Ancient Near East 101: Ancient Egyptian

What little kid walking through a museum, doesn’t want to learn how to read the hieroglyphs which cover many Egyptian artifacts? Even as adults, we find the strings of little pictures fascinating.

Ancient Egyptian was the language spoken and written by the Egyptians from about 3400 BC and used until about the Roman Period. It is not a Semitic language, like Hebrew and Arabic, but it does share some similar features. It is also not the language spoken today in Egypt, which is a form of Arabic.

Egyptian was inscribed in stone using the famous hieroglyphs, but (like Hebrew) they did not write the vowels, and they were never added later (like Hebrew), so Egyptian cannot be fully pronounced, beyond some words which have been reconstructed, or names which are also written in other languages which do write the vowels (like Akkadian!). The Egyptians also used a cursive script based on the hieroglyphs to write more quickly on papyrus or ostraca (broken pieces of pottery), which we call “Hieratic”. This later developed into a script called “Demotic”. The Egyptians still continued to write monumental inscriptions using the hieroglyphs during the time in which they wrote these two cursive scripts, though. Finally, when Greek civilization syncretized into Egypt, they began to write Egyptian using the Greek alphabet (which has vowels!), and this we call Coptic, and it is still used as a liturgical language by the Coptic Church. Although it has similarities to ancient Egyptian, the language has evolved so much by the time that Coptic was written that it is quite different, and the possibility of restoring the vowels is essentially nil. (I point this out to say that, contrary to “The Mummy”, you can’t recite spells in Egyptian, sorry to disappoint.)

Egyptian is still important to the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. It allows a person to study the history, culture, and literature of Egypt, which plays several large roles in the Bible. It is also useful in part for the linguistic study on Hebrew, as there are a few influences of Egyptian in Hebrew.


2 thoughts on “Ancient Near East 101: Ancient Egyptian

  1. Pingback: Transitions | Life Outside the Pages

  2. Pingback: The Ancient Near East (Ancient Near Eastern Studies) 2014 | Things that I care about

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