The Egyptian Hieroglyphs is among the old writing system in the world. Unlike its contemporary cuneiform Sumerian, Egyptian Hieroglyph's origin is much more obscure. There is no identifiable precursor. It was once thought that the origin of Egyptian Hieroglyphs are religious and historical, but recent developments could point to an economical impetus for this script as well as push back the time depth of this writing system.
How It Works
The Egyptian writing system is complex but relatively straightforward. The inventory of signs is divided into three major categories, namely (1) logograms, signs that write out morphemes; (2) phonograms, signs that represent one or more sounds); and (3) determinatives, signs that denote neither morpheme nor sound but help with the meaning of a group of signs that precede them.
Examples of logograms:
Like Proto-Sinaitic-derived scripts, Egyptians wrote only with consonants. As a result, all phonograms are uniconsonantal, biconsonantal, and triconsonantal.
The following are the uniconsonantals:
And a few biconsonantals and triconsonantals:
The determinative is a glyph that carries no phonetic value but instead is added at the end of a word to clarify the meaning of the word. This is due to the fact that the writing system does not record vowels, and therefore different words with the same set of consonants (but different vowels) can be written by the same sequence of glyphs. Therefore the determinative became necessary to disambiguate the meaning of a sequence of glyphs.
Note: The logogram indicator is a determinative that marks a glyph as a logogram, as many logograms can also double as phonograms (like the duck glyph /s3/).
Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic
Traditionally Egyptologists divided Hieroglyphs into three types based on appearance: hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. Hieroglyphic is almost always inscribed on stones in large scale monuments. Hieratic is the "priestly" script extensively used on manuscripts and paintings, and really is just a rather cursive form of monumental hieroglyphics. And finally, demotic is a highly cursive script that replaced hieratic as the script for everyday use from 600 BCE onward. In fact, some demotic signs translate into more than one hieratic or hieroglyphic signs, so there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between demotic and the other two systems.
As mentioned before, aside from the shape of the signs, the hieroglyphic and the hieratic systems are virtually identical. In fact, Both of these variants date from the dawn of Egyptian civilization at the latter half of the 3rd millenium BCE at a time period called the Predynastic period. Recently some new discoveries have shed light on an ancient predynastic king named Scorpion I. His name has been found carved in the wilderness ("King Scorpion: A Pretty Bad Dude"), and in his tomb in Abydos "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs"). In fact, Abydos yielded a great number of inscribed seals dating from between 3400 and 3200 BCE, making them the oldest example of Egyptian writing.
Another early examples of hieroglyphic inscriptions is found on the famous Palette of Narmer. Narmer was a very early king, although he does not appear on the traditional Egyptian king list (like the King List of Abydos created during the reign of Seti I). However, according to the iconography on the Palette, he already ruled over an unified Egypt around 3000 BCE as he wore both the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Many Egyptologists equate him with Menes, the first king of the first Dynasty, while others placed him somewhat earlier in "Dynasty Zero" which might have also included pharoahs Scorpion II and Ka (or Zekhen).
There are two glyphs that make up Narmer's hieroglyphic name, which is enclosed by a serekh. The serekh, much like the cartouche later on, always denotes royal names. The top part of the name is a catfish, and the lower part is a chisel. In Egyptian, catfish is /n>r/, and chisel is /mr/. Together they spell /nrmr/. We vocalize this as Narmer, but in reality we don't really know what vowels existed between the consonants in /nrmr/.
In addition to the monumental hieroglyphic, the cursive hieratic also date from as early as the reign of king Ka in the form of pottery inscription. There were slightly later examples of this cursive script from the reign of kings Aha and Den, both of the first Dynasty, but it was the 4th Dynasty that there are substantial records written in hieratic.
While the hieroglyphic remained the same, the hieratic became increasingly cursive, and an increasing amount of ligatures come into usage. Look at this comparison of hieroglyphic vs hieratic (from roughly around 1200 BCE):
You could still see some resemblance between the first and the second row. However, you probably also have noticed that groups of hieroglyphic signs are reduced to a single hieratic sign. Many of the most frequently used sequences of signs were joined together into ligatures, much like sometimes we join 'a' and 'e' as 'æ'.
Eventually the most cursive form of hieratic became the demotic which gives no hint of its hieroglyphic origin. By 600 BCE, the hieratic, which was used to write documents on papyri, was retained only for religious writing. The demotic became the every-day script, used for accounting, writing down literature, writings, etc. The following demotic inscription is from the famous Rosetta Stone. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to the hieroglyphic script. In fact, it is so cursive that it resembles more like the Aramaic scripts used around the Fertile Crescent at this time.
The last Egyptian inscription dates from the 5th century CE. By this time, Coptic, a Greek-based alphabet with some demotic signs, became the primary writing system used in Egypt.