Egyptian is the indigenous language of Egypt and a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Written records of the Egyptian language have been dated from about 3400 BCE, making it one of the oldest recorded languages known. Egyptian was spoken until the late 17th century CE in the form of Coptic. The national language of modern-day Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which gradually replaced Coptic as the language of daily life in the centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Coptic is still used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church. It reportedly has a handful of native speakers today.
- Old Egyptian (2600 BC – 2000 BC, the language of the Old Kingdom)
- Middle Egyptian (2000 BC – 1300 BC, Middle Kingdom up to the Amarna Period; continued in use as a literary language into the 4th century AD)
- Late Egyptian (1300 BC – 700 BC, Amarna Period through the Third Intermediate Period)
- Demotic (7th century BC – 5th century AD, Late Period through Roman times)
- Coptic (1st century AD – 17th century AD, early Roman times to early modern times)
Egyptian writing in the form of label and signs has been dated to 3200 BCE. These early texts are generally lumped together under the term “Archaic Egyptian.”
In 1999, Archaeology Magazine reported that the earliest Egyptian glyphs date back to 3400 BC which “…challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia.”
Old Egyptian was spoken for some 500 years from 2600 BC onwards. Middle Egyptian was spoken from about 2000 BC for a further 700 years when Late Egyptian made its appearance; Middle Egyptian did, however, survive until the first few centuries CE as a written language, similar to the use of Latin during the Middle Ages and that of Classical Arabic today. Demotic Egyptian first appears about 650 BC and survived as a spoken language until the fifth century AD. Coptic Egyptian appeared in the fourth century AD and survived as a living language until the sixteenth century AD, when European scholars traveled to Egypt to learn it from native speakers during the Renaissance. It probably survived in the Egyptian countryside as a spoken language for several centuries after that. The Bohairic dialect of Coptic is still used by the Egyptian Christian Churches.
3rd-century Coptic inscription.
Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian were all written using hieroglyphs and hieratic. Demotic was written using a script derived from hieratic; its appearance is vaguely similar to modern Arabic script and is also written from right to left (although the two are not related). Coptic is written using the Coptic alphabet, a modified form of the Greek alphabet with a number of symbols borrowed from Demotic for sounds that did not occur in Ancient Greek.
Arabic became the language of Egypt’s political administration soon after the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD, and gradually replaced Coptic as the language spoken by the populace. Today, Coptic survives as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Coptic Catholic Church.
Structure of the language
Egyptian is a fairly typical Afroasiatic language. At the heart of Egyptian vocabulary is a root of three consonants. Sometimes there were only two, for example <rʕ> /riʕa/ “sun” (where the [ʕ] is thought to have been something like a voiced pharyngeal fricative), but larger roots are also common some being as large as five /sḫdḫd/ “be upside-down”. Vowels and other consonants were then inserted into the consonantal skeleton in order to derive different meanings, in the same way as Arabic, Hebrew, and other Afroasiatic languages do today. However, because vowels (and sometimes glides) weren’t written in any Egyptian script aside from Coptic, it can be difficult to reconstruct the actual forms of words; hence orthographic <stp> “to choose”, for example, could represent the stative (as the stative endings can be left unexpressed) or imperfective verb forms or even a verbal noun (i. e., “a choosing”).
Phonologically, Egyptian contrasted labial, alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal consonants, in a distribution rather similar to that of Arabic. It also contrasted voiceless and emphatic consonants, as with other Afroasiatic languages, although exactly how the emphatic consonants were realized is not precisely known. In transcription, <a>, <i>, and <u> all represent consonants; for example, the name Tutankhamen (1341 BCE – 1323 BCE) was written in Egyptian twt-ʕnḫ-ỉmn. Experts have assigned generic sounds to these values as a matter of convenience, but this artificial pronunciation should not be mistaken for how Egyptian was actually pronounced at any point in time. For example, twt-ʕnḫ-ỉmn is commonly pronounced something like /tuːtənˈkɑːmən/ in modern English, but in his time was likely realized as something like *[tVwaːt ʕaːnix ʔaˈmaːn], where V is a vowel of undetermined quality.
Classical Egyptian’s basic word order is Verb Subject Object; the equivalent to “the man opens the door”, would be a sentence corresponding to “opens the man the door” (wn s ˁ3). It uses the so-called status constructus to combine two or more nouns to express the genitive, similar to Semitic and Berber languages. The early stages of Egyptian possessed no articles, no words for “the” or “a”; later forms used the words p3, t3 and n3 for this purpose. Like other Afroasiatic languages, Egyptian uses two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, similarly to Arabic, Tamasheq and Somali. It also uses three grammatical numbers, contrasting singular, dual, and plural forms, although there is a tendency for the loss of the dual as a productive form in later Egyptian.
Main article: Writing in Ancient Egypt
|sẖ3 n mdw nṯr
Most surviving texts in the Egyptian language are primarily written on stone in the hieroglyphic script. However, in antiquity, the majority of texts were written on perishable papyrus in hieratic and (later) demotic, which are now lost. There was also a form of cursive hieroglyphic script used for religious documents on papyrus, such as the Book of the Dead in the Ramesside Period; this script was simpler to write than the hieroglyphs in stone inscriptions, but was not as cursive as hieratic, lacking the wide use of ligatures. Additionally, there was a variety of stone-cut hieratic known as lapidary hieratic. In the language’s final stage of development, the Coptic alphabet replaced the older writing system. The native name for Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is sẖ3 n mdw nṯr or “writing of the words of god.” Hieroglyphs are employed in two ways in Egyptian texts: as ideograms that represent the idea depicted by the pictures; and more commonly as phonograms denoting their phonetic value.
Further information: Transliteration of ancient Egyptian
While the consonantal phonology of the Egyptian language may be reconstructed, its exact phonetics are unknown, and there are varying opinions on how to classify the individual phonemes. A peculiarity shared with the Semitic languages, as well as the Cushitic languages (such as Somali etc), is the existence of an “emphatic series.” It was assumed in the past that the binary opposition in stops that can be reconstructed for Egyptian was one of voicing, but is now thought to be one between voiceless and emphatic stops.
Since vowels were not written natively, reconstructions of the Egyptian vowel system are much more uncertain, relying mainly on the evidence from Coptic and foreign transcriptions of Egyptian personal and place names.
Because Egyptian is also recorded over a full two millennia, the Archaic and Late stages being separated by the amount of time that separates Old Latin from modern Italian, it must be assumed that significant phonetic changes would have occurred over that time.
The vocalization of Egyptian is partially known, largely on the basis of reconstruction from Coptic, in which the vowels are written. Recordings of Egyptian words in other languages provide an additional source of evidence. Scribal errors provide evidence of changes in pronunciation over time. The actual pronunciations reconstructed by such means are used only by a few specialists in the language. For all other purposes the Egyptological pronunciation is used, which is, of course, artificial and often bears little resemblance to what is known of how Egyptian was spoken.
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Egyptian g may represent two phonemes (g1 and g2), both continuing Afroasiatic /ɡ/.
Palatal /c/ ṯ (emphatic /cʼ/ ḏ) continue Afroasiatic /q/ and /k/ (merged with t and d in Demotic)
|orthographic||approximate phonetic value||orthographic||approximate phonetic value||orthographic||approximate phonetic value||orthographic||approximate phonetic value|
|ꜣ ( 3, ȝ)|
s and z were collapsed in the Middle Kingdom.
The nature of ḫ vs. ẖ is controversial, possibly a voiced vs. voiceless opposition.
ı͗, probably an Aleph sound [ʔ].
y (ı͗ı͗) [j]
w, either of [w] and [u]
l, in writing expressed as n, r, j, nr or 3 or often as the lion-shaped biliteral rw.
Traditional alef (3) may also have been a alveolar approximant /ɹ/.
As a convention, Egyptologists make use of an “Egyptological pronunciation” in English, in which the consonants are given fixed values and vowels are inserted in accordance with essentially arbitrary rules. Two consonants, alef and the ayin, are generally pronounced /ɑː/. The yodh is pronounced /iː/, and w /uː/. Between other consonants, /ɛ/ is then inserted. Thus, for example, the Egyptian king whose name is most accurately transliterated as Rˁ-ms-sw is transcribed as “Ramesses”, meaning “Ra has Fashioned (lit., “Borne”) Him”.
Change into Coptic
|(Middle) Egyptian consonant||Coptic (Sahidic) consonant|
|ḫ, ẖ, š||š, ḫ, h, ẖ|
Egyptian nouns can be either masculine or feminine (indicated as with other Afroasiatic languages by adding a -t), and singular, plural (-w / -wt), or dual (-wy / -ty).
Egyptian has three different types of personal pronouns: suffix, enclitic (called “dependent” by Egyptologists) and independent pronouns. It also has a number of verbal endings added to the infinitive to form the stative, which are regarded by some linguists as a “fourth” set of personal pronouns. They bear close resemblance to their Semitic and Berber counterparts. The three main sets of personal pronouns are as follows:
It also has demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these and those), in masculine, feminine, and common plural:
|pn||tn||nn||“this, that, these, those”|
|pw||tw||nw||“this, that, these, those” (archaic)|
|p3||t3||n3||“this, that, these, those” (colloquial [earlier] and Late Egyptian)|
Finally there are interrogative pronouns (what, who, etc.)
|zı͗||“which?”||(independent and dependent)|
The verbal morphology of Egyptian can be divided into finite and non-finite forms. Finite verbs convey person, tense/aspect, mood, and voice. Each is indicated by a set of affixal morphemes attached to the verb — the basic conjugation is sḏm.f ‘he hears’. The non-finite forms occur without a subject and they are the infinitive, the participles and the negative infinitive, which Gardiner calls “negatival complement”. There are two main tenses/aspects in Egyptian: past and temporally unmarked imperfective and aorist forms. The latter are determined from their syntactic context.
Attributive adjectives used in phrases fall after the noun they are modifying, such as in “(the) great god” (nṯr ˁ3). However, when used independently as a predicate in an adjectival phrase, such “(the) god (is) great” (ˁ3 nṯr) (lit., “great (is the) god”), the adjective precedes the noun.
Egyptian prepositions come before the noun.
|m||“in, as, with, from”|
Adverbs are words such as “here” or “where?”. In Egyptian, they come at the end of a sentence, e.g., zỉ.n nṯr ỉm “the god went there”, “there” (ỉm) is the adverb.
Some common Egyptian Adverbs:
|zy-nw||“when” (lit. “what moment”)|
|mı͗-ı͗ḫ||“how” (lit. “like-what”)|
|r-mı͗||“why” (lit. “for what”)|
Interest in the ancient Egyptian language continues, and it is taught in many universities around the world. Many resources are in French, German, Arabic, Italian, and Russian in addition to English so it can be useful to know one of these languages to learn Egyptian.
For the film Stargate, Egyptologist Stuart Tyson Smith was commissioned to develop a constructed language to simulate the tongue of ancient Egyptians living alone on another planet for millennia. He also created the Egyptian dialogue for The Mummy (1999 film). In the French comedy Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre, a similar attempt was apparently made (source in French). Egyptian taunts and responses are also heard while playing the Egyptian campaign of Age of Mythology. Ancient Egyptian is also used for some dialogue in the French movie Immortel (Ad Vitam).
While Egyptian culture is one of the influences of Western civilization, few words of Egyptian origin are found in English. Even those associated with ancient Egypt were usually transmitted in Greek forms. Some examples of Egyptian words that have survived in English include ebony (Egyptian ḥbny, via Greek and then Latin), ivory (Egyptian abw / abu, literally ‘ivory; elephant’), phoenix (Egyptian bnw, literally ‘heron’; transmitted through Greek), pharaoh (Egyptian pr-ˁʒ, literally “great house”; transmitted through Hebrew), as well as the proper names Phineas (Egyptian, pʒ-nḥsy, used as a generic term for Nubian foreigners) and Susan (Egyptian, sšn, literally “lily flower”; probably transmitted first from Egyptian into Hebrew Shoshanah).