EGYPTIAN CULTURE : The Egyptian language throughout the ages

15-12-2011 10:12 AM

Erian Labib Hanna

Bearing in mind the fact that written language reflects the spoken language of the different periods only to a limited extent, and that records on stone are always more conservative than business documents and letters on potsherds and papyri, several stages of ancient Egyptian writing may be distinguished.

Old Egyptian, the language of Dynasties 1-VIII, about 3180 to 2240 BC, may be taken to include the language of the funerary Pyramid Texts, which displays certain peculiarities of its own and is written in a special orthography.  The surviving documents of this stage are mainly official or otherwise formal—funerary formulae and tomb inscriptions, including some biographical texts. 

Old Egyptian passed with but little modification into Middle Egyptian, possibly of Dynasties IX – XI, about 2240 – 1990BC, later contaminated with new popular elements.  In the later form it survived for some monumental and literary purposes right down to Greco Roman times, while the earlier form was retained as the religious language.

Late Egyptian was the vernacular of Dynasties XVIII – XXIV, about 1573 to 715BC. It was exhibited chiefly in business documents and letters, but also in stories and other literary compositions, and to some extent also in the official monuments from Dynasty XIX onwards.



In the Dynastic Period, ancient Egyptians engraved pictorial characters on stone and wood as a means of recording facts and figures. These are commonly called hieroglyphs. The objects represented by them are all native, i.e. African, which shows that the characters were not of foreign origin. Up to now, however, it has not been proved that the predynastic Egyptians were acquainted with the art of writing as we understand it. They could construct connected sentences, an art they acquired early in the Dynastic Period, and it is probable that they did so under the influence of some Asiatic or European people. On the other hand, it is allowable to think that the Egyptians themselves turned their pictographs into a syllabary, for they soon found that they wanted to use combinations of pictographs solely for the sounds of the words that they made, without any regard for the actual objects that they represented. They went further than this when they simplified several of the values of the signs and gave them alphabetical values, although they never used them as the letters of the alphabet such as the Persians did in the time of Darius I and modern Europeans. Right down to the last period in which hieroglyphic writing was used, the inscriptions contained both syllabic and alphabetic characters.
Words of the gods
Egyptian writing is known in three forms: Hieroglyphic, Hieratic and Demotic. The oldest form, the pictographic or hieroglyphic, remained in use from the late Neolithic Period until the early centuries of the Christian era. In the later period, however, it was not understood and its use was ceremonial and repetitive. The dynastic Egyptians said it was invented by Thoth, the scribe of the gods, and they described it as the “words of the gods”. In their opinion it always possessed an especially sacred character. Hieroglyphs are written in horizontal lines or in columns.
In Hieratic, that is cursive hieroglyphic writing, only the most salient features of the hieroglyphs were preserved. Hieratic could be written more quickly than hieroglyphic, and was employed in writing copies of business documents and letters and drafts of inscriptions that were to be cut in stone. Pupils in the temple schools were taught to read it easily and to become experts in writing it by making copies of literary and religious texts. During the Middle Kingdom, chapters from the Pyramid Texts and from the later Book of the Dead, the “chapters of Coming Forth by Day”, were written in hieratic on the insides and outsides of coffins. Medical and mathematical papyri, as the Ebers Papyrus and the Rhind Papyrus, were also written in bold hieratic characters.
Hieratic was usually written in horizontal lines to be read from right to left, but in several papyri of the Middle Kingdom the texts were written in short columns.

Demotic, or Enchorial, the third form of Egyptian writing, is an abbreviated and conventionalised form of hieratic that was frequently used by business people and lawyers, but copies of several literary works, funerary compositions and priestly edicts were written in this script.
Egypt lost its independence under the Persians and later the Greeks. Although the Egyptians welcomed Alexander the Great as a liberator from the Persians and crowned him as the son of Amun, the Ptolomeys who succeeded him humiliated the Egyptians and subjected them as slaves.

The Egyptians used the Greek letters instead of their Demotic language and added seven letters which had no equal sound in the Greek language. The Coptic language was the latest development of the old Egyptian language, so called because it was spoken by the Copts, the Christian descendants of the ancient Egyptians. After the Arab conquest (AD640) Coptic was gradually superseded by Arabic, and became extinct as a spoken tongue in the sixteenth century. 

The importance of Coptic philologically is due to its being the only form of Egyptian in which the vowels are regularly written. The vocabulary is very different from that of the older periods and includes many Greek loan-words and even grammatical particles.

The first tentative efforts to transcribe the old Egyptian language into Greek letters belong to the second century AD. The three most important dialects are the Akhmimic of Upper Egypt, the Sahidic which was the dialect of Thebes, and the Bohairic, the dialect of the Western Delta.

During the Ptolemaic period both Greek and Coptic were used side by side, and when the Romans occupied Egypt after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 32BC, Latin was used by the Roman army and in offices in addition to the Greek and Coptic languages.

The Coptic language is still in use to this day, though only in the Coptic Orthodox Church literature and services.


Islam and Arabic

A new era began when the Arabs occupied Egypt in AD640.  The Arabic language gradually replaced the Coptic language, while Greek and Roman went into disuse.  The Arab rulers took different measures to spread their language and religion all over the country. 

Arabic gradually became the dominant language and Islam, the religion of the new comers, was introduced to Egypt. Egyptians who had to trade goods within the Arab Empire found it necessary to learn the Arabic language.

The Arab rulers encouraged Arab tribes to leave Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula to move to Egypt, trade, cultivate the land and settle down.  The break-down of Maareb Dam in Yemen meant that the inhabitants there had to move, and many were encouraged to settle down in Egypt.  In AD663 one of the rulers encouraged twelve thousand Arabs from Beni Ummaya to move to Egypt to cultivate the land.  In AD737 three thousand families from the tribe of ‘Keas’ settled in “Belbeis” east of Delta. By the eighth century Arabic had replaced Greek as the language of the administration.

Even though the Arabs were far better than the Ptolomeys and the Romans who were tyrannical and treated the Egyptians as their slaves, Egyptians revolted against the excessive taxes they imposed and the harsh manner in which these taxes were collected. There were several famous uprisings against the rulers, but they were cruelly crushed. In AD725 a revolt erupted in Lower Egypt; another spread in Upper Egypt in AD739, and yet another in Rashid (Rosetta) in AD749.  Chaos spread from time to time.

By the 13th century Arabic was the only language accepted in the government offices and all civil servants had to be Muslims.


Present-day Egyptian

Over the centuries Arabic thrived in Egypt. Classical and colloquial Arabic existed side by side through the centuries, but it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that they became the subject of heated debate, since intellectuals feared the colloquial would override the classic. Whereas classical Arabic was an unparalleled means of expression for the written word, the arts, academic, and educational fields, complete with its own references and lexicons; colloquial lived on the tongues of people through generations, expressing their everyday lives, peculiarities and feelings in folk poetry, music, theatre and, in recent times, television and cinema.

Classical Arabic written anywhere at any time can easily be understood by any Arabic speaker, an argument which cannot be made for the colloquial which is heavily influenced by the original language of the people—in this case Coptic—as far as words, phrases, and sentence structure are concerned.

Colloquial is a living language in which words, terms, and expressions constantly fall into disuse while others, more apt and timely, are coined. The globalisation of science and culture has added its own array of borrowed words: radio, telephone, sandwich, disc, hamburger, mouse (as in computers), to say nothing of jeans and Coca Cola.

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