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colspan="3" style="text-align: center; font-size:110%; color: black white Egyptian
r n km.t ("language of Egypt")
Spoken in: Ancient Egypt
Language extinction: evolved into Demotic by 600 BC, into Coptic by AD 200, and was extinct by the 17th century
Language family:
Writing system: hieroglyphs, Cursive hieroglyphs, hieratic, and demotic
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: egy
ISO 639-3: egy 

Ebers Papyrus detailing treatment of asthma.

Template:Infobox Language/
r n km.t
in Hieroglyphs

Written records of the ancient Egyptian language have been dated from about 3200 BC. Egyptian is part of the Afro-Asiatic group of languages and is related to Berber and Semitic (languages such as Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya and Hebrew). The language survived until the 5th century AD in the form of Demotic and until the Middle Ages in the form of Coptic. Thus it had a lifespan of over four millennia. Egyptian is one of the oldest recorded languages known.

The national language of modern day Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which gradually replaced Coptic Egyptian as the language of daily life in the centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Coptic is still used as a liturgical language by the Coptic Church.

Development of the language

Scholars group the Egyptian language into six major chronological divisions:

  • Archaic Egyptian (before 2600 BC)
  • Old Egyptian (2600 BC – 2000 BC)
  • Middle Egyptian (2000 BC – 1300 BC)
  • Late Egyptian (1300 BC – 700 BC)
  • Demotic (seventh century BC – fifth century AD)
  • Nubian (Tenth – fourteenth century AD)

It should be noted that Egyptian writing in the form of label and signs has been dated to 3200 BC. These early texts are generally lumped together under the term "Archaic Egyptian."

In 1999, Archaeology Magazine reported that the earliest Egyptian Glyphs date back to 3400 BC which "...challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."

Old Egyptian was spoken for some 500 years from 2600 BC onwards. Middle Egyptian was spoken from about 2000 BC for a further 700 years when Late Egyptian made its appearance; Middle Egyptian did, however, survive until the first few centuries AD as a written language, similar to the use of Latin during the Middle Ages and that of Classical Arabic today. Demotic Egyptian first appears about 650 BC and survived as a spoken language until fifth century AD. Coptic Egyptian appeared in the fourth century AD and survived as a living language until the sixteenth century AD, when European scholars traveled to Egypt to learn it from native speakers during the Renaissance. It probably survived in the Egyptian countryside as a spoken language for several centuries after that. The Bohairic dialect of Coptic is still used by the Egyptian Christian Churches.

Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian were all written using Hieroglyphs and hieratic. Demotic was written using a script derived from hieratic; its appearance is vaguely similar to modern Arabic script and is also written from right to left (although the two are not related). Coptic is written using the Coptic alphabet, a modified form of the Greek alphabet with a number of symbols borrowed from Demotic for sounds that did not occur in Ancient Greek.

Arabic became the language of Egypt's political administration soon after the Arabian invasion in the seventh century, and gradually replaced Coptic as the language spoken by the populace. Today, Coptic survives as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church, although church services are now largely conducted in Arabic.

Structure of the language

Egyptian is a fairly typical Afro-Asiatic language. At the heart of Egyptian vocabulary is a root of three consonants. Sometimes there were only two, for example /rˁ/ "sun" (where the [ˁ] represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative); others, such as /nfr/, which means "beautiful"; and some could be as large as five /sḫdḫd/ "be upside-down". Vowels and other consonants were then added to this root in order to derive words, in the same way as Arabic, Hebrew, and other Afro-Asiatic languages do today. However, it is not known what these vowels would have been, since like many other Afro-Asiatic languages, Egyptian does not write vowels; hence "ankh" could represent either "life", "to live" or "living". In transcription, [a], [i], and [u] all represent consonants; for example, the name Tutankhamen was written in Egyptian twt-ˁnḫ-ỉmn (the [ˁ] represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative). Experts have assigned generic sounds to these values as a matter of convenience; however, this artificial pronunciation has often been mistaken for actual pronunciation.

Phonologically, Egyptian contrasted bilabial, labiodental, alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal consonants, in a distribution rather similar to that of Arabic.

Middle Egyptian's basic word order is Verb Subject Object; the equivalent to "the man opens the door", would be a sentence corresponding to "opens the man the door" (wn s ˁȝ)

Regarding morphology, Egyptian uses the so-called status constructus construction to combine two or more nouns, similar to Semitic and Berber languages. The early stages of Egyptian possessed no articles, no words for "the" or "a"; later forms used the words /p3/, /t3/ and /n3/ for this purpose (where 3 represents a glottal stop.) Like other Afro-Asiatic Egyptian uses two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, similarly to Arabic and Tamasheq. It also uses three grammatical numbers, contrasting singular, dual, and plural forms.

Notes on pronunciation

The true pronunciation of Egyptian is difficult ascertain both because the writing system omitted the vowels and because Egyptian is recorded over such a long period of time that the pronunciation changed substantially over time. As a result, Egyptologists make use of an "Egyptological pronunciation" in which the consonants are given fixed values and vowels are inserted in accordance with essentially arbitrary rules. Two distinct different consonants, the glottal stop and the voiced pharyngeal fricative, are both often transcribed with "a". The semivowel /ỉ/ is replaced with "i", and similarly, /w/ with "u". Between the other consonants, "e" is then added. Thus, for example, the Egyptian king whose name is most accurately transliterated as Rˁ-ms-sw is transcribed as "Ramesses", meaning "Ra has Fashioned (lit. "Borne") Him". The actual rendition of his name, however, is thought to be "Riaˁmissa", as discovered from cuneiform documents from Anatolia.[citation needed]

The vocalization of Egyptian is partially known, largely on the basis of reconstruction from Coptic, in which the vowels are written. Recordings of Egyptian words in other languages provide an additional source of evidence. Scribal errors provide evidence of changes in pronunciation over time. The actual pronunciations reconstructed by such means are used only by a few specialists in the language. For all other purposes the Egyptological pronunciation is used.

Egyptian writing

sẖ3 n mdww nt̪r
in Hieroglyphs

Most surviving texts in the Egyptian language are primarily written in the hieroglyphic script. However, in antiquity, the majority of texts were written on perishable papyrus in hieratic and (later) demotic, which are now lost. There was also a form of cursive hieroglyphic script used for religious documents on papyrus, such as the Book of the Dead in the Ramesside Period; this script was closer to the stone-carved hieroglyphs, but was not as cursive as hieratic, lacking the wide use of ligatures. Additionally, there was a variety of stone-cut hieratic known as lapidary hieratic. In the language's final stage of development, the Coptic alphabet replaced the older writing system. The native name for Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is sẖ3 n mdww nt̪r or "writing of the words of god." Hieroglyphs are employed in two ways in Egyptian texts: as ideograms that represent the idea depicted by the pictures; and more commonly as phonograms denoting their phonetic value.

pr biliteral pr (house) pr(y) (go out)

Take, e.g., the hieroglyph representing the biliteral pr. It is typically used as an ideogram to denote the word 'house'. The same glyph is also used as a phonogram to write the word pr(y) 'to go out' due to the similarity in pronunciation. To leave no doubt as to which word is actually meant, a vertical stroke is drawn underneath the glyph to mean 'house', whereas a pair of walking legs is added next to the same glyph to clarify that pr(y) 'go out' is meant instead. To further clarify the pronunciation, the hieroglyph for mouth (ro) is typically added in between the house and the walking legs, so that the whole combination encodes the word pr(y) like this: "Word that sounds like a word for house which ends in an r and is related to walking => to go out". Hieroglyphic writing is thus an intricate mixture of phonetic and semantic components.

Apart from hieroglyphs, hieratic (a cursive version of hieroglyphic writing) and demotic (even more cursive and abbreviated) were employed in Egypt's 3,000+-year history of hieroglyphic writing. As Egypt became part of the Greek and (later) the Roman empire, the hieroglyphic writing system was replaced by the Greek alphabet used first to write magical and later Christian manuscripts (Coptic). A few extra characters had to be added to represent sounds of the Egyptian language which did not exist in the Greek pronunciation of the time (e.g., the phoneme /f/). These characters were taken from the demotic script.

Egyptian hieroglyphs Black Schist sarcophagus Ankhnesneferibre

Hieroglyphs from the Black Schist sarcophagus of Ankhnesneferibre. Twenty-sixth Dynasty, about 530 BC, Thebes.

Hieroglyphic usage

Hieroglyphs were used for most of the surviving forms of written communication during the Old and Middle Egyptian eras, at least for official documents; hieratic was already being used for day-to-day administrative needs during the Old Kingdom. Religious texts during the Demotic era were also typically written in hieroglyphs when they were inscribed on temple walls and stelae; hieratic was used for religious documents on papyrus. (Administrative works were of course written in Demotic.) The last datable hieroglyphic text was written in 394 AD.

Hieroglyphic syntax

As explained previously, the majority of hieroglyphs seen in any particular text do not represent the objects they depict. They mostly represent sounds or were used as "determinatives" to show what type of word was being used. Hieroglyphic could be written in the following ways:

  • horizontal, left-to-right
  • horizontal, right-to-left
  • vertical, facing left-to-right
  • vertical, facing right-left

Written, cursive hieroglyphic is generally written in columns, top-to-bottom or horizontally, right-to-left. In the latter stages of hieroglyphic cursive the only surviving examples are written horizontally, right-to-left; vertical hieroglyphic should be read from top-to-bottom.

It is generally an easy task to determine which way to read the hieroglyphs even if you are unable to understand their meaning. Hieroglyphs with a definite front and back (for example, a person) will generally:

  • face the beginning of the sentence
  • face the same direction as any person or large object in a picture they describe

As an example, if a tableau contains a picture of a man seated and facing right, then all the hieroglyphs with a definite front and back would face to the right as well. The actual hieroglyphs would be read from right-to-left because these images almost always face the beginning of the sentence.

Hieroglyphic texts that do not display this behaviour are said to be in retrograde. Once one understands hieroglyphic it is easy to determine if one is examining a retrograde text because it will simply make no sense.

As an aid to reading, and perhaps to the ancient Egyptian's sense of aesthetics, hieroglyphs were also packed together into neat patterns. In general, two or more short or thin (depending on which direction one was writing the hieroglyphs) would be written in the same block as each other. Occasionally, a tall or wide symbol would be made smaller and placed with another short or thin hieroglyph.

Finally, hieroglyphic had no standard punctuation. Religious texts generally have no punctuation at all, whilst texts from the latter part of the ancient Egyptian language have full stops between important lines of thought.

Decipherment of Hieroglyphs

Main article: Decipherment of Hieroglyphs

Demotic script on a replica of the Rosetta Stone.

Until recently, given the time span we are talking about, the decipherment of hieroglyphic was hampered because those attempting to decipher the hieroglyphs assigned emotional meanings to the actual symbols used. For example, some people believed that the hieroglyph for son, a goose, was chosen because geese love their sons above all other animals. This hieroglyph was chosen, though, simply because the word for goose once had the same sound as the word for son. A further impediment was the lack of complementary material, that is to say material of the same work written in close proximity to another translation.

Athanasius Kircher, a student of Coptic, developed the notion that this last stage of Egyptian could be related to the earlier Egyptian stages. Because he was not able to transliterate or translate hieroglyphic he could not prove this notion. However, in 1799 when the discovery of the Rosetta Stone occurred, scholars finally had an example of hieroglyphic, demotic and Ancient Greek that they were all reasonably certain were the translations of the same passage. In hieroglyphic, the name of the King or Pharaoh and gods' names are often placed within a circle called a cartouche. Jean-François Champollion, a young French scholar, demonstrated how the name Kleopatra could be made in hieroglyphic. Furthermore, by using an impressive knowledge of Coptic he surmised that a number of symbols showing everyday objects could be pronounced as in Coptic.

Applying this knowledge to other, well-known hieroglyphic sources clearly confirmed Champollion's work and linguistic scholars now had a way to work with and delineate the language into nouns, verbs, prepositions and other grammatical parts.


Like most other Afro-Asiatic languages, Old and Middle Egyptian have a Verb–Subject–Object word order. This does not hold true for Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Nubian.


Egyptian nouns can be either masculine or feminine (indicated as with other Afro-asiatic languages by adding a -t), and singular, plural (-w / -wt), or dual (-wy / -ty).

Articles (both definite and indefinite) did not develop until Late Egyptian, but are used widely thereafter.


Egyptian has suffix, dependent, and independent personal pronouns. These are as follows:

          Suffix  Dependent  Independent 
  *1st s.   -ỉ    wỉ         ỉnk
  *2nd s.m. -k    tw         ntk
  *2nd s.f. -t    tn         ntt
  *3rd s.m. -f    sw         ntf
  *3rd s.f. -s    sy         nts
  *1st p.   -n    n          ỉnn
  *2nd p.   -tn   tn         nttn
  *3rd p.   -sn   sn         ntsn

It also has demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these and those), in masculine, feminine, and common plural:

  Mas.  Fem.  Neu.
 *pn    tn    nn   "this, that, these, those" 
 *pf    tf    nf   "that, those"
 *pw    tw    nw   "this, that, these, those" (archaic)
 *           "this, that, these, those" (colloquial [earlier] and Late Egyptian)

Finally there are interrogative pronouns (what, who, etc.)

 *mỉ   "who? what?" (dependent)
 *ptr  "who? what?" (independent)
 *iḫ   "what?"      (dependent)
 *ỉšst "what?"      (independent)
 *zỉ   "which?"     (independent and dependent)


Adjectives agree in gender and number with their nouns, for example: s nfr "(the) good man" and st nfrt "(the) good woman".

Attributive adjectives used in phrases fall after the noun they are modifying, such as in "(the) great god" (nṯr ˁȝ). However, when used independently as a predicate in an adjectival phrase, such "(the) god (is) great" (ˁȝ nṯr) [lit., "great (is the) god"), the adjective preceeds the noun.


Egyptian prepositions come before the noun.

 *m   "in, as, with, from"
 *n   "to, for"
 *r   "to, at"
 *ỉn  "by"
 *ḥnˁ "with"
 *mỉ  "like"
 *ḥr  "on, upon"
 *ḥȝ  "behind, around"
 *ẖr  "under"
 *tp  "atop"
 *ḏr  "since"


Adverbs are words such as "here" or "where?". In Egyptian they come at the end of a sentence e.g. zỉ.n nṯr ỉm "the god went there", "there" (ỉm) is the adverb.

Some common Egyptian Adverbs:

 *ˁȝ    "here"
 *ỉm    "there"
 *ṯnỉ   "where"
 *zy-nw "when" (lit. "what moment")
 *mỉ-ỉḫ "how"  (lit. "like-what")
 *r-mỉ  "why"  (lit. "for what")
 *ḫnt   "before"

Modern-day resources

Interest in the ancient Egyptian languages continues. For example, it is still taught in several universities. Many resources are in French or German, in addition to English so it can be useful to know one of these languages though not a requirement.

For the film Stargate, Egyptologist Stuart Tyson Smith was commissioned to develop a constructed language to simulate the tongue of ancient Egyptians living alone on another planet for millennia. He also created the Egyptian dialogue for The Mummy (1999 film). In the French comedy Astérix & Obélix : Mission Cléopâtre, a similar attempt was apparently made (source in French).

While Egyptian culture is one of the influences of Western civilization, few words of Egyptian origin remain in English. Even those associated with ancient Egypt were usually transmitted in Greek forms. Some examples of Egyptian words that have survived into English include ebony (Egyptian ḥbny), phoenix (Egyptian bnw, literally "heron"; transmitted through Greek), Pharaoh (Egyptian pr-ˁʒ, literally "great house"; transmitted through Greek), as well as the proper names Phineas (Egyptian, pʒ-nḥsy, literally "The black one," used as a generic term for Nubian foreigners) and Susan (Egyptian, sšn, literally "lotus flower"; probably transmitted first from Egyptian into Hebrew).

Further reading



  • Allen, James P., Middle Egyptian - An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, first edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-65312-6 (hbk) ISBN 0-521-77483-7 (pbk)
  • Collier, Mark, and Manley, Bill, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs : A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself, British Museum Press (ISBN 0-7141-1910-5) and University of California Press (ISBN 0-520-21597-4), both in 1998.
  • Gardiner, Sir Alan H., Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, Griffith Institute, Oxford, 3rd ed. 1957. ISBN 0-900416-35-1


  • Faulkner, Raymond O., A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, Griffith Institute, Oxford, 1962. ISBN 0-900416-32-7 (hardback)
  • Lesko, Leonard H., A Dictionary of Late Egyptian, 4 Vols., B.C. Scribe Publications, Berkeley, 1982. ISBN 0-930548-03-5 (hbk), ISBN 0-930548-04-3 (pbk).
  • Shennum, David, English-Egyptian Index of Faulkner's Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, Undena Publications, 1977. ISBN 0-89003-054-5

Online Dictionaries

  • The Beinlich Wordlist, an online searchable dictionary of ancient Egyptian words (translations are in German)
  • Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, an online service available from October 2004 which is associated with various German Egyptological projects, including the monumental Altägyptisches Wörterbuch of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, Berlin, Germany).

Important Note: the old grammars & dictionaries of E. A. Wallis Budge have long been considered obsolete by Egyptologists, even though these books are still available for purchase.

More book information is available at Glyphs and Grammars

External links

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