Ancient Egyptian branches off a language family known as Afro-Asiatic. Egyptian has no close relatives within this family because it forms its own branch, but its Afro-Asiatic membership explains some basic grammatical functions it shares with other languages like Modern Arabic and Hebrew. Egyptian changed a lot from when the first hieroglyphics were created (around 3100 BCE) until the language’s death. It is divided into two forms each form is further divided into three stages. The first form spanned 3000 to 1300 BCE divided into Old, Middle and Late Middle Egyptian. The second form lasted until1500 CE, divided chronologically into Late Egyptian, Demotic, and finally Coptic. This post is about reading hieroglyphics from the language’s first form.
Ancient Egypt, one of the oldest known civilizations, managed to preserve its language and culture for millennia. Though the borders of Egyptian hegemonic power expanded through history into the Near-East and other parts of Africa, surprisingly the language never became a lingua-franca but stayed only in the Nile valley. Among its few speakers even less were literate. A speaker needed to know about three-thousand signs to be competent, and this learning-curve stopped widespread dissemination.Few groups in the Egyptian sphere of power actually spoke Egyptian and diplomatic correspondences show other languages were preferred. For example, Herodotus writes in his Histories that Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus gave Egyptian boys to Greek pirates so they could learn Greek and serve as interpreters.
The ancient Egyptian language had an incredible lifespan. Even to ancient Egyptians their linguistic origins were shrouded in mystery, though they knew it was ancient — Herodotus tells of a famous and bizarre experiment Pharaoh Psammetichus performed to tell whether the most ancient language was Egyptian or Phrygian. The Pyramids and hieroglyphic writing would have already been 1500 years older than someone born during the twentieth dynasty (ca. 1187 to 1064 BCE) appearing even ancient then! It is still an unrivaled feat of linguistic preservation that allowed a person to read writing so far removed in time without special training. But languages change; the spoken language did so much more rapidly than the writing, which remained rather static. Because of Egyptian conservatism, and despite frequent foreign diplomacy and trade, their language experienced change extremely slowly compared to the normal evolution of other languages. Ultimately, though the language increasingly gave way to invaders such as Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs. It survived only in Christian churches in the form of its descendant Coptic, eventually even this was no longer spoken, being recorded only in liturgical texts.
Ancient Egyptian is most famous for its hieroglyphs, a Greek word meaning sacred (hiero) writing (glyph). Egyptians called their writing ‘medoo neter’ or ‘the god’s words.’ Hieroglyphic writing, however, was not the only script. The Greek derived words ‘Hieratic’ (priestly) and ‘Demotic’ (popular) were names for other scripts widely used. Hieroglyphic writing represented language pictographically with ideograms and phonograms. An ideogram is a symbol which depicts exactly what it means. It is a word-symbol. All hieroglyphic characters were originally ideograms. Eventually, other words could be depicted by stringing several ideograms together so that when pronounced they would spell out the new word. An English example would be a picture of a leaf placed after a bee to spell the word belief. Twenty-four basic letters, or phonograms, were created for this purpose. These twenty-four correspond to one consonant per symbol, but also a much larger group of phonograms exist called biliterals and triliterals which depict two or three consonants per symbol.
Like its Semitic relatives, Hebrew and Arabic, ancient Egyptian writing did not include vowels. Of the twenty-four letters described only five could be called semi-vowels or weak consonants. This lack of vowels is a problem because a set of consonants can have multiple meanings depending on position and type of vowels used. This is not only a modern problem but one encountered by the ancients themselves. Ingeniously, to solve it they devised a set of symbols known as determinatives to appear at the end of words. These symbols removed ambiguity by reinforcing a words meaning pictographically. For example, if a set of consonants may have meant horse or house depending on the unwritten vowels then a picture of a horse would have followed the word. Determinatives were used for concepts such as movement (a pair of feet), emotion (a human face), and plurality. Because any vowel may have come before, after, or in the middle of written words, scholars are still in most cases uncertain how an actual Egyptian word was pronounced. Scholars can infer though by studying Coptic, which uses the Greek alphabet and does include vowels, or by comparing contemporaneous Greek and Latin texts that import Egyptian words. In situations where the original is unknown it is customary to pronounce the consonants with an e between them. But because of this problem its not possible to tell the original syllabic structure of the language. Egyptian tends to be reconstructed with a Consonant-Vowel-Consonant form, and most words resemble their Semitic cousins with a root of three consonants.
In its first phase Ancient Egyptian was a fusional language of a Verb-Subject-Object word-order typology. It was originally inflectional and required no definite article, but during a shift around 1300 BC the word-order changed to Subject-Verb-Object, noun-inflections were lost, and definite articles appeared filling the communicative gap created by the loss of inflections.
Enough history and jargon! Let’s read some hieroglyphs!
We read these left to right and, when one is on top another, top to bottom. Hieroglyphic writing can be written right to left; to tell the right way they should be read look to what direction any animal, human, or god symbol faces.
The first word here is the verb.
The first three symbols are phonograms the bird is ‘w’ the foot is ‘b’ and the wiggles is ‘n.’ Together they form a consonant cluster wbn or ‘weben.’ The word means “rise, shine forth;” the sun symbol is a determinative reinforcing the meaning of sunniness. There are no tenses or mood indicators in the writing.
The second word is the subject.
The football shape is ‘r’, the arm below is called ayin after its Hebraic relative and is a pharyngeal sound not present in English. These two give us the famous word r‘ or ra — the Egyptian sun-god. The next two symbols are both determinatives, the first denoting ‘sun-like’ and the second ‘god-like.’
The owl is ‘m‘ and when alone it is a preposition meaning ‘out of.’
The last symbol is an ideogram acting as the object.
This is an ideogram for the word ‘horizon.’ It is a triliteral used for simplicity, but it could just as easily have been represented by three individual phonograms. The phonograms are 3ht, or ‘a’ ‘kh’ and ‘t’ spelling out akhet.
The last symbol is ‘t.’
This doesn’t do anything except repeat the last consonant in the triliteral above it. It isn’t supposed to be pronounced twice or anything like that.
Finally, the single line below the triliteral signifies that the word is singular.
Therefore, this sentence spells out ‘wbn r‘ m akht‘ or ‘weben ra em akhet‘, which translates roughly to ‘the sun rises out of the horizon’.
The lack of definite articles and tense/mood signifiers means the sentence could be translated any number of ways: The god, Ra, rose from the horizon; When the sun rises out of the horizon; Let the sun rise out of the horizon; That the sun may rise out of the horizon, etc.
So now you’ve read some ancient hieroglyphic writing… Pretty cool right!?
A. Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge 1995)
N. Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (New York 2005)
B. Watterson, Introducing Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Edinburgh 1981)
J. Scott and L. Scott, Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Everyone (New York 1993)
A. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar (Oxford 1927)