Egyptian language

Egyptian language

Infobox Language
nativename= "transl|egy|r n km.t
r:Z1 n km m t:O49
region=Ancient Egypt
extinct=evolved into Demotic by 600 BC, into Coptic by AD 200, and was extinct (not spoken as a day-to-day language) by the 17th century. It survives as the liturgical language of the Christian Coptic Church.
script=hieroglyphs, cursive hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic and Coptic (later, occasionally Arabic script in government translations)
lc1=egy|ld1=Egyptian language|ll1=Egyptian language
lc2=cop|ld2=Coptic language|ll2=Coptic language


Egyptian is an Afro-Asiatic language most closely related to the Berber, Semitic, Somali and Beja languages. [Loprieno 1996.] It survived until the 5th century AD in the form of Demotic and until the late 17th century AD in the form of Coptic. Written records of the Egyptian language have been dated from about 3200 BC, making it one of the oldest recorded languages known. The national language of modern day Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which gradually replaced Coptic Egyptian as the language of daily life in the centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Coptic is still used as a liturgical language by the Coptic Church, and reportedly has a handful of native speakers today. [The language may have survived in isolated pockets in Upper Egypt into the 19th century according to James Edward Quibell, "When did Coptic become extinct?" in: Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 39 (1901), p. 87).] [ Daily Star Egypt. 23 January 2007] ]


Scholars group the Egyptian language into 6 major chronological divisions:

* Archaic Egyptian (before 2600 BC)
* Old Egyptian (2600 BC – 2000 BC)
* Middle Egyptian (2000 BC – 1300 BC)
* Late Egyptian (1300 BC – 700 BC)
* Demotic (7th century BC – 5th century AD)
* Coptic (4th century AD – 17th century AD)

Egyptian writing in the form of label and signs has been dated to 3200 BC. 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 AD 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 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.

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, 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 Afro-Asiatic language. At the heart of Egyptian vocabulary is a root of three consonants. Sometimes there were only two, for example /IPA|riʕa/ "sun" (where the [IPA|ʕ] represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative), but larger roots are also common some being as large as five /IPA|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 Afro-Asiatic 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 "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 Afro-Asiatic languages, although exactly how the emphatic consonants were realized is not precisely known. In transcription, , , and all represent consonants; for example, the name Tutankhamen (1341 BC – 1323 BC) was written in Egyptian "unicode| 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, "unicode| twt-ʕnḫ-ỉmn" is commonly pronounced something like /IPA|tutanˈkamən/ in modern English, but in his time was likely realized as something like *tVwaːt-ʕa:nix-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" ("unicode|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 Afro-Asiatic languages, Egyptian uses two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, similarly to Arabic and Tamasheq. 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.

Egyptian writing

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 "Unicode|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.


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 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 [see "Egyptian Phonology" by Carsten Peust for a review of the history of thinking on the subject. Note that his reconstructions of words are non-standard.] .

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.

;PlosivesEarlier Egyptian

"s" and "z" were collapsed in the Middle Kingdom.

"Unicode|ˁ" may have been IPA|/d/ in the Old Kingdom, evolving into a pharyngeal in the Middle Kingdom. It is called "Egyptian Ayin" after the Semitic pharyngeal fricative.

The nature of "Unicode|ḫ" vs. "Unicode|ẖ" is controversial, possibly a voiced vs. voiceless opposition.

"3", often identified as "Egyptian Aleph" (a glottal stop), or alternatively a remnant of an "r" or "l" phoneme.

i "ı͗", probably an Aleph sound [IPA|ʔ] .

i i "y" ("ı͗ı͗") [IPA|j]

w "w", either of [IPA|w] and [IPA|u]

;Nasals m "m" n "n"

;Liquids r "r"

"l", in writing expressed as "n", "r", "j", "nr" or "3" [another interpretation is suggested by Christopher Ehret: "Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary." "University of California Publications in Linguistics 126", California, Berkeley 1996. ISBN 0520097998] or often as the lion-shaped biliteral "rw".

Traditional "alef" ("3") may also have been a alveolar approximant IPA|/ɹ/.

Egyptological pronunciation

As a convention, Egyptologists make use of an "Egyptological pronunciation" in which the consonants are given fixed values and vowels are inserted in accordance with essentially arbitrary rules. Two distinct different consonants, Egyptian alef and the Egyptian ayin, are both often pronounced as IPA| [a] . The yodh pronounced as IPA| [i] , and similarly, "w" as IPA| [u] . Between the other consonants, IPA| [e] 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

Finally there are interrogative pronouns (what, who, etc.)

Modern-day resources

Interest in the ancient Egyptian language continues. For example, it is still taught in several universities. Many resources are in French or German, in addition to English so it can be useful to know one of these languages though not a requirement.

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 "", 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

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 into English include "ebony" (Egyptian unicode|ḥbny, via Greek and then Latin), "ivory" (Egyptian abw / abu, literally 'ivory; elephant'), "phoenix" (Egyptian bnw, literally 'heron'; transmitted through Greek), "Pharaoh" (Egyptian unicode|pr-ˁʒ, literally "great house"; transmitted through Hebrew), as well as the proper names "Phineas" (Egyptian, unicode|pʒ-nḥsy, literally "the black one," used as a generic term for Nubian foreigners) and "Susan" (Egyptian, unicode|sšn, literally "lotus flower"; probably transmitted first from Egyptian into Hebrew "Shoshanah").




* Antonio Loprieno, "Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction", Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-521-44384-9 (hbk) ISBN 0-521-44849-2 (pbk)
* Carsten Peust, "Egyptian phonology : an introduction to the phonology of a dead language", Peust & Gutschmidt, 1999. ISBN 3933043026


* Allen, James P., "Middle Egyptian - An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs", first edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-65312-6 (hbk) ISBN 0-521-77483-7 (pbk)
* Collier, Mark, and Manley, Bill, "How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs : A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself", British Museum Press (ISBN 0-7141-1910-5) and University of California Press (ISBN 0-520-21597-4), both in 1998.
* Gardiner, Sir Alan H., "", Griffith Institute, Oxford, 3rd ed. 1957. ISBN 0-900416-35-1
* Hoch, James E., "Middle Egyptian Grammar", Benben Publications, Mississauga, 1997. ISBN 0-920168-12-4


* Faulkner, Raymond O., "A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian", Griffith Institute, Oxford, 1962. ISBN 0-900416-32-7 (hardback)
* Lesko, Leonard H., "A Dictionary of Late Egyptian", 4 Vols., B.C. Scribe Publications, Berkeley, 1982. ISBN 0-930548-03-5 (hbk), ISBN 0-930548-04-3 (pbk).
* Shennum, David, "English-Egyptian Index of Faulkner's Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian", Undena Publications, 1977. ISBN 0-89003-054-5

Online dictionaries

* [ Online Translator"] - Translates English words, sentences, and phrases into ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic
* [ The Beinlich Wordlist] , an online searchable dictionary of ancient Egyptian words (translations are in German)
* [ Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae] , an online service available from October 2004 which is associated with various German Egyptological projects, including the monumental [ Altägyptisches Wörterbuch] of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, Berlin, Germany).

Important Note: the old grammars & dictionaries of E. A. Wallis Budge have long been considered obsolete by Egyptologists, even though these books are still available for purchase.

More book information is available at [ Glyphs and Grammars]

See also

* Coptic language
* Demotic
* Egyptian hieroglyphs
* Egyptian languages
* Egyptian numerals
* Hieratic
* Egyptian Arabic
* Transliteration of ancient Egyptian

External links

* [ Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae: Dictionary of the Egyptian language]
* [ The Pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian] by Kelley L. Ross
* [ Ancient Egyptian Language Discussion List]
* [ Site offering online courses in the Egyptian Language]
* [ Site containing direct translations from English to Egyptian]

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