Discovering Writing: Learning Egyptian Hieroglyphs - Lesson 2 (Part I)

Learning Egyptian Hieroglyphs - Lesson 2 (Part I)

by Caroline Seawright

Ideograms (Sense Signs)

Ideograms convey their meaning pictorially, usually accompanied by phonograms. A picture of the sun ra suggests sun, light and time, and as phonograms are used to give the exact meaning of words, can be seen in words such as:

rara (or ra I) r' means "sun"
hrwra hrw means "day", "daytime"
rkra rk means "time", "period"
wbnra wbn means "rise", "shine"

But, in writing, ideograms need not be accompanied by all of the signs needed to express its complete sound value. Full writings are rare, but they show the sound values where the shortened forms don't. For example:

zdjsdjm sdjm (full version) and sdjm sdjm both mean "hear".

Note that ideograms do not have to end the word.


When ideograms end the word, they are called determinatives. This is because these ideograms determine the meaning of the foregoing sound signs. They also define the meaning in a general way.

Note that words written as ideograms can also have determinatives:

sshmanssh, "scribe"

Only very common words do no have determinatives. Also, some words have more than one determinative!

Generic Determinatives

Ideograms that serve to determine a huge number of different words can only express the kind of sense of these words, rather than their specific meaning. These are known as generic determinatives.

Here is a list of the more important generic determinatives:

man determinative

man, person

woman determinative


people determinative


child determinative

child, young

old man determinative

old man, old, lean on

official determinative

official, man in authority

exalted person determinative

exalted person, the dead

god determinative

god, king

king determinative


hawk determinative

god, king1

cobra determinative or cobra in a basket determinative

goddess, queen1

raised arms determinative

high, rejoice, support

praise determinative

praise, supplicate

man with stick determinative

force, effort

man eating determinative2

eat, drink, speak, think, feel

man carrying basket determinative

lift, carry

man resting determinative

weary, weak

bound foreigner determinative

enemy, foreigner

dead body determinative

enemy, death

mummy on table determinative or lying mummy determinative

lie down, death, bury

standing mummy determinative

mummy, likeness, shape

head determinative

head, nod, throttle

hair determinative

hair, mourn, forlorn

eye determinative

eye, see, actions of the eye

eye action determinative

actions or conditions of the eye

nose determinative

nose, smell, joy, contempt

ear determinative

ear, states or activities of the ear

tooth determinative

tooth, actions of the teeth

force (arm) determinative

force, effort (exchangeable with man with stick determinative)

offering in hand determinative

offer, present

bent arm determinative

arm, bend arm, cease

arms in an embrace posture determinative

envelop, embrace

phallus determinative

phallus, beget, urinate

leg determinative

leg, foot, actions of the feet

legs in walking posture determinative

walk, run

legs in backwards walking posture determinative

move backwards

flesh determinative

limb, flesh

tumour determinative

tumours, odours, disease

tumour discharging fluid determinative

bodily discharges

horned cattle determinative or cattle determinative


Set determinative

savage, Setite (Typhonian)3

animal skin determinative

skin, mammal

bird determinative

bird, insect

sparrow determinative

small, bad, weak

fish determinative


snake determinative

snake, worm

tree determinative


plant determinative

plant, flower

vine and cup determinative or vine determinative

vine, fruit, garden

wood determinative

wood, tree

corn determinative


horizontal grain determinative or vertical grain determinative


sky determinative

sky, above

sun determinative

sun, light, time

night sky determinative

night, darkness

star determinative


fire determinative

fire, heat, cook

wind determinative

air, wind, sail

stone determinative


copper determinative

copper, bronze

sand determinative

sand, minerals, pellets

water determinative

water, liquid, actions connected with water

sheet of water determinative

sheet of water

irrigated land determinative

irrigated land

land determinative


road determinative

road, travel, position

desert determinative

desert, foreign country

stick weapon determinative

foreign (country or person)

town determinative

town, village, Egypt

house determinative

house, building

door determinative

door, open

box determinative

box, coffin

shrine determinative

shrine, palanquin, mat

boat determinative

boat, ship, navigation

sacred barque determinative

sacred barque

linen determinative

clothe, linen

bind determinative

bind, document

rope determinative

rope, actions with cord or rope

knife determinative

knife, cut

hoe determinative

hoe, cultivate, hack up

cross determinative

break, divide, cross

cup determinative


vessel determinative

vessel, anoint

pot determinative (less accurately round pot determinative)

pot, vessel, beverages

cake determinative

bread, cake

decorated loaf determinative or loaf determinative

loaf, cake, offering

festival determinative


horizontal scroll determinative or vertical scroll determinative (older form old form horizontal scroll determinative)

book, writing, abstract

cartouch determinative4

royal name, king

I determinative

one; the object depicted

II determinative (also III determinative, III pyramid determinative, ooo determinative)

several, plural

substitute for signs difficult to draw (not often used)

1The king was often thought of as the incarnation of the falcon god Horus, and the queen as the cobra goddess Edjo. This is how the falcon and the cobra became determinatives for both royalty and deities.

2Note the difference of the arms from the determinative for man.

3This animal represents the god Set (identified by the Greeks with Thyphon), the brother and murderer of Osiris, enemy of his nephew Horus (son of Osiris).

4The hieroglyphs spelling the royal name are written inside this shape.

Purely Ideographic Writings

When ideograms stand for the actual objects that they depict, the phonetic signs that would indicate the sounds of these objects are often not used. These ideograms are usually indicated by the use of the stroke determinative I.

If the noun is feminine, the stroke is preceded by t t, the feminine ending.

Masculine and Feminine

The Egyptian language distinguishes things into two genders - masculine and feminine. Most feminine nouns end in t t. Most of the other nouns are masculine.


ra I r', sun


nywt I nywt, town

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