Saturday, August 27, 2011

Egypt – Hieroglyphs Was Not the Only Language of the Pharaohs

Modern day Egypt’s official language is Egyptian Arabic. But there was a time when pictures or drawings were used as a means of written communication. Many are familiar with Hieroglyphics, which is essentially Egypt’s ancient language of drawings seen to this day on pyramids and Ancient Egyptian artifacts. But what many do not know is that Hieroglyphics is just one of the ancient languages of Egypt. Egyptian language has undergone a number of forms much like English and other languages.


The word Hieroglyphics comes from hieroglyphika, the Greek word for “sacred writings.” It was believed to have been used as far back as 3300 B.C. Hieroglyphics was an easy method of communicating ideas. With no written language to speak of at that time, the Egyptians used drawings to convey their thoughts and ideas to one another.

It was believed to have been first used as a way to keep a detailed record of the Egyptian king’s properties. For example, if the king owned cows, the scribes would draw a cow with a number following the drawing. Around 750 individual signs or symbols have been discovered by scholars and Egyptologists. Romanticized by many, Hieroglyphics is not the beginning and end of the Egyptian language. In fact, scholars see it as the mid-point between ancient cave drawings and the actual Egyptian language.


By 2925 B.C., a “new” written language pushed forward, the hieratic language. This “new” written language was simply an evolution of Hieroglyphics. It is drawings interpreted in a more cursive form. The overall appearance of hieratic language is close to traditional written language as the characters are based loosely on the original Hieroglyphs.


The Egyptian culture and language continued to evolve making way for the Demotic language, a shorthand form of the hieratic script. It appeared around the 6th century B.C and became the language of the ruling class at that time. Both Hieroglyphic and Hieratic were still used but only by the lower classes. Demotic script eventually became a popular form of writing for all classes. Today, it can be found on Ancient Egyptian tombstones, monuments and obelisks. An example of the Demotic script can be seen on the “Rosetta stone.”

Rosetta Stone

Discovered in 1799, the Rosetta Stone played a pivotal role in unlocking the languages of Ancient Egypt. The stone featured text written in three languages: Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Greek. An inscription dated March 27 196 B.C. is on the stone tablet. Believed to have been written by Egyptian priests, the text praises Ptolemy V for being a pious, noble and generous ruler. By deciphering the Demotic and Greek texts, the scholars who studied the ancient stone were able to deduce the meanings of the different hieroglyphic symbols. Since 1802, the Rosetta Stone has been on display in the British Museum much to the dismay of the Egyptians. But that’s a different story.


The final evolution of the ancient Egyptian language is called the Coptic language, which was used during the period known as Ptolemaic. This appeared in A.D. 200. The Coptic language was used by the Egyptians up to the 12th century in both its oral and written form. The main feature of this language is the use of the Greek alphabet instead of the other earlier forms. Archaeologists have found many religious and historical documents stemming from Egypt’s past written in Coptic.

Today’s Egyptologists need to understand the evolution of the ancient Egyptian language in order for them to be able to interpret accurately whatever archaeological finds they come across.

Photo Credit: Brooklyn Museum

1 comment:

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