What language did Joseph speak in Egypt? How did he learn it? Was there a common language like Aramaic?

In Genesis 39 part of his ability to find favor must have been the ability to communicate accurately. Similarly, he is shown here as communicating fluently with the Egyptians:

Genesis 40:6-8: And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh's officers that were with him in the ward of his lord's house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly to day? And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.

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    This question offers no opportunity for exegesis. It properly belongs in a history or religion forum. Vote to close. – Schuh Jan 20 '16 at 20:38
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    I don't quite understand this question. Joseph had already been in Egypt for a number of years when this story happened. He surely could have learned Egyptian by then. – conceptualinertia Jan 3 '18 at 16:00
  • He was slave/prisoner in Egypt and/or one of its vassal states for quite a few number of years. He must have had plenty of opportunities to pick up the dominant language of the region. – Constantthin Feb 13 '19 at 23:35

The Bible places the Exodus around 1440 BCE and therefore Joseph around 1870 BCE.

To be able to speak to the pharaohs and the common Egyptian people, Joseph would have needed to speak either Egyptian or a lingua franca known widely enough to be helpful. The Amarna letters may help in this regard, although they are somewhat later, around 1350 BCE.

The Canaanite petty kings who wrote to their Egyptian overlords could not speak Egyptian, and it appears the Egyptians could not speak Canaanite, so the letters were written in Akkadian, which was the language of regional diplomacy and the earliest attested form of Semitic language. So, an important resident of Canaan would probably have known some Akkadian. His linguistic skill demonstrated almost as soon as he arrived in Egypt means we should expect Joseph to have been fluent in this language, bearing in mind that the Bible says Joseph went to Egypt while still quite young.

Assuming, then, that Joseph knew some Akkadian, he would have been able to communicate with the pharaoh and some high officials, but he would have needed to learn Egyptian in order to survive in Egypt.

Another alternative is that Joseph might have been able to use Hyksos intermediaries as interpreters, however the Bible suggests that Joseph arrived in Egypt before the putative Hyksos invasion.

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  • Thank you. I had just been reading about the reasons for the collapse of the Akkadian culture and wondered if it might have a connection. From there the question. Now I have to be careful not to be biased and mark it as correct immediately. – gideon marx Jan 16 '16 at 16:36
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    FWIW, Akkadian become a lingua franca in the late Bronze Age. Even the Amarna letters are not in actual Akkadian but “used Akkadian words, spelled in cuneiform, to write Canaanite” (Eva von Dassow, ‘Canaanite in Cuneiform’, JAOS 124:4; 2004). That is, the royal scribes didn't know Akkadian In the 14th C BCE, much less the son of a Bedouin herder 500 years earlier. During the time in which Joseph’s story is set, people of the Levant spoke a variant of proto-Semitic (Canaanite languages emerged centuries later). Joseph's language was obviously not a concern of the biblical storytellers. – Schuh Jan 20 '16 at 3:14
  • @Schuh i) FWIW I disagree about 'late Bronze Age'; ii) Akkadian used cuneiform from ~2500BCE; iii) that "the biblical storytellers" did not consider how Joseph would not have considered how Joseph was supposed to speak to the Egyptians is probably a true statement, however I was concerned with hermeneutics here, not expounding on the underlying truth of the story - you will notice I did not say what 'did' happen, but what 'would have' happened. – Dick Harfield Jan 20 '16 at 4:16
  • Well, you might want to check-out Wikipedia which dates Middle Akkadian/Babylonian as a written, diplomatic lingua franca in the area to the 16th C, not before. Then we could throw in the Hyksos history and say a Canaanite boy in Egypt wouldn’t have had to learn a new language. Good luck! :) – Schuh Jan 20 '16 at 4:56
  • @Schuh I think you have probably got a few of your facts wrong, but the Hyksos idea is at least a useful one. They probably arrived in Egypt well after the time attributed to Joseph, but close enough to be worth a mention. Based on your input, I have added this. Another alternative hinted at by your earlier comment about "not a concern of the biblical storytellers" is that Joseph had no way of communicating with the Egyptians until he slowly and laboriously learnt their language - but I won't go there. – Dick Harfield Jan 20 '16 at 6:25

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