The Egyptians began to form a pictographic written language about 5000 years ago, which they continued to use for more than 3500 years, until about 400 AD. Eventually, the pictures they used to represent words came to represent sounds. These symbols, hieroglyphs, or “sacred inscriptions” were adapted for use in everyday life, in addition to their important religious.
After 400 AD, the Egyptian language was written in the Greek alphabet, with the addition of several extra letters to represent Egyptian sounds that didn’t exist in Greek. This form of Egyptian is called Coptic, and was in turn eventually replaced by Arabic, the language spoken in Egypt today. The ancient Egyptian tongue died out, only the hieroglyphics remain to remind us that it ever existed.
For more than 1000 years, the hieroglyphics were little more than mysterious symbols carved on ancient monuments. All kinds of theories abounded: some thought that they recorded magic spells, others secret religious ceremonies. Then, in 1799, Napolean’s army uncovered the key. The Rosetta Stone was discovered when Lieutenant Bouchard’s men were remodeling the Fortress at Rosetta. The slab of basalt is inscribed with three texts, each in a different script: one in Demotic, one in hieroglyphics, and one in Coptic. Scholars hoped to use the Greek text to translate the others. Twenty-three years later, the young Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion became the first person in thousands of years to read hieroglyphics.