Learn Hieroglyphs

Scripts of the Ancient Egyptian Language

Ancient Egyptian language was written in four different scripts: Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic. These scripts did not all appear simultaneously, but appeared consecutively over the long period that the ancient Egyptian language existed. It also shows the maturity in thinking of the ancient Egyptians who knew that the complexity and development of life would require the invention of the suitable means of communication to improve and record the wider and more developed activities. The Hieroglyphic script was the outcome of such long thinking and urgent need for communication. Hieroglyphic script, the oldest of the ancient Egyptian scripts, is a beautifully written script which required special material and special people to write it. By time, Egyptians were forced to invent a different, more cursive and simplified script to suit their overgrowing needs and to fulfill administrative needs; hence they invented a cursive script known as Hieratic. In later stages, the Hieratic script needed to be more cursive to suit the different affairs and social interactions. This new cursive form was called Demotic script. Later, a new lettering system was invented to serve the need of time, called the Coptic script. The Egyptian language was written using the Greek alphabet in addition to seven signs from the Demotic scripts. Here, it is appropriate to correct a widespread inaccuracy when referring to the ancient Egyptian language, as it is mistakenly known as “the Hieroglyphic language”. Hieroglyphic writing is a script and not a language. There is only one ancient Egyptian language written in four different scripts (Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, Demotic, Coptic).


Hieroglyphic Script

Hieroglyphic script is the first script used by the ancient Egyptians to write their language. The term is derived from two Greek words hieros and glyphos. They mean “sacred inscriptions”, referring to its inscription on the walls of sacred places such as temple walls and tombs. Hieroglyphic writing was used for all purposes on: temples, public monuments, tomb walls, stelae, and objects of all kinds.



The word is derived from the Greek word hieratikos, meaning “priestly”. It was called "priestly" because in the Greco-Roman period, this script was the usual writing used by priests. The name is now been given to all the earlier styles of script that are cursive enough for the original pictorial forms of the signs to be no longer recognizable. The increasing need to document and communicate was the major factor that resulted in the invention of such simple and cursive script. It was written mainly on papyrus and ostraca, however, occasional Hieratic inscriptions also appear on stone.


The word is derived from the Greek demotikos, meaning “popular”. The name does not mean that the script was only written by the public, but the name reflects its wide use by all people. Demotic was a very rapid and simple form of Hieratic script, that made its first appearance around the Eighth Century BCE and continued to be used until the Fifth Century CE. As Hieratic, it was written on papyrus and ostraca, and occasionally appeared on stone.


This script represents the last stage of the development of Egyptian writing. The word Coptic is probably derived from the Greek word Aegyptos in reference to the Egyptian language. In Coptic, vowels were used for the first time. This might have been of great help in identifying the correct pronunciation of the Egyptian language. Writing the ancient Egyptian language with Greek letters was a political need following the Greek occupation of Egypt. The Egyptian language was written using the Greek alphabet, in addition to seven Egyptian sign-letters borrowed from Demotic (to represent Egyptian sounds which did not appear in Greek), these are:
An important feature of this script is that it renders the vowels of the language (something which was not in Hieroglyphics, Hieratic or Demotic) and allows various highly stylized dialects to be distinguished (Sahidic, Boharic, Akhmimic, and Fayyumic).