
Middle Egyptian is reconstructed as having had 24 consonantal phonemes. There is at least one hieroglyph with a phonetic value corresponding to each of these phonemes.
The table below gives a list of such "uniliteral signs" along with their conventional transcription and their conventional "Egyptological pronunciation" and probably phonetic value.
It is possible that two phonemes /s/ and /z/ in Old Egyptian were merged in the Middle Egyptian stage.
Similarly, there are a number of hieroglyphs that may have been biliteral in Old Egyptian which were reduced to "uniliteral" phonetic value in Middle Egyptian.
Many hieroglyphs are coloured, though the paint has worn off most stone inscriptions. Colors vary, but many glyphs are predominantly one colour or another, or a particular combination (such as red on the top and blue on the bottom). In some cases, two graphically similar glyphs may be distinguished solely by colour, though in other cases it's not known if the choice of colour had any meaning. The glyphs below are given in their predominant colour, red, yellow, green and blue (with blue including black). Glyphs in black are either polychrome (in the case of <ꜣ>) or are attested in multiple colours (in the case of <ẖ>).
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.