Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Language Profile: Egyptian

Earlier this week in our country profile on Egypt, we made a brief mention of the Egyptian language. It is one of the oldest recorded languages in existence, with written evidence dating back as far as the year 3300 BC. It also comprises its own branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, which also includes Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

The Egyptian language has had a long and fascinating history over the centuries. The name Ancient Egyptian generally refers to the Egyptian language before 2600 BC, after which point it passed through stages that are now known as Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, which was used through 700 BC. These earliest stages of the Egyptian language were written using both hieroglyphs and hieratic.

The Papyrus of Ani featuring cursive hieroglyphs, created around 1250 BC. 
The oldest preserved texts in Egyptian are generally those written on stone using hieroglyphs. Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of three types of glyphs: phonetic glyphs that represent phonemes, logograms that represent morphemes and words, and determinatives or semagrams, which are symbols that help the reader to determine the exact meaning of the other two types of glyphs. While Egyptian hieroglyphs were unreadable throughout most of modern history, they were eventually deciphered in the early 1800s. This was done primarily through the use of the Rosetta Stone, which featured text written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, classic Greek, and Demotic, which we will get to in a moment.

A close-up of the cursive hieroglyphs
from The Papyrus of Ani
Hieratic, the other writing system we mentioned, was a cursive writing system that was primarily used for important documents. Unfortunately, examples of hieratic script were not preserved as easily throughout history since hieratic was usually written on papyrus, a paper-like material made from the papyrus plant.

Around the 7th century BC, the language became what is now known as Demotic. Demotic script was derived from forms of hieratic, and was generally used for similar official purposes. It was used through the 5th century AD, around which time Coptic, the final stage of the Egyptian language, came into existence. Both Demotic and Coptic scripts were used as a means of simplifying the complex hieroglyph-based Egyptian writing system for the ever-increasing number of speakers.

Coptic was spoken in Egypt until the 17th century and was written using the Coptic alphabet, which consists of the Greek alphabet with letters borrowed from Demotic. Around the 7th century, Arabic became the most popular language for official purposes, and Coptic was eventually replaced as the national language of Egypt by Egyptian Arabic, which is still used today. However, unlike the earlier forms of the Egyptian language which are no longer used, Coptic survives as a liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches.