Egyptian Writing and Language

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Egyptian Writing and Language

Birth and Loss.

The earliest evidence for writing the Egyptian language in hieroglyphs dates to about 3300 b.c.e. During the 1990s, the archaeologist Gunter Dreyer discovered the earliest known inscriptions, a group of seals bearing the names of early Egyptian kings who reigned from 3300 b.c.e. to about 3100 b.c.e., in the town of Abydos, located in central Egypt. Dreyer's discoveries newly suggest that Egyptian was the first written language in the eastern Mediterranean, pre-dating Sumerian, the next oldest written language, whose writing system was invented in what is now modern Iraq about 3000 b.c.e. Hieroglyphs and more cursive forms of Egyptian writing called hieratic and demotic continued in use in Egypt for nearly 3,500 years. The Pyramid Texts, the funeral liturgy found in royal pyramids in the late Fifth and early Sixth Dynasties, and the autobiographies found in tombs of the same period (2500–2170 b.c.e.) constitute the first known Egyptian literature. In contrast to the vague date and unknown scribes of the first inscriptions, the last known Egyptian inscription written in hieroglyphs includes a date equivalent to 24 August 394 c.e. and the name of the scribe, Nesmeterakhem, son of Nesmeter, who composed it and carved it on a wall at the Temple of Isis in Philae on Egypt's southern border. By this time, Macedonian Greeks ruled Egypt following Alexander the Great's conquest of the country in 332 b.c.e. Greek had become the official language of the Egyptian government with Alexander's conquest, though ordinary Egyptians continued to speak and write their own language. Yet the ruling class, even among Egyptians, began to speak and write Greek because this language was now the key to power and success. Approximately 100 years after the last hieroglyphic inscription at Philae, an Egyptian named Horapollo who lived in Alexandria wrote a book in Greek called The Hieroglyphics of the Egyptian, completely mischaracterizing the hieroglyphic writing system. Horapollo probably based his description of hieroglyphs on lists he found in the Library of Alexandria. He had access to some accurate facts about the meaning of particular hieroglyphic signs, but he did not know that most of the hieroglyphic signs had phonetic values and that the hieroglyphs were a means of writing ordinary language. He wrote instead that hieroglyphs were pictures that could convey philosophical ideas to readers who were initiated in their mysteries. Horapollo's ideas derived from neo-Platonism, a Greek philosophical school current during his lifetime that stressed the role of contemplation in achieving knowledge. Horapollo believed that hieroglyphs were an object of contemplation and thus a source and expression of knowledge. Horapollo's book led early European scholars astray for the 403 years between his book's modern publication in Italy in 1419 and French scholar J.-F. Champollion's decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822.

Deciphering Hieroglyphs.

In 1822 Champollion became the first modern person to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. He based his study of hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone, a tri-lingual inscription bearing a date equivalent to 27 March 196 b.c.e. It is a decree issued by King Ptolemy VI, exempting the priests of Memphis from certain taxes, and recorded in Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphic, and in Egyptian Demotic, a cursive writing system derived from hieroglyphic. Champollion began his work with the assumption that the hieroglyphs represented the same text as the Greek. Since European scholars had never lost the ability to read ancient Greek, Champollion understood the contents of that section of the inscription with little difficulty. Champollion may have been aware of an English scholar named Thomas Young, whose private work on hieroglyphs, written in 1819 but never published, suggested that the ovals with hieroglyphic signs inside them carved on the Rosetta Stone were a phonetic writing of King Ptolemy VI's name. Champollion assigned sounds to the signs that represented Ptolemy's name by relying on the Greek text. He then compared the text in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Bankes' Obelisk, a monument brought to England from southern Egypt in the early nineteenth century. This monument exhibited a Greek inscription with the name Cleopatra and a hieroglyphic inscription that included an oval with signs inside it. Taking the sounds "p," "t," "o," "l," and "e" that are common to both Ptolemy and Cleopatra's names, Champollion made a comparison between the two groups of hieroglyphic signs. He found that the expected hieroglyphic sign was in a predictable place. The same sign was present to write "p," the first sound in Ptolemy and the fifth sound in Cleopatra, in the first and fifth position of the writing of their names. The same expectations were met for the sounds "t," "o," "l," and "e." This comparison demonstrated that hieroglyphs were phonetic, not mystical, philosophical symbols. Using these known signs as equivalents for known sounds, Champollion was quickly able to identify the hieroglyphic writings of the names of many of the Roman emperors who ruled Egypt after Octavian (later the Roman emperor Augustus) conquered the country in 31 b.c.e. He used his knowledge of Coptic, the last stage of the Egyptian language written with Greek letters, to further identify the meanings of Egyptian words written in hieroglyphics. Subsequent scholarly work since Champollion's discovery has resulted in a nearly complete understanding of the Egyptian language, its grammar, and its place among the languages of the world.

Dialects of Egyptian.

Egyptologists have discovered five different dialects of the Egyptian language, all of which had literature. A dialect is a variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other varieties, but constituting together with them a single language. Some dialects are associated with different regions of a country. Other dialects, as is true with Egyptian, are separated by time. A more familiar example of this phenomenon is the language of the medieval English poems Beowolf and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They were composed in dialects of English, but are nearly incomprehensible to modern English speakers. Yet the languages of these poems are still the natural ancestors of our modern language. In the same way, the dialects of Egyptian—called Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic—each grew out of the previous dialectical stage of the language and represent different time periods. There must also have been regional dialects that scholars cannot recognize from the written evidence. Of the dialects preserved on papyrus, stone, and other writing materials, the oldest is Old Egyptian, used to compose the Pyramid Texts and the autobiographies found in Old Kingdom (2675–2170 b.c.e.) tombs. Middle Egyptian, spoken during the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.) was Egypt's most important dialect. It was the classical language used to compose poetry and prose for 1,500 years after Egyptians stopped speaking it as their day-to-day language. Late Egyptian was the day-to-day speech of the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.) and was favored by authors of popular tales. Demotic, used in speech by Egyptians during the Late Period through the Roman Period (664 b.c.e.–395 c.e.) was a vehicle for popular literature and business deals. At the same time that Demotic predominated among the Egyptian-speaking populace, the ruling class spoke Greek. Finally Coptic, written with the Greek alphabet and some additional characters used to convey sounds not found in Greek, is the last stage of the Egyptian language, emerging in the first century c.e. Egyptian Christians still use it as the language of prayer. Egyptians began speaking Arabic after the Moslem conquest of their country in 641 c.e.

Language Family.

The ancient Egyptian dialects form one language and one language family called Hamito-Semitic or Afro-Asiatic. A language family normally groups together languages with similar vocabulary and grammar. English, for example, is a branch of the Indo-European language family with close connections to both German and French. The Egyptian language's close connections are with languages now spoken in other parts of Africa and in the Near East. Among the many African languages related to Egyptian are Berber, spoken in North Africa; Wolof, spoken in West Africa; and Bedja, spoken in Eritrea in East Africa. Egyptian also shares similarities with the vocabulary and grammar of the Semitic languages including Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew. These connections illustrate that Egypt was always a bridge between the African continent and western Asia.

Egyptian Scripts.

Hieroglyphs are the most easily recognized ancient Egyptian script, but were not the most commonly used. Hieratic, a cursive writing system based on hieroglyphs, was the most commonly used Egyptian script from the Old Kingdom (2675–2170 b.c.e.) to the beginning of the Late Period about 664 b.c.e. Scribes used cursive hieroglyphs, a writing of hieroglyphs that included fewer interior details in each sign, for writing the Book of the Dead. During the Late Period, scribes developed the Demotic writing system, a cursive writing system that does not correspond sign-for-sign with either hieratic or hieroglyphic writings of words. It is by far the most difficult writing system for modern scholars to master. Finally, the Coptic alphabet emerged with Christianity in Egypt during the first century c.e. The Coptic alphabet uses the 24-letter Greek alphabet plus seven signs from Demotic to represent sounds that do not exist in Greek but are needed to write Egyptian.

Language and Literature.

Compared to other ancient languages such as Greek, Latin, or Hebrew which were never lost, Egyptian is a newcomer to the scholarly scene. Though scholars have made great strides in understanding Egyptian since Champollion's initial accomplishment, translations of Egyptian literature have not yet established the Egyptian achievement in modern consciousness alongside their ancient neighbors in Greece, Rome, and Judea. Yet Egyptian literature included great works whose continuing study will eventually establish it among the world's great literary accomplishments.


Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957).

Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

see also Philosophy: Secret Knowledge