Hidden in the Hieroglyphs: Is Ancient Egyptian a Lost Language?
The ancient Egyptian language is not just one set of symbols which people find on papyri bookmarks at museums. It's a complicated system of symbols which changed over time. Moreover, the words found on ancient reliefs became a basis for other languages.
Hieroglyphs were nothing more than a very sophisticated system of known symbols in ancient Egypt. The first symbols are dated back to the oldest dynasties, but the script was at its peak during the Middle Kingdom period. The language which is called ''ancient Egyptian'' isn't one unchangeable system. For around 4,000 years it was adapting and the complicated symbolism of logographs evolved.
Please note that this article is focused on hieroglyphs, not other forms of ancient Egyptian writings like Demotic and Hieratic scripts.
Stele of Minnakht, chief of the scribes during the reign of Ay. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Language of Gods
Hieroglyphs weren't invented by ancient Egyptians. They appeared after Sumerian script, and it seems that some of the ideas used in the ancient Egyptian language came from Mesopotamia. Hieroglyphs have three different kinds of glyphs: phonetic, determinatives, and logographs.
The term ''hieroglyph'' itself comes from Greek, and means “sacred carvings” or “god's words.” The oldest examples found to date were discovered in Abydos in 1998 by a German expedition led by Gunter Dreyer. The writing is dated to 4,000 BC and was found in the tomb of a pre-dynastic ruler known as Scorpion I.
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However, in its early stage hieroglyphic writing was not very developed. It didn’t contain full sentences, and the first full sentence discovered by archaeologists is dated to the reign of the Second Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Egyptians had created around 800 hieroglyphs by the New Kingdom period.
In those times, the language was still clear and understandable, but at the end of the reign of Ramessides the number of glyphs started to grow very quickly. By the Greco-Roman period, there were already about 5,000 hieroglyphs in use. The number of symbols was too large to allow anyone to learn it at a quick pace.
A section of the Papyrus of Ani showing cursive hieroglyphs. ( Public Domain )
Therefore, there was not just one ancient Egyptian language. Professional researchers have already concluded that the belief in hieroglyphs as magical symbols came from the late Roman and early medieval periods. Until the end of the medieval period, people treated them as mysterious curses, spells, and symbols which were not related to “good powers.” They were interpreted as evil by Christianity.
New Life for an Old Language
As time passed, fewer and fewer people knew how to read hieroglyphs. From common knowledge amongst the nobles, it became a skill only associated with the people who served in temples. This also created a basis for the legend that hieroglyphs were magical symbols. According to Aidan Dodson:
''General knowledge of the hieroglyphic script contracted rapidly during Roman times. Its use was effectively limited to the walls of temples, and so to the restricted world of the priesthood. In these circumstances, the existing belief held by Greek and Roman writers that hieroglyphs were somehow something more mysterious than simple letters gained further support. Earlier Classical writers broadly supported the view that the hieroglyphs were a true system of writing, and even that they are the ancestors of all alphabets.''
Egyptian hieroglyphs typical of the Greco-Roman period, sculpted in Relief. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
It is believed that the last people who knew how to read ancient hieroglyphs were killed by Christians on the island of Philae. The last known hieroglyphic inscription was made on Philae in 394 AD, and it's known as Graffito of Esmet-Akhom. During the 7th century, Egypt was dominated by Islam, and the damage of old texts by the two new religions had already started. However, the motifs from the Egyptian reliefs started to be adapted into decorations of the new buildings.
During the Renaissance, an interest in antiquity re-emerged and people began to be attracted to the mythology of Egypt. However, the only texts which were understandable at that time were the ones written by Greek and Roman writers - the inscriptions on the walls of the temples and tombs were completely undecipherable.
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However, a language cannot be completely dead if the people are kept alive, and the ancient Egyptian language evolved into Coptic, which influenced many modern languages. It is surprising to note, for example, the heavy influence of Coptic on the modern French language. Of course, the most influenced language is Arabic, and the dialect spoken in Egypt has many words with roots in ancient times.
Seated statue of an Egyptian scribe found in the Western cemetery at Giza; 5th dynasty. ( Jon Bodsworth )
What About the Spoken Language?
When in 1830 Champollion officially announced that humanity could read hieroglyphs again, the gates to the ancient world were opened once more. However, due to the language’s characteristics, there was still no explanation on how to pronounce the ancient words.
Many researchers accept a pronunciation related to Coptic and Arabic, but in fact, the ancient Egyptian language has no vowels, so the specialists in ancient languages try to add them in the best possible way. It is necessary to remember that it is uncertain how ancient Egyptians spoke.
Ibn Wahshiyya's 985 AD translation of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet. ( Public Domain )
The ancient hieroglyphs of Egypt continue to be one of the most fascinating languages. Now researchers can read them without any problem, but the process of discovering the meaning of the inscription itself is still fascinating. It's like searching for lost treasure and one of the greatest linguistic miracles.
Although it is almost certain that we will never find how to pronounce words in the ancient Egyptian language like people who lived millennia ago, it is still possible to read their symbols – ones that contain a magic that is nothing more than the mystical feeling emitted while reading words closed in the symbols thousands of years ago.
Top image: Painted Thutmosis III cartouches (temple relief), Deir el-Bahari. Source: CC BY SA 3.0
J.P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 1999.
L. Adkins, R. Adkins, The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs, 2000.
A. Dodson, The Hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, 2001.
Egyptian Writing, available at: