Why should speaking Egyptian be so difficult? Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ancient Egyptian children were able to speak it by the time they were two years old. It was no more difficult for them than learning to speak English was for you.
So why can’t even the greatest scholars speak Egyptian today? They can read it—in several forms, including hieroglyphics—and they can write it—in several forms, including hieroglyphics.
The scholars can’t speak it because they don’t know how it was pronounced. In Egyptian, as in Hebrew, only the consonants were written, not the vowels. The last hieroglyphic inscription was written around 394 A.D. Sometime after that Egyptian truly became a dead language. By contrast, some people always continued to speak Hebrew (and therefore knew how to pronounce it, even though the vowels weren’t written).a In about the tenth century A.D. a form of diacritical markings for Hebrew writing was standardized to indicate what vowels were to be used in pronouncing the words. Thus, we have a good idea of how Hebrew was pronounced. The same cannot be said of Egyptian.b
When pronouncing an ancient Egyptian word today, scholars ordinarily separate each consonant with an “e” vowel, simply as a convention. For example, the Egyptian word for “night” () is spelled grh\ and is pronounced gereh\; wbn (), meaning “to rise” or “shine forth,” is pronounced as weben.
There are over 100 hieroglyphic signs, which seems daunting compared to the fewer than 30 alphabetic signs needed to read English, French, Spanish or German. But people who work with hieroglyphics find working with the script fun rather than drudgery.
Hieroglyphic writing (literally, “sacred carvings”) was invented about 5,000 years ago. Later, other scripts, called hieratic and demotic, were used to write the Egyptian language. But hieroglyphics continued to be used in monumental inscriptions.
There are three different kinds of hieroglyphic signs.
First, there are ideograms or “sense” signs that depict the object itself or a related notion. For example-
Second, there are phonograms or “sound” signs. Ordinarily, a “sound” sign represents just one phoneme or sound—what we might call loosely a letter, just as a letter in our Latin alphabet does. Sometimes “sense” signs or ideograms are used as “sound” signs. For example, the “sense” sign for man could be used phonetically as a “sound” sign in English by using it as the first syllable in the word for “mandate.” Some “sound” signs represent two letters. For example-
The third kind of hieroglyphic sign is called a determinative. It has no phonetic value; that is, it has no sound. It simply indicates what kind of word it is attached to. For example, a determinative is included in the names of gods, indicating that the word is a name of a god. Another determinative is used with the names of towns and cities to indicate the word is the name of a town or city. On the chart are the single letter signs of hieroglyphics—what might be called the hieroglyphic alphabet.
Egyptian scribes would often use both sound and sense signs in a single word—in effect, spelling it two ways. That is, they would spell the word and give a nonphonetic picture of it. Here are some examples-
Unfortunately, not only did ancient Egyptians omit the vowels, but just to make things even more difficult, there was no separation between words or sentences. This, too, was characteristic of early Hebrew. Imagine a couple of English sentences written this way-
As for the first example, “Gdsnwhr,” should we read it as “God is now here” or “God is nowhere?” It all depends on the context. If the sentence was written by a Christian evangelist, somebody like Billy Graham, then it might mean “God is now here”; but if written by an atheist, then it would probably mean “God is nowhere.”
A number of scholars in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance and Reformation tried to decipher hieroglyphs, but they made little progress. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition in Egypt found the now famous Rosetta stone, which eventually provided the key to decipherment. The Rosetta stone was written in 196 B.C. It measures approximately 3 feet 9 inches high and 2 feet 4 inches wide. It is 11 inches thick. The important point, however, is that it contains the same text in three languages- Greek, which was easily translated; demotic, the contemporary Egyptian script, and ancient hieroglyphics. On the basis of the Greek text, the English scientist Thomas Young had deciphered the demotic text by 1814. The hieroglyphic text proved more difficult. But in 1822 the hieroglyphic text was deciphered by the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion.
Here is how Champollion did it. First, using the Rosetta inscriptions, he correctly assumed that the hieroglyphic word enclosed in a cartouche (French for “royal ring”) represented what in the Greek text was PTOLEMAIS (that is, King “Ptolemy”). On this basis, Champollion gave the hieroglyphic signs in the cartouche the following alphabetic values-
Next, using those seven signs, Champollion took another cartouche containing the name of royalty and figured out what some other unknown signs must represent. Then, using the signs from the first two names, he figured out new signs from a third name, and so on. For example-
By using this methodc for about 80 Egyptian names within cartouches found in other inscriptions, Champollion found the basic phonetic signs for Egyptian. From there he proceeded to establish the sense signs, the vocabulary and syntax. Champollion was, of course, a bona fide genius, having taught himself to read at age five and having mastered six ancient Near Eastern languages, not to mention Greek and Latin, by age sixteen!
In the 163 years since Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian, tremendous strides have been made in our understanding of the language. Although there are still some words and idioms whose meaning are unclear, ancient Egyptians can now “speak” to us quite clearly across the millennia. We can share their hopes and fears. And we can find in their writings much of the same wisdom and foolishness we find in our own.
Over three thousand years ago, eager young Egyptian women were preening themselves … and were keeping their boyfriends waiting!
“My heart thought of my love for you,
When half of my hair was braided;
I came at a run to find you,
And neglected my hairdo.
Now if you let me braid my hair,
I shall be ready in a moment” (AEL,2 II, p. 191).
The wise Ptahhotep (c. 2300 B.C.) counseled young men (a bit chauvinistically)-
“When you prosper and found your house,
And love your wife with ardor,
Fill her belly, clothe her back,
Ointment soothes her body.
Gladden her heart as long as you live,
She is a fertile field for her lord.
Do not contend with her in court,
Keep her from power, restrain her” (AEL, I, p. 69).
Around 2100 B.C. Pharaoh Merikare’s father urged him to rule justly and wisely-
“Do justice, then you endure on earth;
Calm the weeper, don’t oppress the widow;
Don’t expel a man from his father’s property,
Don’t reduce the nobles in their possessions.
Beware of punishing wrongfully,
Do not kill, it does not serve you.
Punish with beatings, with detention.
Thus will the land be well ordered” (AEL, I, p. 100).
Some four thousand years ago, Pharaoh Pepi was anxious about the certainty of his immortality and quite aware of his dependence on the mercy of the gods, as the following inscription from his pyramid clearly shows-
“O father of Pepi, take Pepi with you;
Living, to you Mother Nut!3
Gates of sky, open for Pepi.
Pepi comes to you, make him live!
Command that this Pepi sit beside you” (AEL, I, p. 49)
But Pharaoh Intef (c. 2000 B.C.) subscribed to the old, eat-drink-be-merry philosophy-
“None comes from there [i.e., the grave],
To tell their state,
To tell of their needs,
To calm our hearts,
Until we go where they have gone!
Hence rejoice in your heart!
Forgetfulness profits you,
Follow your heart as long as you live!
Put myrrh on your head,
Dress in fine linen.
Let your heart not sink!
Follow your heart and your happiness,
Do your things on earth as your heart commands!
Wailing saves no man from the pit!
Do not weary of it!
Lo, none is allowed to take his goods with him,
Lo, none who departs comes back again!” (AEL, I, p. 196).
a. In addition, certain rudimentary vowels, called matres lectiones, were introduced in Hebrew which help somewhat in indicating pronunciation.
b. A word of qualification is in order here. For the Egyptian scribe engaged in international correspondence, foreign words and, especially, foreign personal and place names—be they Hamitic, Semitic, or non-Semitic—posed a serious problem, namely, how to represent in Egyptian their approximate pronunciation. His solution was the development of an Egyptian syllabic orthography (Egyptian signs which would represent both a consonant and a vowel, for example, ta, ti, tu, etc.). Among the many important scholarly contributions of the great W. F. Albright was a monograph on this subject, The Vocalization of the Egyptian Syllabic Orthography, American Oriental Series 5 (1934).
c. Careful readers will note that Champollion identified some hieroglyphic signs for vowels. In spelling personal names, late Egyptian scribes often indicated vowels by using certain consonant signs for that purpose (as in the examples here), much as Hebrew had done earlier.
1. Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to read this sentence if you were totally unfamiliar with that great speech.
2. This love poem, like many others, was written on papyrus. The translation, as well as that of the remaining ones in this article, appear in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (AEL), 2 vols. (Berkeley- University of California Press, 1973–1976).
3. The Egyptian Sky-goddess.