The discussion of vocabulary in ancient Egypt falls into several categories. First, we may examine the patterns of Egyptian lexical examples. As one might expect, the Egyptian language had a standard lexical inventory consistent with a preindustrial, agricultural society. Several areas of specialized knowledge, however, are well known. One is the medical sciences, an Egyptian realm of expertise: a number of texts survive that provide a wealth of information not only on the anatomical and physiological knowledge that the ancient Egyptians employed in the treatment of diseases, but also on the pharmaceutical properties of plants and minerals used in their prescriptions. Another area of lesser expertise is astronomy and mathematics, where again we have a number of documents that detail extensive terminologies for the subfields of practical geometry and practical star and moon observation. While most scholars of ancient science and technology consider the discoveries of Babylonian science to be at a higher developmental level, there is a clear local tradition that enriched the lexicon of Egyptian.

A second area that affected the lexical wealth of Egyptian was the exposure of ancient Egypt to a variety of other cultures throughout its history. As an Afro-Asiatic language, ancient Egyptian shared numerous traits with eastern, central, and northern African languages as well as with western Semitic languages. Thus, the standard vocabulary of these languages have numerous affinities from their developmental stages. Egyptian can be seen as a hybrid, utilizing elements from all these areas and thus sharing in their lexical roots.

After Egypt emerged as a unified country and after it had developed a unified script, it continued to interact with foreign countries through trade and warfare. These interactions inevitably provided the impetus to expand the lexical list through the introduction of trade goods not native to Egypt. One must note specific time periods where this happened. With the end of the Middle Kingdom, the invasion of the Hyksos compelled Egypt to absorb numerous people from Syria-Palestine. This was followed by Egyptian expansion to the northeast and south during the New Kingdom and the establishment of a foreign empire. This process had a dramatic effect on the culture of Egypt, and subsequently on the language. Numerous words from Semitic languages were added to the lexicon. Egyptian scribes developed a system known as “group writing” in order to accommodate the peculiar orthographies and sounds of foreign words. The early group writing styles from the late Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom were refined during the New Kingdom, allowing scribes to deal with the approximately four hundred Semitic words introduced into Egyptian, as well as with foreign names.

A systematic examination of these foreign words shows that they cross the entire spectrum of Egyptian culture. They include military terms (ti-ra-ya-na “body armor), topographical items (ka-ra-pa “escarpment”), foods and beverages (di-tu “olives), household objects (ma-ša-di-di-t “comb”), types of vessels (ma-sa-ḫi-ta “amphora”), medical terminology (ga-ra-ta “kidneys”), ideas of motion and emotion (ha-s-t-ka-ta “to swerve”), architecture (mak-ta-ra “tower”), tools (bi-ša “axe”), raw materials and minerals (qa-ḏa “gypsum”), occupations (ku-ma-ru “dancer”), political terms (man-h-ta “tribute”), flora and fauna (ʿan-n-ru-na “oak tree”), craft terminology (ga-ra-ba “to plane”), and numerous others. The attested vocabulary spans economic, legal, political, military, and religious categories. In one sense, the lexical items represent the broadest spectrum of cultural interaction during this period.

In the Late period, interactions between Egyptians and foreigners continued. Lexical borrowings were not as numerous, but a few can be noted: mṯk “wine merchant” as used in the name p-s-n-mṯk “Psammetichus,” or ḫstrpn “satrap” (governor of Egypt during the Persian period). After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, Greek became the official language of the country for the next nine hundred years. Given this linguistic domination, one would expect that the native language would need to incorporate a series of lexical items that reflected the new political order and the concomitant social reorganization. However, most of the Greek words found in Demotic fall into a few limited categories: honorific titles of kings and deities, derivations of Greek proper names, administrative titles, and a limited number of technical terms. In fact, there seems to have been a tendency for Demotic scribes to translate Greek terms into Egyptian (for examples, swtr “Soter” is normally written in Demotic texts as nty nḥm “the one who saves”). As time progresses, there is no increase in the use of Greek words in Egyptian texts, even during the Roman period. This phenomenon suggests that the reaction to Greek was quite different from that to earlier Semitic influences.

The final phase of borrowing took place with the development of the Coptic stage of the Egyptian language. In this stage the Greek alphabetic script was adapted to Egyptian, with the addition of several signs representing sounds not found in Greek. With an artificial and foreign script now being used for the Egyptian language, and a whole new set of texts (Christian religious works), Coptic adopted numerous Greek words directly into the vocabulary. These lexical items came to permeate all aspects of Egyptian culture and thus reflect a gradual but accelerating diminution of the native language.

The last area to investigate is the influence of Egyptian vocabulary on other languages. As an Afro-Asiatic language, Egyptian shared common roots with several other languages. Over time, some Egyptian vocabulary items were disseminated into contemporary cultures with whom they had contact, notably into Syria-Palestine. It is interesting to note that in the treaty between the Hittite king Hattusilis III and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II there do not seem to be any Egyptian words in the Hittite version; it is possible that the Hittite version was written first, and a later Egyptian version derived from it as a direct translation.

When the occurrence of Egyptian loan words in cuneiform texts is analyzed, only a minuscule number are found. Most examples derive from the Amarna tablets found in Egypt, which represent letters exchanged between Egyptian vassals in Syria-Palestine and the Egyptian king. Numerous Egyptian names and some Egyptian toponyms are found, but the actual number of words that might be considered loan words is only about forty. These words are mainly found in lists of items wanted as tribute or as gifts, such as a-zi-da “drinking vessel” (Egyptian ṯʒ.t “drinking vessel”), and pa-qa “linen” (Egyptian pʒq.t “fine linen”). There are continuing discussions of how many of these words are actually Egyptian and how many are Semitic.

The absence of Egyptian words in foreign languages remains problematic. This may represent a lack of interest among the Egyptians in the cultures of their foreign neighbors. One could also speculate that since Akkadian was the lingua franca of the Near East during the New Kingdom and later, loan words normally came from the Akkadian into the receiving language (here, Egyptian), rather than vice versa.

By far the most common survival of ancient Egyptian words in modern languages is found in arabicized place names within Egypt. It is interesting to note that the words in English that we most associate with Egypt (“pyramid,” “Cleopatra,” “papyrus”) are all derived from Greek. The Egyptian words mr “pyramid” and ḏmʿ “papyrus” have long passed out of use. The word “pharaoh,” king of Egypt, survives and ultimately derives from the words pr-ʿʒ “great house, palace,” a designation used by the Egyptians to refer figuratively to the king. The word “Egypt” itself comes from the Greek “Aigyptos,” which does derive (through Coptic) from the Egyptian toponym ḥ.t kʒ ptḥ, a designation of the temple at Memphis, a major administrative center in Egypt.

The number of other words in English that might trace their roots back to ancient Egyptian is minimal. Some might argue that the proper name “Phineas” ultimately derives from the term Pʒ-nḥsy “the Nubian,” or that “Susan” may derive from the Egyptian sšn “lotus,” though it is just as likely that the latter name derives from the Semitic root for “lotus.” Through the medium of Arabic, it is likely that two terms come down to us: “adobe,” perhaps derived from the Egyptian idb/ḏb.t “mud brick,” and “ebony” from hbny “ebony.”

See also LANGUAGE; and NAMES.


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Eugene Cruz-Uribe