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Foreign Languages in Egypt

Foreign Languages in Egypt


Diverse Languages . While the great majority of inhabitants of Egypt spoke a single language, there were always foreigners in Egypt who spoke other languages. Egyptians had a word for “interpreter” as early as the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.), so there must have been a noticeable presence of speakers of foreign languages in Egypt by that time. The conservatism of the Egyptian language did not prevent it from taking up words from their neighbors. It is not always possible to identify the exact origin of words that are suspected to be foreign, especially when it seems likely that the donor language was unwritten, as was the case with many African tongues. (An exception to this general rule is Meroitic, the language of a kingdom that took root in the Sudan in the late ninth century b.c.e. It developed its own alphabetic script, which was based on Egyptian Demotic signs, in the early second century b.c.e. Several Meroitic loan words are attested in late phases of Egyptian). However, the Semitic languages of Syria-Palestine and Mesopotamia are much better known, and Semitic words were constantly being taken into the Egyptian language, a trend that is especially noticeable during the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.), when Egypt had an empire in Syria-Palestine. Semitic speakers had, of course, been in Egypt from quite early in Egyptian history, and a Semitic-speaking dynasty of Canaanite invaders (the Hyksos) had even conquered the Egyptian Delta and ruled it from 1630-1523 b.c.e.

Inspiration for the Alphabet . Probably the most important Semitic speakers to leave their linguistic mark in Egypt were an anonymous group of traders or mercenaries who, some time around 1900 to 1800 b.c.e., began to write their own language in a system of simplified Egyptian hieroglyphs. The discovery of the earliest examples of this script, written on a cliff face in the desert near ancient Thebes, was announced in 1999 c.e. The inscriptions cannot yet be read with much confidence, but it seems quite clear that they are written in a script that is ancestral to the alphabetic script called “Proto-Sinaitic,” which was used several centuries later, during the Egyptian New Kingdom. Proto-Sinaitic gets its name from the fact that it is an early (proto) alphabetic script that was found for the first time in the Sinai Peninsula, the desert region between the continent of Africa and the modern territories of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Like the newly discovered Theban script, Proto-Sinaitic was an alphabetic system with a limited number of signs, all clearly derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. It seems relatively clear that Proto-Sinaitic, or a close relative, must have been the ancestor of the alphabetic scripts that developed in Canaan and Phoenicia in the Iron Age (after 1200 b.c.e.). Phoenician script, of course, was adopted by the Greeks to write their language and became the ancestor of most alphabetic scripts in use in the modern world.


The long centuries of contact of foreigners with Egypt resulted in many Egyptian words being passed into other languages, including modern English Some of these are “culture” words such as “pharaoh,” or place-names such as “Memphis,” but there are other words of certain or possible Egyptian origin that are in common use in English. A few examples are ebony, oasis, ibis, gum, adobe, ammonia, nitrogen, and sack.

Later Influence . In later years other foreign words entered the Egyptian language, following a series of foreign conquerors. In Demotic script, words of Persian, Greek, and Latin origin, while not exactly abundant, are nevertheless not hard to find. The most influential of these languages was undoubtedly Greek. It is hard to know how long it took Greek to make inroads into spoken Egyptian in the years after Alexander the Great’s

conquest. Aside from personal names, relatively few certain Greek words appear in Demotic and even fewer in hieroglyphic inscriptions. But once the Coptic script became the principal medium used to write Egyptian in the fifth century c.e., there was an explosion of Greek vocabulary that is conspicuous in any Coptic text. It seems likely that the conservatism of Egyptian scribes in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods may have worked to keep Greek words out of written Egyptian, even as Greek loan words were coming into spoken Egyptian in large numbers.

Foreign Archives . Documents written in non-Egyptian languages other than Greek are less common than Greek and Egyptian texts. Generally they come from official archives or from graffiti. One of the most important archives containing non-Egyptian texts is the corpus of “Amarna letters,” an archive of official diplomatic correspondence carried on under Amenhotep III, Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), and Tutankhamun, three pharaohs of late Dynasty 18. These letters were found at the site of el-Amarna, the modern name of a town near Akhenaten’s political capital, which he established as part of his religious reforms. The letters are written in Akkadian, the Semitic language of ancient Mesopotamia, which was the international diplomatic language of the time. They show the extent to which mastering foreign languages was necessary even for the proud Egyptians. Some of the Amarna texts are actually bilingual word lists to help Egyptian scribes master Akkadian and/or to help Akkadian-speaking scribes learn Egyptian.

Archive at Elephantine . A second great non-Egyptian archive comes from the much later Persian Period (525-404 b.c.e.) when Egypt was under the domination of the Persian Empire. One might think that this find means that large numbers of Persian (Iranian)-language texts have been discovered in Egypt, but this is not the case. Rather, non-Egyptian documents from the Persian Period are mainly in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and common to large areas of the ancient Near East in the last several centuries b.c.e. and first centuries c.e. Many Aramaic texts have been found on Elephantine, an island in the Nile opposite the town of Aswan, which was the historic southern border of Egypt. The Persians had established a military colony there to act as a border garrison, and it so happened that many soldiers stationed at Elephantine were Jews, whose vernacular language was Aramaic. The Elephantine Aramaic documents are an invaluable source for reconstructing the social, religious, and economic life of these soldiers and their families, as well as some of the political events of the day.


Alan K. Bowman, Egypt After the Pharaohs 332 BC-AD 642: From Alexander to the Arab Conquest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

William L. Moran, ed., The Amarna Letters (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Bezalel Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

J. N. Wilford, “Finds in Egypt Date Alphabet in Earlier Era,”New York Times, CXLIX (14 November 1999): pp. 1, 16.

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