Egyptian is the oldest known indigenous language of Egypt and a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Written records of the Egyptian language have been dated from about 3400 BC, making it one of the oldest recorded languages known, outside of Sumerian. Egyptian was spoken until the late 17th century AD in the form of Coptic. The national language of modern-day Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which gradually replaced Coptic as the language of daily life in the centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Coptic is still used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church. It has a handful of fluent speakers today.
Written records of the ancient Egyptian language have been dated from about 3200 BC. Egyptian is part of the Afro-Asiatic group of languages and is related to Berber and Semitic (languages such as Arabic, Amharic and Hebrew). The language survived until the 5th century AD in the form of Demotic and until the Middle Ages in the form of Coptic. Thus it had a lifespan of over four millennia. Egyptian is one of the oldest recorded languages known.
Scholars group the Egyptian language into six major chronological divisions:
The Demotic script (formerly referred to as Enchorial Egyptian) was used for more than a thousand years, and during that time a number of developmental stages occurred.
Early Demotic (often referred to by the German term Frhdemotisch) developed in Lower Egypt during the later part of the 25th Dynasty, particularly on stelae from the Serapeum at Saqqara. It is generally dated between 650 and 400 BC as most texts written in Early Demotic are dated to the 26th Dynasty and the following Persian period (the 27th Dynasty). After the reunification of Egypt under Psametik I, Demotic replaced Abnormal Hieratic in Upper Egypt, particularly during the reign of Amasis when it became the official administrative and legal script. During this period, Demotic was used only for administrative, legal, and commercial texts, while hieroglyphs and hieratic were reserved for other texts.
Middle (Ptolemaic) Demotic
Middle Demotic (circa 400-30 BC) is the stage of writing used during the Ptolemaic Period. From the fourth century BC onwards, Demotic held a higher status, as may be seen from its increasing use for literary and religious texts. By the end of the third century BC, Greek was more important as it was the administrative language of the country; Demotic contracts lost most of their legal force unless there was a note in Greek of being registered with the authorities.
Late (Roman) Demotic
From the beginning of Roman rule of Egypt, Demotic was progressively less used in public life. There are, however, a number of literary texts written in Late Demotic (circa 30 BC-452 AD), especially from the first and second centuries AD, though the quantity of all Demotic texts decreased rapidly towards the end of the second century. After that, Demotic was only used for a few ostraca, subscriptions to Greek texts, mummy labels, and graffiti. The last dated example of the Demotic script is dated to 11 December 452 AD, and consists of a graffiti on the walls of the temple of Isis on Philae.
Egyptian writing in the form of label and signs has been dated to 3200 BC. These early texts are generally lumped together under the term "Archaic Egyptian."
In 1999, Archaeology Magazine reported that the earliest Egyptian Glyphs date back to 3400 BC which "...challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."
Old Egyptian was spoken for some 500 years from 2600 BC onwards. Middle Egyptian was spoken from about 2000 BC for a further 700 years when Late Egyptian made its appearance; Middle Egyptian did, however, survive until the first few centuries AD as a written language, similar to the use of Latin during the Middle Ages and that of Classical Arabic today.
Demotic Egyptian first appears about 650 BC and survived as a spoken language until fifth century AD. Coptic Egyptian appeared in the fourth century AD and survived as a living language until the sixteenth century AD, when European scholars traveled to Egypt to learn it from native speakers during the Renaissance. It probably survived in the Egyptian countryside as a spoken language for several centuries after that.
The Bohairic dialect of Coptic is still used by the Egyptian Christian Churches. Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian were all written using hieroglyphs and hieratic.
Demotic was written using a script derived from hieratic; its appearance is vaguely similar to modern Arabic script and is also written from right to left (although the two are not related). Coptic is written using the Coptic alphabet, a modified form of the Greek alphabet with a number of symbols borrowed from Demotic for sounds that did not occur in Ancient Greek.
Arabic gradually replaced spoken Coptic after the Arabian invasion in the seventh century, though Arabic was the language of the Muslim political administration soon thereafter.
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