Article by Claire Somaglino, Paris IV, UMR 8167, “Mondes pharaoniques”

Language Family and Linguistic Characteristics

The Egyptian language belongs to the Afroasiatic (also known as Hamito-Semitic) language family, within which it forms its own branch. It was spoken in the Nile Valley, from the First Cataract to the Mediterranean shore.

Writing System

The Egyptian language could, from its earliest attestations, be written in hieroglyphs, or in their cursive form, hieratic. Only consonants and semi-vowels were written. Hieroglyphs are image-based characters, which could be used in different ways: as ideograms, phonograms, or determinatives. They were generally reserved form monumental writing, that is, official or religious texts, while hieratic was preferentially used on papyrus and ostraca, for all types of texts. It was this cursive writing that was used for administrative and economic texts.

Developing from hieratic, the demotic writing system appeared in the twenty-sixth dynasty and gradually became predominant in administrative and economic documents, before being used for literature, to write the stage of the language known by the same name. Finally, Coptic used the Greek alphabet, supplemented with seven new letters.

Evolution of the Language and Idiomatic Variation

The first traces of Egyptian writing date from the period of state-formation, in about 3200 BCE. Throughout the long history of Egyptian, the language evolved, until its final stage, Coptic, which ceased to be a spoken language from the thirteenth century CE, but which remains the liturgical language of Egyptian Christians.

Over the course of its three-thousand-year history, the Egyptian language constantly evolved. Its written form seems to have changed according to a different rhythm, with a period of delay compared to the spoken language. We may distinguish several stages of this evolution:

  • Earlier Egyptian:
    • Old Egyptian, the language of the Old Kingdom (c.2700-2190 BCE);
    • Middle Egyptian, the language of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty (c.2040-1350 BCE). Considered the classical form of the language, it served as the origin of Traditional Egyptian, which was used for centuries by highly trained scribes for a certain number of official, literary, and religious texts.
  • Later Egyptian:
    • Late Egyptian: Almost certainly spoken from the seventeenth dynasty, Late Egyptian first appears in writing in texts from the end of the eighteenth dynasty, and was used approximately until the end of the Third Intermediate Period (1350-664 BCE);
    • Demotic: This term designates both a stage of the evolution of the language, and the script within which it was written. It was used during the twenty-sixth dynasty (664 BCE) until 470 CE, the date of the last clearly dated inscription.
    • Coptic

Objectives of Research

Detailed research is already underway on the vocabulary of peace in Egypt, notably to understand if the concept constituted a distinct category in Egyptian thought.

The vocabulary of peace and of diplomacy has already been treated by D. Lorton (1974), although his work deals only with the eighteenth dynasty, and it will be interesting to expand the scope of his study to better understand the evolution of the vocabulary. We will also draw upon the fascinating studies dedicated to the monarchy in the Middle Kingdom and Ramesside Period by E. Blumenthal (1970) and N. Grimal (1986). These authors analyse a range of terms in relation to the king’s functions in war and peace.

Several terms are employed to designate peace: ḥtp, sḥtp (“pacify, pacification, peace”, “appease, pacify”) and related expressions ; sgrḥ (“pacify”) ; šrm/šlm (a term deriving from Semitic; “lay down weapons, seek peace”, “peace”) ; hrw, hrt, shrj (“rejoice, be calm, calm, joy, appease, restore calm”) ; snsn (“fraternise, friendship, fraternity”), etc. The principle term is ḥtp and its derivatives, which cover a vast semantic field: peace, appeasement, contentment. They are found very frequently in religious contexts, where we find closely intertwined with many domains in Egyptian thought.

Text Corpus for the study of Peace

For the project, “Terminology of Peace”, we will take into account hieroglyphic and hieratic Egyptian sources from the Old Kingdom to the end of the Late Period. We may also draw upon hieroglyphic texts from the Graeco-Roman period.

The texts which deal to a greater extent with the theme of peace (within the state or with other peoples or lands) are of several types. Firstly, there are wisdom texts, which appear at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, and teach a model of moral comportment for the elite, based on the respect for maat, the essential principle of harmony, justice and truth in pharaonic ideology. Secondly, the royal elegies, which may form either their own category of texts, or may be integrated into other text types. These texts stress the virtues of the king in performing his duties, in particular in the maintenance of the security of his people. It is, however, above all the royal texts designated “histories”, and the biographies of dignitaries, which constitute the richest sources for the study of the terminology of peace, in particular for the New Kingdom, the period of greatest expansion of the Egyptian empire. We may finally add, especially for this period, the first peace treaty of which the text survives, concluded during the reign of Ramesses II between the Egyptians and the Hittites, c.1259 BCE (for the most complete edition of the text, see : Edel : 1997).


  • Blumenthal, E., Untersuchungen zum ägyptischen Königtum des mittleren Reiches I. Die Phraseologie, Abhandlungen der Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig. Philologisch-Historische Kalsse 61,1, Berlin, 1970.
  • Edel E., Der Vertrag zwischen Ramses II. von Ägypten und Ḫattušili III. von Ḫatti, Berlin, 1997.
  • Grimal, N., 1986, Les termes de la propagande royale égyptienne de la XIXe dynastie à la conquête d’Alexandre, Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Nouvelle Série, t. VI, Paris, 1986.
  • Lorton, D., The Juridical Terminology of International Relations in Egyptian Texts through dyn. XVIII, London, 1974. 

To cite this article

Claire Somaglino, "Ancient Egyptian", Les mots de la paix/Terminology of peace [on-line], uploaded 4/04/2016, accessed