What language did the ancient Egyptians speak?

The ancient Egyptians spoke ancient Egyptian, a language that ceased to be spoken in 639 AD with the arrival of the Muslim invasion; the Arabs imposed their language in Egypt. However, the Coptic language is a direct descendant of ancient Egyptian language and has survived to this day as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in Egypt. The difference between the Coptic language and ancient Egyptian is similar to that between the Romance languages ​​and classical Latin, so both languages ​​have a different grammar and vocabulary due to the more than 4 thousand years that separate them. The Egyptian language belongs to the Afro-Asian language family, to which the Amharic, Berber, Tigrinya, Akkadian, Phoenician, Arabic, Arabic and Hebrew languages ​​also belong.

The Egyptian hieroglyphics dating from 2600 BC and that are engraved on the walls of the pyramids and in the tombs are part of the writing of ancient Egyptian. Hieroglyphics only represent consonants and not vowels; a symbol can have one, two or more than three consonants, this makes it impossible to know what was the exact pronunciation of the ancient Egyptian, since hieroglyphs only represent consonants and the vowels are not known. However, Egyptologists and linguists use Coptic, which is a direct descendant of ancient Egyptian, in order to reconstruct pronunciation. For example, the word ‘god’ with hieroglyphs is written ntr, and in Coptic it is said nute or nuti, it can be seen that in Coptic the final r was lost, and that possibly the first vowel of ntr is a “u”. Most linguists prefer to add an “e” between each consonant to be able to read the words, in this way, ntr would be read neter.

We can also find ancient Egyptian words in the names of historical figures and cities of that African country. For example, the names of queens Nefertiti and Nefertari, both begin with nefer, which means beautiful or good; titi means “arrived” and tari means “companion”, so Nefertiti means the “the beautiful one has arrived” and Nefertari translates to “beautiful companion”. Another example is Ramses, which is the Hellenized form of the ancient Egyptian name Ra-mss, meaning “begotten by Ra”, which was a name given to several pharaohs and nobles.

Queens Nefertiti (left) and Nefertari (right)

Reading hieroglyphs

Now let’s see an example of how the hieroglyphics were read.

King Tut’s signet

In the upper right of the picture you can see a cross with a ball below, that is the symbol of nfr, meaning beautiful or good; next to it is an ax or flag, which is read ntr and means god; below it is a bowl,nb, which ideographically means Lord; and the two bars below it, twy, are two hieroglyphs for land, the “two lands” glyphs represent Upper and Lower Egypt, the whole title is nṯr nfr nb twy, or “netyer nefer neb tawi”, meaning the good Lord, lord of the two lands, a common royal title. The middle column is one of King Tut’s names, Neb-kheperu-re, and to the left is khst nb or “khaset-neb”, another traditional title meaning “Lord of the Hill Country”, or in other words “Lord of the foreign lands”.

Ancient Egyptian Vocabulary

Now let’s see a little vocabulary, let’s not forget that the Egyptians did not write the vowels, so in the following list the consonants of the words are shown and in parentheses the assumption of their pronunciation.

Ancient Egyptian English
Nbt (nebet) Woman
Z (es) Man
Zt (set) Daughter
Z3 (sa) Son
Mwt (muut) Mother
Ity Father
Snt (senet) Sister
Sn (sen) Brother
Hm (hem) Servant (m)
Hmt (hemet) Servant (f)
Nswt (nesuut) King
Ntr (netcher) God
Ntrt (netcheret) Goddess
Hm-ntr (hem netcher) Priest
Hrd (khered) Kid
Smr (semer) Courtier
Sm (shemah) Songtress
Spswt (sheptsut) Lady
Nb (neb) Lord
Miu, o Mii Cat (m)
Miit Cat (f)
Iwiw Dog
Pr (par) House
Ankh Life
Mw Water
Dpt Boat
Nxt Strong, powerful
Hd White, silver
Dw Hill

After reading all this information you must be very disappointed to know that you can write and read ancient Egyptian, but you cannot know its exact pronunciation, only Coptic reconstructions and assumptions. The phonetic reconstruction of the ancient Egyptian can be heard in some Hollywood movies, such as The Mummy (1999), The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy, a 2017 film starring Tom Cruise. One of the characters in this movie is the spirit of an ancient Egyptian princess named Ahmanet, who speaks ancient Egyptian in most of her scenes.

Princess Ahmanet (left) and The Mummy movie poster (right)

English words of Ancient Egyptian origin

Both in Spanish and English they have in their vocabularies words of Egyptian origin, which have reached them through other languages such as Latin, Arabic and Greek. Let’s see some examples:

Gum: The word gum derives from the Vulgar Latin word gummi, which is a loan from Greek kommi. The Greek form derives from the Ancient Egyptian word qmy.t (qemi), which means “gum” or “resin.”

Desert: “Desert” in English comes from deshret, which means red or barren in the Ancient Egyptian language.

Chemistry or Alchemy : The etymology of the word chemistry is a debatable issue. It derives from the Middle Latin version “alchimia” or “alchymia.” The Greek version, “chemeia,” first appears in about the fourth century and was used to designate the art of metal-working, especially the possible change of base metals into gold and silver. The Arabs later prefixed the article “al” and “alchemy” came finally to signify the art of chemistry in general. The Greeks likely borrowed “chemeia”  from the Egyptian word “chemi” or “kemi,” which means the color black.

Susan(na): Susan(a)  stems from the Hebrew name Shoshanah, which is based on the Egyptian word  “seshen” (lotus or water lilly). The word for water lily also ended up in a few Greek texts as the Phoenician word “souson.”

Oasis: Oasis is based on the Ancient Egyptian word “wehe,” which became “waHe” in Coptic, “waaH(a)” in Arabic, and “oasis” in Greek.

Mc Gregor Mathers, ensures that the word Tarot, comes from the Egyptian word Taru, which means : “for consultation” or “what requires response”, and certainly the Tarot from its origin is used to consult and give answers.

The influence of ancient Egyptian on European languages

Egyptologist and polyglot Ramy Samir Mina did his master’s thesis on the lexical influence of the ancient Egyptian on European languages. Mr. Ramy speaks about 11 languages, including dead languages ​​such as Ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Syrian, and still living languages ​​such as Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. Due to his linguistic knowledge, he noticed that many ancient Egyptian words have similarities with European languages.

The reason for this linguistic influence is due to the fact that the Greeks ruled Egypt from 332 BC to 30 B.C.; then the Romans, whose language is Latin, ruled Egypt from 30 BC to 641 AD, so the thesis explains that the transition from ancient Egyptian vocabulary to European vocabulary occurred during this period of 1000 years in particular, with proofs from the Greek and Latin vocabulary, languages ​​that would later influence other European languages ​​such as romances. and Germanic.

Below is a comparative table of Ramy Mina’s thesis between the ancient Egyptian vocabulary, Spanish and English:

Ancient EgyptianEnglishSpanish
(st) setseatasiento
sinSoundSon, sonido
(imr) imer—–amar
kabuCubic, cubeCúbico, cubo

If you want to read Ramy Samir Mina’s full paper, here is the link: https://www.academia.edu/18137884/Ancient_Egyptian_language_and_its_influence_on_modern_languages


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