I was reading an article about Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island), and they mentioned how the written alphabet was forgotten because many of the inhabitants, including most of the nobility, died or were pressured into slavery after the arrival of the Europeans.

That got me to thinking. I know Champollion is credited with deciphering hieroglyphs thanks to the Rosetta Stone, but how did Egyptians forget what the written language meant? And when did the language get lost? Was it before the Roman Empire? Or during the early islamic period?

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I’ll bet on the Islamic age. After all, the Romans were not in the business of subverting cultures. As long as you didn’t rise against them, they could care less if you worshiped Ra and read heiroglyphs.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island

I don’t think it’s so much that the Egyptians forgot, the Rosetta stone helped translate.

There were probably plenty of people who could read hyrogliphics, but few who could translate the pictograms into the other phonetic alphabets.

As I recall, the only people in ancient Egypt who could read and write Hieroglyphics were professional scribes. It was only used in tombs and for other really important stuff. Everybody else used Demotic script. I believe that after Egypt became Christianized, Heiroglyphics died out, supplanted by the Greek-based Coptic script, which was itself supplanted by Arabic after its conquest by the Caliphate.

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BurnMeUp says:

That can’t be. If you can “read” hieroglyphics, that means you could write down what they mean using the current egyptian alphabet, or verbally tell someone what the writing means, unless you had a rare disorder where you were only able to communicate your ideas using written hieroglyphics.

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neuro-trash grrrl

Your explanation sounds reasonable to me. I was wondering if there was a known historical date at which hieroglyphics became undecipherable.

Such as big headlines in the Cairo Times “Death of the last scribe that knew hieroglyphics! Grieving relatives say he refused to pass on his skill.”

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I’d guess that after Egypt became part of the Hellenistic world (around 300 BCE) and the old religion began to fade that Greek and then Latin were the more popular language for scribes, until islam came, of course. Aside from the scribes I doubt many people were literate, just as in most other cultures. Hieroglyphics simply went out of fashion with the arrival of the styles from across the water. Most of the examples of the writing which survived long were buried, anyway. As for the “modern egyptian language”, that is arabic of a sort, no? I don’t think modern Egyptian has much at all in common with the old language.

Arabic is not very close to ancient Egyptian (though they are prehistoric cousins), but the Christians of Egypt continued to use Egyptian’s descendant, Coptic, in their church ceremonies, and, indeed, used it among each other for centuries after the Islamic conquest.

Knowledge of Coptic (which had never been lost) was as important as the Rosetta Stone in decyphering Egyptian.

John W. Kennedy
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Incidentally, there is still a Coptic sect of Christianity. I believe that they are catholic, but are in the Eastern (non-Roman) right.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island

Diceman is sorta correct. There are three, count 'em, three Egyptian Coptic Churches.

  1. An Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church.

  2. An Eastern Orthodox Church in communion with Constantinople.

  3. An Eastern unorthodox Church with monophysite doctrines (don’t ask! you’d be happier looking up “felching”), whose only outside connection is with the Ethiopian Coptic Church.

I think neuro-trrash grrl is right - I read that the last known use of Hieroglyphics was around 350 C.E. Since they were part of the cult knowledge of the Egyptian priests, the conversion of Egypt to Christianity gradually finished off their use. (Prior to Islam, Egypt was a major centre of the Christian church.) I may have read it in Gibbon.

Did any of you english speaking people ever try to read a text from a couple hundred years ago? We only had 26 characters to write with and look at how words, spellings, and phrases have changed.

With all the different hieroglyphic symbol words writen thousands of years ago not by the common citizen, wouldn’t you expect their meaning to be lost.

It’s amazing we can translate them at all, and if we say something means this or that, who will correct us. The people that could are dead.


Here’s a site with the answer that you’re looking for:

The Pronunciation of Ancient Eqyptian

The short version is that the language was lost as Egyptians converted to Christianity, roughly around 400 to 500 A.D.

Thank you Phil, for the informative link.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions are mostly in Old Egyptian, the language spoken in the Archaic Period (I & II Dynasties, c. 3100-2680 BC) and the Old Kingdom (III-VI Dynasties, 2680-2159 BC), or Middle Egyptian, the literary language initiated in the XII Dynasty (1991-1786 BC) of the Middle Kingdom.

For most of Egyptian history the language written in actual hieroglyphics or in its cursive counterpart, hieratic, is Middle Egyptian.

The spoken language continued to evolve, with new alphabets being used (details seen at the link above.)

The last hieroglyphic inscription was made at Philae in 394 AD, not long after the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I (379-395 AD) ordered the closure of pagan temples.

I imagine that the loss of the ability to read hieroglyphics happened soon after.

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