The Wikipedia article on the History of Writing contains the following quote:

the earliest solid evidence of Egyptian writing differs in structure and style from the Mesopotamian and must therefore have developed independently...

It's clear that the scripts differ in style aesthetically speaking but I'm not sure how they differ in structure. I've tried searching for a side-by-side comparison of the two scripts to no avail.

From what I've read, both writing systems appear to have made use of logograms, phonetic complements and determinatives to varying degrees in their "mature" stages (post-phoneticisation c.2800-2700 BC), with the main difference being that Egyptian phonograms represented consonants whereas Sumerian phonograms represented syllables. Is this correct? Apologies if I'm way off the mark with terminology or dates, I'm new to linguistics.


The biggest difference, as you mention, is that the oldest forms of hieroglyphic writing don't indicate vowels at all and the oldest forms of cuneiform writing do. (By "oldest forms" here I mean the earliest forms that could indicate arbitrary words.) In hieroglyphs, the "mouth" glyph used phonetically could be used to write ra or ri or ru or ar and so on—the only part that mattered was the consonant /r/. In cuneiform, on the other hand, the "mouth" glyph used phonetically only meant ka, never *ki or *ku or *ak.

If one was actually based on the other, we'd expect these basic principles to get borrowed too, even if they changed later. But we don't see that. Instead, it seems like they were independent inventions; it's possible that the idea of "written symbols can represent spoken sounds" (or even something like the rebus principle) spread from one to the other, but the full details of the system did not.


I don't think much is known about the early stages of Egyptian writing. We get either a few objects with Hieroglyphic labels in the first few centuries or full blown passages in the pyramid texts a few centuries later on. There is nothing in between to show how the script arose and how it developed into mature writing.

We also assume that the hieroglyphs we normally see and use were actually a ceremonial elaborations of a more basic and simpler script closer in form to what we call Hieratic. Even so, the iconography glyphs used in the Sumerian and Egyptian scripts have nothing in common beyond chance. E.g., Sumerian "house" (/e/) is 𒂍, and Egyptian "house" (/pr/) is enter image description here. Aside from this difference, it is hard to compare the earliest stages of the scripts because of this lack of early Egyptian writing.

What I say below refers to what we see in the earliest Egyptian sentences. I am also obliged to use a later form of the Cuneiform glyphs used for writing in clay with a reed stylus, rather than the earlier more picture like glyphs.

Perhaps, because of the difference in language phonology, Sumerian writes with syllabic glyphs that always include a vowel, whereas Egyptian tries to write with glyphs representing 1-3 consonants, irrespective of the location or presence of the vowels in the spoken language.

Both scripts often use phonetic writing instead of an iconic glyph, but Sumerian also uses phonetic writing to indicate the last syllable of the stem plus a following particle beginning with a vowel. Egyptian never does this. Egyptian quite often indicates the consonants redundantly, using both unilateral signs and bilateral or trilateral signs. E.g., in "xnm" enter image description here, is written phonetically as "x-n nm m" plus two determinatives.

A fourth difference is that some determinatives in Sumerian precede the rest of the word (e.g., 𒀭 "an" as a determinative of a God can precede the God "Enlil" 𒀭𒂗𒆤) and some follow (e.g., 𒆠 "ki" as a determinative of a city/country folows "Uruk"/"Unug" 𒀕𒆠). In Egyptian, determinatives only follow they accompanying phonetic glyphs.

A fifth difference that may have only developed later is that I think Sumerian typically uses only one determinative, whereas Egyptian often uses several. E.g.: enter image description here The two figures of the people at the end are both determinatives. Even when hieroglyphs are used iconically, they are usually used with a | underneath to show this, as in the glyph for "pr" above. Most substantive Egyptian words use at least one determinative, almost as word dividers; whereas I think determinatives are much more sparingly used in Sumerian writing.

A sixth difference that may have developed later is that many Egyptian determinatives have no other use. If you look at Gardiner's List under A, I can only recall a handful of these being used other than as a determinatives. Notice how many have so many "readings" that they are basically useless in predicting what word they are used with (e.g., A2 and A19).

A seventh difference is that Cuneiform glyphs sometimes combine in ways that Egyptian glyphs do not. E.g., 𒈗 (lugal, "king") is a combination of 𒇽 (lu, "man") and 𒃲 (gal, "great/large cup") written together. You can't do that with hieroglyphs.

With early Egyptian glyphs, duplication was used to indicate a noun with a dual ending, and writing it three times was used to show the plural (which usually had a different vowel ending and perhaps some internal changes). In cuneiform, repeated glyphs show a repeated syllable.

It is possible that earlier Egyptian scribes were aware of Sumerian writing, but it is highly doubtful they had any skill in writing or reading it. Old Egyptian and Akkadian are distantly related languages and broadly similar in morphology, but their scripts have nothing in common that they do not also share with Mayan and Old Chinese. We see how scribes knowledgeable in Sumerian script adapted it for writing Akkadian, and we have many examples of other scripts that were adapted to write unrelated languages (e.g., Hittite, Japanese, Tibetan). Egyptian shows no hint of such a process of adaptation.

  • My only nitpick is that you can sometimes combine hieroglyphs; how else would you get things like M18 or O35? This wasn't especially productive, but then again, neither was cuneiform sign compounding (depending on the era).
    – Draconis
    Jan 10 at 3:22
  • do we assume that hieroglyphs were an elaboration of a simpler script more like hieratic? I'd usually seen it said that hieratic developed as a cursive means of writing hieroglyphs and, across history, developing cursive variants is much more common than the sort of elaborated variant needed to go in the other direction
    – Tristan
    Jan 17 at 13:21
  • First, I think that Draconis' nitpick has merit. I was trying to reduce something very complex, such as the use of "gunu" and "container" (my word) glyphs in cuneiform, but it would have been better to omit that from my answer. Jan 17 at 20:16
  • Second, the terms "hieroglyph," "hieratic," and "demotic" were created to describe the scripts the first decipherers found in the 19th century. We now know that scribes learned the "cursive" form of hieroglyphs first. Only specialists went on to study hieroglyphs. It is now clear that the latter have embellishments, like color and extra lines to increase their aesthetics, even though the structure is almost the same as hieratic, which are much more practical to write. Many of the stories we now have were actually written in hieratic, but are now rewritten in hieroglyphs for study. Jan 17 at 20:34
  • I just realize that I should be more precise. The script we call "hieratic" is a more cursive form of hand-written hieroglyphs that are generally simpler in form than the hieroglyphs we normally see written in stone. Most of the examples we have appeared much later. It is clear that scribes first learnt the practical script written with ink on papyrus and only later learned the somewhat more elaborate script we see mostly in stone. There are also "cursive hieroglyphs." (See Wikipedia) that give an idea of what this might have been like. Jan 17 at 21:19

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