What, no vowels?

What are vowels?

Vowels are the letters, or sounds,  that come in between consonants in words like cat  

c and t are consonants; a is a vowel.

The 5 vowels are a, e, i, o, u. Also, y is sometimes thought of as a vowel.

But guess what -  The Egyptians didn't write down their vowels!

If we didn't write our vowels, cat would look like this: ct

-and how would we know if it said cat, or cut, or cot, or cute, or act?

Think about this: what could pt say?

So because the Egyptians didn't write their vowels, it's very hard for us to know how to say their words out loud. But we have worked out what they mean.

Take this hieroglyph:   We know this says nfr - meaning good, or beautiful.

How do you think the Egyptians pronounced it?

Nafar? Nafre? Nofer? Nofre? Anfar? There are lots of possibilities.

Egyptologists have come up with a rule: you put an e between the consonants. So nfr becomes nefer. That's why we say names like Nefertiti and Nefertari. But we don't know that's right.


What about all those hieroglyphs that are supposed to be vowels?

You may have noticed on the list of hieroglyphs some that stand for a, i, u, and o. Aren't they vowels? We use them that way, but they aren't really. Here's why:

1. we use for i. But it was more like a y, like in yes

2. we use for o. But it was really wa. In the time when the Greeks ruled Egypt, it was used for names with an o in them, like Ptolemy. (see the section on the Rosetta Stone)

3.  and we use for a.

 But really was a sound made in the throat which we don't have in English. And was a glottal stop - that's the sound you make if you're being lazy in pronouncing a t - for example in 'butter'. 

But was used by the Greeks to stand for the as in Cleopatra. So we can use it for an a. 

4.  we use for u and w. But it was really only a w. The two sounds are quite close though.

So, when you say a name like Tutankhamun, don't think you're saying it how the ancient Egyptians used to say it! But it's close enough.

Other clues

Another way we have some idea of what vowels the Egyptians used is by looking at their words written in other languages at the time. Akkadian was one of these languages, used in Babylonia. Pharaoh Amenhotep III wrote lots of letters to the king of Babylonia, and in their letters to him we see his throne name, Nebmaatre, written as Namuria. So perhaps that's how it was pronounced.