Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Egyptian language

Ebers Papyrus
Records of the Ancient Egyptian language have been dated to 2600 BC. It is part of the Afro-Asiatic group of languages and is related to Hamitic (North African languages) and Semitic (languages such as Arabic and Hebrew). The language survived until about 2 AD; its lifespan of some 2800 years makes it the oldest recorded language known to modern man.

The official language of modern day Egypt is Arabic, which gradually replaced Egyptian and its descendant, the Coptic language as the language of daily life in the centuries after Egypt was colonized by Arab Muslims. Coptic is still used as a liturgical language in the Coptic Church.

Table of contents
1 Development of the Language
2 Egyptian Writing
3 Modern Day Resources

Development of the Language

No language can last thousands of years without undergoing changes. These changes can be brought about by brute force, can be made to make the language easier and for many other reasons. Egyptian was no different and scholars group the Egyptian language into 5 major divisions: It should be noted that Egyptian writing in the form of label and signs has been dated to 3000 BC.

Old Egyptian was spoken for some 500 years from 2600 BC onwards. Middle Egyptian was spoken from 2100 BC for a further 500 years when Late Egyptian made its appearance. Demotic first appears in 650 BC and survived as a spoken language until 5 AD. Coptic -- the Bohraic dialect is still used by the Egyptian Christian Churches -- appeared at the end of the first century and survived as a written, living language until 2 AD.

Old, Middle and Late Egyptian were all written using hieroglyphs. Demotic was written using a script whose appearance is not dissimilar to modern Arabic script (although the two are not at all related). Coptic is written using the Greek alphabet with a number of symbols added for sounds that did not appear in Ancient Greek.

Arabic became the official Egyptian language after the Arabian invasions in the seventh century.

Egyptian Writing


Most people refer to the hieroglyphs when they speak about Egyptian writing. A hieroglyph is a picture of a real object, however hieroglyphs can be used in three distinct ways: as what they represent, as a concept related to what they represent or as the sound of the word they represent. For example, a picture of the sun may be taken to be the sun itself, light or heat (because the sun is both a luminary body and provides heat) or as the sound "sun". It is not commonly known that the later stages of Egyptian (Middle and Late) use hieroglyphs almost solely in the third usage whilst Demotic and Coptic abandoned the use of hieroglyphs completely.

It is surmised that primitive people's first attempt at writing was to use the first method. Naturally, people are not able to write about objects or matters not able to be represented so the original hieroglyphs were extended to the second usage. Finally, people developed and practiced the idea of using the hieroglyphs not as a representation of what they actually were, but instead as a representation of sound.

The writing varied throughout the five stages of Egyptian. Old Egyptian uses a mixture of hieroglyphs as concrete representations and as symbols for sounds. Middle Egyptian uses the same mixture, although less concrete representations existed. Late Egyptian still used Middle Egyptian and much like English the spellings often did not change though the pronunciation did. Demotic uses a script called Demotic script and does not use any hieroglyphs at all. Finally, Coptic uses a modified version of the Greek alphabet. Nubian uses a similar alphabet, and some letters in the Cyrillic alphabet may come from Coptic.

The Language

Egyptian was a fairly typical Afro-Asiatic language. At the heart of Egyptian vocabulary was a root of three consonants. Sometimes there were only two, for example /rA/ "sun"; and some could be as large as five /sxdxd/ "be upside-down". Vowels and other consonants were then added to this root in order to derive words, in the same way as Arabic and other Afro-Asiatic languages do today. However, we do not know what these vowels would have been, since like other Afro-Asiatic languages, Egyptian does not write vowels; hence "ankh" could represent either "life", "to live" or "living". In transcription, /a/, /i/ and /u/ all represent consonants; for example, the name Tutankhamen was written in Egyptian /twt 'nkh ymn/ (the apostrophe represents a glottal stop). Experts have assigned generic sounds to these values in order to make the words pronounceable.

Egyptian's basic word order is Verb Subject Object; where we would write "the man opens the door", Egyptians would say "opens the man the door". The early stages of Egyptian possessed no articles, no words for "the" or "a"; later forms used the words /pA/, /tA/ and /nA/ for this purpose. Egyptian uses two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, similarly to French and Irish Gaelic; it also uses three grammatical numbers: like most other Afro-Asiatic languages, it contrasts singular, dual and plural forms. When saying something like "the man is red", the word "red" (dSrt in Egyptian) acts as a predicative verb.

Phonologically, Egyptian contrasted bilabial, labiodental, alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal and glottal consonants, in a distribution rather similar to that of Arabic.


Hieroglyphs from the
Black Schist sarcophagus of Ankhnesneferibre.
Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, about 530BC, Thebes.
The British Museum, London, UK.

About the Hieroglyphs

According to scholars, one needs to learn approximately 600 separate hieroglyphs to understand any given Egyptian text. Although this sounds like a large amount, it is made easier in that a smaller subset of these hieroglyphs represent the sounds of Ancient Egyptian. Provided you can remember the words the context will normally indicate the meaning of a hieroglyph.

Hieroglyphs were generally etched into wood or carved into stone. The greatest surviving hieroglyphs are religious texts made for the benefit of the body's immortal Ka. A number of other examples exist showing a shorter, more flowing style of hieroglyph. These are called "cursive" hieroglyphs and were generally used in day-to-day correspondence. Less examples of these exist because they were written with reed brushes on papyrus as opposed to stone monuments and tombs.

It is unknown how the hieroglyphs were created. They seem to just suddenly appear out of nowhere. Scholars support two theories for this: the first is that some creative genius, or group of geniuses, simply invented the system and managed to get the support to implement it. The second theory is that we simply do not have copies of the hieroglyphs in their development stage because the materials used simply could not last the 3 or more millennia for us to view them.

Hieroglyphic Usage During the Five Stages of the Egyptian Language

Records show that hieroglyphic writing underwent the most significant changes during the Old Egyptian period. During the Middle Egyptian era, hieroglyphic stabilises and these hieroglyphs remain the same up until the disappearance of hieroglyphic in 1AD. Therefore, one only needs to learn Middle Egyptian hieroglyphic to understand the vast majority of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts.

Hieroglyphic was used for all forms of written communication during the Old and Middle Egyptian eras. However, hieroglyphic was reserved for important religious texts during the Demotic era and was rarely found during the Coptic stage of Egyptian. Although difficult to ascertain, it appears that the memory of how to read hieroglyphic was almost forgotten by 1AD.

Hieroglyphic Syntax

As explained previously, the majority of hieroglyphs seen in any particular text do not represent the objects they depict. They mostly represent sounds or were used as "determinatives" to show what type of word was being used. Hieroglyphic could be written in the following ways: Written, cursive hieroglyphic is generally written in columns, top-to-bottom or horizontally, right-to-left. In the latter stages of hieroglyphic cursive the only surviving examples are written horizontally, right-to-left; vertical hieroglyphic should be read from top-to-bottom.

It is generally an easy task to determine which way to read the hieroglyphs even if you are unable to understand their meaning. Hieroglyphs with a definite front and back (for example, a person) will generally:

As an example, if a tableau contains a picture of a man seated and facing right, then all the hieroglyphs with a definite front and back would face to the right as well. The actual hieroglyphs would be read from right-to-left because these images almost always face the beginning of the sentence.

Hieroglyphic texts that do not display this behaviour are said to be in retrograde. Once one understands hieroglyphic it is easy to determine if one is examining a retrograde text because it will simply make no sense at all!

As an aid to reading, and perhaps to the Ancient Egyptian's sense of aesthetics, hieroglyphs were also packed together into neat patterns. In general, two or more short or thin (depending on which direction one was writing the hieroglyphs) would be written in the same block as each other. Occasionally, a tall or wide symbol would be made smaller and placed with another short or thin hieroglyph.

Finally, hieroglyphic had no standard punctuation. Religious texts generally have no punctuation at all, whilst texts from the latter part of the Ancient Egyptian language have full stops between important lines of thought.

How Hieroglyphic Writing was Deciphered

Until recently, given the time span we are talking about, the
decipherment of hieroglyphic was hampered because those attempting to decipher the hieroglyphs assigned emotional meanings to the actual symbols used. For example, some people believed that the hieroglyph for son, a goose, was chosen because geese love their sons above all other animals. This hieroglyph was chosen, though, simply because the word for goose once had the same sound as the word for son. A further impediment was the lack of complementary material, that is to say material of the same work written in close proximity to another translation.

Athanasius Kircher, a student of Coptic, developed the notion that this last stage of Egyptian could be related to the earlier Egyptian stages. Because he was not able to transliterate or translate hieroglyphic he could not prove this notion. However, in 1799 when the discovery of the Rosetta Stone occurred, scholars finally had an example of hieroglyphic, demotic and Ancient Greek that they were all reasonably certain were the translations of the same passage. In hieroglyphic, the name of the King or Pharaoh and God's names are often placed within a circle called a cartouche. Jean-François Champollion, a young French scholar, demonstrated how the name Kleopatra could be made in hieroglyphic. Furthermore, by using an impressive knowledge of Coptic he surmised that a number of symbols showing everyday objects could be pronounced as in Coptic.

Applying this knowledge to other, well-known hieroglyphic sources clearly confirmed Champollion's work and linguistic scholars now had a way to work with and delineate the language into nouns, verbs, prepositions and other grammatical parts.

Modern Day Resources

Interest in the Ancient Egyptian languages continue. For example, it is still taught in the Oxford University in London and other places. Many resources are in French or German and not just English so it can be useful to know one of these languages though not a requirement. In the film Stargate, a linguist was commissioned to develop a constructed language to simulate the tongue of ancient Egyptians living alone in another planet for millennia. While Egyptian culture is one of the influences of Western civilization, few words of Egyptian origin remain in English. Even those associated with Ancient Egypt were usually transmitted in Greek forms.

This book details Middle Egyptian grammar:

Allen, J. P. 2000. Middle Egyptian - An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Hieroglyphs. First Edition. Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom.

There are online resources at:\n