What Ancient Egyptian Sounded Like & How We Know It

If you’ve seen any Hol­ly­wood movie set in ancient Egypt, you already know how its lan­guage sound­ed: just like Eng­lish, but spo­ken with a more for­mal dic­tion and a range of broad­ly Mid­dle-East­ern accents. But then there are many com­pet­ing the­o­ries about life that long ago, and per­haps you’d pre­fer to believe the lin­guis­tic-his­tor­i­cal take pro­vid­ed in the video above. A pro­duc­tion of Joshua Rud­der’s NativLang, a Youtube chan­nel pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for its videos on ancient Latin and Chi­nese, it tells the sto­ry of “the many forms of the long-lived Egypt­ian lan­guages,” as well as its “ances­tors and rel­a­tives,” and how they’ve helped lin­guists deter­mine just how the ancient Egyp­tians real­ly spoke.

Rud­der begins with a cer­tain arti­fact called — per­haps you’ve heard of it — the Roset­ta Stone. Dis­cov­ered in 1799 dur­ing Napoleon’s cam­paign in Egypt, it “bore two Egypt­ian scripts and, aus­pi­cious­ly, a rough trans­la­tion in per­fect­ly read­able Greek.” Using this infor­ma­tion, the schol­ar Jean-François Cham­pol­lion became the first to deci­pher ancient Egypt­ian hiero­glyphs. But as to the ques­tion of what they sound­ed like when pro­nounced, the stone had no answers. Cham­pol­lion even­tu­al­ly became con­vinced that the still-liv­ing Cop­tic lan­guage was “the Egypt­ian lan­guage, the very same one that stretch­es back con­tin­u­ous­ly for thou­sands of years.”

Though Cop­tic sounds and gram­mar could pro­vide clues about spo­ken ancient Egypt­ian, it could­n’t get Cham­pol­lion all the way to accu­rate pro­nun­ci­a­tion. One press­ing goal was to fill in the lan­guage’s miss­ing vow­els, an essen­tial type of sound that nev­er­the­less went unrecord­ed by hiero­glyphs. To the archives, then, which in Egypt were espe­cial­ly vast and con­tained doc­u­ments dat­ing far back into his­to­ry. These enabled a process of “inter­nal recon­struc­tion,” which involved com­par­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the Egypt­ian lan­guage to each oth­er, and which ulti­mate­ly “result­ed in an explo­sion of hiero­glyph­ic knowl­edge.”

But the jour­ney to recon­struct the speak­ing of this “longest writ­ten lan­guage on Earth” does­n’t stop there: it there­after makes such side quests as one to a “pock­et of Ethiopia” where peo­ple speak “a clus­ter of lan­guages grouped togeth­er under the label Omot­ic.” Along with the Semit­ic, the Amazigh, the Chadic, and oth­ers, trace­able with Egypt­ian to a com­mon ances­tor, these lan­guages pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion essen­tial to the state of ancient Egypt­ian lin­guis­tic knowl­edge today. Giv­en the enor­mous amount of schol­ar­ship required to let us know what to call them, it’s enough to make you want ankhs to come back into fash­ion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Ancient Chi­nese Sound­ed Like — and How We Know It: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

What Did Etr­uscan Sound Like? An Ani­mat­ed Video Pro­nounces the Ancient Lan­guage That We Still Don’t Ful­ly Under­stand

What Did Old Eng­lish Sound Like? Hear Recon­struc­tions of Beowulf, The Bible, and Casu­al Con­ver­sa­tions

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia

Hear What the Lan­guage Spo­ken by Our Ances­tors 6,000 Years Ago Might Have Sound­ed Like: A Recon­struc­tion of the Pro­to-Indo-Euro­pean Lan­guage

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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