skip to content

(G. Sperveslage)

History of ancient Egyptian lexicography

The decipherment of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by Champollion in 1822 started a long process of Egyptian lexicography. Champollion’s great achievement was to reconstruct the phonetic value of the hieroglyphs. Although he already identified many words correctly, the meaning of the majority of words was still uncertain. So scholars were enabled to read Egyptian texts, but not yet to understand them.

Successively improving knowledge, the 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development of an Egyptian vocabulary culminating in the “Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache” published by Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow between 1926 and 1931 in five main volumes. This dictionary is even a standard reference today, but with all its predecessors forgotten. Envisioning the ancestral work and analysing the impact of previous work on Erman and Grapow has been the task of a project at the University of Leipzig – “Altägyptische Wörterbücher im Verbund” – which developed a database of Egyptian dictionaries from the 19th and early 20th centuries annotating the entries and linking them to the lexical list of the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae (TLA;

The research initiated in Leipzig is continued at Cologne. It is focussed on topics such as statistics on quantity and quality of the dictionary entries, statistics on references, comparison of layout and conception, and the methods used. The latter is of particular interest, as the early dictionary authors did not reflect on their methods. The early dictionaries are also reflected on the biographies of their authors.



  • Sperveslage, G. (2017a): Carsten Niebuhr – en tidlig aegyptolog?, in: A. H. Hansen (Hrsg.): Hjembragt. 1767–2017. 250 år efter Carsten Niebuhrs Arabiske Rejse, Kopenhagen, 75–80
  • Sperveslage, G. (2017b): Considering Carsten Niebuhr as an Early Egyptologist, in: A. H. Hansen (Hrsg.): Arrivals. The Life of the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia 1767–2017, Kopenhagen, 75–80
  • Sperveslage, G. (2017c): Carsten Niebuhr und die Ägyptologie. Oder: Unerwartete Nebenwirkungen von Arsenik, in: F. Feder, G. Sperveslage & F. Steinborn (Hrsg.): Ägypten begreifen. Erika Endesfelder in memoriam, IBAES 19, Berlin/London, 289–318
  • Brose, M, Hensel, J., & Sperveslage, G. (2016): Von Champollion bis Erman. Lexikographiegeschichte im Digitalen Zeitalter, Projekt “Altägyptische Wörterbücher im Verbund”, in: M. Berti & F. Naether (Hrsg.), Altertumswissenschaften in a Digital Age. Egyptology, Papyrology and beyond. Proceedings of a Conference and Workshop in Leipzig, November 4-6, 2015, Online-Publikation <>
  • Sperveslage, G. (2014): Ausgegraben: Der Wörterbuchentwurf von Samuel Birch. Ein Werkstattbericht, in: A. Lohwasser & P. Wolf (Hrsg.): Ein Forscherleben zwischen den Welten. Zum 80. Geburtstag von Steffen Wenig, Sonderheft der Mitteilungen der Sudanarchäologischen Gesellschaft zu Berlin e.V., Berlin, 323–334