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Language and writing in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. It was replaced by Arabic after the Arab conquest of Egypt, and is today a dead language. Egyptian is preserved in texts written over a period of four millennia. For most of this time the written language used only consonants, making it almost impossible to establish how words were pronounced.

The date and place of the origin of Egyptian writing remain uncertain. Ivory labels found at Abydos show that hieroglyphic signs were in use by the end of the First Dynasty (about 3100-2890 BC). The word 'hieroglyph' comes from the Greek hieros 'sacred' and gluptien 'carved in stone'. From the Old Kingdom (about 2613-2160 BC) onwards, hieroglyphs were reserved largely for monumental inscriptions.

A handwritten script was used for records and correspondence. This was known as 'hieratic', the Greek word for 'priestly' since it had become the preserve of priests by the time Greek visitors reached Egypt. Different styles of hieratic were used for different types of text; for example, by the Middle Kingdom a calligraphic style was used for religious and literary texts, and a quicker, cursive style for administrative documents. In the Late Period (661-332 BC), the cursive script was replaced by demotic script, meaning 'popular'. This was essentially a more abbreviated version of hieratic. Demotic script, in turn, was replaced by Coptic in the first century AD, perhaps to record the contemporary spoken language. Coptic used the Greek alphabet with several additional demotic letters. It was used until the Arab conquest, and is preserved in the liturgy used in the Coptic Church to this day.

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