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Changes in Ancient Egyptian Language

Ola El Aguizy et Fayza Haykal
p. 25-34

Texte intégral

1During the four millennia of its history (3000 BC-1000 AD) the Ancient Egyptian language underwent important graphic, grammatical and lexical changes. These changes reflect the internal evolution of the language but also the impact of the socio-political environment on the language and its writing. During these four millennia, the function of literacy changed as well as the relation between speech and writing. Writing evolved from a formal language rendering religious and royal texts to a more informal language rendering profane and more administrative texts and getting sometimes closer to the spoken language. Contact with foreign cultures through geographical expansion or through integration of foreign communities and later under colonial rules favored the absorption of a number of foreign words and the development of new scripts. The two following parts are complementary. El Aguizy's part focuses on the evolution of the morphosyntactic system and Haikal's part on the evolution of the writing and the vocabulary.

Ancient Egyptian language (O. el-Aguizy)

  • 1 See the communication of G. GABRA in this volume.
  • 2 See LOPRIENO Antonio, Ancient Egyptian; a Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1995 (...)

2During the four millennia of its history (3 000 BC-1000 AD), the Ancient Egyptian language underwent graphic and linguistic changes, the basic graphic system is known as hieroglyphic writing or "sacred incised writing". This term is the Greek counterpart of the Egyptian expression mdww-ntr or "God's words". Hieroglyphs were primarily used on stone for monumental purposes. From this writing developed a cursive handwriting known as Hieratic or "priestly writing" used mainly on papyrus (2600 BC to third century AD). From this cursive writing developed a more simplified writing known as Demotic or "popular writing" used from 7th century BC to 5th century AD for administrative purposes. From the 4th century BC, hieroglyphs and their manual varieties were gradually replaced by an alphabetic transcription or words and then texts using the Greek alphabet + 7 Demotic signs to render Egyptian sounds unknown in Greek. This graphic system is what is known as Coptic which is the last stage of the Egyptian language1. The typological changes took place concomitant with specific historical events which themselves represent major turning points in other aspects of Egypt's cultural life2.

Historical development

  • 3  LOPRIENO A., ibid., p. 5.

3The linguistic history of Egyptian can be divided into two main stages characterized by a major change from synthetic to analytic patterns in the nominal and verbal Systems. Each of these two stages can be further divided into three different phases affecting primarily the sphere of graphemics3 :

4- Format Egyptian or Earlier Egyptian : the language of all written texts (royal, literary and religious documents) from 3000 to 1300 BC, surviving in formal religions texts until the 3rd century AD. It is conventionally termed:

  • a) old Egyptian for the Old Kingdom phase (3000-2000 BC) characterized by the religious corpus of the "Pyramids texts" and a number of "Autobiographies";

  • b) Middle Egyptian or Classical Egyptian of the Middle Kingdom (2000-1300 BC) considered as the classical languages of Egyptian literature;

  • c) Late middle Egyptian, the language of religious texts only from the New Kingdom until the Roman Period (1300 BC-200 AD). For more than a millennium, Late Middle Egyptian coexisted with later Egyptian (see below) in a situation of diglossia. Late Middle Egyptian maintains the linguistic structures of the classical language but shows graphemic changes.

5- The nonFormal Egyptian or Later Egyptian of the profane literature and administrative texts from 1300 BC to 1300 AD divided in:

  • a) Late Egyptian (1300-700 BC) which shows various degrees of interference between classical influences and more colloquial influences;

  • b) Demotic (700 BC-500 AD) grammatically close to Late Egyptian but with a different graphic system;

  • c) Coptic written in a variety of the Greek alphabet.

The grammatical system of Earlier Egyptian and its genetic affinities

6The Ancient Egyptian language represents an autonomous branch of the Afro-Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic phylum, one of the most widespread language families in the world.

7The individual branches of the Afro-Asiatic phylum are :

  • Ancient Egyptian ;

  • Semitic languages including Eastern Semitic (Akkadian), Northwest Semitic (Canaaite, Hebrew, Ugaritic, Aramaic. Phœnician} and Southwest Semitic (Arabic, South Arabian and Ethiopic) ;

  • Berber languages (or Libyco-Berber) ;

  • Cushitic languages (i.e. among others Beja, Agao, Somali, etc.) ;

  • Chadic languages (i.e. among others Hausa).

  • 4 For an up-dated and detailed account of the genetic frame of Ancient Egyptian, see LOPRIENO A., Anc (...)
  • 5  LOPRIENO, op. cit., p. 1.

8According to Loprieno4, Ancient Egyptian shows thë closest relationship to Semitic, Berber and Beja, and more distant relationship to the rest of Cushitic and Chadic. Egyptian shares a number of common Afro-Asiatic linguistic features5 and we will mention some features common between Formal (Earlier) Egyptian and Arabic (i.e. Classical Arabic) :

91. A preference for an inflectional syntax.

102. Words are written with consonants only, the vocalic system being represented by three vowels: /^ i\l w/ corresponding to /a/ i /u/ and to Arabic fatha, damma, kasra ;

113. A consonantal system displaying a series of emphatics.

124. The lexical roots of the words are usually formed of two or three consonants which are capable of being inflected to form derived nouns or verbs:

ss = scribe, letter, to write (Arabic: كتب  كاتب  مكتوب)

 دd = to agress,  دdw = agressor

Pr = to provide, 'prw = equipment

135. The use of a nominal feminine suffix -at / “t”, to form feminine nouns or adjectives: sn = brother, sn.t = sister.

146. An adjectival suffix -i (called nisba in Arabic) to express "relation to":

rs= south, rsy= southern (Arabic: masr= Egypt, masri = Egyptian).

157. An opposition between prefixal conjugation and suffixal conjugation in the verbal system.

  • 6 Non-verbal sentences do not exist in Indo-European languages because when  we say "the man is at ho (...)

168. The most important feature is the sentence structure which can be verbal or non-verbal. The verbal sentence follows the usual VSO pattern (verb + subject + object). Non verbal sentences6 vary according to the type of predicate and usually follow the subject + predicate pattern.

17Examples of Egyptian sentences and their Arabic equivalent:

  • - Adverbial predicate

Egyptian: sj m pr.f = he is in his house

Arabic:الرجل فى بيته = the man is in his house

  • - Nominal predicate

Egyptian: uw st-mni = old âge is the state of death

Arabic:العمر لحظة .

  • - Adjectival predicate

Egyptian: ink nfr =  am good

Arabic: الورد جميلi= the rose is beautiful

18This pattern of non-verbal sentence can follow a different word order (also common in Arabic) in which the predicate precedes the subject.

19This type of transposition is common with all types of predicates:

  • -Adverbial predicate

Egyptian: ntk pt = to you belongs the sky

Arabic: فى بيتنا رجل = in our house, a man

  • -Pronominal predicate

Egyptian: ptr rf sw = who is he ?

Arabic: متى الامتحان = when are the exams ?

  • - Adjectival predicate

Egyptian : nfr sj sdm.f n it.f = good is the son who hears his father

Arabic : جميل صوت البلبل الذي يغرد = beautiful the voice of the nightingale who twitters.

Evolution from Earlier to Later Egyptian

20Having stated the main common features of Egyptian with the Afro-Asiatic phylum and more specifically with Arabic, we now follow the main linguistic evolution of the language. Formal or Earlier Egyptian is characterized by the use of synthetic grammatical structures (combination of parts or elements into a whole). It can be compared to Classical Literary Arabic (or fusha).

  • 1. Gender and number are martœd by the addition of suffixes at the end of the word: sn= brother, sn.t= sister, sn.w= brothers, sn.wt= sisters;

  • 2. Definite or indefinite articles are not used: rmt = a man or the man;

  • 3. Possession is expressed by the addition of suffix pronouns after the nouns: pr.i= my house, pr.k= your house, pr.n = our house;

  • 4. The structure of the verbal sentence follows the VSO pattern: sdm.i hrw = I hear the voices.

21The development of Formal Egyptian into Informal or Later Egyptian is not an innovation. In fact, Later Egyptian was the spoken language used since the beginning but only put into writing in the later period. It appeared in quotations in the XVIH dynasty and it became an official language in the XIX dynasty. The difference between Formal and Informal Egyptian corresponds to the difference between Literary and Spoken Arabic. The main features of Later Egyptian are:

  • 1. The suffixal markers for gender and number are dropped and replaced by prefixal indicators: pدsn   tدsnJ sn. w These prefixal indicators are now used as definite articles which did not previously exist.

  • 2. The numeral "one" and the demonstrative adjective "this" have developed

  • into an indefinite pronoun: w n rmt = a man, pJy rmt = this man or the man.

  • 3. Possession is now expressed by the use of a possessive adjective instead of suffix markers: pJy i pr = instead of pr.i = my house (like the Classical Arabic بيتي becomingالبيت بتاعي ).

  • 4. The verbal structure develops analytic features which instead of having the VSO pattern used a periphrastic conjugation composed of SVO preceded by prefixal indicator. If in the formal language "I come" would be expressed as ii.i = Verb + Subject, in the informal language it becomes iw.i m ii or iw.i ii.kwi

  • 5. Aspectual-tense distinctions in the Formal language was restricted to some synthetic patterns (perfect-imperfect-prospective). The verbal System is too complicated to be summed up here and we will just provide few examples:

sdm.f= he hears (present) or he heard (past) depending on the context;

sdm.n. f = he heard (past) or he has heard (present perfect);

iw.i sdm. kwi = I was heard (past perfect passive and resultative).

22Periphrastic constructions for the expression of the imperfective and prospective aspect emerge in the late Old Kingdom: the prepositions hr "on" and r "toward" are followed by the infinitive :

iw.f hr sdm. = he is hearing, lit. he is on hearing (imperfective)

Arabic:هو على سمع

هw.frsdm. = he will hear, lit. he is toward hearing (prospective)

Arabic:     هو في اتجاهه الى السمع

23In the later stage tense distinction has become an important feature aiming at increased accuracy in the language. Some of the earlier forms, wn (to be), iw (while), are still used but new ones develop using new tense converters such as the verb iri (todo),ny (to go).

ir.f sdm = he did hearing, he heard {instead of sdm .n.f)

iw.f hr sdm = while he hears (circumstantial)

wn.f hr sdm = he was hearing

m-dr ir.f' sdm=when he heard

SJ'iirt.f sdm = until he hears (and its negative counterpart bw irt.fsdm = he has not yet heard) tw.i hr sdm = 1 hear (present)

hr.f or sdm = he hears (present) or he habitually hears (Aorist).

24The future tense which was earlier expressed as iw .f r sdm then became an optative "may he hear". the future being expressed by means of the verb ir + nominal subject + r + sdm or by the auxiliary verb n'y(to go) with the présent tense converter:

- sw m n'y r sdm = he is going to hear

Arabic: هو راح يسمع

- tw.i m n'y rir.f= 1 am going to do it

Arabie: انا راح اعمله

25In fact, the temporal expressions in the later stage of the language are numerous and cannot all be summed up here. All these tenses remained in use in the Demotic and Coptic stages of the languages.

Political relations, cultural influences and languages changes in ancient Egyptian (F. Haikal)

Evolution of the writing

  • 7 See the communication of Ola EL AGUIZY in the first part of the paper. See also LOPRIENO A., Ancien (...)

26The earliest records we have of Ancient Egyptian writing date to around 3000 BC7. The graphemes are pictographic signs ail taken from the Egyptian environment and therefore closely linked with the culture. They represent living beings (human, animal, vegetal or even mineral), astronomical entities and objects of daily life. These graphemes can be used either as pictograms, thus conveying the sign they represent (as logograms or ideograms) or as phonograms having the phonetic value of the sign they represent, or other conventional values. These include uniliteral, i.e. alphabetic signs, and biliteral or triliteral signs.

27In a word, the combination of phonograms is usually terminated by a semagram or a determinative which classifies the word according to its semantic sphere. For example, human beings are usually followed by a sign representing a seated man/woman white words expressing movement are determined by legs or by a boat, both signs expressively representing motion -when pictograms are used alone as logogram they are usually determined by a single stoke following the sign.

  • 8 Substitute spelling occurs also in New Kingdom texts particularly in those written in Hieratic in t (...)

28Because of the complexity of the System, Egyptians used over 1 000 graphemes while they developed their writing during the third millennium BC. Probably because they were not yet fully familiar with writing, substitute spelling for the same word were common8 and frequent use was made of phonetic complements preceding and following the main logogram. By the second millennium BC education of the bureaucratic elite had helped to fix Egyptian orthography and the number of graphemes in use dropped to around 750.

29Nevertheless, beginning with the late Old Kingdom (c.2150 BC), Egyptian devised what we call "syllabic writing", i.e. a System of orthography where a simple sign could be used to express a sequence of a consonant and a vowel. For example sj or bw for were used to help with pronunciation as foreign words (mostly Northwest Semitic) began to enter the language with the more intensive contacts with the Levant and with the presence of larger semitic groups in Egypt, This System developed markedly in the New Kingdom (1500-1000 BC} to absorb the large number of loanwords being introduced in the language.

  • 9 FISHER H., Lexicon der Àgyptologie II, 1916, and SCHENKEL W, ibid. V, p. 713-735.

30Another transformation affecting the writing due to contact with foreigners was a desire to conceal the meaning of written texts touching too closely on the local culture such as religions texts, for example, producing what is known as Cryptographic solutions9. This phenomenon consists in giving to signs phonological values different to traditionally established ones; or using the sign to indicate only the first consonantal phoneme of the corresponding word. Cryptographic writing developed tremendously in the late Graeco-Roman periods particularly on temple walls, while further simplification of the writing occurred in other spheres. In the Graeco-Roman period (300 BC-640 AD), the pictographic; values of signs was further developed and new signs were created by the thousands.

31If the contact with foreigners induced Egyptians to develop their writing (to accommodate loan words or to conceal religions concepts from heretics), they also had to have bilingual texts, when their political supremacy declined and they were ruled by foreigners. The bulk of these bilingual inscriptions are Graeco-Egyptian, dating to the Graeco-Roman period. Finally, with the supremacy of Christianity around the fourth century, Ancient Egyptian was transcribed in Greek characters. The Coptic writing underlines the final divorce between traditional "pagan" culture and its writing System, and the new Christian ideology.

Evolution of the vocabulary: the loan words

  • 10 HAIKAL F., Festshrift Donadoni, in the Press.
  • 11 HOCH J. E.,Semitic words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom, Princeton University Press, 1994.

32If the writing developed according to cultural intercourse, so did the vocabulary. Ancient Egyptian, by its very position linking Asia and Africa, is a cross-road par excellence. But with time, Egypt became more and more north eastern oriented, and more semitic words were introduced into the language. The peak of the influx was reached in the New Kingdom and particularly in the Ramesside period with the extension of the Egyptian political and cultural supremacy to the Levant. Loan words appeared with new techniques, more extended geographical knowledge and new imports to the country. The presence of large Semitic communities in Egypt also led to the adoption and adaptation of new mores in the country and to the enrichment of Egyptian literature with a new genre and new words10. With the recession of Egyptian expansion in the Levant, after the fall of the New Kingdom, borrowing diminished and there is a clear decline in the usage of foreign vocabulary after the Ramesside period11.

33Later, from the 4th century BC onwards it is rather Greek words which penetrate the Egyptian language. This is particularly clear in texts written in Coptics. This fluctuation of foreign vocabulary entry into the language has a clear parallel with contemporary Egypt where American-Eriglish is penetrating spoken Arabic in an unprecedented manner. A kind of Anglo-Egyptian is now used in most technical disciplines, particularly in the most modem ones. In the sixties, when Egypt had stronger contacts with the Soviet Union, one would see Russian posters and publicity in the streets of Cairo. Had the relationship lasted longer Russian words would have probably penetrated the language as well.

Expression and metaphors. The concepts of the language

  • 12  HAIKAL F, Les problèmes institutionnels de l'eau en Égypte ancienne et dans l'Antiquité méditerran (...)

34In spite of ail these influences, developments, absorptions and sometimes total changes such as expressing oneself in Arabic instead of Ancient Egyptian, the local culture remains the same and this similarity manifests itself best through expressions and metaphors which are inspired by the natural environment in which they are created. With the knowledge of Arabic and of local culture, Egyptian concepts are easier to understand because of the common way of viewing the world. There are articles and a few books on the subject12 but no comprehensive study has yet been published.

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ALLEN J, P., "Synthetic and Anaytic Tense in Old Egyptian", L'égyptologie en 1979, Aires prioritaires de recherches, vol. I, Colloques internationaux du CNRS 595, Paris, 1982, p. 19-27.

CERNY J. and GROLL S, I., A Late Egyptian Grammar, Studia PohI, Series Maior IV, Rome, 1984.

EDEL E., Altâgyptische Grammatik, Analecta Orientalia XXXIV-XXXIX, Rome, 1955-1964.


- Ägyptische Grammatik, Berlin, 1928.

- Neuägyptische Grammatik, Leipzig, 1933.

FRANDSEN P. J., An Outline of the Late Egyptian Verbal System, Copenhagen, 1974.

GARDINER A. H., Egyptian Grammar, Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, Oxford, 1957.

LOPRIENO A.. Ancient Egyptian; a linguistic Introduction, Cambridge, 1995.

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1 See the communication of G. GABRA in this volume.

2 See LOPRIENO Antonio, Ancient Egyptian; a Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 19. LOPRIENO distinguishes six typological phases: (a) Archaïc period, (b) Old Kingdom, (c) Classical model, (d) The Ramesside orthography, (e) Demotic, (f) the Ptolemaic System.

3  LOPRIENO A., ibid., p. 5.

4 For an up-dated and detailed account of the genetic frame of Ancient Egyptian, see LOPRIENO A., Ancient Egyptian, op. cit., especially p.1-8.

5  LOPRIENO, op. cit., p. 1.

6 Non-verbal sentences do not exist in Indo-European languages because when  we say "the man is at home" or "l'homme est à la maison", these are considered as verbal sentences using the verb "to be" or "être" in the present tense. While in Ancient Egyptian, the corresponding example is non-verbal formed of subject + predicate, as in Arabic.

7 See the communication of Ola EL AGUIZY in the first part of the paper. See also LOPRIENO A., Ancient Egyptian, Cambridge University Press, 1995

8 Substitute spelling occurs also in New Kingdom texts particularly in those written in Hieratic in the vernacular language of this period. Some scholars thought that this variety of spelling could reflect different dialects as in the case of Coptic, but no systematic research on the subject has been published, as far as I can tell now.

9 FISHER H., Lexicon der Àgyptologie II, 1916, and SCHENKEL W, ibid. V, p. 713-735.

10 HAIKAL F., Festshrift Donadoni, in the Press.

11 HOCH J. E.,Semitic words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom, Princeton University Press, 1994.

12  HAIKAL F, Les problèmes institutionnels de l'eau en Égypte ancienne et dans l'Antiquité méditerranéenne, Ifao, Le Caire, 1994, p. 205-213. Also GRAPOW H., Bildiische Ausdruke.

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Ola El Aguizy et Fayza Haykal, « Changes in Ancient Egyptian Language », Égypte/Monde arabe, Première série, 27-28 | 1996, mis en ligne le 08 juillet 2008, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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Ola El Aguizy

University of Cairo

Fayza Haykal

American University of Cairo

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