During the final centuries of the 4th Millennium BCE (c. 3200 – 3000 BCE) north-east Africa experienced the evolution of an unprecedented social organization, viz. the earliest nation state on Earth. As an indispensable concomitant of this phenomenon, a civil service rapidly took shape which was constrained to develop several mechanisms for the running of a complex society: a standardized system of weights and measures, a calendar, a tax system, and an aide memoire to provide security for archival memory, viz. a script. The latter, wrongly dubbed by the Greeks “sacred signs” (hieroglyphs), was used to write the Egyptian language.
The development of the Egyptian language, as reflected in texts written in hieroglyphs, spans four millennia. After a period of experimentation (the Archaic period), a dialect appears called Old Egyptian, the language of the royal court at Memphis during the Old Kingdom (“the Pyramid Age”). This, a dialect associated with the elite, was swept away in a revolution in the 23rd century BCE, and replaced by the “language of the streets”, Middle Egyptian c. 2200 BCE. Middle Egyptian remained the accepted literary dialect of the language for over 800 years. The assumption of power by the Ramesside Kings (c. 1300 BCE) ushered in a new dialect, Late Egyptian (c. 1300 – 700 BCE.), which evolved through two further stages: Demotic (c. 700 BCE – 200 CE) and Coptic (c. 250 – 1400 CE). The first three phases of the language employed the hieroglyphic script for formal inscriptions, and the cursive hieratic for business documents, literature and epistolography; while Demotic developed a much-reduced cursive “short hand,” and Coptic employed the Greek script.
The study of the Egyptian language is rewarding both for its structure and content. For the linguist it provides a long-lived language undergoing an evolution little affected by the outside world. For the historian doors are opened on a time span longer than that of any other nation on earth. For those interested in comparative literature a vast library is available. Genres include religious texts, archives and historical texts, short stories, love poetry, encomia, satirical pieces, myths, mythological stories, wisdom literature, onomastica, didactic texts and much more.
All phases of the ancient Egyptian language, including cursive scripts, are taught in the CAMS department. Middle Egyptian is the habitual point of entry for the novice, because of its simplified orthography; and it is offered every semester. Upon demand, the successful student can move on, usually to Late Egyptian. This opens up Demotic and Coptic, much in demand by both Hellenists and Romanists, and those interested in Christian origins and Church History. Old Egyptian, because it is essentially the same dialect as Middle Egyptian, can be entered upon at any point in the student’s career.
CAMS 481: Introduction to Middle Egyptian & Hieroglyphics
Archaic Egyptian, Old Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Coptic and advanced reading courses are offered as CAMS 490: Ancient Mediterranean Languages or CAMS 496: Independent Studies for undergraduate and graduate students when there is sufficient demand.
Demotic can also be offered as CAMS 490 or CAMS 496.