Egyptian language, extinct language of ancient Egypt, a member of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). The development of ancient Egyptian is usually divided into four periods: (1) Old Egyptian, spoken and written in Egypt during the IV to VI dynasties of the Old Kingdom (3d millennium B.C.); (2) Middle Egyptian, a form of the language noted for its great literature and current from the XI dynasty (beginning 2134 B.C.) to the reign of Ikhnaton (c.1372–1354 B.C.) in the XVIII dynasty; (3) Late Egyptian, which was used from the time of Ikhnaton through the XX dynasty of the 12th cent. B.C.; and (4) demotic, dating from the late 8th cent. B.C. to the 5th cent. A.D.
The ancient Egyptian language first used a hieroglyphic form of writing that underwent several stages of development in the course of the centuries. From hieroglyphics evolved an Egyptian cursive handwriting known as hieratic; and from hieratic, a simplified script called demotic, in which was recorded the form of the Egyptian language also called demotic. Egyptian hieroglyphics and the styles of writing derived from them are associated with pagan civilization. Their extinction followed the victory of Christianity over the pagan religions.
Some scholars regard Coptic (see Copts) as a fifth period of ancient Egyptian, although others classify it as a different language descended from the ancient tongue. If Coptic, which is written in a modified version of the Greek alphabet, is considered a continuation of the Egyptian language, a written record of the latter may be said to cover an unbroken span of at least 40 centuries, the longest such record known for a language.
See also Rosetta Stone under Rosetta.
See studies by A. Bakir (1983, 1984); A. H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar (3d ed. 1957); N. M. Davies, Picture Writing in Ancient Egypt (1958); E. W. Budge, Egyptian Language (8th ed. 1966).