The Egyptian language, written in hieroglyphs, is fascinating.
In this lesson we’ll learn about the history and evolution of the language, about the writing system and how it works, and when and how the language was deciphered. The ancient Egyptians spoke a language called Egyptian, which they wrote in a hieroglyphic script for most of the history of the language. One of the first and most important things to make note of is that the Egyptian language uses a hieroglyphic script. It’s a common misconception that they wrote in ‘hieroglyphics.’ The signs they used are called hieroglyphs (an individual sign is a hieroglyph). Hieroglyphs is a noun describing the signs; hieroglyphic is an adjective.
History of the Language
The Egyptian language was first recorded around 3300 BCE, making it (along with Sumerian) one of the two oldest languages in the history of the world. It evolved through five stages of development. The earliest stage is called Old Egyptian, which was in use during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (ca. 2600-2150 BCE).
Middle Egyptian, the stage of the Egyptian language that was used during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1600), was seen as the ‘classical’ language; during later periods, Egyptians wrote much of their literature in Middle Egyptian. Modern students who study Egyptian, just like the ancient Egyptians themselves would have, start by learning Middle Egyptian.
During the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1100) the Egyptians spoke Late Egyptian, a form of Egyptian still written in hieroglyphs but which showed a grammatical shift that separated it from the earlier forms of Egyptian.
This shift away from the earlier languages was made more clear in the next stage of the Egyptian language, Demotic, which was no longer written in hieroglyphs but instead in a distinctive cursive script (both the language and the script are referred to as Demotic). By the first century CE the last stage of the Egyptian language, Coptic, was being spoken. Coptic is grammatically similar to the preceding stage of Egyptian; however, it is written in Greek characters and includes a large number of Greek loan words (reflecting the large population of Greeks who had settled in Egypt by that point). Coptic was spoken in Egypt for centuries and continued as the liturgical language of the Coptic church in Egypt even after it was no longer spoken.
How the Writing System Works
The hieroglyphic writing system is composed of several different types of signs. Some of these signs are phonetic, meaning that they represent a sound. Other signs are not pronounced and serve either as phonetic complements (helping to clarify the pronunciation of other signs) or determinatives (silent signs that came at the end of a word to help give it meaning). Most scribes would have been familiar with several hundred hieroglyphs. At its peak, there were thousands of signs in use.Of the phonetic hieroglyphs, most fell into three categories:
- uniliteral signs representing a single consonant, of which there were 24 in the Egyptian alphabet
- biliteral signs representing two consonants, often accompanied by phonetic complements
- triliteral signs representing three consonants
In addition to phonetic signs and determinatives, there are also logograms (single signs that represent the word they represent; for instance, a hieroglyph of an eye for the word eye) and strokes that can be used to indicate number. Egyptian had no indefinite article, so a single stroke could be used to indicate either ‘one house’ or ‘a house.
‘ Three strokes, called plural strokes by Egyptologists, were used to indicate that a noun was plural.The Egyptian writing system did not use vowels until the introduction of the Coptic alphabet. Many of the grammatical forms are morphologically the same, and the difference would have come in the pronunciation of the vowels.
In Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, scribes who were writing on papyrus or other non-permanent material often used a cursive script called hieratic for their inscriptions. This could be written quickly with a reed dipped in ink and was ideal for faster letter writing or other fast note taking.
Decipherment of Hieroglyphs
The last dated hieroglyphic inscription was carved into the temple of Philae in 394 CE. Shortly thereafter, even the Egyptian priests lost the ability to read the hieroglyphs. This didn’t stop people from trying to read them, however.
The Greeks, and then the Europeans in turn, were especially intrigued by the hieroglyphs and wanted desperately to unlock their magic. Many scholars attempted translations and some headway was made, but full decipherment was elusive until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799.Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was a boon to Egyptophiles. By taking a scientific team with him on his expedition, he ensured the recording of many hieroglyphic texts. Most notably, near the town of Rosetta, he found a large, black stone inscribed with a tax decree from the reign of King Ptolemy V.
The contents of the inscription were less interesting than the inscription itself, which is written in three different scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs at the top, demotic in the middle, and Greek on the bottom. Because Greek was well understood by most classical scholars, it was possible to use the Greek inscription as a comparison for understanding the Egyptian sections. A further clue was found in the use, in Egyptian, of the cartouche to enclose the names of the pharaohs.
The name of the king was easily read in the Greek section and now could be compared to the Egyptian section of the text. Before long, the phonetic signs of the name ‘Ptolemy’ were understood.
After the British defeated Napoleon in Egypt, they took the Rosetta Stone back with them to England. Two Egyptologists and linguists in particular, one French and one British, were the two most avidly working to read Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The battle between the British Thomas Young and the French Jean-Francois Champollion reflected the growing feud between Britain and France. Each man was trying to be the first to decipher the texts, not just to further his own scholarly reputation, but also for reasons of nationalistic pride.While France may have lost the Rosetta Stone to the British, they won the battle to translate hieroglyphs: Champollion cracked the code on September 14, 1822. Allegedly, after weeks of working non-stop on the decipherment, Champollion declared ‘Je tiens l’affaire!’ (‘I’ve got it!’) before collapsing into a faint and needing to stay in bed for five full days.
When you are done, you should be able to:
- Identify how the ancient Egyptian language was written
- Discuss how Egyptian writing evolved during Egypt’s history
- Name the types of hieroglyphs and the categories of phonetic hieroglyphs
- Explain how the Egyptian hieroglyphic language was finally unlocked