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The Ancient Egyptian Language


Ancient Egyptian belongs to a family of languages in Africa and the Near East that have enough similarities in both grammar and vocabulary to make a common ancestor highly probable. Scientists speak of the Afro-Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic language group. This group consisted of six branches, one of them being the Ancient-Egyptian language. Other branches were Semitic,Berber, Tsjadic, Koesjitic and Omotic. Only the Egyptian and Semitic languages have an extensive written tradition.

In its time Egyptian was of course a living language, which continuously evolved throughout the centuries. According to current resarch, it is possible to distinguish five different phases in the language:

This is the language we know through inscriptions dating from the Old Kingdom. This is the period from which the first fully developed texts came forward (ca 2700-2200 BC).

This form of the language was used in the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom (ca 2200-1800 BC).

Middle Egyptian is regarded as the classical phase of the language, and remained in use in literary, religiuous and monumental inscriptions until late in the Graeco-Roman period. It is this phase of the language that is handled in this on-line course.

During the New Kingdom the spoken language continued to evolve, while the Middle Egyptian form remained in use as a written language. During the Amarna period (with Echnaton) this tradition was broken, and literary texts were written in

New Egyptian (ca 1580-700 BC). An exception to this were the religous texts, were Middle Egyptian remained the written language.

This is a continuation of New Egyptian, which remained in use well into the Roman period (ca 700 BC - 600 AD). This version of the language already had a tendency to write words alphabetically, by making use of signs having the value of 1 consonant.

This is the final phase of the Egyptian language, which came in use in the 3rd century AD. The Coptic script consists of the 24 letters from the Greek alphabet, completed with 6 signs from Demotic to indicate Egyptian sounds that had no correspondence in Greek. The Demotic language is of interest to researchers, because it also used letters for vocals.

Older versions of the language only notated a consonantal skeleton (analogous to Arabic languages). In the 10th century AD the Coptic language was replaced by the Arabic.

The hieroglyphic script is of a pictorial nature and the oldest written form of the Ancient Egyptian language. It is this script withwhich the Egyptian culture is identified. Despite its pictorial nature, the hieroglyphs are not a primitive script. No, they form acompletely developed writing system, with which complex semantic information could be communicated. As such, the script isno less developed than our own alphabet.

The earliest documented occurrence of hieroglyphic inscriptions dates back to the pre-dynastic period, mostly in the form of short documentary descriptions on stone objects and pottery. The latest know occurrence of the script is found in the temple ofPhilae, and dates from 394 BC.

The script itself evolved over time. As history took its course, new hieroglyphic signs were added to the language. As such, the number of hieroglyphs evolved from about 700 in the Old Kingdom to over 6000 in the Ptolemaic period.

Orientation of the Signs

The hieroglyphic script is extremely flexible, and was written both in rows (horizontally) and columns (vertically). Furthermore,the direction of the signs could change, that is, the texts could be written from left-to-right, as well as from right-to-left.

To find the direction and the beginning of a text, there are some very simple rules:

As a rule, the Egyptians never wrote from bottom to top, although it could occur that a sign was written below another sign, even if it belonged above it. This was usually done for aesthetic reasons, to obtain a good layout of the texts (without ugly white spaces).

To discover the direction of writing, you should look at the signs with an obvious front and back end (e.g. human forms and animals). These signs always look to the beginning of the text.

When the text is a legend to some picture (e.g. in wall paintings), the depicted god or person looks to the beginning of his/her text. The hieroglyphic signs are then oriented in the same direction as the figure they accompany.

The aesthetic look of the text formed an important criterium for the placement of the signs with respect to each other.

The Ancient Egyptians attempted to eliminate empty spaces in the text as much as possible (horror vacui). To this end, they divided the text lines in squares, in which the signs were arranged. As an example, the word for beautiful would never be written as in

The hieroglyphs can be divided into two categories: signs with a pictorial value (ideograms) and signs with a phonetic value (phonograms).

Ideograms are signs that depict the object that is drawn. They are direct examples of an object or an action. Some signs have a symbolic value, e.g. a sceptre to denote power. The hieroglyphs above are clear examples of ideograms. These signs communicate the following ideas:

(a) face

(b) to walk, to run

(c) house

(d) duck

Ideograms can depict objects and concrete concepts. They are however not suited to communicate abstract concepts like son, love or large. To depict such concepts, the Egyptians made use of phonograms (according to the rebus principle: the concept to communicate sounds like the written word).

Phonograms are signs that indicate a sound, without any further relation to the object that is depicted. The word for son e.g. sounds like the word for duck. As such, the sign (d) is used for both words. Depending on the context it is used as a phonogram (son) or as an ideogram (duck). As such, phonograms are signs that have no ideographic value, but that are merely used to depict a set of consonants.

Hieroglyphic signs can have the value of 1, 2 or more consonants. Vocals were not recorded in the hieroglyphic script.

To facilitate the search in dictionaries and to make it possible to easily read Egyptian texts, the hieroglyphic signs are usually converted to our own alphabet (transcription). The lack of vowels however makes it difficult to speak the language.

To circumvent this problem, the following rules are used:

With this system one arrives at words that are connected by vowels. Take the word for beautiful as an example: its transcription of the hieroglyphic signs is nfr. To ease the pronunciation of these three consonants, we bind them together with e-sounds, which leads to nefer.

Obviously, our pronunciation bears no relation with the original pronunciation of the Egyptian language. It is solely a convention, to facilitate communication among us modern people.

Here the translation in hieroglyphic of my name: