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.
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.