Thursday, 12 November 2009

Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Unicode 5.2

Having long resisted the temptation to blog, Egyptian Hieroglyphs pushed me over the edge and the topic makes a fitting start to this journal.

Unicode 5.2 ( was released on October 1st, 2009. This iteration of the Unicode Standard is the first to include the Egyptian Hieroglyphic script, one of the earliest forms of writing and rather aesthetically pleasing notably in the colourful style encountered in monumental inscriptions.

The 1071 hieroglyphs specified in Unicode 5.2 are termed Basic Egyptian Hieroglyphs. This set is based on the work of Alan Gardiner, the majority being described in his book Egyptian Grammar (Third Edition, 1957). The list (in PDF format) can be found at (this document is compiled using a version of my InScribe hieroglyphic font, itself inspired by the Gardiner font).

Inclusion in the Unicode Standard is only a starting point for a script to gain adequate support in digital applications and it is likely to be several years before software and web services catch up and provide adequate support for hieroglyphs. All the same it is fun to think that within the next decade people will be texting hieroglyphs and finding new uses for an ancient script beyond the academic.

Michael Everson and myself began work on defining this initial basic repertoire in late 2005 and the final list of 1071 took shape in Autumn 2006 following discussions at the biennial Informatique et Egyptologie meeting in Oxford that Summer. Defining a basic list was not without controversy. There are thousands more graphically distinct hieroglyphs known from ancient texts. The only way to achieve consensus on the basic set was to stick very closely to Gardiner even though this principle meant we are currently lacking some important signs known, for instance, from the Pyramids texts.

I hope work will begin in 2010 to standardize additional hieroglyphs to fill some of the most obvious gaps in a future version of Unicode. Nevertheless what we have now is adequate for many purposes.