Ancient Egyptian is not only one of the oldest written languages, it has a recorded history far longer than any other. It was first used around 3000 B. C., and remained in continuous use until 500 A. D., so it was in use for 3500 years. It is still in use today, although nothing new is written in it, as the official language of the Coptic church. Although a tiny fraction of what was written survives, the sheer volume that does survive is enormous.
Ancient Egyptian is one of the six branches of the Afro-Asiatic, or Hamito- Semetic, linguistic family. Another branch is Semetic, which includes Arabic and Hebrew. The other four branches are Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, and Omotic.
Obviously, Ancient Egyptian varied tremendously throughout its long history. Here are the main forms written Egyptian has taken.
Archaic Egyptian - The first inscriptions appear in predynastic Egypt, around 3100 B. C., but very little is known of it because the inscriptions are so brief.
Old Egyptian - The language of the inscriptions of the Old Kingdom (2650 - 2135 B. C.), when the first continuous texts appear.
Middle Egyptian - The language of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom (2135 - 1785 B. C.). This version was used in religious and monumental inscriptions until the end of the Graeco-Roman period.
Late Egyptian - The everyday language of the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period (1550 - 700 B. C.) The best examples are secular documents from the Ramesside Period (1300 - 1080 B. C.) While Old and Middle Egyptian were similar, Late Egyptian was very different in structure.
Demotic - Vernacular successor of Late Egyptian written in a script called Demotic, from the beginning of the Late Period to the end of Roman times (700 B. C. - 500 A. D.) During this time, the official language of Egypt was Greek, and then Latin.
Coptic - The final stage of the language. It was written in the Greek alphabet with a few letters borrowed from Egyptian. Because it continues to be spoken by the Coptic church, it's the only version where we really know what is sounds like. It was used from around 200 A. D. until the present.
In addition, during the Late Period, there were three main scripts. They were hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. They look different but are actually the same writing system, hieratic and demotic being cursive derivatives of hieroglyphic. The earlier categories are analogous to "Old English, Middle English, and Modern English" while the scripts are analogous to "manuscript, cursive, and calligraphy".
Let's focus on hieroglyphic which is the most famous. Like all written language, it began as pictographic. Some languages, such as Chinese, remained that way, but most, including Egyptian, evolved into a phonetic system. More accurately, Egyptian was a consonantal system in which vowels were not written down, like Arabic and Hebrew, although today we can look at spoken Coptic to guess what the vowels may have been. For most of it's use, hieroglyphics were used to monumental inscriptions and sacred religious texts. Therefore, they would spend a lot of time on each symbol, and make it very beautiful. However, this caused it to look a lot more iconographic than it is, which later was a stumbling block to deciphering it. Of course, hieroglyphics would most accurately be described as a mixed system since even when it was a phonetic system, there were still some symbols which represented meaning.
Throughout most of it's history, there were about 700 signs in use at any one time. As time went on, new ones would be picked up, and others would fall into disuse. However, at the end of its history, during the Graeco-Roman Period, Egyptian Hieroglyphics really became a mysterious system from a long forgotten past. One aspect of the feeling of the occult which grew up around the writing system was the invention of a large number of new signs. At the end of it's use in Roman times, there were about 6000 signs in use at once.
From now on, I'll be referring to Middle Egyptian. The signs can be classified into three categories, logograms, phonograms, and determinatives. Logograms symbolized an entire word.
Later this symbol would be picked up by the Phonecians, and eventually become our letter "O".
As time went on, the symbols would take on additional meanings. For instance, the "O" symbol came to mean not just the sun, but day.
The other main category is phonograms, in which the symbols represent sounds. These were derived by a process of phonetic borrowing in which logograms were used to write other words or parts of other words that are unrelated in meaning but with similar consonantal structure. There are three types of phonograms, uniconsonantal, biconsonantal, and triconsonantal, that represent one, two and three consonants respectively. Of course there would have been vowels in between but they weren't written down. Thus the symbols represented syllables.
Therefore an owl, , represented "m", and was a uniconsonantal phonogram. A cobra, , represented "dj", and was a uniconsonantal phonogram. Even though here, I have to write it with two letters, "dj", it was intended as a single sound without a vowel in between.
A bowl or basket, , represented "nb", and was a biconsonantal phonogram. They would use this symbol for any syllable appearing in a word composed of the consonants "n" and "b", with a vowel in between. One of the "consonants" in Egyptian was the glottal stop, which we don't have a letter for in English. The knotted cord, , represented "w" and a glottal stop, and thus was a biconsonantal phonogram. The duck, , represented "s" and a glottal stop.
The scarab beetle represented, , "hpr", and thus was a triconsonantal phonogram. Another consonant that they had which we don't have a letter for is the gutteral, the ayin of Semetic languages. The ankh, , was a triconsonantal phonogram representing the gutteral plus "nh". The ankh is most famous as originally meaning "life". For some reason, Ron Goldman has an ankh on his tombstone. However, some scholars believe that it was originally a picture of a sandal strap.
Determinatives were placed at the end of words to help establish their meaning if it might otherwise be uncertain. For instance, some a vertical line would be placed under logograms to emphasize that they were intended as logograms instead of phonograms. Also, sometimes if there was a group of symbols which could mean more than one thing, they would add an additional symbol which was somehow associated with the meaning they intended. For instance, , could mean various things including "weak". If they meant "weak", they would also include a small bird, as an example of something weak.
Some determinatives were specific to a single word, such as "to reap", or "horse". Others identified a word as belonging to a class or category. These are called generic determinatives or taxograms.
- man, person
- god, king
- eat, drink, speak
The determinatives of a word could also be changed or varied, so as to indicate a nuance of meaning.
There are two genders in Egyptian, masculine and feminine. Masculine nouns have no special ending. Feminine nouns end in , which sounds like "t". There are three numbers in Egyptian, singular, plural, and dual. The plural ending is , which sounds like "w". The feminine plural ending is . The dual symbolizes pairs of the things, and is symbolized by , which sounds like "y". The masculine dual ending is , and the feminine dual ending is .
Many people criticize the Egyptians for not converting to a fully alphabetic system. However, they do this in Alexandrian Egypt. These alphabetic texts, consisting of a succession of consonantal signs, written in an unbroken sequence of Greek letters, were far more difficult to understand than traditional Egyptian. The Egyptian system has the disadvantage of a large number of signs. It has the advantage that its mixed orthography creates visually distinctive word patterns that actually enhance legibility.
Often in religious writings, they would deliberately make the writing much more complicated, and use a ridiculous number of symbols, for the purpose of making it hard to understand, in order to make it seem more mystical, as if it contained secret magical knowledge. This became more true towards the end of the use of the Egyptian writing system.
French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion (1790 - 1832) studied the Rosetta stone and the Coptic language, and became the first person to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1821, although he didn't publish his work until 1822.