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Ancient Egyptian

Classification. Ancient Egyptian on its own constitutes one of the six

branches in which the Afro-Asiatic languages are divided. It is quite
closely related to Semitic and Berber branches and more distantly
to Cushitic and Chadic.

Overview. Egyptian is one of the oldest documented languages and

the one which has the longest record, spanning more than four
millennia. It was spoken by the ancient Egyptians who created a
unique and long-lasting civilization, immediately recognizable for its
architecture, art, religion and literature. They contributed to the
invention of writing devising, shortly after the Sumerians (or perhaps
simultaneously), a hieroglyphic system of great originality and beauty.

Distribution. Formerly, in the Nile valley in Egypt.

Status. Extinct. Documented between 3000 BCE and 1300 CE.

3000-2000 BCE. Old Egyptian: the first continuous texts appear,
preceded by brief inscriptions. It is found in the inscriptions of the Old
Kingdom and First Intermediate Period (royal Pyramid Texts and
private autobiographies in tombs).

2000-1300 BCE. Middle Egyptian: the language of the Middle Kingdom

and of the New Kingdom up to the end of the 18th dynasty. Structurally
similar to Old Egyptian, it is considered the classical stage of the
language, serving as a vehicle for literary (instructions, tales) and
religious (hymns, Coffin Texts) compositions.

1300-700 BCE. Late Egyptian: the language of the New Kingdom, from
the 19th dynasty, and Third Intermediate Period. It is grammatically
quite different from Old and Middle Egyptian. The most important
Late Egyptian documents are the secular ones of the Ramesside
bureaucracy but there are also wisdom and narrative texts.

700 BCE-400 CE. Demotic: the language of the Late Period, quite
similar to Late Egyptian but written in the cursive Demotic script.
400-1300 CE. Coptic: the final stage of the Egyptian language, prevalent
during the Christian period. It was written in the Coptic script which,
in contrast to the previous ones, represented the vowels. It had two
dialects: Sahidic was a literary dialect of Thebes or Memphis
and Bohairic was the dialect of the West Delta. Coptic is still in use in
the ritual of the Egyptian Christian Church.

Oldest Documents. The earliest Egyptian documents appeared in

the Early Dynastic Period which comprises the three first dynasties.
They include artifacts, specially vessels, carrying the name of the king
accompanied sometimes by a short inscription, seal impressions found
in royal tombs listing the first kings, year labels recording the most
important events of the year, lists of offerings and rock-cut inscriptions
in the desertic regions.

Vowels. The knowledge of Egyptian vowels is very incomplete though
they can be deduced to some extent from Coptic. Other sources are
ancient Greek, Assyrian and Babylonian texts in which there are fully
vocalized transcriptions of Egyptian words.
For the earlier periods of Egyptian, a simple system of three vowels,
inherited from Proto-Afro-Asiatic, can be posited. Each vowel had
short and long varieties but in most cases the contrast between them
was not phonemic:
front: i, i:
central: a, a:
back: u, u:

In Later Egyptian, the vowels e, (schwa) and o were added.

Consonants (26). Egyptian consonants included several articulated at

the back, namely uvular and glotal stops, uvular, pharyngeal and glottal
fricatives and a liquid uvular.
Stress. It falls either on the last syllable or on the penultimate one.

1. a)Hieroglyphic
2. Used in religious and monumental inscriptions, it is a mixed system
formed by:

1. logograms (conveying meaning) +

2. phonograms (conveying sound) +
3. determinatives (which indicate the exact meaning of the word).

1. The writing was from right to left (only in certain cases from left to
right), in columns (from top to bottom) or in horizontal lines.
Hieroglyphs were carved on stone or wood and inscribed into
imaginary squares or rectangles.

2. b)Hieratic
3. Hieratic ('priestly', from Greek hieratikos) is an adaptation of
Hieroglyphic with its signs simplified for handwriting. It was written
on sheets of papyrus and ostraca, in black ink applied with a brush. The
writing was from right to left and in columns or horizontal lines.
4. It was used in administrative, literary, religious and scientific
documents (the oldest are state records of the 4th Dynasty). Demotic
replaced it for most purposes, in c. 600 BCE, and from that time on
Hieratic was used for religious documents only (the latest are papyri
from the 3rd c. CE).

100. c)Demotic
101. Demotic ('popular', from Greek demotika) was also a cursive script.
Written in horizontal lines from right to left on papyri and ostraca, it
was used in legal, administrative and commercial documents. From the
Ptolomean Period there are also scientific, literary and religious texts
(an example is the Rosetta Stone). The latest inscription was found in
the Temple of Philae (450 CE).

500. d)Coptic
501. Coptic ('Egyptian', from Greek aiguptius and Arabic gubti) is an
alphabetic script, in which vowels are notated, consisting of 24 letters
of the Greek alphabet plus 6 characters from Demotic. It was written
from left to right in horizontal lines with no gaps between words and
almost no punctuation. Ink and reed pen on papyri and ostraca,
wooden tablets, parchment and paper were used for writing. The
earliest documents are magical texts dating back to the end of the 1st c.
CE. Later, it became the language of Christian Egypt.

Morphology (Middle Egyptian)

Ancient Egyptian words are based on lexical roots formed by one to
four consonants (most are biconsonantal and triconsonantal). The
consonantal root is combined with vowels or semivowels to form
the stem which determines the functional category of the word. Finally,
affixes are added to the stem to convey grammatical functions such as
gender, number, tense, aspect and voice transforming it into an
actual word.

1. Nominal. Adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun. There
are no articles.

1. case: Ancient Egyptian, in contrast to most Afro-Asiatic languages

has no case endings.

1. gender: masculine, feminine. The masculine is unmarked, the

feminine is marked by -tpreceded by a vowel.

1. number: singular, dual, plural. Plurality is usually marked by

adding the suffix -w/-awcombined with a change in the vowel pattern
of the stem. The latter process, called 'broken plural', is common in
Afro-Asiatic languages. Many feminine words do not have a plural
form, though some feminine plurals are marked with the suffix -wt.
2. The dual number was limited to parts of the human body occurring in
pairs and related words; it was marked with the semivocalic suffix -
y added to the plural of masculine nouns or to the singular of feminine

1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative.

2. Egyptian has three sets of personal pronouns: suffix, enclitic and

independent. Suffix pronouns are attached to nouns to indicate
possession, to prepositions as a complement and to verbal forms to
indicate the subject. Enclitic (or dependent) pronouns are employed to
mark the object of transitive verbs and the subject of adjectival
sentences; they only have singular forms. Independent pronouns
function as subject of nominal sentences.
3. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish two deictic degrees (this/that)
but not gender and number in early Egyptian; adjective demonstratives
were different from pronouns and distinguished gender and number.
In later stages of the language adjectives and demonstrative pronouns
have three forms (masculine singular, feminine singular and plural).

1. Verbal. Most verbal roots have two consonants, in contrast with

Semitic ones that usually have three. A conjugated verb is composed of
the verbal stem, derived from the lexical root, followed by a
tense/aspect marker and a suffix pronoun. Verbal forms combine tense
and aspect which depend on the syntactic context; in the initial
position of a phrase the verb usually indicates tense but in non-initial
position (once a time frame has been established) it indicates aspect.
Mood also depends on context.

1. person and number: 1 s, 2 ms, 2 fs, 3 ms, 3 fs; 1 dual, 2 dual 3 dual;
1 p, 2 p, 3 p. The Egyptian verb distinguishes gender in the second and
third persons of the singular.

1. tense: past, non-past. Apart from these narrative tenses, Ancient

Egyptian had an stative tense to express the result of a verbal action.
The simple past is marked by adding the suffix -nafter the stem
followed by a pronominal suffix or a nominal subject. The present is

1. aspect: imperfective, perfective.

1. mood: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, prospective.
2. Apart from the indicative (a neutral mood), moods usually apply to
future events. The prospective is the mood of wish and expectation (the
equivalent of the Indo-European optative). The subjunctive expresses
command and refers to the future. In Middle Egyptian the subjunctive
and prospective merge but they are still distinguished by syntactical

1. voice: active, passive (rare).

1. non-finite forms: infinitive, perfective participle (active and

passive), imperfective participle(active and passive).

Word order is quite strict and of the Verb-Subject-Object type. There is
no distinction between main and subordinate clauses. Adjectives follow
their nouns. Like many Semitic languages, Ancient Egyptian has a
construct state where a direct genitive relationship is expressed by the
apposition of two nouns.

Basic Vocabulary

one: wc (wuuw)

two: snwj (s'inuwway)

three: hmtw (amtaw)
four: jfdw (yifdaw)
five: djw ('di:jaw)
six: sjsw ('sasaw)
seven: sfhw ('safaw)
eight: hmnw (a'ma:naw)
nine: psdw (pi'si:aw)
ten: mdw (mu:aw)
hundred: t (it)

man: zj
woman: zjt
mother: mwt
brother: sn
sister: snt
son: za
head: tp
face: hr
hair: nj
ear: msdr
eye: irt
foot: rd
heart: lb

house: pr
tree: xt


a) Old Kingdom

1. Pyramid Texts
2. Engraved inside the royal pyramids of the 5th and 6th dynasties in Saqqara,
they consist of incantations to promote the resurrection of the deceased king
and his ascent to the sky to be in the company of the immortal gods.

1. The Autobiography of Harkhuf

2. Harkhuf was a distinguished official who served two kings and became
governor of Upper Egypt. His autobiography, carved in his tomb, contains an
account of his four expeditions to Nubia (a valuable source for the relations
between Egypt and Nubia in this early period), a standard catalogue of his
virtues, and prayers for offerings. It also includes the text of a letter received
from the young king Pepi II.

1. Instructions of Ptahhotep

2. It belongs to the Wisdom literature genre and consists of the instructions

transmitted by the vizierPtahhotep expounded in thirty seven maxims framed
by a prologue and an epilogue. The ideal man has to be kind, generous just
and truthful.
b) First Intermediate Period
1. Instructions addressed to King Merikare

2. These are the instructions of an old king (whose name has been lost) to his son
Merikare, a testament which is also a sort of treatise on kingship.

100. c)Middle Kingdom

101. The Prophecies of Neferti

102. This work is an attempt to glorify the king Amenemhet I of the Middle
Kingdom by the fictional device of transposing the sage Neferti to the court of
the king Snefru of the Old Kingdom where he "prophesies" a period of civil
war which will end with the coronation of Amenemenhet.

1. The Instruction of King Amenemhet I for his son Sesostris I

2. Written after the assassination of Amenemhet, the deceased king transmits his
instructions to his son. His violent death is alluded in a veiled manner and the
tone is bitter, the father advising his son not to trust men.

1. The Dispute between a Man and his Ba

2. A man disappointed with life yearns for death. Tired of his complaints,
his ba or soul threatens to abandon him making his resurrection in the
otherworld impossible. It tells him about the sadness of the tomb and
entreaties him to enjoy life.

1. The Song from the tomb of King Intef

2. The songs to the dead were called "Harper's Songs" because they were
accompanied by the harp and sung at funerary banquets. The words of this
famous song show skepticism about the existence of the afterlife.

1. The Story of Sinuhe

2. Considered the most accomplished literary work of the Middle Kingdom, it
takes the form of an autobiography composed to be inscribed in a tomb. It is a
plausible story, though not necessarily true, relating the flight of the official
Sinuhe into Canaan after hearing about the death of Amenemhet, his life in
exile and his eventual return to Egypt years later.

500. d)New Kingdom

501. The Book of the Dead

502. A compilation of spells used by the ancient Egyptians for the resurrection of
the deceased persons and to help them attain bliss in the afterlife. This
collection of magical texts (accompanied with illustrations) was written on
sheets of papyrus and buried with its owner. Its final form was achieved in the
Late Period (26th Dynasty).

1. Great Hymn to the Aten

2. Composed during the reign of Akhenaton, who altered radically, though
briefly, the nature of Egyptian religion, this hymn celebrates the supreme and
sole god Aten, the creator of the universe and everything it contains.

1. The Instruction of Amenemope

2. If in the Instructions of Ptahhotep the ideal man was peaceful, wealthy and
generous, in this Instruction man has to be modest and self-controlled to be
virtuous. Contemplation and endurance are more important than worldly

1. The Report of Wenamun

2. Written at the end of the 20th Dynasty, it is an account of a mission to

Lebanon (actual or fictional) to get precious cedar timber for a ship which
reveals the political decline of the Egyptian kingdom and the contempt of its

e) Late Period
1. The Victory Stela of King Piye

2. This long inscription by the Nubian king Piye, the founder of the 26th
dynasty, is the foremost historical one of the Late Period. In a very factual and
vivid style he recounts his reconquest of Upper Egypt and conquest of Lower
Egypt inspired and protected by the god Amun. He is portrayed as
courageous, clever and forgiving.

1. Two Hymns to Khnum

2. Inscribed in the temple of Esna, they are a short morning hymn to awaken the
god Khnum and a longer hymn to glorify Khnum as a creator who fashions
men and women in his potter's wheel. Other creator gods are seen as
manifestations of him.

1. The Stories of Setne Khamwas

2. These two fantastic stories, written in Demotic, are preserved in different

papyri but their protagonist is in both Prince Khamwas, the fourth son of King
Ramses II, who was known as a very learned sage and antiquarian. The first is
about his search of a book of magic. The second tells his visit to the
netherworld in which the good have a blessed existence and the sinners suffer
many tortures.

2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz


Further Reading

1. -Ancient Egyptian. A Linguistic Introduction. A. Loprieno. Cambridge

University Press (1995).
2. -Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of
Hieroglyphs. J. P. Allen. Cambridge University Press (2010).

3. -Reading the Past. Egyptian Hieroglyphs. W. V. Davies. British

Museum Press (1992).
4. -'Egyptian'. In Ancient a compendium of world-wide
writing systems from prehistory to today. Lawrence Lo. Available online
5. -Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. I: The Old and Middle
Kingdoms. M. Lichtheim. University of California Press (1973).

6. -Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. II: The New Kingdom. M.

Lichtheim. University of California Press (1976).
7. -Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. III: The Late Period. M. Lichtheim.
University of California Press (1980).

8. -Ancient Egyptian Language (Discussion List). Available online