Egyptian is one of the oldest written languages. The first known text dates to around 3400 BC, and it was spoken until the late 17th century in the form of Coptic. (Coptic is still used as a liturgical language in the Coptic Church.)
Egyptian is actually a chronological series of languages, including Old/Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic. The most popular starting point for students appears to be hieroglyphic Middle Egyptian, the language of the Book of the Dead, the Story of Sinuhe and many monumental inscriptions. Roughly 750 hieroglyphs were used in Middle Egyptian, of which a couple hundred are common, compared with 6,000+ in Late Egyptian.
Middle Egyptian survived for a long time as a "classic" language, similar to Latin in the Middle Ages.
The phonology of Egyptian has been partially reconstructed. As with Arabic and Hebrew, the writing system only includes consonants, semi-vowels like y and w, and perhaps a few specific vowels.
To display the following table, you will need to download the file Aegyptus.zip and install the font Gardiner.ttf.
(Please feel free to correct this table if you have up-to-date sources.)
|𓄿||ꜣ||/ʔ/||Glottal stop or vowel?|
|𓇋|| or j|
|𓇋𓇋 or 𓏭||y|
|𓐍||ḫ||/x/||As in German "ach"|
|𓄡||ẖ||/ç/||As in German "ich"|
|𓋴 or 𓊃||s|
|𓈎||ḳ or q||/qʼ/|
In modern use, Egyptian is typically pronounced with neutral vowels in between each consonant, and with the semi-vowels converted into regular vowels as needed. Many scholars pronounce the consonants as the closest equivalent in their native language.
Egyptian vowels have been partially reconstructed by triangulating between Coptic, transliterations of Egyptian words in cuneiform, and reconstructions of proto-Afro-Asiatic.
There are significant grammatical changes between Middle and Late Egyptian.
Egyptian was written with several different writing systems over the course of its existence.
Egyptian hieroglyphs are a mixed writing system, combining signs for 1, 2 or 3 consonants with "determinitives", signs which reduce ambiguity. For example:
𓅱𓇋𓄿𓊛 = w + + ꜣ + "boat"
Signs may also be used as direct ideograms. Signs representing more than one consonant will often be accompanied by redundant single-consonant signs repeating one or more of the sounds from the multiple-consonant sign.
The exact number of hieroglyphs in use depends on the time period, ranging from slightly less than a thousand in Old Egyptian, down to roughly 750 in Middle Egyptian, to more than 6,000 in Late Egyptian. Middle Egyptian used a couple hundred hieroglyphs frequently. Many of the others tend to be specialized determinatives (such as 𓋸 for "sandal"), or to appear in specific words.
A cursive script which corresponds closely to hieroglyphs.
A cursive script which developed out of hieratic, but which does not have a 1-to-1 correspondence with hieroglyphs. Notoriously difficult to read, thanks to extensive ligatures.
A modified Greek alphabet with extra letters, including vowels. Introduced along with Christianity.
Common difficulties Edit
- Assimil. L'Égyptien hiéroglyphique. Only available for French speakers. This has 101 lessons on Middle Egyptian, including excepts from the Story of Sinuhe and from various funeral monuments. Each lesson includes hieroglyphic text, a standard Egyptological transliteration, a literal French translation preserving the Egyptian grammar, and a loose French translation. Several people on HTLAL are trying this course, and so far nobody has any complaints.
- Colier and Manley. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. A short, traditional course focusing on reading funeral inscriptions. This is probably the best popular text on the subject in English, and it includes discussions of grammar. Rather obnoxiously, it uses a custom sign numbering that looks like the Gardiner numbering but isn't. Anki decks are available online for each chapter.
- Allen. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. The standard English-language textbook on Egyptian.
- Lorpieno. Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction. A fairly technical overview and grammar aimed at linguists. Includes information on the reconstructed pronunciation and on how the language changed over time. Makes less use of interlinear translations than many modern linguistic publications, so it helps to know something about the language. Excellent if you're into linguistics, or if you don't mind looking up terminology on Wikipedia.
- Altägyptisches Wörterbuch. The most comprehensive dictionary of Egyptian. Online, in German.
- The Middle Egyptian Wiki. Still in development, but will eventually become a free, online grammar of the Egyptian language for English-speakers.