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The writings of Ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian language evolved, as described above, from early Egyptian to Coptic, in a classification comprising about seven stages. However, it was only written in four different forms: hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, and Coptic. Of the above terms, the first two refer only to writing systems, while the last two apply to language and writing.

First, it should be noted that the hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts are indigenous, that is, they were created in Egypt to note the Egyptian language, while Coptic writing uses the Greek alphabet. The first three do not transcribe the vowels, so they combine a large number of signs of different reading, whether phonetic, lexical, or semantic, while Coptic -which does include the vowels-, being alphabetic, has only one type of sign, which corresponds to a phoneme.

The hieroglyphic writing kept its grammatical and lexical system until its disappearance in 394 A.D. It was used for the sacred and the divine, that is, everything related to gods and temples, being shaped as monumental writing with an undoubted aulic function (real, official or administrative).

It is pictographic writing, with signs that are images or figures representing beings, natural elements, buildings, objects, actions, or processes of reality. As it is a writing that was sculpted, engraved, or painted, the supports used are hard, and therefore they can be found on walls, obelisks, steles, statues, coffins, scarabs[2] and luxury objects in the trousseaus of the elite.

The hieroglyph can be written in both horizontal lines and vertical columns and, indistinctly, from right to left or from left to right. Their images are part of the decoration of architectural elements, so they strictly keep the rules of symmetry that ruled in Egyptian monuments; moreover, they must fit within represented iconography (gods, kings, characters, etc.).

The hieratic owes its name to, either the Greek word hieratic (priestly) or to the expression hieratical grammata (priestly characters). It can be considered as cursive writing of the hieroglyphic, being the signs generally linked between them. In fact, Egyptologists transcribe the hieratic texts into hieroglyphics in order to translate them. This writing can present punctuation signs, such as black or red points, which delimit sentences or paragraphs.

Since it was, in the first place, writing for literary and administrative texts, the supports for it were papyrus, wooden boards, or ostraka[3], using black ink, in most of the text, or red ink, usually in sentence or paragraph headings. This writing became in late stages, especially in the Greco-Roman, writing intended for sacred and funerary uses, being written with it, for example, texts related to magic spells.

It was written in horizontal lines or vertical columns, and always from right to left. Its alignment did not respond to any rule of style or symmetry, since it was not considered art nor did it have a monumental character, as was the case with hieroglyphics.

The demotic, like the hieratic, can owe its name to a Greek word, in this case, demotikos (popular, with the meaning of being used in most areas) or derive from the expression grammata demotika (popular characters). This does not mean that it was used by the people -about 95% were illiterate-, but that it was the most common of the scriptures. The term demotic is used for both the language and the writing of this stage.

The Egyptians called this writing sS n Sat (sesh in shat), which means writing letters or writing documents, indicating precisely that this was its purpose, the administrative one; however, they wrote all kinds of texts -except the most sacred ones-, using black ink hard support, like the ostraka, or soft, like the papyrus would be.

The writing is a simplification -or a transformation- of the hieratic writing, stylizing the signs and joining them together, being already quite different from the original hieroglyphic writing. It is written in horizontal lines and from right to left, as it appears in this ostrakon from the Ptolemaic period.

Coptic refers to both the language and the writing of the last evolutionary stage of the Egyptian language. The word Coptic is derived from the Arabic qibt, the name by which the Arabs named the inhabitants of the country after their conquest in 640, and this in turn from the Greek word Aigyptos, Egyptian.

Coptic also means Christian of Egypt, the language of the Christians of Egypt and the writing of the Christians of Egypt, since when the Arabs conquered the territory, the inhabitants of the area had adopted Christianity as their religion.

The main difference between the other three previous ones is that it is alphabetical. The signs chosen were the Greek since it was the language that the Ptolemaic dynasties started using; to this alphabet, seven signs from the demotic were added, which corresponded to seven Egyptian phonemes that the Greek language did not have.

All kinds of texts, also religious and administrative, were written on horizontal lines from left to right. It can be sculpted on hard supports or written with ink on papyrus, parchment, wood, ostraka, or textiles.

The Rosetta Stone.

Egyptian languages were forgotten after the Arab invasion; Coptic, despite being used in Christian rituals, was a dead language. It was then when the hieroglyphic became an indecipherable or misinterpreted enigma, of which it was ignored that it could be transliterated into hieratic and demotic.

It was from 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte organized his famous Expedition to Egypt, that it became possible to decipher it. In 1799, a French soldier accidentally found a black basalt stone with inscriptions that were being used as a building material for a fort in the town of Rosetta, about 65 km northeast of Alexandria.

The stone had the same text carved in three languages: hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. After reading and translating the text into Greek, scholars of the time realized that it was a royal decree written in the three scripts of the country; demotic and Greek as official languages and scripts; and hieroglyphic, the traditional writing of the stelae with texts promulgated by the kings.

Hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek writing on the Rosetta Stone.

The decipherment was not as simple as they first imagined. It would be the French linguist Jean-François Champollion who, with the additional use of Coptic, would find the key to its reading.