Character in any of several systems of writing that is pictorial in nature, though not necessarily in the way it is read. The term was originally used for the oldest system of writing Ancient Egyptian (see Egyptian language). Egyptian hieroglyphs could be read iconically (the representation of a house enclosure stood for the word pr, “house”), phonetically (the “house” sign could have the phonetic value pr), or associatively (a sign representing one thing could stand for a homophone meaning something else). Unlike contemporary cuneiform writing, phonetic hieroglyphs denoted consonants, not syllables, so there was no regular way to write vowels; by convention, Egyptologists insert the vowel e between consonants in order to pronounce Egyptian words. The standardized orthography of the Middle Kingdom (2050–1750 BC) employed about 750 hieroglyphs. In the early centuries AD, use of hieroglyphs declined—the last dated text is from AD 394—and the meaning of the signs was lost until their decipherment in the early 19th century (see J.-F. Champollion; Rosetta Stone). The term hieroglyph has been applied to similar systems of writing, notably a script used to write the ancient Anatolian language Luvian and a script used by the Maya (see Mayan hieroglyphic writing).

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