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Egyptian language

Egyptian Language

The national language of modern day Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which gradually replaced Egyptian and its descendant, the Coptic language, as the language of daily life in the centuries after Egypt was conquered by Arab Muslims. Coptic is still used as a liturgical language in the Coptic Church.

Development of the language

Scholars group the Egyptian language into six major chronological divisions:

  • Archaic Egyptian (before 2600 BC)
  • Old Egyptian (2600 BC – 2000 BC)
  • Middle Egyptian (2000 BC – 1300 BC)
  • Late Egyptian (1300 BC – 700 BC)
  • Demotic (seventh century BC – fifth century AD)
  • Coptic (fourth – fourteenth century AD)
It should be noted that Egyptian writing in the form of label and signs has been dated to 3200 BC. These early texts are generally lumped together under the term "Archaic Egyptian."

Old Egyptian was spoken for some 500 years from 2600 BC onwards. Middle Egyptian was spoken from about 2000 BC for a further 700 years when Late Egyptian made its appearance; Middle Egyptian did, however, survive until the first few centuries AD as a written language, similar to the use of Latin during the Middle Ages and that of Classical Arabic today. Demotic Egyptian first appears about 650 BC and survived as a spoken language until fifth century AD. Coptic Egyptian appeared in the fourth century AD and survived as a living language until the sixteenth century AD, when European scholars traveled to Egypt to learn it from native speakers during the Renaissance. It probably survived in the Egyptian countryside as a spoken language for several centuries after that. The Bohairic dialect of Coptic is still used by the Egyptian Christian Churches.

Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian were all written using hieroglyphs and hieratic. Demotic was written using a script derived from hieratic; its appearance is vaguely similar to modern Arabic script and is also written from right to left (although the two are not related). Coptic is written using the Coptic alphabet, a modified form of the Greek alphabet with a number of symbols borrowed from Demotic for sounds that did not occur in Ancient Greek.

Arabic gradually replaced spoken Coptic after the Arabian invasion in the seventh century, though Arabic was the language of the Muslim political administration soon thereafter.

Structure of the Language

Egyptian is a fairly typical Afro-Asiatic language. At the heart of Egyptian vocabulary is a root of three consonants. Sometimes there were only two, for example /r'/ "sun" (where the apostrophe represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative); others, such as /nfr/, which means beautiful; and some could be as large as five /sxdxd/ "be upside-down". Vowels and other consonants were then added to this root in order to derive words, in the same way as Arabic, Hebrew, and other Afro-Asiatic languages do today. However, we do not know what these vowels would have been, since like other Afro-Asiatic languages, Egyptian does not write vowels; hence "ankh" could represent either "life", "to live" or "living". In transcription, "a", "i" and "u" all represent consonants; for example, the name Tutankhamen was written in Egyptian "twt 'nkh ymn" (the apostrophe represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative). Experts have assigned generic sounds to these values as a matter of convenience; however, this artificial pronunciation has often been mistaken for actual pronunciation.

Phonologically, Egyptian contrasted bilabial, labiodental, alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal and glottal consonants, in a distribution rather similar to that of Arabic.