The Origins and Early Development of Writing in Egypt
Abstract and Keywords
The Egyptian writing system represents one of the oldest recorded languages known to humankind, along with Sumerian. But the system took centuries to adapt to what we now regard as its primary function: the encoding of continuous speech. Major changes in the historical and social-linguistic environment of late Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt (ca. 3250–2700 BC) left traces in the written communication and steered significant developments in the early writing system. After a brief introduction of the earliest evidence of writing in Egypt, this chapter will focus on the long and complex process of creating, extending, and standardizing the early hieroglyphic sign corpus. It will propose possible explanations for the dramatic decrease in the number of signs in the beginning of the third millennium BC.
Writing is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. By giving a material form to spoken language, people could store and transmit information across space and time. It was one of the first information technologies, and it was revolutionary.
Writing was invented independently in at least four different times and places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. Of these original writing systems, Egyptian and Sumerian are the oldest known. The earliest evidence of phonetic writing in Egypt dates to about 3250 BC; the earliest known complete sentence in the Egyptian language has been dated to about 2690 BC.1 Egypt’s Copts used the spoken language until the late seventeenth century AD, making it one of history’s longest surviving recorded languages.2
Egypt has yielded a greater quantity and variety of well-preserved inscribed objects than anywhere else in the world. Yet great gaps in our knowledge of the writing system remain. The availability of documentation depends to a large extent on accidents of preservation. Due to environmental conditions and the scientific biases of the past, the testimony derives overwhelmingly from cemeteries located in the arid margins of the Nile Valley, particularly those of wealthy individuals. Urban centers where writing must have emerged are largely unavailable for archaeological investigation because they were located on the Nile floodplain and eventually lost beneath the river’s alluvium. More settlement sites are now being excavated, particularly in the Nile Delta, but these have not yet altered the current understanding of the origins and early development of writing in Egypt.
The context in which samples of early writing are usually found is necessarily secondary, that is, physically, temporally, and consequently intellectually removed from where it was composed. The further we go back in time, the fewer sources we have at our disposal.
Contrary to later periods, the bulk of early inscriptions is concentrated around two sites. From the first rulers onward, the dynastic elite had two large cemeteries: the royal tombs of Umm el-Qa’ab/Abydos in the south, and another elite cemetery at Saqqara, in the vicinity of the state capital at Memphis. The cemetery of Umm el-Qa’ab/Abydos continued to grow after the northward expansion of the Naqada culture at the end of the fourth millennium BC and, thanks to inscriptions and the quality of surviving burial goods, this cemetery has been identified as the place where the first rulers of dynastic Egypt were buried.
The Abydos and Saqqara tombs provide more than three quarters of the inscribed material. This uneven distribution is mainly a reflection of the emergence of a centralized administration. Most early texts appropriately consist of very brief indications of private names, places, or goods and appear on pottery and stone vessels, labels, and sealings, which could easily be transported.
Several relatively recent, ground-breaking publications have generated interest in Egypt’s earliest language phases.3 Some were responses to P. Kaplony’s exhaustive collection of Early Dynastic inscriptions from the beginning of the twentieth century (Kaplony 1963, 1964, 1966; Kahl 2001a, b); others presented fresh discoveries made in the field. Both opened entirely new avenues of research. Systematic work by J. Kahl on the earliest stage of writing has enabled research to proceed on a firmer basis. When his System der ägyptischen Hieroglyphenschrift appeared (1994), the earliest evidence of writing that was discovered at Abydos a few years before was not yet published, but Kahl still offers the most comprehensive synthesis of the early Egyptian writing system available.4
The publication of the discovery of this tomb U-j at Abydos in 1998 (Dreyer 1998) as the find-spot of the oldest samples of writing in Egypt sparked an intense and productive debate. Revisions of the theories outlined in the 1998 publication focused on the structure and system represented by the U-j inscriptions and the social, economic, and political context in which writing could have emerged.5 Much has since been published on the relation between the origins of writing and the formation of the Egyptian state (Wenke 2009; Köhler 2010, 36–54; Andelcović 2011, 25–32; Branislav 2011). With the start of an Early Dynastic dictionary in 2002 by J. Kahl (Kahl 2002b), and a Palaeographic Study of Early Writing in Egypt (Regulski 2010), comprehensive tools are now available to address more specific issues.
Yet few philologists focus on Egypt’s earliest writing phases. The chronological gap of some 500 years between these earliest abbreviated notations written in Egypt and the first narrative inscriptions from the Old Kingdom has been a source of uneasiness for scholars. Many aspects, such as the development of the sign corpus and the thought processes behind it, have received little attention (Kammerzell 2005; Warburton 2013, 267). Over 4,000 inscriptions provide us with more than 20,000 signs (at an average of five signs per inscription), the larger half of which are used by Egyptologists and students on a daily basis, yet the emergence and early development of this corpus has yet to be fully examined. Apart from valuable publications of new discoveries, most theoretical and methodological discourse focuses almost entirely on the phonetic character of early writing and its relation to the development of the Egyptian state. The relation between script and spoken language have been barely investigated.
This article presents current perspectives on the origins and development of writing in Egypt, covering the first attestations of writing discovered in tomb U-j (ca. 3250 BC)6 until the earliest known continuous written text in the reign of Netjerikhet, more commonly known as Djoser (ca. 2700 BC).7 This half millennium witnessed major developments in the writing system and the sign corpus that remained current for over 3,000 years, most of which can be discussed on the basis of contemporary records.
Contextualizing the Earliest Evidence of Writing in Egypt
The Earliest Evidence of Writing—The Discovery of Tomb U-j at Abydos
In 1988 Günter Dreyer and his team discovered an exceptionally large and well-equipped tomb at Umm el-Qa’ab/Abydos (tomb U-j). Its central position in Cemetery U as well as the discovery of an ivory sceptre inside, led to the conclusion that tomb U-j was the final resting place of a Pre-Dynastic ruler, or at least a member of the highest elite of the region. Later offering deposits in connection to the tomb stress the status and legacy of whomever was buried in it.
The tomb’s contents displayed three different techniques for attaching signage to objects, each reserved for a particular container: large painted signs on ceramic vessels, seal impressions probably attached to bags, and miniature signs incised onto perforated ivory labels (Dreyer 1998). It is generally agreed that the content of the inscriptions consists of prestigious names, perhaps those of gods and officials, but also places and numbers. More specific readings are based upon analogies with later hieroglyphs and remain open to various interpretations (Stauder 2010).8 Only the ivory labels represent the formative phase of hieroglyphic writing (Regulski 2008b).
The discovery of tomb U-j was of exceptional importance for understanding the origin of writing in Egypt. It caused the beginning of hieroglyphic writing to be dated earlier than was previously thought, at least two centuries before the First Dynasty (ca. 3250 BC).9 In addition, the find-spot of the U-j inscriptions has prompted the theory that the Egyptian writing system was born in the Abydos region.
It was often assumed that Egyptian writing was invented under the stimulus of the Mesopotamian system, developed in the late fourth millennium BC (Petrie 1920, 49–50; Pope 1966, 17–23; Brewer 2005, 119ff).10 A variety of artistic and architectural evidence for contact between Mesopotamia and late Pre-Dynastic Egypt has in fact been found, but none of it can be dated precisely in relation to tomb U-j. Two sets of radiocarbon dates have been obtained: One places the Abydos material as slightly later than the Uruk IV tablets (ca. 3200 BC) (Boehmer 1991: 223–230; Boehmer, Dreyer, and Kromer 1993: 63–68), and the other places it slightly earlier (Görsdorf et al. 1998: 169–175).
The resemblance of the repertory of signs on earlier cylinder seals (Naqada II–IIIA1; ca. 3800–3300 BC) with early Sumerian/Elamite pictograms has been used to add weight to the Sumerian/Elamite influence argument (Kaiser 1990, 299; Smith 1992, 235; Hill 2004, 95–104; Honoré 2007, 31–45). However, it cannot be proved that these Pre-Dynastic seals already reflected a proper writing system such as that detected among the U-j labels (Kahl 1994, 154; Morenz 2004, 40; Regulski 2008b, 993–994; Stauder 2010). These seals probably belong to an earlier form of notation that was later replaced by the Egyptian writing system (cfr. infra). The earliest solid evidence of Egyptian writing differs in structure and style from the Mesopotamian and must therefore have developed independently. The possibility of “stimulus diffusion” from Mesopotamia remains, but the influence cannot have gone beyond the transmission of an idea (Ray 1986; Bard 1992, 297–306; Vernus 1993; Dreyer 1998, 181–182; Baines 2004, 175).
Although it is uncertain whether tomb U-j contained some of the first attempts at writing ever made, the hieroglyphic script cannot have developed long before the tomb’s construction. The ivory labels found in it provide the earliest attested two-consonantal phonograms used in a rebus principle typical of later hieroglyphic writing structure. The U-j texts follow a system that is limited, however, in that most phonetic complements and uniconsonantal phonograms are still missing (Kühn 2001, 31–35; Kahl 2002a, 63; Kahl 2003a, 134; Kahl 2003b, 131; Baines 2004, 153). The Egyptian writing system was clearly not initially designed or able to represent continuous spoken discourse.11
The Role of Early Writing in Egypt
Early Egyptian texts commonly consist only of short entries, yielding information in a few words regarding the provenance of delivered items, economic investments, or the involvement of administrative departments. It has been suggested that writing was first “invented” for administrative purposes and the economic organization of exchange of goods (Martin-Pardey 1976, 21; Bard 1992, 297; Vernus 1993, 89; Postgate, Wang, and Wilkinson 1995, 466, 472, 478; Morenz 2004, 242–249; Baines 2005, 192-3ff).12
The way the bone labels from tomb U-j were fabricated indicates the existence of a centralized administration; technical details show they were to some extent mass produced. Some labels bear incised lines close to the edges that may be interpreted as remnants of an early type of manufacture (Dreyer 1998, 137, figs. 74.4, 75.23, 75.26, 80.142–143). Larger bone surfaces were inscribed with many copies of the same group of signs, inlaid with a dark paste, scored with a grid, and then cut into separate labels along the grid lines. Truncations and the overlap of signs from one label to another can be detected in certain cases where the break was not made in quite the right place, or the sign carver exceeded the space available. The plate was thus cut into separate labels only after the inscriptions referring to different places in Egypt were applied (Regulski 2008a, 581–611). The labels were attached to the goods after they had arrived at an administrative center, presumably in the vicinity of Abydos.
The role of early writing in Egypt cannot, however, be categorized as exclusively administrative. For the later Old Kingdom, it has been estimated that only 1% of the entire population possessed writing skills, the vast majority of whom were probably men.13 In view of the extremely centralized context in which writing was used in the Early Dynastic period, this percentage was probably even lower in the Early Dynastic period. The Egyptian script may have been devised for recording managerial information, but since only the happy few were able to read and write, it also served as a means for cultural and elite display.
Much early writing is incorporated into representational works such as ceremonial palettes or in elite mortuary contexts.14 The social setting in which writing emerged was dominated by the ideology of sacred power and the performance of royal ritual, coinciding with increased economic, political, and military supremacy.
From its earliest use, writing fulfilled the dual roles of ordering and directing the flow of material goods, while redefining the social context of the commodities to which it was attached. The manufacture of the U-j labels demanded skilled and intensive labor, including the use of colored pigment in miniature signs (Piquette 2004, 923–947). Utilitarian and ceremonial purposes are not necessarily opposed, and inscribed pottery and stone vessels can, for example, display both the state’s ownership of prestigious goods while recording their delivery (Wengrow 2008, 1029). The creation of writing may be best understood as part of the social, cognitive, and economic changes that occurred as Egyptian society became more complex at the end of the fourth millennium BC.
The Egyptian Writing System in Confrontation with Local Traditions
The stimulus to create writing in Egypt is related to the growing complexity of interaction between different regional polities and the establishment of a centralized administration in Upper Egypt at the end of the fourth millennium BC. Political and economic change and the ideological discourse that accompanied it are thus deeply entangled in the emergence of writing. The northward expansion of the southern court culture is one of the developments that led to the establishment of a highly centralized state (Bard 1992: 297; Wenke 1997), the capital at Memphis and the institution of kingship (Baines 1995, 95–156; Baines 1997, 125–174). The writing system used by the new elite was a necessary tool to govern the consequent economic and social reordering.
A variety of notational systems already existed across Egypt when the writing system was launched. The inscriptional material from tomb U-j demonstrates the coexistence of distinct but compatible modes of written communication during the early Naqada III period. These systems were part of Pre-Dynastic traditions and differ from the more familiar ones of later pharaonic Egypt. Early evidence of protecting and validating transactions, accounts, and stored goods can be found in major Pre-Dynastic settlements in the form of seals and painted and incised potmarks. Their geographic spread across Egypt and beyond its borders testifies to intensive regional and foreign exchange from the Naqada II period onward.
Cylinder seals of the kind that produced the surviving impressions found in Egypt may have been imported from Mesopotamia to the Nile Valley in the mid-fourth millennium BC, where they were imitated and adapted by local craftsmen in stone, wood, and ivory. The finest of the Pre-Dynastic seals do not resemble the later Early Dynastic seal impressions, but they are reminiscent of the precise carving and iconography on Pre-Dynastic Egyptian knife handles (Hartung 1998, 216–217). Attempts to decipher their decorative patterns and individual elements as hieroglyphic signs (Hill 2004, 99f; Morenz 2004, 60–68) have not been successful. The use of seals as a means of transmitting royal names and other information was only later adopted.
Likewise, the ink notations on the pottery vessels from tomb U-j signs show a unique repertoire of symbols largely unparalleled in later phases of Early Dynastic writing. Other parallels of such Pre-Dynastic symbolic representation can be found in rock art, on the Coptos colossi, decorated pottery, and in the form of serekh signs (rectangles representing the palace wall, later used to frame the Horus name of the king; van den Brink 1996, 2001; MacArthur 2010) incised on wine jars. Despite occasional graphic similarities with later hieroglyphs and clear semantic rules governing their arrangement, their iconography cannot be understood in relation to the hieroglyphic writing system (Stauder 2010).
To fully understand the context from which the hieroglyphic writing system emerged, these notation systems should be more clearly defined. Previous unilinear models of the origin and evolution of writing failed to incorporate them because they do not appear to be predecessors of the “proper” writing system, and—more significantly—they do not disappear when “real” writing is introduced. Instead of defining these earlier systems in relation to the writing system, it seems more productive to recognize their autonomous status.15 From the iconographical viewpoint, they are clearly products of local informal traditions.
I have illustrated elsewhere how a fundamental rethinking of the engagement between the new court culture and earlier local traditions resulted in the codification of a power system incorporating state formation, ceremonial rituals, the institution of kingship and a national elite, and a formal writing system (Regulski 2008b). The conscious personal intervention of great artists and architects was instrumental in bringing this codification about. Using the early iconographic record, these creative individuals devised a remarkably homogeneous formal script stylistically consistent with the developing canon of formal art.
The codification of the writing system did not, however, provide a model that everyone immediately adopted; the new style was an intellectual creation of the court. Earlier notation systems (such as the Pre-Dynastic seals, the serekh signs, etc.) were not immediately replaced by the formal writing system, and use of the two overlapped for some time. Throughout the Early Dynastic period, the codification of writing underwent a long and complex interaction with preformal traditions, resulting in a few old elements being folded into the new. Some nontextual marking systems, such as the practice of sealing and the technique of incising potmarks prefiring16, were incorporated into the writing system because they were considered suitable tools to convey phonetic writing.17 The Naqada IIIA-B period and the first half of the First Dynasty mark this transition from older, Pre-Dynastic traditions to the new, formal pharaonic culture.
Certainly by the reign of Sekhen/Ka,18 one of the last kings before the beginning of the First Dynasty (Naqada IIIC1, ca. 3150 BC), the writing system was used on a national scale. Numerous ink inscriptions on pottery jars from his reign mention (oil) deliveries from Upper and Lower Egypt (as ipw.t Sma.w “accounts of Upper Egypt” and nHb(?) mH.w “deliveries from Lower Egypt”) in addition to the royal serekh surmounted by a falcon. Although the bulk of the inscriptions come from cemetery B at Umm el-Qaab/Abydos in Upper Egypt,19 goods from different parts of the country were clearly administered by specific state institutions.
Bureaucratic organization advanced further in the beginning of the First Dynasty (ca. 3100 BC). Evidence similar in content to the Sekhen/Ka group survived in the form of ink-written entries on vessels from tomb S 3357 at Saqqara (Emery 1939, pls. 14, 20–23). In addition to the serekh yielding the royal name of Aha, “[oil] deliveries from Upper Egypt” (in.w Sma.w) and arrivals of Lower Egypt’ (iw.t mH.w) are mentioned (Kaplony 1963, 292–297; Helck 1987, 177–178, 186). With almost 200 inscriptions, this group is the largest surviving body of cursive writing from before the Second Dynasty. More important for the current discussion, comparisons of handwritings show that scribes associated with the administration of Upper Egyptian goods worked separately from their colleagues in Lower Egypt (Regulski 2008a, 592).
State formation, by nature, involved the foundation of a capital city as the seat of centralized administration20 for domestic affairs, trade, and military expansion. The royal name of Sekhen/Ka was the first to appear in the serekh panel, and inscriptions showing this composite sign group appeared at different sites in northern Egypt as well as in the southern Levant. Royal presence abroad increased during the reign of Sekhen/Ka’s successor, Narmer (ca. 3150 BC), who strengthened Egypt’s hold in the northern Sinai and the Levant. The new writing system was now being used on an international scale.
The codification of the formal writing system was a multilayered process, the synergetic result of interaction between a variety of Pre-Dynastic components. As the range and volume of writing increased and spread, the codification process probably accelerated. It was more or less completed by the beginning of the Third Dynasty and coincided with reforms of the sign corpus, graphic development, and an increased phonetization of the script.
The Subsequent Development of the Hieroglyphic Sign Corpus
The Establishment of a System
Egyptian writing witnessed rapid development, and the main principles established during the Early Dynastic period remained current throughout the pharaonic and Graeco-Roman periods. It is now widely accepted that a limited phonetic writing system was in place by the end of the fourth millennium BC. Although the early writing system was not designed to render speech, there can be no doubt that at least from the Naqada IIIA2 period (3250 BC) onward, hieroglyphic signs stood for certain phonetic values.
The first half of the First Dynasty has been described as one of the most productive periods for the establishment of the sign classes. Most of the graphemes, such as uni- and biconsonantal phonograms, and the use of logograms, classifiers, or determinatives were introduced in the 300 years between tomb U-j and the reign of Den (Kaiser and Dreyer 1982, 231, fig. 9; Kahl 1994, 71–73, esp. fig. 4; Kahl 2003b, 129; Kahl 2002a, 63). Apart from y and s, and perhaps h and k, the complete set of monoconsonantal phonograms was attested under king Den (ca. 2900 BC). The former two were in use by the end of the First Dynasty (Ziegler and De Cenival 1982, 61–62; Fischer 1990, 63). A range of triconsonantal signs as well as the use of phonetic complements are likewise known from the First Dynasty.
Yet complex grammatical adjuncts, including suffix pronouns, prepositions such as the dative and genitive n, and the verb system, were not yet expressed in writing (Stauder 2010).21 We cannot convincingly “read” many short inscriptions satisfactorily because of our limited understanding of the underlying phonological system and the particular morphological structure of Egyptian, with its salient consonantal root morphemes. The sign corpus and the writing system represented by early telegraphic notations differ in structure and appearance from the first narrative inscriptions of the Old Kingdom (Schweitzer 2005).
A Conscious Process of Selection and Rejection
A concerted effort to make the repertoire of graphic sign classes (uni-, bi-, and triconsonantal signs) as functionally complete as possible coincides with the rapid expansion of the sign corpus. The first two dynasties produced a set of over a thousand signs, far more than what is known for later periods (up to the Ptolemaic period, from 332 BC onward). If we compare the “Early Dynastic” list published in Kahl’s Das System der ägyptischen Hieroglyphenschrift in der 0.-3. Dynastie, 171–417, with Gardiner’s core set of hieroglyphic signs,22 the difference in number can be fully appreciated. Most of the early signs fit neatly into the better known “classical” corpus of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Others present unusual and sometimes puzzling signs that appear to have fallen from the repertoire before the start of the Old Kingdom. This process of adding and subtracting signs can easily be documented (Regulski 2010, 240–241; Figure 123); interpreting the dynamics behind it is more difficult.
The earliest Egyptian writing from tomb U-j at Abydos provides us with a limited repertory of 51 identifiable signs. A little over half of them survive into the later classical record. After a continuous increase over the next 200 years, the number of signs used as proper hieroglyphs reached its peak of about 1,000 signs in the mid-First Dynasty (ca. 2900 BC). While the majority survived into the classical repertoire, some were never used again. From the second half of the First Dynasty onward and particularly throughout the Second Dynasty, the corpus shrank to a few hundred signs in the mid-third millennium BC. The Early Dynastic period was a formative time in which many of the later known hieroglyphs were introduced, including some that were filtered out in the course of the first two dynasties.
These observations might be simplistically explained by the uneven distribution of preserved material from the different phases of the Early Dynastic period and the consequent focus of scholarly research. The First Dynasty is well represented, whereas material from the Second Dynasty is comparatively scant, except for evidence from the reign of Khasekhemwy, whose tomb was reexcavated by the German expedition.24 The royal tombs of Den and Qaa were also reexcavated by the German team (Engel 1997),25 which partly accounts for the larger number of sources for their respective reigns.
But we cannot assume that the number of signs decreased because we have less evidence of them. When examining the introduction of new signs, precisely because of the chronologically uneven distribution of the evidence, the fact that a sign is attested is more important than the number of attestations by which it is represented. The noticeable decrease of new signs continued into the reign of Netjerikhet, the first king of the Third Dynasty, when a vast number of sources are available. By this time, scribes increasingly worked with the available repertoire of signs to systemize rather than add to it. The same phenomenon has been observed in other early writing systems (cfr. infra).
The sign corpus was constantly adapting. Signs were introduced, reconsidered, and eventually sometimes abandoned. This was not a linear development, however, implying that fewer earlier sign versions survived and that the later a sign was introduced, the greater its chances of survival as a classical hieroglyph. On the contrary, the survey shows that a sign appearing in the first half of the First Dynasty had the best chance of surviving. Signs introduced throughout the Second Dynasty more often concern Early Dynastic sign versions that soon became extinct. The formation of the sign corpus was not a cumulative process, but a conscious reaction to certain changes in the social and political environment.
Graphic standardization certainly made some signs redundant, for example in the case of variant signs rendering the same phonetic value. But a more profound morphological process must have influenced such a fundamental reduction of the sign corpus.26 I would argue that the sign corpus was consciously adapted in response to a developing need for the script to represent speech or a changing phonological system. Given the evidence for more complex grammar at the end of the Second Dynasty, it seems plausible that increasing or adaptive phonetization coincides with, or perhaps instigates, the optimization of the sign corpus throughout the Second Dynasty.27 This development must have coincided with a revision of the function in which the consonantal signs could be used.
Phonographic Persistence and Logographic Decline
In most of the later Egyptian writing phases, multiliteral signs (uni-, bi- and triliteral) are generally used as logograms, phonograms (including phonetic complements), or determinatives. Determinatives are usually explained as nonphonetic glyphs that classify the meanings of words, distinguish homophones, and serve as word dividers.28 Egyptian words could thus be written in two ways: logographically or phonographically. Both logograms and phonograms could be combined on the basis of the rebus principle.29 For example, the picture of the mouth (D21) was apparently chosen to represent the consonant r (phonogram) from the word for “mouth”, which was something like ra (logogram).
Writing with logograms was only possible for words that could actually be pictured (such as “house”). The number of different words that could theoretically be written as logograms can therefore not exceed the number of existing hieroglyphic signs (about 500 in Middle Egyptian). The rest of the 17,000 or so known Egyptian words had to be written with phonograms.30 In practice, the Egyptians never fully exploited the option of writing with logograms; a logographic use has never been detected for many hieroglyphs. The verb “to speak,” for example, could have been written using the hieroglyph of a man with his hand to his mouth (A2). But this hieroglyph was only used as a determinative in Middle Egyptian. The verb was always written with the phonograms I10 + D46, sometimes with A2 as the determinative, but more often without it. Writing with logograms was therefore the exception in classical hieroglyphic rather than the rule.
Comparing these observations with the Early Dynastic writing system generates a number of methodological problems, since it is difficult to satisfactorily reconstruct phonetic values and linguistic classifications for most of the early signs. This is particularly difficult for signs that disappear, since later hieroglyphic successors cannot be consulted. Nonetheless, a quick glance at Kahl’s Early Dynastic sign list (Kahl 1994, 421–905) shows that the sign corpus was “more logographic” in the first two dynasties. A rough estimate yields five times more logograms and two times more determinatives than phonograms.31 Only a handful of phonetic complements can be observed.
From the same list it can also be deduced that mainly logographic signs were filtered out before the start of the Old Kingdom.32 This impression must be systematically investigated by analyzing the attestations and disappearance of individual signs, but it seems that phonograms are more prevalent. Almost all signs that were used as phonograms in the earlier phases of the Early Dynastic period survived into the classical repertoire. A large number of logograms, the most typical element of the Early Dynastic sign corpus, disappear or the sign is later used as a determinative.33 If Early Dynastic writing had the same phonetic potential as later writing phases, which the available repertory of uni-, bi-, and triconsonantal signs suggests, a reduction of the number of logograms would optimize the script to fully comply with phonetic writing. With more words being written phonetically, the need for clearer classification, both phonetic and semantic, increases. Hence, phonetic complements and determinatives become more important.
Similar processes have shaped other languages, even in very recent times. The government of the People’s Republic of China has promoted the use of simplified Chinese characters in printing since the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to increase literacy (Bökset 2006). The best example where phonetization dramatically reduced the number of signs is the Banum script in western Cameroon invented by King Njoya (Fischer 1990, 66). The partly ideographic and partly syllabic script consisting of 1,000 stylized hieroglyphs was swiftly refined between 1900 and 1918 to an almost completely phonetic system of just seventy signs.
The Formation of a National Language
Most, if not all, human languages have acquired their contemporary form by contact with other speech communities—that is, speakers using a slightly different system, a distinct dialect, or a foreign language. It has been argued that such linguistic diversity also existed in Egypt in the late fourth millennium BC and had an impact on the phonological development of the earliest attested language phase (called “pre-Old Egyptian”) into Old Egyptian (Kammerzell 2005, 165–247, esp. 198).
Several potential scenarios for the formation of the Egyptian language have been discussed. All reconstructions acknowledge that more than one linguistic community contributed to the creation of the Egyptian language (Calice 1931, 25–29; Erman 1986, 350–353; and see Takács 1999, 1–8 and 35–48; Kammerzell 2005, 165–229). The lexicon of earlier Egyptian consists of (at least) two different strata; one shows similarities with Afro-Asiatic, and the other exhibits structural and lexical affiliations with Indo-European. The affinities between Egyptian and Indo-European languages have been explained by historical and social-linguistic circumstances, rather than genetically, that is, belonging to the same linguistic family (Kammerzell 2005, 223–226). These circumstances led to a particular linguistic situation in late Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt out of which pre-Old Egyptian, the language reflected in the earliest attested script, emerged.
The difference between the possible scenarios concerns the nature of influence of the two speech groups on the emergence of pre-Old Egyptian and its development into Old Egyptian. One view holds that one language population abandoned their mother tongue in favor of the other or of a new “mixed” language34; other explanations say that pre-Old Egyptian emerged out of a contact language that was intentionally created to facilitate communication beyond the limits of individual languages.
These linguistic scenarios require further investigation and may yield interesting consequences for our understanding of the development of script. For example, the idea of a contact language could be reassessed in connection with the sudden appearance of the writing system among existing Pre-Dynastic notation systems, some of which have clear affiliations with Mesopotamia. According to the last scenario (pre-Old-Egyptian as a contact language), a smaller community of speakers of the language with Indo-European affiliation may have occupied important positions in the political, social-economic, and cultural life that allowed them to play a significant role in the emergence of the hieroglyphic writing system. Several traits in the earliest system do not only differ from basic typological characteristic of spoken Egyptian but also resemble typical features of contact languages (i.e., scarcity of inflection and higher degree of analyticity, dual and plural formation by reduplication of the singular, use of classifiers). This pre-Old Egyptian would consequently have been spoken by a small community and absorbed into the majority language while impacting its further development.
In any case, the development from pre-Old Egyptian into Old Egyptian certainly occurred as a result of significant language shifts during which Old Egyptian acquired several of its structural characteristics from an external source. Such shifts may have contributed to the process of adapting the script to better represent speech. Certain processes can be dated by their reflection in the written record, such as the phonemic split between velar and palatal obstruents.35 Palatal obstruents began to be reflected in writing at the end of the First Dynasty. It can be no coincidence that these changes in the linguistic environment coincide chronologically with revisions of the sign corpus, specifically the rejection of a large number of logographic signs. Clearly, the formation of Old Egyptian influenced written communication by adapting the corpus of usable hieroglyphs.
If indeed the earliest hieroglyphic record demonstrates a linguistic system that could be classified as a distinct language rather than merely a predecessor of Egyptian, it would explain the enigmatic nature of many of the early inscriptions and the disappearance of many typical early signs before the Old Kingdom. A more thorough comparison between such linguistic developments and their graphic articulation should be carried out to further detail the development of early writing.
The complex process of establishing a generally accepted repertoire of signs inevitably affected the shapes of the signs themselves (Figure 2). The graphic formation of the sign corpus is characterised by a dynamic relation between the creation of the hieroglyphic sign corpus (i.e., the introduction of hieroglyphs) and the developing canon of (its) graphic representation (i.e., the way they are depicted). The divergence of those processes (i.e., when new outlines for already existing hieroglyphs are introduced or certain outlines disappear) indicates palaeographic change and graphic codification.
In a survey of palaeographic development, I have identified more and less productive periods when simultaneous changes in the forms of different signs occurred (Regulski 2010). Rather than a linear development where outlines gradually changed and older versions disappeared, palaeographic development was marked by three types of reform: the introduction of new versions/outlines for signs that already existed (Reform 1); changes in preference for alternative versions (Reform 2); and the abandonment of sign forms (Reform 3).
The first evidence for graphic modification can be detected at the beginning of the First Dynasty. As was the case for the number of signs, graphic reform was first and foremost visible in the extension of possible outlines for existing signs (Reform 1). The first half of the First Dynasty (including the reigns of Narmer, Aha, Djer, and Djet) contributed to the development of the early writing system by enlarging both the sign corpus as well as updating hieroglyphic style characteristics. The scribe could now choose from a range of variant outlines for already existing signs (Stauder 2010). In the middle of the First Dynasty, a new development appears; within the corpus of existing outlines, there are many changes in preference (Reform 2). From the end of the First Dynasty until the reign of Netjerikhet at the beginning of the Third Dynasty, reform concentrated on the available corpus of existing outlines. As a side effect, a larger number of outlines were abandoned (Reform 3).
Graphic reform was radical in the reign of Netjerikhet when an extremely large number of outlines were filtered out. Not a single new outline was introduced during this reign, which is highly significant given the large number of sources available. The standard hieroglyphic form is more or less designated. As was the case for the establishment of the sign corpus, however, reconsiderations of the outline of a sign never completely ceased, as the Egyptian script is highly dynamic and flexible.
Such restructuring of the sign corpus (in number and graphically) perhaps also encouraged the full development of a handwriting script. For earlier periods, no structural distinction can be made between the hieroglyphic carved or incised onto a range of durable media; and the cursive script written in ink, mostly on pottery and stone vessels. The use of more perishable objects for writing lacks evidence, but the use of papyrus cannot be ruled out since black papyrus (prepared for writing) is attested in the First Dynasty (Emery 1938, 41).36 Painted versions of hieroglyphs may have originated about the same time as their engraved counterparts, but features typical of later hieratic writing like increased simplification and abbreviation can only be observed toward the end of the Second Dynasty.
The earliest hieratic writing can be found on the inscribed stone vessels discovered beneath the Step Pyramid at Saqqara (Gunn 1928, 153–174; Lacau and Lauer 1965; Helck 1979, 120–132; Stadelmann 1987, 252; Regulski 2009). The ink annotations mention individuals, provenances, or destinations and accounts.37 With more than 1,000 short texts, this is the largest body of early hieratic writing from Egypt. Features typical of later hieratic such as the addition of diacritic marks are still absent (Goedicke 1988, viii). These inscriptions are followed in date by ink-written texts from the reign of Netjerikhet/Djoser, which show a similar paleography (Garstang 1903, pl. 28.1–7; Gunn 1928, 164, fig. 5, pl. 3.7; 171, fig. 24–35; 198, fig. 1–2, pl. 26). This development of a handwriting script leads to the use of new media and changing perceptions of writing, which materializes in the Old Kingdom.
Graphic standardization passed through the same periodization as the codification of the hieroglyphic sign corpus and the establishment of almost all linguistic features of the Egyptian writing system. A first phase focused on creating and extending the sign corpus and experimenting with a large variety of possible outlines, as well as introducing the morphological and lexical elements, syntactic structures, and phonetic properties typical of later hieroglyphic. A second wave of standardization starting in the second half of the First Dynasty but intensifying during the Second Dynasty, made the writing system more able to render speech. Increased phonetization was articulated in the reduction of the sign corpus and the abandonment of a large number of logographic signs, changes in the lexicon, and more complex grammatical constructions. The need to adapt the script to encode continuous speech may have been encouraged by significant changes in the linguistic environment of Early Dynastic Egypt, which led to the inception of a national language.
The precise details of underlying processes and possible linguistic explanations for a changing script require much more research. It would be interesting to collate the observations regarding the development of Egyptian writing outlined here with other major changes in the early period, such as the temporary abandonment of the royal necropolis in the south at the start of the Second Dynasty and the final closure of the Umm el-Qaab cemetery in favor of a site overlooking the capital by Netjerikhet. Further research should also engage more interdisciplinary comparative language perspectives. Much can be learned from evaluating similarities and differences in the structural properties of the world’s oldest writing systems and the cognitive processes by which humans first made language visible.
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(1.) It appears on a seal impression from the reign of Peribsen, the sole yet last king of the Second Dynasty, and reads: “The Ombite (Seth); he has united (?) the two lands for his son, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt”; W. M. F. Petrie, The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties, Part II, Excavations Memoirs 21 (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1901), pl. 22, 190; P. Kaplony, Die Inschriften der ägyptischen Frühzeit III, ÄA 8 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1963), fig. 368.
(2.) The national language of modern-day Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which gradually replaced Coptic in the centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Coptic is still used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church. It has several hundred fluent speakers today. On the disappearance of Egyptian, see Houston, Baines, and Cooper (2003), “Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45: 430–479.
(4.) For shorter treatments before the discovery of tomb U-j, see, for example, K. A. Bard (1992), “Origins of Egyptian writing,” In The Followers of Horus: Studies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman (Oxford: Oxbow Books), 297–306; P. Vernus (1993), “La naissance de l’écriture dans l’Égypte ancienne,” Archéo-Nil 3: 75–108.
(5.) B. Kemp (2000), “The colossi from the early shrine at Coptos in Egypt,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10: 211–242; J. Kahl (2001), “Hieroglyphic writing during the fourth millennium BC: An analysis of systems,” Archéo-Nil 11: 116–126; F. A. K. Breyer (2002), “Die Schriftzeugnisse des Prädynastischen Königsgrabes U-j in Umm-el Qaab: Versuch einer Neuinterpretation,” JEA 88: 53–65; J. Kahl (2003a), “Die frühen Schriftzeugnisse aus dem Grab U-j in Umm el-Qa’ab,” CdE 78: 112–135; J. Baines (2004), “The earliest Egyptian writing: Development, context, purpose,” in The First Writing. Script Invention as History and Process (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press), 150–189; D. Morenz (2004), Bild-Buchstaben und symbolische Zeichen. Die Herausbildung der Schrift in der hohen Kultur Altägyptens (Göttingen, Germany: Academic Press, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht); A. Jiménez-Serrano (2007), “Principles of the oldest Egyptian writing,” LingAeg 15: 47–66; J. Wegner (2007), “From elephant-mountain to Anubis-mountain? A theory on the origins and development of the name Abdju,” in The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in honor of David B. O’Connor, vol. II (Cairo: Conseil Supreme des Antiquites de l’Egypte), 468–470; M. Höveler-Müller (2008), “Zu den frühzeitlichen Königen Fingerschnecke” und “Fisch” aus dem Grab U-j in Umm el-Qa’ab,” SAK 37: 159–167. A. Stauder (2010), “The earliest Egyptian writing.” In Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago); E. MacArthur (2011), “In search of the sDm=f: The conception and development of hieroglyphic writing through the reign of Aha,” in Egypt at Its Origins 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference “Origin of the State: Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt,” London, 27th July–1st August 2008 (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters), 1195–1216; and the contributions in E. Teeter (2011), Before the Pyramids: The Origins of Egyptian Civilization (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago). This list is not exhaustive. For updates on Early Dynastic literature in general, see Hendrickx’s yearly contributions in the journal Archéo-Nil (since 2011 with Claes).
(6.) Based on the most recently published dates in S. Hendrickx (2006), “Predynastic-early dynastic chronology,” in Ancient Egyptian Chronology (Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill), 92, table II. The date 3250 BC corresponds to Naqada IIIa2 (following Kaiser) and Naqada IIIA1 (following Hendrickx); more or less 150–200 years before the start of the First Dynasty (at around 3100–3050 BC); cfr. S. Hendrickx (1996), “The relative chronology of the Naqada culture: Problems and possibilities,” in Aspects of Early Egypt (London: BMP), 59; G. Dreyer (1998), Umm el-Qaab I. Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse (Mainz, Germany: Philip von Zabern), 17–18, and 40; cfr. R. M. Boehmer, G. Dreyer, and B. Kromer (1993), “Einige Frühzeitliche 14C-Datierungen aus Abydos und Uruk,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 49: 65.
(7.) ‘Netjerikhet’ is used, however, because we also refer to all kings by their Horus names.
(10.) W. Helck (1985), “Gedanken zum Ursprung der ägyptischen Schrift.” in Mélanges Gamal Eddin Mokhtar. Vol. I (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire), 395–408; W. Helck (1987), Untersuchungen zur Thinitenzeit (Wiesbaden, Germany: O. Harrassowitz), 138–143, argued that Syria and Lower Egypt had a language in common, different from that of Upper Egypt, and a culture that produced the first hieroglyphic writing on perishable material of which nothing survived, the so-called Butische Schrift; cfr. D. B. Redford (1994), in “Some observations on the Northern and North-Eastern Delta,” in Essays in Egyptology in Honour of Hans Goedicke (San Antonio, TX: Van Siclen Books), 201ff. It is assumed that unfamiliar forms and orthography in some of the earliest inscriptions are to be explained by the adoption of this proto-hieroglyphic system by the Upper Egyptians when they conquered the Delta; cfr. P. Vernus (1993), “La naissance de l’écriture dans l’Égypte ancienne,” Archéo-Nil 3: 75; H. Vanstiphout (1995), “Memory and literacy in ancient Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. IV (New York: Simon & Schuster and Prentice-Hall International), 2184; T. Kühn (2001), “Die Entstehung der ägyptischen Schrift in prädynastischer Zeitgeist,” Kemet 10.4: 31–35.
(11.) Likewise, the proto-cuneiform signs show little connection to the spoken language; M. Van De Mieroop (2004), A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000–323 B.C. (Oxford: Blackwell), 31.
(12.) The uneven distribution of written sources is another reflection of the extremely centralized administration in which writing was used.
(13.) J. Baines and C. J. Eyre (1983), “Four notes on literacy,” in Götinger Miszellen 61: 67.
(14.) The powerful ideology of the afterlife was not transmitted in writing before the Old Kingdom.
(15.) Important work on nontextual marking systems has been collected in P. Andrassy, J. Budka, and F. Kammerzell (2009), Non-Textual Marking Systems, Writing and Pseudo Script from Prehistory to Present Times (Göttingen, Germany: Seminar für Ägyptologie und Koptologie).
(16.) The relationship with the potmarks applied to vessels prior to firing should be researched further. Most of these marks were probably applied by the potters themselves, which explains the crude and deviate form of the signs. Given the lower status of potters—when compared to scribes—we can assume that they could not write and were only imitating examples. Perhaps this was the reason that trained scribes were later added to pottery workshops. A list in the can we list the date of the papyrus here? Gebelein Papyri (Fourth Dynasty; 2613–2494 BC); mention the attribution of a trained scribe to each group of potters; P. Andrassy, “Pot marks in textual evidence?” in Non-textual Marking Systems in Ancient Egypt (and Elsewhere) (Lingua Aegyptia Studia Monographica 16), edited by J. Budka, F. Kammerzell, and S. Rzepka (Hamburg, Germany: Widmaier Verlag).
(17.) Especially with regard to the potmarks, a relation to phonetic writing has recently been illustrated by E-M. Engel (2015a), “Schrift oder Marke?” In Fuzzy Boundaries. Festschrift für Antonio Loprieno, Band I (Hamburg, Germany: Widmaier Verlag). See also E. C. M. van den Brink (2008), “Potmark-Egypt.com.” In Egypt at Its Origins 2. Proceedings of the International Conference “Origins of the State,” Toulouse, 5th–8th September 2005 (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters), 237–242; N. Buchez (2004), “The study of a group of ceramics at the end of the Naqada period and socio-economic considerations.” In Egypt at Its Origins: Studies in Memory of Barbara Adams (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters), 682–685; G. Breand (2008), “Signes sur poteries et enregistrement comptable en Égypte pré- et protodynastique. L’example du signe des “batons brisés,” in Cahiers Caribéens d’ Égyptologie 11: 37–81; E-M. Engel (2015b), “The Early Dynastic Pot Mark Project—a Progress Report.” In Non-textual marking systems in Ancient Egypt (and elsewhere) (Hamburg, Germany).
(18.) For the name of this king, see P. Kaplony (1958), “Sechs Königsnamen der I. Dynastie in neuer Deutung,” Orientalia Suecana 7: 54–56; W. Kaiser (1964), “Einige Bemerkungen zur ägyptischen Frühzeit. III. Die Reichseinigung,” ZÄS 91: 93, n. 2. For a summary of available sources from the reign of Ka, see F. Raffaele (2003), “Dynasty 0,” in Basel Egyptology Prize 1 (Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe & Co. AG), 110–112.
(19.) Tomb B7; W. M. F. Petrie (1901), The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties. 1901. Part II (London: Egypt Exploration Fund), pl. 13 (up.B 7, 11, 15, upper left, without number); W. M. F. Petrie (1902), Abydos. Part I. 1902 (London: Offices of the Egypt Exploration Fund), pls. 1–3; B19 and between B 7 and B10; W. Kaiser and G. Dreyer (1982), “Umm el-Qaab. Nachuntersuchungen im frühzeitlichen Königsfriedhof. 2. Vorbericht,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 38: pl. 58a. An unprovenanced parallel was published by Kaplony, Inschriften der ägyptischen Frühzeit III, fig. 848. During the more recent excavation of tomb U-j, another parallel was discovered by Dreyer, no doubt in secondary context; Dreyer, Umm el-Qaab I, 166, fig. 98.247. A similar inscription from Tarkhan can also be considered; W. M. F. Petrie (1913), Tarkhan I and Memphis V (London: School of Archaeology in Egypt), pl. 31.67.
(20.) On the foundation of the capital at Memphis, see, for example, S. Love (2006), “Stones, ancestors, and pyramids: investigating the pre-pyramid landscape of Memphis,” in The Old Kingdom Art and Archaeology: Proceedings of the Conference held in Prague, May 31—June 4, 2004 (Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University), 209–219; E. C. Köhler (2008), “Early Dynastic society at Memphis,” in Zeichen aus dem Sand (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz), 381–399, and contributions in L. Evans (2012), “Ancient Memphis: ‘Enduring Is the Perfection.’” Proceedings of the international conference held at Macquarie University, Sydney on August 14-15, 2008 (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters).
(21.) The reconstruction by E. MacArthur, in Egypt at Its Origins 3, 1195–1216, of verb forms in the beginning of the First Dynasty is problematic. None of her argued cases show the endings of verb forms. Secondly, the examples are substantive verb forms, such as the infinitive and participles, at best. Her reconstruction of the subjunctive optative cDm=f (p. 1204) is not convincing.
(22.) Gardiner’s sign list is based on Middle Egyptian; cfr. Baines, in The First Writing, 180.
(24.) See the preliminary reports in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo from 1998 onward.
(25.) For the tomb of Den, see the preliminary reports in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo from 1990 onward.
(26.) In the linguistic sense of the word (morphological); that is, the identification, analysis, and description of the structure of a given language’s morphemes and other linguistic units, such as root words, affixes, parts of speech, intonations, and stresses, or implied context.
(27.) That is, the increase of representing written language using symbols or letters that reflect more directly or in a more regular manner the sounds of the spoken language.
(28.) Kahl’s devision of (Early Dynastic) graphemes incorporates determinatives with logograms under ‘Semogramme’; J. Kahl (1994), Das System der ägyptischen Hieroglyphenschrift in der 0.-3. Dynastie (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz), 22, 52. See also W. Schenkel (1983), Aus der Arbeit an einer Konkordanz zu den altägyptischen Sargtexten (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz), 38–39.
(29.) In fact, phonograms only function in a rebus principle; W. Schenkel (1984), “Schrift.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie Band V (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz), 713–735; Kahl, Das System der ägyptischen Hieroglyphenschrift, 54.
(30.) The estimate is taken from J. P. Allen (2010), Middle Egyptian. An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press), 29.
(31.) Uncertain cases are not represented. When a sign could be used as logogram and determinative, it was counted twice. A very low number of “phonetic determinatives” was counted. Although it would be interesting to study this phenomenon per sign group, none of the categories yielded a higher number of phonograms than logograms. The same conclusion can be drawn for potmarks; even if all the phonetic value presented by E-M. Engel are excepted, most of the signs function as logograms; E-M. Engel (2015a), “Schrift oder Marke?” In Fuzzy Boundaries: Festschrift für Antonio Loprieno, Band I (Hamburg, Germany: Widmaier Verlag), 66.
(32.) And there is the interesting case that some logograms survive in the religious mortuary texts corpus of the old and Middle Kingdom only.
(33.) This development should not be confused with the examples where a phonetic spelling is later replaced by a logogram; Kahl, Das System der ägyptischen Hieroglyphenschrift, 60–61.
(34.) The least favorable is a scenario, according to which the Afroasiatic language group gives up its mother tongue and shifted to Egyptian, as it would imply that Egyptian would have acquired its Afroasiatic straits only secondarily, which is not very plausible. It has to be noted also that Old Egyptian has several characteristics rather untypical of contact languages.
(35.) Obstruents are speech sounds formed by obstructing airflow.
(36.) The hieroglyph Y2, representing a sealed papyrus scroll, appears as early as the reign of Qaa; Kahl, Das System der ägyptischen Hieroglyphenschrift, 36.
(37.) It is unfortunately impossible to distinguish whether provenance or destination is intended in this group, since grammatical relationships such as genitive or dative were not indicated.