The Origin and Development of Egyptian Writing Systems
The Egyptians developed their first writing system about the same time as the Mesopotamians and the final product of evolving Egyptian writing systems appear in the time of Greek influence. Egyptian writing started as a complicated system of Hieroglyphics among the elite classes of Egypt and evolved into a much simpler and more commonly known system of Demotic.
Later Egyptian writing systems evolved from the slowly and laboriously written Hieroglyphs. The origin of Hieroglyphics is lost in antiquity, but it is believed to have begun as a kind of pictographic writing. The oldest known example of Egyptian writing date to around 3100 B.C. and was, at that time, a fully developed writing system. Hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform both began as pictographic. Hieroglyphics eventually became a system of ideograms and phonograms, a system in which a word that did not exist before could be constructed. This slow and complicated system was good for carved stone, but with the advent of papyrus and the keeping of daily records, a new system was needed.
This new system was Hieratic. Hieratic was a cursive script using rounded and abbreviated Hieroglyphics. Hieratic was used to keep temple and business records. It had appeared by 2600 B.C. and was still used by the priestly class as late as the 7th century B.C. During the 7th century an adapted form of Hieratic was being used by merchants and was a further simplification of the original. This simplified form was used in popular writing, novels, and letters and even love poems. Because of the popular usage it was called Demotic or common by the Greeks.
Technological, social and business influences all affected the evolution of Egyptian writing systems. Hieroglyphics though obscure in its origins, evolved for the same reasons as any early language – the need to communicate complex information. Hieroglyphics, it is speculated, developed from pictograms into a kind of “rebus” system. It was a system in which abstract ideas, such as belief, could be constructed from two unrelated symbols, such as “bee” and “leaf.” Each symbol originally stood for an idea or a word but over time the phonogram took preeminence within the writing system.
Once these ideograms and phonograms became a system combining complex concepts and expressions it evolved into Hieratic. The complexities were more easily expressed through Hieratic’s more flowing and abbreviated forms. The development of this system permitted quick and accurate record keeping on papyrus. Hieroglyphics had been used for this task but was slow and laborious. Hieratic grew out of a need to keep commercial records. By the time of the Old Kingdom, around 2600 B.C., Hieratic was in side use.
In areas of vigorous trade, such as the Mediterranean coast, an even more simplified system was used rising, again, out of the needs of commerce. This bastardized Hieratic, more easily translated into other languages for the sake of trade, developed into Demotic. Demotic was in use as early as the 7th century B.C. and remained in use into the Christian era.
The development of Hieroglyphics is similar to the development of cuneiform. It is probable that the Egyptians had contact with various Mesopotamian cultures and adapted this writing to their needs. As these needs changed Egyptian writing also changed and evolved eventually resulting in a system easily translated into Greek. It is the side by side translations of Greek and Egyptian writing on the Rosetta Stone discovered in the 19th century allowed the translation of long lost Hieroglyphic symbols.