Gardiner's Book on Middle Egyptian Language

1. The subject of this manual is the language of the ancient Egyptians as revealed in their Hieroglyphic Writings. The earliest inscriptions go back as far as the First Dynasty, which can in no case be placed later than 3000 BC while some authorities favour a date many hundreds of years earlier. The same script lived on far into the Christian era; the latest hieroglyphs known are at Philae and dated to AD 394; the next latest show the names of the Roman emperors Diocletian (yr. 12, AD 295) and Traianus Decius (AD 249-251). Thus the use of the earliest form of Egyptian writing, though at the last confined to a narrow circle of learned priests, covers a period of three or even four thousands years. In the course of so many centuries, grammar and vocabulary were bound to change very considerably, and in point of fact the Egyptian spoken under the Roman occupation bore but little resemblance to that which was current under the oldest Pharaos. It is true that the new modes of parlance which came into existence from time to time were by no means adequately reflected in the contemporary hieroglyphic inscriptions; for in Egypt the art of writing was always reserved to a conservative and tradition loving caste of scribes upon whose interests and caprice it depended how far the common speech of the people should be allowed to contaminate the mdw ntr 'the god's words'. None the less, the idiom in which the public records of the Twentieth Dynasty (about 1200-1085 BC) are couched differ widely from that found, for example, in the royal decrees of the Sixth Dynasty (about 2420-2294 BC). To avoid confusing the beginner's notions, it is obviously desirable that he should confine his attention to some special phase of the language; and there are many reasons which render the Middle Egyptian more suitable for that purpose than any other phase.

2. It is with Middle Egyptian, therefore that this book will be exclusively concerned. Middle Egyptian as here understood is the idiom employed in the stories and other literary compositions of the Middle Kingdom (Dynasties IX-XIII, roughly from 2240 to 1740 BC)as well as in the public and private monumental inscriptions of that period and also far down into the Eighteenth Dynasty (1573-1314 BC). Much later, when the scribes of the Ethiopian and Saite Dynasties (715-525 BC) adopted a deliberately archaistic style of writing, it was to Middle Egyptian that they reverted. There is evidence to show that the renaissance which, after a certain interval of disruption, followed the end of the Old Kingdom, was marked by a great development of literary activity; a florid, metaphorical style now came into vogue, and a number of tales and semi-didactic treatise were written which obtained a wide celebrity, and were copied and recopied in the schools. For this reason, the period covered by Middle Egyptian may be considered the classical age of Egyptian Literature. Another reason which makes the language of the Twelfth Dynasty particularly suited to the purposes of the novice is that linguistically the business documents belonging to that time differ less from the contemporary literary works than those of any other period. Middle Egyptian has further the advantage of being more consistently spelt than any other phases of the language, and it is in this phase that the inflexions of the verb are best displayed in the writing. Lastly, the number of Middle Egyptian texts which have been preserved is very great, and comprises religious, magical, medical, mathematical, historical, and legal compositions, besides the literary works and business documents already mentioned.

3. Affinities and characteristics of Egyptian. The Egyptian language is related, not only to the Semitic tongues (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Babylonian, ...etc), but also to the East African languages (Galla, Somali, ...etc) and the Berber idioms of North Africa. Its connection with the latter groups, together known as the Hamitic family, is a very thorny subject, but the relationship to the Semitic tongues can be fairly accurately defined. In general structure the similarity is very great; Egyptian shares the principal peculiarity of Semitic in that it's word-stems consist of combinations of consonants, as a rule three in number, which are theoretically at least unchangeable. Grammatical inflexion and minor variations of meaning are contrived mainly by ringing the changes on the internal vowels, though affixed endings also are used for the same purpose; more important differences of meaning are created by reduplication, whole or partial (exx. sn 'brother', snsn 'brotherly towards' smsw 'elder' later form smsm) or in one or two special cases, by prefixed consonants m, like mhnt 'ferry boat' from hni

to be completed

4. Different stages of the language Bearing in mind the fact that the written language reflects the spoken language of different periods only to a limited extent, and that monumental records on stone are always more conservative than business documents and letters on potshreds and papyrus, we may roughly distinguish the following linguistic stages:
Old Egyptian: The language of Dynasties I-VIII, about 3180 to 2240 BC. This may be taken to include the language of the Pyramid Texts which however display certain peculiarities of its own and is written in a special orthography. Otherwise, the surviving documents of this stage are mainly official or otherwise formal-funerary formulae - and tomb-inscriptions, including some biographical texts. Old Egyptian passes with but little modification into
Middle Egyptian, possibly the vernacular of Dynasties IX-XI about 2240-1990 BC later contaminated with new popular elements. In the later form it survived for some monumental and literary purposes right down to Graeco-Roman times, while the earlier form was retained as the religious language.
Late Egyptian: the vernacular of Dynasties XVIII-XXIV about 1573-715 BC exhibited chiefly in business documents and letters, but also in stories and other literary compositions, and to some extent also in the official monuments from Dyn. XIX onwards. There are few texts however wherein the vernacular shows itself unmixed with the 'classical' idiom of Middle Egyptian. Various foreign words make ther appearance.
Demotic: this term is loosely applied to the language used in the books and documents written in the script known as Demotic from Dyn. XXV to late Roman times (715 BC to AD 470) Here again the old 'classical' idiom is blended with later, vernacular elements, often inextricably.
Coptic: the old Egyptian language in its latest developments, as written in the Coptic script, from about the third century AD onwards; so called because it was spoken by the Copts the Christian descendants of the Ancient Egyptians in whose churches it is read though not understood even at the present day. After the Arab conquest (AD 640) Coptic was gradually superseded by Arabic, and became extinct as a spoken tongue in the sixteenth century. Coptic is written in the Greek Alphabet supplemented by seven special characters derived ultimately from the hieroglyphs.

The importance of Coptic philologically is due to its being the only form of Egyptian in which the vowels are regularly written. It must not be forgotten, however, that Coptic represents a far later stage of the language than even the most vulgar examples of late Egyptian. The vocabulary is very different from that of the older periods and includes man Greek loan-words, even such grammatical particles as men and de. The words-order is more Greek than Egyptian. To a certain extent, at least, Coptic is a semi-artificial literary language elaborated by the native Christian monks; at all events it is extensively influenced by Greek biblical literature. The first tentative efforts to transcribe the old Egyptian language into Greek letters belong to the second century AD and are of a pagan character (horoscopes, magical texts, and the like). Several dialects of Coptic are distinguished of which the following are the most important:

  1. Akhmimic: the old dialect of Upper Egypt, which early gave place to Sahidic.
  2. Saidic (less correctly written Sahidic): the dialect of Thebes, later used for literary purposes throughout the whole of Uppe Egypt.
  3. Bohairic: doubtless oroginally the dialect of the Western Delta only, but later, after the removal of the Patriarchate to Cairo in the eleventh century, the literary idiom of the whole of Egypt.