Standard Arabic is the official language of Egypt nowadays, though if you actually want to speak to your “standard Egyptian,” you may want to learn the ins and outs of the local dialect known as Egyptian Arabic. In addition to Arabic some Bedouins still speak Bedouin dialects and in the Upper Nile Valley there are about 300,000 speakers of the primary Nubian language, Nobiin. The main Western languages are English and French so in urban areas, especially those with a tourist infrastructure, if you don’t speak Arabic you still may find a way to get by.
Go back in time a few years–let’s say, oh, about five thousand–and you’d hear many people speaking an ancient language known today as Egyptian. If you’d want to write a formal note to your friend in the Egyptian language you’d use a form of artistic writing known as “hieroglyphs.” (Don’t call them hieroglypics, they’re hieroglpyhs. Hieroglyphic
is an adjective.) Hieroglyphs appeared soon after Sumerian cunieform and became the written form of the Egyptian language, enabling people to translate the language visually using an alphabet composed of images of animals and other familiar objects like mountains and drinking jugs. To scrawl off a quick message in Ancient Egypt, you probably used ink and papyrus and write in a form of cursive know as hieratic, which developed parallel to hieroglyphs. Though school kids today still get a kick out of
writing their names in hieroglyphs–we’re not as enamored with hieratic–and while Egyptian survived as a spoken language in Coptic communities until the 17th century A.D., today you’ll only hear it used as a liturgical language of the Coptic church.
More about hieroglyphs:
Eyelid.co.uk’s introduction to hieroglyphs, including this hieroglyph typewriter | or, let the computer translate your name, or anything else, into hieroglyphs
In class we’re going to say hello and goodbye in ancient Egyptian. If we could speak in hieroglyphs, we would.
Hello: Iwy em hotep!
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