Hidden in the Hieroglyphs: Is Ancient Egyptian a Lost Language?



The ancient Egyptian language isn’t just one set of symbols which individuals discover on papyri bookmarks at museums. It is a sophisticated system of symbols which modified over time. Furthermore, the phrases discovered on historic reliefs grew to become a foundation for different languages.

Hieroglyphs have been nothing greater than a really refined system of identified symbols in ancient Egypt. The primary symbols are dated again to the oldest dynasties, however, the script was at its peak in the course of the Middle Kingdom Period. The language which was known as ”Ancient Egyptian” is not one unchangeable system. For around 4,000 years it was adapting and the difficult symbolism of logographs developed.

Please observe that this text is concentrated on hieroglyphs, not different types of ancient Egyptian writings like Demotic and Hieratic scripts.

Stele of Minnakht, chief of the scribes in the course of 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 plainly a number of the concepts used within the ancient Egyptian language got here from Mesopotamia. Hieroglyphs have three completely different sorts of glyphs: phonetic, determinatives, and logographs.

The term ”hieroglyph” itself comes from Greek, and means “sacred carvings” or “god’s words.” The oldest examples discovered so far had been found in Abydos in 1998 by a German expedition led by Gunter Dreyer. The writing is dated to 4,000 BC and was discovered in the tomb of a pre-dynastic ruler often known as Scorpion I.

Nevertheless, in its early stage, hieroglyphic writing was not very developed. It didn’t include full sentences, and the primary full sentence found 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 interval.

In these occasions, the language was nonetheless clear and comprehensible, however, on the finish of the reign of Ramessides the variety of glyphs began to develop in a short time. By the Greco-Roman interval, there have been already about 5,000 hieroglyphs in use. The variety of symbols was too giant to permit anybody to be taught it at a fast tempo.

A section of the Papyrus of Ani showing cursive hieroglyphs.

A pieceof the Papyrus of Ani displaying cursive hieroglyphs. ( Public Domain )

Subsequently, there was not only one ancient Egyptian language. Skilled researchers have already concluded that the assumption in hieroglyphs as magical symbols got here from the late Roman and early medieval durations. Till the tip of the medieval interval, individuals handled them as mysterious curses, spells, and symbols which weren’t associated with “good powers.” They had been interpreted as evil by Christianity.

New Life for an Ancient Language

As time handed, fewer and fewer folks knew the right way to learn hieroglyphs. From frequent information amongst the nobles, it grew to become a talent solely related to the individuals who served in temples. This additionally created a foundation for the legend that hieroglyphs had been magical symbols. Based on Aidan Dodson:

”Basic information of the hieroglyphic script contracted quickly throughout Roman instances. Its use was successfully restricted to the partitions of temples, and so to the restricted world of the priesthood. In these circumstances, the prevailing perception held by Greek and Roman writers that hieroglyphs have been by some means one thing extra mysterious than easy letters gained additional help. Earlier Classical writers broadly supported the view that the hieroglyphs had been a real system of writing, and even that they’re the ancestors of all alphabets.”

Egyptian hieroglyphs typical of the Greco-Roman period, sculpted in Relief.

Egyptian hieroglyphs typical of the Greco-Roman interval sculpted in Relief. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It’s believed that the final individuals who knew how you can learn ancient hieroglyphs have been killed by Christians on the island of Philae. The final identified hieroglyphic inscription was made on Philae in 394 AD, and it is often known as Graffito of Esmet-Akhom. Through the seventh century, Egypt was dominated by Islam, and the harm of previous texts by the two new religions had already begun. Nonetheless, the motifs from the Egyptian reliefs began to be tailored into decorations of the brand new buildings.

Through the Renaissance, a curiosity in antiquity re-emerged and other people started to be interested in the mythology of Egypt. Nonetheless, the one texts which have been comprehensible at the moment have been those written by Greek and Roman writers – the inscriptions on the partitions of the temples and tombs had been utterly undecipherable.


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