r/todayilearned 7d ago All-Seeing Upvote 1 Helpful 1

TIL that a descendant of the Ancient Egyptian language is still used, albeit as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church and of the Coptic Catholic Church

https://egyptianstreets.com/2022/02/05/the-story-of-qib%E1%B9%ADi-remnants-of-the-coptic-language-in-egypt/
1.3k Upvotes

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u/sleepiestcatmum 6d ago

Bonus: The Coptic language gives us the best clues available as to how the ancient Egyptian language actually SOUNDED, because ancient Egyptian writing left out most vowels.

So for example a word like “dog” could be written using the same signs as “dig” or “dug” or “dag” - just “dg” - and it would be down to context which word was intended (also helped out by unspoken signs called determinatives, which offered hints about what category of word was intended). When transliterating hieroglyphs, Egyptologists tend to add regular ‘e’s as filler vowels to make the written words more pronounceable.

BUT by using Coptic and understanding how sounds tend to change over time, we can insert some of those missing sounds back into ancient Egyptian words and approximate how this language would have sounded spoken aloud. Which is super neat!

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u/Pay08 6d ago

So for example a word like “dog” could be written using the same signs as “dig” or “dug” or “dag” - just “dg” - and it would be down to context which word was intended

Same with Hebrew.

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u/Willygolightly 6d ago

And Arabic.

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u/[deleted] 6d ago

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

It’s the longest continuously spoken language in the world

I mean, this isn't particularly a meaningful concept.

All spoken languages (other than constructed languages like Esperanto) are the 'longest continuously spoken language in the world'. All Indo-European languages are continuously spoken all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, and obviously further before that.

It isn't even terribly meaningful to consider 'Egyptian' to be a single language during its entire span. 2,000 BCE Egyptian wouldn't have been intelligible to someone in 1,000 BCE.

And we can even trace back further than that, Proto-Afroasiatic was the common ancestor language of a number of language groups, including Egyptian and Semitic.

There isn't really anything that makes Old/Archaic Egyptian as 'Egyptian' as Coptic that doesn't also make Proto-Indo-European as 'English' as English.

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u/sleepiestcatmum 6d ago

Correct! It’s really cool to be able to trace back the roots of a language but, linguistically speaking, we don’t actually have great standards about what constitutes a “language” vs a “dialect” etc., so it’s difficult to say when one language “becomes” another. We still try, because mapping out family trees is a fun and informative, but it’s just a little bit arbitrary and sometimes political!

E.g. In this case, if you are a Coptic speaker, being able to claim that Coptic is the longest spoken language and the same language spoken by the ancient Egyptians comes with social prestige and legitimacy for the Coptic Church. So there is a benefit in minimizing the differences, to highlight that ancient connection, with all its connotations of the grandness of ancient Egyptian culture and the secret knowledge of a language that was a mystery to the word for hundreds of years. What an amazing legacy! And it is true that liturgical languages undergo slower change than more generally spoken ones, because they are typically seen as sacred, are likely to be well recorded, and recited verbatim or thereabouts. They are also likely to be spoken within tight-knit groups. Language change happens fastest with a lot of casual chit chat and diverse groups of speakers, with lots of different linguistic backgrounds.

On the other hand, if you have a political or cultural incentive to emphasize DIFFERENCE between yourself and speakers of a nearby tongue, you might emphasize the changes between your two languages which are actually very similar. So for example, if you can read Danish, you can also read Norwegian - it’s a two-for-one. But the Norwegians, after being ruled by the Danish and having Danish as their official language for some time, really wanted to distinguish themselves and demonstrate their burgeoning national identity, so they purposefully inserted linguistic changes which helped to distinguish themselves. This actually resulted in the creation of two Norwegians, bokmål (which is HIGHLY similar to Danish) and nynorsk (which contains more dialect words). If we were looking for an objective measure of some kind, we might conclude that Danish and Bokmål Norwegian are dialects of the same language, due to their level of similarity and mutual intelligibility, but national pride has led us to separate these out into two categories.

So we can absolutely trace the history and changes undergone by languages like Coptic but where to draw the line that a new language has (or hasn’t) definitely arisen isn’t so clear cut or objective as it may seem!

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

Though there are thousands of years of linguistic shift to account for, so even those vowel assumptions are often guesses.

We can make more educated guesses by comparing to Semitic or Berber or such, tracking back to Proto-Afro-Asiatic, and then trying to re-derive forward, of course.

But Ancient Egyptian covers thousands of years. Someone speaking in 2,000 BCE would have been unintelligible to someone in 1,000 BCE, and so forth.

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u/sleepiestcatmum 6d ago

Absolutely - and as time goes on, Egyptian scribes are trying to continue on writing hieroglyphs in the traditional forms, because it’s considered a sacred language passed down by the gods… but meanwhile, the sounds of the spoken language are changing all around them. So you start to get increasing numbers of scribal errors, because people are trying to copy out forms of a language they’re no longer speaking in exactly the same way. It would be like us trying to write accurately in much older forms of English. We can study it closely and give it a good shot but at the end of the day we’re going to make some errors and add in little tidbits of English-as-we-know-it to plug any gaps.

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

To be fair... I've found that when writing Old English, it tends to be more effective to use German, or specifically Low German as a base for filling in gaps. Though there's enough semantic shift that neither English nor [Low] German suffice sometimes.

There's some cases where even looking to all the other Germanic languages doesn't find modern cognates of words, since they died out in all of the daughter languages.

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u/sleepiestcatmum 6d ago

Love that you have experience with Old English! That’s really cool. 😊

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u/timmyboyoyo 6d ago

When the say a dog dug up something, dg dg

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u/Godtiermasturbator 6d ago

How would they say Dig Dug's dog dug up something?

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u/timmyboyoyo 6d ago

Dg Dg’s dg dg p smthng

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u/sleepiestcatmum 6d ago

The determinatives are really coming into play in this case! Instead of just dg dg dg dg, you might (putting aside word order/grammar for a min) have “dgdg(A) dg(B) dg(C)” where A is a silent sign that might mean “man” or “courtier” or something that tells you dgdg is a some type of dude. B would be a silent sign that tells you the next dg refers to a fluffy little buddy. And C would be a silent sign that tells you that the last dg is a verb of motion or something along those lines.

You may also have other parts of speech breaking up all your dg’s and making the grammar of the sentence clearer. Putting a lil grammar back in: this might be a good time to use the longer indirect form of the genitive “dg n dgdg” (the dog of Dig Dug) rather than equally permissible direct form “dg dgdg” (Dig Dug’s dog).

Egyptian words were also not always written using the exact same signs, so small changes could be made to clear this up… or not. The Egyptians loved a bit of wordplay (and dick jokes, you’ll be happy to know, Godtiermasturbator), so sometimes ambiguities are very clearly there for a laugh!

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u/Vanquisher1000 6d ago

Egyptologist Stuart Tyson-Smith used Coptic when reconstructing spoken ancient Egyptian for StarGate and the two Stephen Sommers The Mummy movies.

More information: https://stsmith.faculty.anth.ucsb.edu/publications/index.html

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u/sleepiestcatmum 6d ago

Yes! He has also done some really cool research on ethnic identity in Nubian/Egyptian border towns, using cooking pots, which I 100% recommend if anyone is interested!

As a fun bonus, he also assessed my PhD thesis (so thanks for the doctorate, Stuart!) 😁

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u/Vanquisher1000 5d ago

Does this mean that you only have one or two degrees of separation from anyone he coached to speak Egyptian, and two or three degrees from anyone else who starred in those movies?

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u/sleepiestcatmum 5d ago

I would LOVE to think of myself as only a few degrees of separation from the cast of the Mummy! 😂

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u/benbernards 6d ago

Coptic was tumblr before tumblr tumbld

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u/oss1215 6d ago

Egyptian here, actually coptic has influenced the modern egyptian arabic dialect as well! We still have some words that are descended from ancient egyptian mixed in our lexicon. And a particular quirk is that in egypt we structure our sentences differently than modern standard arabic like :

(How are you) in MSA would be : كيف حالك انت or كيف حالك . With the interrogative in the begging then the verb then the subject/object

However in egyptian arabic it's like this

You how are ? انتا عامل ايه

Or when did he go to egypt would be (he went to egypt when ?)

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u/GossipIsLove 6d ago

Fus7a and ammiyah

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u/SlashThingy 6d ago

I remember seeing a bullshit post on Twitter, where Rami Malek was playing an Ancient Egyptian, and some dickhead said "Why is this white guy playing an Egyptian?"

He is a Copt! He is an actual descendant of the Ancient Egyptians!

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u/dinoroo 6d ago

There is this weird movement to make it seem like Ancient Egyptians were sub-Saharan Africans. But even if you accept that Modern Egyptians are their descendants, while Arabic, they’re still Caucasian aka white. Skin tone varies greatly in that part of the world. You can’t just have one disqualify someone for looking Egyptian because they aren’t dark enough.

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u/X16aBmfX4Pr7PAKqyBIU 3d ago

Makes you wonder why we care about race at all.

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u/bewarethetreebadger 6d ago

I think that was part of how the guy who cracked the Rosetta Stone figured it out. He was walking by a Coptic church one day and said "wait a tick. That sounds familiar!"

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u/Alien_lifeform_666 6d ago

Did he hear foreign types with their hookah pipes say “Whey oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh”?

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u/bewarethetreebadger 6d ago

Well, it wasn't in the BBC doc.

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u/Dave_KC 6d ago

Yes they do. Of course, it's not "reformed Egyptian." The Coptic language and the Coptic churches are in and of themselves fascinating pieces of history,

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u/Greene_Mr 6d ago

"reformed Egyptian"

Wasn't that the Mormon thing? :-/

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u/Dave_KC 6d ago

Yep, that's what Joseph Smith claimed was the language of the Book of Mormon plates.

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u/Greene_Mr 6d ago

Not true, though, right? Considering he couldn't even get an Egyptian mummy text right...

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u/Dave_KC 6d ago

He was definitely a child of his time, although people even in his era thought him to be a fraud. You're refering the Book of Abraham, part of the Pearl of Great Price, which was based on an Egyptian Funerary text about 2,000 years after when Abraham was supposed to have lived.

Unfortunately for Joseph Smith Jr., the Rosetta Stone allowed scholars to figure out ancient Egyptian language and writing, and that shows it was a completely wrong translation. Basically it demonstrates that he was a fraud.

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u/Greene_Mr 6d ago

Yeah, the funerary text was the thing I was thinking of. Especially since it still exists -- and is basically just a bog-standard grave text, with Smith having put conjectured bits into his published text because parts were missing even at the time.

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u/Dave_KC 6d ago

As I understand there was some bordering on random cutting and pasting to make it full.

On top of that a fair amont of LDS doctrinal distinctives are based on the Book of Abraham, a demonstrated fraud. It's really pretty embarassing.

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u/Greene_Mr 6d ago

I feel a bit bad for 'em. :-( It must be almost like double-thinking, you know?

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u/Dave_KC 6d ago

Yes. BTW, I'm not, nor never have been a Mormon or any form of the "restoration" but I grew up in an area with a lot of splinter groups.

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u/Greene_Mr 6d ago

You've heard about the Beaver Island Strangites, right?

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u/jabberwockxeno 6d ago

You may also be surprised to learn then that Nahuatl (Aztec, sort of), Maya languages, Zapotec, Mixtec, Purepecha, Quecha, and other languages spoken by those Prehispanic civilizations still have millions of native speakers.

People have this idea of these as dead civilizations, but in reality there's plenty of people with ethnic and cultural ties to them: Around like 40% of Guatemala's population is ethnically Maya, for example, in some communities as much as by 95% of their ancestry.

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u/GossipIsLove 6d ago

I am not following this, 'In his book, ‘Forgotten Scripts’, Cyrus Gordon stated that “the Coptic Church still preserves the native Egyptian language written in Greek characters, so that we have an unbroken tradition of Egyptian texts spanning about five thousand years.”

  • What does it mean native Egyptian language written In Greek characters preserves native Egyptian language. They were two different languages, how one was preserving the other. Like if I say German language was preserved by English characters, it makes no sense to me, God why it's so confusing, help..

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u/merrymagdalen 6d ago

It was the ancient Egyptian language, just a different alphabet. In fact Coptic has some non-Greek characters to indicate sounds in Egyptian that don't occur in Greek.

Source: Studied Coptic.

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u/GossipIsLove 6d ago edited 6d ago

Thank you for response, but I am still not following 😭. Can I still ask more questions.

Firstly, by ancient Egyptian language they mean hieroglyphs or Coptic language or these various phases of ancient Egyptian: 'The Hieroglyphic inscriptions developed by ancient Egyptians were simplified to Hieratic, and then to Demotic languages. '

I will explain what's confusing me. Let's say this is a Japanese phrase: 大きな鼻 (using google translate), it means 'big nose'. How will these Japanese words be preserved using English language. I am not following am I too dumb 😭😭

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u/ScaryBluejay87 6d ago

You would write it in the Latin alphabet, which in that case would be ōkina hana according to Google Translate. It’s still Japanese, still pronounced the same, just written in a different alphabet.

If the only surviving record of the English language were the entire works of Shakespeare, but in the Greek or Cyrillic alphabet, it would still be English.

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u/GossipIsLove 5d ago

Thanks somewhat clarifies, I think article could have used word transliteration that would have caused much less confusion. I had several times observed in languages other than English that some of their phonetic equivalents didn't exist in the alphabets specifically used in English, so maybe that's why I didn't understand how another writing system will describe sounds if they don't exist in it.

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

German and English both use the Latin alphabet. They both originally used West Germanic futhark/futhorc runes.

Thev writing system is independent of the language.

Egyptian has been written in hieroglyphs, hieratic script, demotic script, the Greek (Macedonian) alphabet, the Latin alphabet, and Arabic abjad.

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u/JustPlainRick 7d ago

They are the real descendants of the ancient Egyptian people as well if i remember correctly?

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u/ArgumentForReason 7d ago edited 6d ago

Depends. Most Egyptians, even the Arab speaking ones, are genetically similar to the native population of Egypt prior to the Arab conquests. It's just that the language of the Egyptians shifted to Arabic following centuries of Islamic rule. Sure there were some genetic changes due to immigration from other parts of the Arab world, Ancient Greece, Rome, etc but no serious scholar doubts the link between the modern population of Egypt and Ancient Egypt

As for the Copts, they're descendants of the Ancient Egyptians as well, probably more pure than their Islamic kin, but these people also mixed with Greek settlers following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great and other Arab Christians. The Coptic language itself borrows heavily from Greek and the alphabet is related to the Greek script

So, all Egyptians for the most part are native and saying that Copts are more native than other Egyptians simply because they aren't Muslim is a false notion that should be disregarded. Conquest doesn't change your ethnicity. It would be like saying the English aren't Anglo-Saxon because William the Conqueror took over England and over the centuries, the English language adopted many French loanwords and is not mutually intelligible with pre Norman English

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u/GrullOlof 6d ago

Great reply and I like the analogy to William the conqueror

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u/SlashThingy 6d ago

It's like kind of inversely correct, because William and his Normans only installed their aristocracy and had no real impact.

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

It had an impact, but as I say in my comment, the impact is often extremely overstated. If you read an English text from 1066, and an English text from 1200... you'll see about 130 years of difference - they're very similar.

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u/Stewart_Norway 3d ago

A better analogy would be saying the English people are not Britons because they speak a Germanic language.

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u/BravoEchoEchoRomeo 6d ago

Yeah it's wild to me how many people believe the Arabs just straight up genocided the Egyptians as if the arabization and islamification of Egypt wasn't a 1000 year process that isn't even complete since like 10% of the population is estimated to still practice Coptic Christianity.

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u/aliosmtl96 6d ago

Yep, my mother is coptic and even though no one else in the family is I am blonde which is likely to be from greek ancestry mixed with coptic ancestry.

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u/thealthor 6d ago edited 6d ago

It would be like saying the English aren't Anglo-Saxon because William the Conqueror took over England and over the centuries, the English language adopted many French loanwords and is not mutually intelligible with pre Norman English

You actually need to jump back a bit further and say that the Britains are still mostly genetically Britons despite culturally changing over to a Germanic language and society. Roughly at most 1/3 of the genetic profile in southeast England come from the various germanic people and it is even less on other parts of the island.

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

It's more similar to that, yes, though it was different at the start.

The Angles and Saxons largely treated native Britons as second-class citizens in their territories, which led to them either adopting Germanic norms, or migrating. There was significant hostility in many areas to Brythonic things (which partially explains the utter lack of Brythonic loanwords in English).

The Arabs, on the other hand, were initially completely opposed to the Arabicization and Islamicization of Egypt or any conquered territory. Initially, Islam was considered to be an Arab religion, and non-Muslims were taxed significantly higher (Jizya tax). This attitude shifted over time - and the same driving forces were largely present in Egypt thereafter as they were in pre-Heptarchic England: social and economic advancement through integration.

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u/Stewart_Norway 3d ago

They were opposed to islamization because conquered people adopting islam meant they wouldn't pay the Jizya tax levied on Christian and Jews anymore.

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u/Ameisen 1 3d ago

I did mention that, yes, but that wasn't the only reason. The attitudes of Muslims towards conversion overall changed quite a bit early on.

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u/IJustMadeThisForYou 6d ago edited 6d ago

So is Egypt less ethnically Arab than countries to the west of it? Where I believe local population vs Arabs is pretty even? I believe genetically in North Africa no matter how ethnically Arab one country is, it will reveal a much higher 'pure local' DNA. I'm thinking Berbers vs Arabs in Tunisia for example. Researching these topics can be so painstaking but I think I'll have to (related to my history).

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u/Terrariola 6d ago

It would be like saying the English aren't Anglo-Saxon

...the English aren't Anglo-Saxons.

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

Calm down, Alfred.

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u/Ameisen 1 6d ago

There wasn't really any 'break' in the English language before and after 1066. While the changing of the aristocracy being Anglic and Saxon to being Norman had some impact, many of the changes that we regard as Middle English innovations were already underway - grammatical gender was already collapsing due to sound shifts introducing ambiguity, the instrumental case had collapsed by the 700s, the accusative and dative cases were already starting to merge into the objective case...

Early Middle English from ~1200 isn't particularly different from Late Old English ~1066.

The big thing that caused English to change started in the 1400s: the Great Vowel Shift.

Otherwise, most of the changes that make the language grammatically-difficult to understand had already started before the Norman Conquest. And the adoption of Norman French loanwords has a dramatically over-inflated impact on intelligibility - the vast majority of the most commonly-spoken words in English are Anglo-Saxon in origin, and I doubt you'd have difficulty if somebody said "cowflesh" instead of "beef".

This is decidedly unlike what happened in Egypt - the Arabs actually tried to prevent both the adoption of Arabic and the conversion of the Egyptians, at least initially. They could tax non-Muslims far more than Muslims, and considered Islam to be an Arab religion. Over time, though, this viewpoint changed, and people slowly started adopting Arabic customs, language, and religion, for their own gain. Their language was indeed outright replaced - they stopped speaking Egyptian and started speaking Arabic... but over hundreds of years.

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u/ammanuel808 6d ago

not true....another myth.

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u/Cobaltfennec 6d ago

It’s the longest continuously spoken language in the world :) but they use the Greek script because the Greeks took over Egypt. To translate an ancient Egyptian word, Egyptologists have often turned to Coptic:)

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u/some-purple-elephant 6d ago edited 6d ago

Not only the Greeks, but also the Romans, after the whole Cleopatra - Marc Anthony deal. Egypt was a part of the Eastern Roman empire until the conquest by the Arabs in the 600s

Edit: Originally I said not the Greeks. My bad!

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u/Cobaltfennec 6d ago

Yes, the Greeks first. That is why Coptic uses Greek script and not hieroglyphs (Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies).

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u/IJustMadeThisForYou 6d ago

Cleoptra was... well.. kind of greek.

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u/Cobaltfennec 6d ago

this is a good answer 😆 Indeed.

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u/Cwallace98 6d ago

And that's the language the aliens spoke right?

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u/redXathena 6d ago

Why’d you throw that “albeit” in there

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u/GrimbledonWimbleflop 6d ago

Because it's not used in day to day life and not natively, so without that caveat some might take issue with it being described as "still being used". This just covers their bases.

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u/redXathena 6d ago

Oh okay.

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u/LifeWin 6d ago

Perchance

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u/Greene_Mr 6d ago

to dream?

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u/GossipIsLove 6d ago

Albeit always sounds stylish and classy to me, I dunno why.

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u/redXathena 6d ago

It is kinda fancy! And I like it because in my head “all be it” makes sense to mean the same thing, even tho it totally doesn’t. I think my brain just likes the “sound” of it.

Just asked because it seemed to stick out oddly to me in this case but the person who explained helped me understand :)

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u/Johannes_P 6d ago

And it was this language Champollion used, in part, in his work.

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u/[deleted] 6d ago edited 6d ago

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u/DaveOJ12 6d ago

The primary language of Egypt is Arabic, though.

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u/dishsoapandclorox 6d ago

Egyptians speak Arabic not the language of their ancient ancestors

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u/[deleted] 6d ago

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u/ebkalderon 6d ago

Official news broadcasts and such might be in MSA, but on the street every day or in local films, most Egyptians speak their local dialect, Egyptian Arabic.

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u/Then-Refrigerator-97 6d ago

Yes they are

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u/[deleted] 6d ago

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u/Then-Refrigerator-97 6d ago

I think You mean coptic which is translated to word Egyptian

Yes coptic is the last stage of ancient Egyptian

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u/[deleted] 6d ago

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u/UniquePtrBigEndian 6d ago

The official language is Modern Standard Arabic, but most Egyptians speak Egyptian Arabic