evolved into Demotic by 600 BCE, into Coptic by 200 CE, and was extinct by the 17th century or so.It survives as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
hieroglyphs, cursive hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic and Coptic (later, occasionally Arabic script in government translations)
egy (also cop for Coptic)
egy (also cop for Coptic)
The language spoken in ancient Egypt was a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. The earliest known complete written sentence in the Egyptian language has been dated to about 2690 BCE, making it one of the oldest recorded languages known, along with Sumerian.
- Map of Egypt
- Egyptological pronunciation
- Online dictionaries
Map of Egypt
Egyptian was spoken until the late seventeenth century in the form of Coptic. The national language of modern 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 Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It has several hundred fluent speakers today.
The Egyptian language belongs to the Afroasiatic language family. Among the typological features of Egyptian that are typically Afroasiatic are fusional morphology, nonconcatenative morphology, a series of emphatic consonants, a three-vowel system /a i u/, nominal feminine suffix *-at, nominal m-, adjectival *-ī, and characteristic personal verbal affixes. Of the other Afroasiatic branches, Egyptian shows its greatest affinities with Semitic, and to a lesser extent Cushitic.
In Egyptian, the Proto-Afroasiatic voiced consonants */d z ð/ developed into pharyngeal ⟨ꜥ⟩ /ʕ/, e.g. Eg. ꜥr.t 'portal', Sem. *dalt 'door'. Afroasiatic */l/ merged with Egyptian ⟨n⟩, ⟨r⟩, ⟨ꜣ⟩, and ⟨j⟩ in the dialect on which the written language was based, while being preserved in other Egyptian varieties. Original */k g ḳ/ palatalize to ⟨ṯ j ḏ⟩ in some environments and are preserved as ⟨k g q⟩ in others.
Egyptian has many biradical and perhaps monoradical roots, in contrast to the Semitic preference for triradical roots. Egyptian probably is more archaic in this regard, whereas Semitic likely underwent later regularizations converting roots into the triradical pattern.
Although Egyptian is the oldest Afroasiatic language documented in written form, its morphological repertoire is greatly different from that of the rest of the Afroasiatic in general and Semitic in particular. This suggests that Egyptian had already undergone radical changes from Proto-Afroasiatic before being recorded, that the Afroasiatic family has so far been studied with an excessively Semito-centric approach, or that Afroasiatic is a typological rather than genetic grouping of languages. (The general consensus is that Afroasiatic is indeed a genetic grouping, and that Egyptian did in fact diverge greatly in its prerecorded history, although there is almost certainly a Semitic bias in Afroasiatic reconstruction.)
Scholars group the Egyptian language into six major chronological divisions:
The earliest Egyptian glyphs date back to around 3300 BC. These early texts are generally lumped together under the general term "Archaic Egyptian." They record names, titles and labels, but a few of them show morphological and syntactic features familiar from later, more complete, texts.
Old Egyptian is dated from the oldest known complete sentence, found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen and dated to around 2690 BCE. Extensive texts appear from about 2600 BCE. Middle Egyptian was spoken from about 2000 BCE 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 first appears about 650 BCE and survived as a written language until the fifth century CE. Coptic appeared in the first century CE and survived as a living language until the sixteenth century, 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. Bohairic Coptic is still used by the Coptic 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 hardly hold any relation). 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 early Muslim conquests in the seventh century, and gradually replaced Coptic as the language spoken by the populace. Today, Coptic survives as the sacred language of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the Coptic Catholic Church.
Pre-Coptic Egyptian does not show great dialectal differences in the written language due to the centralized nature of Egyptian society. However, they must have existed in speech; this is evidenced by a letter from c. 1200 BCE complaining that the language of a correspondent is as unintelligible as the speech of a northern Egyptian to a southerner. Recently, some evidence of internal dialects has been found in pairs of similar words in Egyptian, which, based on similarities with later dialects of Coptic, may be derived from Northern and Southern dialects of Egyptian. Written Coptic has five major dialects which differ mainly in graphic conventions, most notably the southern Saidic dialect which was the main classical dialect and the northern Bohairic dialect which is currently used in Coptic Church services.
Most surviving texts in the Egyptian language are primarily written on stone in hieroglyphs. 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 hieroglyphs used for religious documents on papyrus, such as the Book of the Dead of the Twentieth Dynasty; 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".
The native name for Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is sẖȝ n mdw-nṯr or "writing of the gods' words". 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.
Due to the fact that the phonetic realization of Egyptian cannot be known with certainty, Egyptologists use a system of transliteration to denote each sound which could be represented by a uniliteral hieroglyph. The two systems which are still in common use are the traditional system and the European system; in addition a third system is used for computer input.
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. In addition, 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.
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. Early research had assumed opposition in stops was one of voicing, but is now thought to either be one of tenuis and emphatic consonants, as in many of the Semitic languages, or one of aspirated and ejective consonants, as in many of the Cushitic languages.
Since vowels were not written, 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. 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.
The following consonant system is posited for Archaic (before 2600 BC) and Old Egyptian (2686–2181 BC), with IPA equivalents in square brackets where they differ from the usual transcription scheme:
*possibly unvoiced ejectives
The phoneme /l/ did not have an independent representation in the hieroglyphic orthography, and was frequently written with the sign for /n/ or /r/. The probable explanation is that the standard for written Egyptian was based on a dialect in which former /l/ had merged with other sonorants. /ʔ/ was rare and also not indicated orthographically. The phoneme /j/ was written as ⟨j⟩ in initial position (⟨jt⟩ = */ˈjaːtVj/ 'father') and immediately after a stressed vowel (⟨bjn⟩ = */ˈbaːjin/ 'bad'), as ⟨jj⟩ word-medially immediately before a stressed vowel (⟨ḫꜥjjk⟩ = */χaʕˈjak/ 'you will appear'), and as null word-finally (⟨jt⟩ = /ˈjaːtvj/ 'father').
In Middle Egyptian (2055–1650 BC), a number of consonantal shifts took place. By the beginning of the Middle Kingdom period, /z/ and /s/ had merged, and the graphemes ⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ were used interchangeably. In addition, /j/ had become /ʔ/ word-initially in an unstressed syllable (e.g. ⟨jwn⟩ /jaˈwin/ > */ʔaˈwin/ 'color) and following a stressed vowel (e.g. ⟨ḥjpw⟩ */ˈħujpvw/ > /ˈħeʔp(vw)/ '[the god] Apis').
In Late Egyptian (1069–700 BC), the following changes are present: the phonemes d ḏ g gradually merge with their counterparts t ṯ k (⟨dbn⟩ */ˈdiːban/ > Akkadian transcription ti-ba-an 'dbn-weight'); ṯ ḏ often become /t d/, though they are retained in many lexemes; ꜣ becomes /ʔ/; and /t r j w/ become /ʔ/ at the end of a stressed syllable and eventually null word-finally (e.g. ⟨pḏ.t⟩ */ˈpiːɟat/ > Akk. transcription -pi-ta 'bow').
More consonantal changes occurred in the first millennium BCE and the first centuries CE, leading to the Coptic language (1st–17th century AD). In Sahidic ẖ ḫ ḥ merged into ϣ š (most often from ḫ) and ϩ /h/ (most often ẖ ḥ). Bohairic and Akhmimic are more conservative, having also a velar fricative /x/ (ϧ in Bohairic, ⳉ in Akhmimic). Pharyngeal *ꜥ merged into glottal /ʔ/, after having affected the quality of surrounding vowels. /ʔ/ is only indicated orthographically when following a stressed vowel, in which case it is marked by doubling the vowel letter (except in Bohairic), e.g. Akhmimic ⳉⲟⲟⲡ /xoʔp/, Sahidic & Lycopolitan ϣⲟⲟⲡ šoʔp, Bohairic ϣⲟⲡ šoʔp 'to be' < ḫpr.w */ˈχapraw/ 'has become'. The phoneme ⲃ /b/ probably was pronounced as a fricative [β], and became ⲡ /p/ after a stressed vowel in syllables which were closed in earlier Egyptian (compare ⲛⲟⲩⲃ < */ˈnaːbaw/ 'gold' and ⲧⲁⲡ < */dib/ 'horn'). The phonemes /d g z/ are only found in Greek borrowings, with rare exceptions triggered by a proximate /n/ (e.g. ⲁⲛⲍⲏⲃⲉ/ⲁⲛⲥⲏⲃⲉ < ꜥ.t n.t sbꜣ.w 'school').
Earlier *d ḏ g q were preserved as ejective t' c' k' k' in prevocalic position in Coptic. Despite the fact that these were written using the same graphemes as for the pulmonic stops (⟨ⲧ ϫ ⲕ⟩), their existence may be inferred based on the following evidence: The stops ⟨ⲡ ⲧ ϫ ⲕ⟩ /p t c k/ were allophonically aspirated [pʰ tʰ cʰ kʰ] before stressed vowels and sonorant consonants. In Bohairic these allophones were written with the special graphemes ⟨ⲫ ⲑ ϭ ⲭ⟩, while other dialects did not mark aspiration, thus Sahidic ⲡⲣⲏ vs. Bohairic ⲫⲣⲏ 'the sun'. It then may be observed that Bohairic does not mark aspiration for reflexes of older *d ḏ g q, e.g. Sahidic & Bohairic ⲧⲁⲡ */dib/ 'horn'. Similarly, the definite article ⲡ is unaspirated when a word beginning with a glottal stop follows, e.g. Bohairic ⲡ + ⲱⲡ > ⲡⲱⲡ 'the account'.
The consonant system of Coptic is as follows:
*various orthographic representations; see above
The following is the vowel system posited for earlier Egyptian:
Vowels were always short in unstressed syllables (e.g. ⟨tpj⟩ = */taˈpij/ 'first'), long in open stressed syllables (e.g. ⟨rmṯ⟩ = */ˈraːmac/ 'man'), and either short or long in closed stressed syllables (e.g. ⟨jnn⟩ = */jaˈnan/ 'we' vs. ⟨mn⟩ = */maːn/ 'to stay').
Late New Kingdom, after Ramses II i.e. c. 1200 BC: */ˈaː/ > */ˈoː/ (parallel to the Canaanite shift), e.g. ⟨ḥrw⟩ '(the god) Horus' */ħaːruw/ > */ħoːrə/ (Akkadian transcription: -ḫuru). This provoked */uː/ > */eː/, e.g. ⟨šnj⟩ 'tree' */ʃuːn(?)j/ > */ʃeːnə/ (Akkadian transcription: -sini).
Early New Kingdom: short stressed */ˈi/ > */ˈe/, e.g. ⟨mnj⟩ "Menes" */maˈnij/ > */maˈneʔ/ (Akkadian transcription: ma-né-e). Later, probably circa 1000–800 BC, short stressed */ˈu/ > */ˈe/, e.g. ⟨ḏꜥn.t⟩ "Tanis" */ˈɟuʕnat/ was borrowed into Hebrew as *ṣuʕn but later transcribed as ⟨ṣe-e'-nu/ṣa-a'-nu⟩ in the Neo-Assyrian period.
Unstressed vowels, especially after the stress, became */ə/, e.g. ⟨nfr⟩ 'good' */ˈnaːfir/ > */ˈnaːfə/ (Akkadian transcription -na-a-pa). */iː/ > */eː/ next to /ʕ/ and /j/, e.g. ⟨wꜥw⟩ 'soldier' */wiːʕiw/ > */weːʕə/ (earlier Akkadian transcription: ú-i-ú, later: ú-e-eḫ).
In Sahidic and Bohairic Coptic, Late Egyptian stressed */ˈa/ becomes */ˈo/ and */ˈe/ becomes /ˈa/, while in the other dialects these are preserved, e.g. ⟨sn⟩ */san/ 'brother' > SB ⟨son⟩, ALF ⟨san⟩; ⟨rn⟩ 'name' */rin/ > */ren/ > SB ⟨ran⟩, ALF ⟨ren⟩. However, SB preserve */ˈa/ and Fayyumic renders it as ⟨e⟩ in the presence of guttural fricatives, e.g. ⟨ḏbꜥ⟩ '10000' */ˈbaʕ/ > SAL ⟨tba⟩, B ⟨tʰba⟩, F ⟨tbe⟩. In Akhmimic and Lycopolitan, */ˈa/ becomes /ˈo/ before etymological /ʕ, ʔ/, e.g. ⟨jtrw⟩ 'river' */ˈjatraw/ > */jaʔr(ə)/ > S ⟨eioor(e)⟩, B ⟨ior⟩, A ⟨ioore, iôôre⟩, F ⟨iaal, iaar⟩. Similarly the diphthongs */ˈaj/, */ˈaw/, which normally have reflexes /ˈoj/, /ˈow/ in Sahidic and are preserved in other dialects, in Bohairic are written ⟨ôi⟩ (in non-final position) and ⟨ôou⟩ respectively, e.g. "to me, to them" S ⟨eroi, eroou⟩, AL ⟨arai, arau⟩, F ⟨elai, elau⟩, B ⟨eroi, erôou⟩. Sahidic and Bohairic preserve */ˈe/ before /ʔ/ (either etymological or from lenited /t r j/ or tonic-syllable coda /w/), e.g. SB ⟨ne⟩ /neʔ/ 'to you (fem.)' < */ˈnet/ < */ˈnic/. */e/ may also have different reflexes before sonants, in proximity of sibilants, and in diphthongs.
Old */aː/ surfaces as /uː/ after nasals and occasionally other consonants, e.g. ⟨nṯr⟩ 'god' */ˈnaːcar/ > /ˈnuːte/ ⟨noute⟩ /uː/ has acquired phonemic status, as evidenced by minimal pairs like 'to approach' ⟨hôn⟩ /hoːn/ < */ˈçaːnan/ ẖnn vs. 'inside' ⟨houn⟩ /huːn/ < */ˈçaːnaw/ ẖnw. Etymological */uː/ > */eː/ often surfaces as /iː/ next to /r/ and after etymological pharyngeals, e.g. SL ⟨hir⟩ < */χuːr/ 'street' (Semitic loan).
Most Coptic dialects have two phonemic vowels in unstressed position. Unstressed vowels generally became /ə/, written as ⟨e⟩ or null (⟨i⟩ in Bohairic and Fayyumic word-finally), but pretonic unstressed /a/ occurs as a reflex of earlier unstressed */e/ in proximity to an etymological pharyngeal, velar, or sonant (e.g. 'to become many' ⟨ašai⟩ < ꜥšꜣ */ʕiˈʃiʀ/), or unstressed */a/. Pretonic [i] is underlyingly /əj/, e.g. S 'ibis' ⟨hibôi⟩ < h(j)bj.w */hijˈbaːj?w/.
Thus the following is the Sahidic vowel system c. 400 AD:
Earlier Egyptian had syllable structure CV(:)(C), where V was long in open, stressed syllables and short elsewhere. In addition, syllables of the type CV:C or CVCC could occur in word-final, stressed position. However CV:C only occurred in the infinitive of biconsonantal verbal roots, and CVCC only in some plurals. In later Egyptian stressed CV:C, CVCC, and CV became much more common because of the loss of final dentals and glides.
Earlier Egyptian: penultimate or ultimate. According to some scholars this is a development from a stage in proto-Egyptian where the antepenult could be stressed; this was lost as open posttonic syllables lost their vowels, e.g. */ˈχupiraw/ > */ˈχupraw/ 'transformation'.
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 Rꜥ-ms-sw is transcribed as "Ramesses", meaning "Ra has Fashioned (lit., "Borne") Him". In transcription, ⟨a⟩, ⟨i⟩, and ⟨u⟩ all represent consonants; for example, the name Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BC) was written in Egyptian twt-ꜥnḫ-ı͗mn. 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-ꜥnḫ-ı͗mn is conventionally pronounced /tuːtən.ˈkɑːmən/ in English, but in his time was likely realized as something like *[taˈwaːt ˈʕaːnxu ʔaˈmaːn].
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 rꜥ [riːʕa] "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) were not written in any Egyptian script except 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").
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).
Articles (both definite and indefinite) did not develop until Late Egyptian, but are used widely thereafter.
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 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:
Finally there are interrogative pronouns (what, who, etc.).They also bear close resemblance to their Semitic and Berber counterparts
The verbal morphology 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.
Adjectives agree in gender and number with their nouns, for example: s nfr "(the) good man" and st nfrt "(the) good woman".
Attributive adjectives used in phrases fall after the noun they are modifying, such as in "(the) great god" (nṯr ꜥꜣ). However, when used independently as a predicate in an adjectival phrase, such as "(the) god (is) great" (ꜥꜣ nṯr) (lit., "great (is the) god"), the adjective precedes the noun.
Egyptian adpositions come before the noun.
Adverbs are words such as "here" or "where?". In Egyptian, they come at the end of a sentence, e.g., zı͗.n nṯr ı͗m "the god went there", "there" (ı͗m) is the adverb.
Some common Egyptian adverbs:
Classical Egyptian's basic word order is verb–subject–object; this pattern holds true for Old Egyptian and Middle Egyptian. However, it is not true for the later stages of the language's development, including Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic. The equivalent to "the man opens the door", would be a sentence corresponding to "opens the man the door" (wn s ꜥꜣ). 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"), but later forms used the words pꜣ, tꜣ and nꜣ. Like other Afroasiatic languages, Egyptian uses two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. It also uses three grammatical numbers, contrasting singular, dual, and plural forms, but there is a tendency for the loss of the dual as a productive form in later Egyptian.
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 hbny, via Greek and then Latin), ivory (Egyptian abw / abu, literally 'ivory; elephant'), pharaoh (Egyptian pr-ꜥꜣ, literally "great house"; transmitted through Greek), as well as the proper names Phinehas (Egyptian, pꜣ-nḥsy, used as a generic term for Nubian foreigners) and Susan (Egyptian, sšn, literally "lily flower"; probably transmitted first from Egyptian into Hebrew Shoshanah).
Important Note: the old grammars and 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