Hieroglyphic symbols were an incredibly flexible approach to language. Rather than just representing a sound (as with modern languages) hieroglyphs were also visual representations of objects or ideas that were familiar to readers – you will have noticed that most are either animals, objects or parts of the body.
Although each hieroglyph had an associated sound, which, when coupled with another symbol could be used to “spell out” a word with its own meaning, each hieroglyph could also be used independently, as a picture. When used in this sense, hieroglyphs are referred to as ideograms.
Let’s take two hieroglyphs (b) and (w)
Both of these work just fine as ideograms.
When a hieroglyph is instead used to represent a sound, its known as a Phonogram. Using phonograms, scribes would spell out words which were not represented by their own ideogram. The two hieroglyphs taken together, have a whole new meaning.
(b) and (w) used instead as phonograms sound out
“bew”, which is the middle Egyptian word for “place”.
A given hieroglyph could also have a third value, known as a determinative. Determinatives help to clarify the meaning of a word, and appear after the Phonograms.
While this might sound complicated, it actually made the language even more flexible!
Splitting it into individuals symbols, we have
“r” and “eh”
The two could be used as ideograms, to represent a mouth and arm arm, but here, together they are used as phonograms, spelling out the word “re” or “sun”.
However, to make the meaning clear we also have the sun hieroglyph ?.
By changing the determinative, we can actually change the whole word:
Lets swap ? for ?, the ideogram for god.
The word still says “re” but now its referring to the sun god, re, rather than the sun itself!