The ancient Egyptians called hieroglyphs the medu neter, which means sacred writing (literally writing of the divine).
The earliest hieroglyphs were pictograms, symbolic pictures of actual physical items. These early symbols were added to paintings and other artwork to help indicate the meaning of the work.
Over time this system developed into a real writing system similar to the approach of Chinese writing, in which the written characters stood for full words and syllables.
A large class of characters, called determinatives, came into existence to give shades of meaning to word characters. For example, the character for mouth could be followed by a determinative for eating or a determinative for conversation.
Further refinement resulted in the first alphabet, with word characters becoming alphabetic letters (usually indicating the first sound of the word). A small vertical line indicated that the hieroglyph was to be interpreted as the full word rather than as an alphabetical character.
Egyptologists divide the alphabetic and syllabic characters into three groups: monoliterals (true alphabetical characters representing a single sound), biliterals (representing two sounds together), and triliterals (representing three sounds combined together).
Please note that the ancient Egyptians rarely used vowels. The use of vowel hieroglyphs is mostly from modern cartouches, featuring Egytpian hieroglyphs versions of modern names. There are also some modern consonant uses that did not occur in antiquity. These cartouches are often given as gifts. In ancient times the use of cartouches was limited primarily to Pharaoh and the royal family.
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