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Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 79

The earliest knowledge we have of the Egyptian language is furnished by ancient inscriptions belonging to the First Dynasty, about 3300 B.C. From these onward its rise and its decay may be traced down through the different writings on temples, monuments, and papyri to the fourteenth century A.D.,[1] when Coptic manuscripts end the tale. Of the living tongue, as apart from the purely literary language of the hieroglyphic inscriptions, the truest idea is given by the popular tales, letters, and business documents which have come down to us, wherein the scribes naturally kept close to the current forms of speech, thus revealing the changes the language underwent.

That Egyptian is related to Semitic is practically certain, though here a racial problem intervenes and confuses, for the Egyptian race proper is not and never was, so far as can be ascertained, Semitic in type. Erman tries to explain this by the quite probable theory that in the prehistoric period a horde of warlike Semites conquered a part of Egypt and settled there, like the Arabs of a later period, and imposed their language on the country, but as a distinct race died out, either by reason of the climate or absorption by the native population, who, however, had acquired the strangers' language, though but imperfectly. Under these conditions the language gradually changed. The consonants were mispronounced, strong consonants giving place to weak, and these in turn, disappearing altogether, produced biliterals from the triliteral roots. This tendency, together with periphrastic instead of[Pg 183] verbal conjugation, continued to the end. Coptic, the latest form, is thus biliteral in character, and tenses of remarkable precision were developed in the verb by means of periphrases; but the great resemblances between Coptic and Semitic must also be traced to the continuous Semitic influences of late periods.

The Egyptian language naturally divides into its progressive stages. These are Old Egyptian, Middle and Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic. Old Egyptian is the language belonging to the Old Kingdom. It supplied the literary model for the later period, as evidenced by the inscriptions, but that it should be affected by the changing forms of contemporary speech was inevitable, though in the main its chief characteristics were preserved. The earliest specimens we have are inscriptions belonging to the First Dynasty, which, however, are too brief to give much insight into the language and speech of that period. Next come many inscriptions and some few historical texts in the language of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Dynasties. The greatest amount belonging to this phase is the large collection of ritual texts and spells inscribed in the Pyramids belonging to the Sixth Dynasty.

Middle and Late Egyptian belong to the Middle and New Kingdoms respectively, and approximate to the common speech of the people. Writings in the former, extant to this day, are tales, letters, and business documents of the Twelfth Dynasty on to the beginning of the New Kingdom, written on papyri in hieratic script. The Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Dynasty furnish us with specimens of Late Egyptian in various hieratic papyri. In regard to these an authority states: "The spelling of Late Egyptian is very extraordinary, full of false etymologies, otiose signs, etc., the old orthography being quite unable to adapt itself neatly to[Pg 184] the profoundly modified language. Nevertheless, this clumsy spelling is expressive, and the very mistakes are instructive as to the pronunciation."

Demotic represents the vulgar dialect of the Saïte period, and is really applied to the character in which it is written. It may be traced back to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, about 900 B.C., and it continued in use until the fourth century A.D. Demotic documents are mostly contracts of sale and legal matters, though some magical texts and a curious tale, the Papyrus of Setna, are also written in this character. Coptic is the latest form which the language took, or rather it is a dialect form of Egyptian, of which four or five varieties are known. Coptic is written with the letters of the Greek alphabet, and is really the only stage of the language where the spelling gives a clear idea of the pronunciation. To the Greek characters were added six taken from the Demotic in order to express sounds peculiar to the Egyptian language. This, together with Greek transcriptions of Egyptian names and words, have supplied the only means of arriving at some idea of the accurate vocalization of the Egyptian language. One reason for this ignorance that of necessity prevailed is the fact that the Egyptian system of writing gives merely the consonantal skeletons of words, never recording the internal vowel changes, and often omitting semi-consonants.

The Hieroglyphs

The ancient Egyptian system of writing would seem to be, from all available evidence, of purely native origin. Its rise, development, and final extinction can all be traced within the Nile valley, though it travelled by conquest into Syria under the Eighteenth Dynasty and onward for the engraving of Egyptian inscriptions[Pg 185] in that country. Again, it is held by some authorities to be quite possible that the merchants of Phœnicia and the Ægean had evolved from the Egyptian hieratic the cursive form of writing, their 'Phœnician' alphabet, about 1000 B.C. The hieroglyphic character was originally picture-writing in its simplest form, but had become more complex by the time it is met with first, in inscriptions belonging to the First Dynasty. It underwent some changes, but the final mode it assumed persisted practically unaltered from the Fourth Dynasty down to its expiry in the fourth century A.D. By that time all knowledge of the meaning of the characters had died out, and it was not until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone[2] and the decipherment of its lingual inscription in Greek and Egyptian that any progress could be made in the reading of hieroglyphic writing. The signs are of two kinds, one to represent sounds, the phonetic—which is again divided into two varieties, the alphabetic and syllabic—and the other to represent ideas, the ideographic. These latter signs are pictorial representations of the object spoken of, which are placed after the phonetically written words as 'determinatives,' or representative symbols. These again are of two kinds, generic, being determinative of a class, and specific, of a particular object. There is no rule[3] as to the arrangement of the text. It is read either from right to left, left to right, or in columns, its commencement being from that side toward which the bird and animal characters face. About five hundred characters were used. Hieratic writing is to be found[Pg 186] in the First Dynasty, approximating closely to the hieroglyphic, but by the time of the Middle Kingdom this resemblance is lost. The commercial era of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty brought into everyday use the Demotic form, and thenceforth hieratic was used for the copying of religious and traditional texts on papyrus, and in time was understood by the learned only, for in the Ptolemaic period, whenever the text of a royal decree was inscribed upon a stele which was to be set up in a public place, a version of the said decree in the Demotic character was added. Stelæ inscribed in hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek have been found, the most famous of these being the Decree of Canopu, belonging to Ptolemy III, 247 B.C., and the Rosetta Stone, set up in the reign of Ptolemy V, Epiphanes, 205 B.C. It was this latter stone and its inscription which gave the key to unravelling the mystery of hieroglyphic writing in the last century, and thus restoring to modern times the knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and literature. As has been shown, the hieroglyphic system of writing had fallen into disuse long before the close of Roman rule in Egypt, and again the widespread use of Greek and Latin among the aristocratic and official classes had caused the disappearance of Egyptian as the language of state. It probably lingered, together with the study of hieroglyphs, among learned men and priests in remote districts, but by the fourth or fifth century A.D. had become a lost art. Then in 1799 came the finding of the Rosetta Stone with its lingual inscription, consisting of fourteen lines of hieroglyphs, thirty-two lines of Demotic, and fifty-four lines of Greek. By the comparison and decipherment of these versions the Egyptian alphabet was discovered, and the clue thus found to the lost language of ancient Egypt. To[Pg 187] Akerblad in 1802, Young in 1818, and Champollion in 1822 must be given the honour for this momentous discovery, restoring to our knowledge the wonderful civilization, art, and literature of a great race.


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