On the Egyptian Language

The Egyptian language is first dated by inscription to circa 3400 BCE and is one of the oldest recorded languages among humans. It is classified as an Afroasiatic language (Hamito-Semitic in older sources) and shares features with related ancient languages such as Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, and with contemporary languages such as Arabic, Amharic and Hebrew. The liturgical language of Coptic Christianity, Coptic, is a direct descendent of Egyptian.

As with any language with such a long duration of use Egyptian underwent a number of changes over time.  When the rule changes appear to take on clear features Egyptian linguists make distinctions within the language.  For Egyptian there are the following divisions:

  • Archaic Egyptian (Pre- to Early Dynastic Period),
  • Ancient Egyptian (Old Kingdom),
  • Middle Egyptian (Middle Kingdom),
  • Late Egyptian (The Third Intermediate Period),
  • Demotic (Late Period through Roman occupation)
  • Coptic (Roman time to the present)

 Like most Afroasiatic languages Egyptian is built around “verb roots.” In most cases verb roots are made up of three consonants that can be modified by shifting vowel sounds in speaking and specialized characters in hieroglyphic writing. There is a fairly complex system for categorizing verb roots, with James P. Allen’s Middle Egyptian (2010) being one of the best learning sources for those interested in a detailed discussion.

The Eternal Word of Set, Xeper, comes from the verb root xpr or hpr.[1] The verb root hpr means most essentially “to evolve, to develop, to roll out of.” The aspect of “roll out” is likely to be how the verb root became connected with its hieroglyphic counterpart representing the Scarab Beetle.

This glyph was based upon the animal Scarabaeus sacer that is indigenous to Egypt.


Like most other scarab beetles S. sacer is a cophrophagic beetle that collects dung and rolls it off to be buried and used as a food source for itself and for its offspring. You can find a brief video introduction to dung beetle behavior here. For those interested in really diving deep into this topic Evolutionary Biology and Conservation of Dung Beetles by Clarke H. Scholtz et al. (2009) is excellent.

[1] Both the “x” and the “h” in this case signify a phoneme similar to the Scottish “-ch” in loch or the German “-ch” in Ich. Early Egyptological Linguists, such as those working in the 19th Century, tended to favor “x” while contemporary Egyptologists favor “h.”

That is a really powerful tweet.

Egyptian vocabulary list

And now, just for fun, here are a few of my favorite middle Egyptian words and phrases of interest. None of these were constructed by me, so you can feel safe about them being legitimate. :) All are written in phonetic language, because my keyboard doesn’t have an aleph option.

Heka – Holy magic. Typically wielded by the pharaoh.

Hekka khasut – “Rulers of foreign lands.” From which we derive the term “Hyksos.”

Hem-netjer – “God’s servant.” Term for a priest, typically the priests of Amun.

Hu – The word of the gods. Usually translated as “divine utterance.”

Imy-khent – Chamberlain.

Isfet – Chaos. 

Kap – Royal nursery. 

Kenbet – Court of law.

Maat – Order, control, justice. Sometimes written ma'at. The pharaoh was considered an avatar of maat on Earth, and it was his job to preserve the kingdom against the forces of isfet.

Netjer – God

Netjer aa –Great god. A legit god, like Osiris or Isis.

Netjer nefer – Good god. Also can be interpreted as ‘lesser god.’ Normally used to refer to the pharaoh.

Sebayet – “Teachings.” Also called wisdom texts. Basically the encyclopedias of the day.

Sem – Having to do with funerals. A funerary priest was a sem priest. A funerary priest was not, however, “sem hem-netjer.”

Sia – Divine knowledge.

Sobekneferu – “The beauty of Sobek.” Used as a name, not a phrase, though you could probably get away with it at a pinch. Sobek was the crocodile god–alluded to in another famous creation, Ammet, who was both a lady and had the head of a crocodile.

Tawy – “The two lands,” IE Upper and Lower Egypt. Typically appears in descriptive constructions, as in itj-tawy (“seizes possession of the two lands,” the rather boastful name of the city of Amenemhat I) and ankh-tawy (“life of the two lands,” self-explanatory). 

theenglishwizard asked:

Can you help me get started with some decent resources to learn hieroglyphics? Please :)

Hi there!

I certainly can!

With learning hieroglyphs it’s best to start with the classical version of the language, that is learning Middle Egyptian. It’s version of the language we have more of - the most well known stories such as The Story of Sinuhe, The Shipwrecked Sailor, has preserved in the Middle Egyptian language - it was used for the longest period of time spanning from the Middle Kingdom to the time of Ramses II. Also learning Middle Egyptian (according to a old professor of mine) makes learning Old, Late, and Ptolemaic Egyptian easier. 

I mentioned this to you, because you’ll find it a lot easier to find decent resources to learn -properly learn- hieroglyphs, and I mean the Middle Egyptian grammar.

These two resources are what I currently own:

James Hoch’s Middle Egyptian Grammar and Boyo Ockinga’s Concise Middle Egyptian Grammar. 

I find Hoch’s book to be a great source to begin with, for those who are learning independently and without a teacher or someone else to work with. He has chapters for you to read and learn the grammar, words to learn and exercises to put what you learn into practise. 

With Ockinga, I am biased when it comes to this because Ockinga IS my Middle Egyptian professor - he is teaching me and my class Hieroglyphs at uni. He teaches us the Middle Egyptian grammar straight out from this book - and explains things into further detail. So while this book is rather difficult for someone who has no idea what they’re in for, learning independently - it’s great to practise transliterating and translating large pieces of text.

If you live in Australia, Ockinga’s book is available to buy from the Australian Centre of Egyptology at Macquarie University for about $70. Or I have my old edition of the book, if you really want it (it’s practically falling apart). 

Putting what you have learned into practise by transliterating and translating is a extremely helpful way to reinforce what you are learning. Because even if you stop for a few weeks, with hieroglyphs, it’s very easy to forget what you learn. I didn’t do any over my summer (Nov-Feb) and was very rusty when I started back at uni. But a few weeks of practice with my Middle Kingdom and Hiero C units - I’m improving already. :)

Another resource, which I highly recommend is Gardiner’s grammar book. It’s not easy or cheap to buy, but if you get it, it’s like having the holy grail! All good scholars who study hieroglyphs refer to his work - he’s like the grandfather of modern hieroglyphs. He’s grammar book is very similar to the Hoch’s format, and he has a great English to Middle Egyptian dictionary at the back. 

ALSO! If you can get a hold of James P. Allen’s Middle Egyptian grammar book, that is also a great resource to start learning the grammar too.

Really, with any of these you can’t go wrong. :)

Oh and finally, a dictionary also goes a long way. Gardiner does have one … somewhere, but there is one which is highly recommended and not always easy to chase down. And that’s Faulkner’s dictionary, it’s an amazing dictionary which was originally written by hand and it’s still published in his original hand. 

Hopefully that helps you out, and feel free to ask me anymore questions on hiero! 

Good Luck!!!!