The Pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian The issue of the pronunciation of the Ancient Egyptian language has recently become confused by popular presentations that ignore some of the essential and undoubted characteristics of Egyptian hieroglyphics, most importantly that Egyptian, just as today is usually the case with Arabic and Hebrew, did not write vowels -- except in late transcriptions of foreign (mainly ree! words# $or a time $rench (vowels and erman (no vowels scholars hotly debated
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  The Pronunciationof Ancient Egyptian The issue of the pronunciation of the Ancient Egyptian language has recently become confused by popular presentations that ignore some of the essential and undoubted characteristics of Egyptian hieroglyphics, most importantly that Egyptian, just as today is usually the case with Arabic and Hebrew, did not write vowels -- except in late transcriptions of foreign (mainly ree! words# $or a time $rench (vowels and erman (no vowels scholars hotly debated this, but the matter was settled more than a century ago# This is typically not explained to people who are told that their names can be written in such and such a way in hieroglyphics (cf#  %om en hieroglyphes , or who are simply told that the name of the Egyptian sun god is &'a& -- the pronunciation we find in the recent entertaining but historically absurd movies Stargate  ())* and The Mummy ())) # +ell, &ra& may be Tahitian  for &sun,& but it is not Ancient Egyptian# As it happens, the  Egyptian  dialogue in those movies, reconstructed by tuart Tyson mith, avoids that mista!e, for anyone who listens carefully but the misconception is  perpetuated by the English dialogue, despite .r# mith/s advice# 0ndeed, although the Egyptians did not write vowels in Egyptian words, there is evidence about what the vowels were in many words# 1ut the evidence is for different stages of the Egyptian language# $or most of Egyptian history the language written in actual hieroglyphics or in its cursive counterpart, hieratic , was the literary language initiated in the 200 .ynasty ())-345 of the 6iddle 7ingdom# That is called &6iddle Egyptian#& 0n hieroglyphics or hieratic, therefore, one is only li!ely to encounter either 6iddle Egyptian or the earlier literary form of the language, 8ld Egyptian, the language spo!en in the Archaic 9eriod (0 : 00 .ynasties, c# ;<<-=54< and the 8ld 7ingdom (000->0 .ynasties, =54<-=?) # +hile Sir Alan Gardiner , in his great and indispensable  Egyptian Grammar   @8xford niversity 9ress, )=3, )5*B, says that 6iddle Egyptian was &possibly the vernacular of .ynasties 02-20,& tephen $ryer  has brought to my attention recent research to the effect that the literary language of the 200 .ynasty was in some measure an artificial attempt to return to the forms of 8ld Egyptian# ince the political project of Egyptian 7ings was always to restore things &as they were in the beginning,& this is not surprising# 6iddle Egyptian, therefore, may have something li!e the status of Classical ans!rit, which restored and fixed the forms of the language of the >edas but could not undo all the changes that had already occurred in the spo!en language# Although 6iddle Egyptian became the literary and written language, the spo!en language continued to change# The language of the  %ew 7ingdom (2>000-22 .ynasties, ?3?-<43 and much of the Third 0ntermediate 9eriod (220-220> .ynasties, <43-3? is then called &%ew& or &Date Egyptian#& 1y the 'amessid 9eriod (.ynasties 202 : 22 ,  most hieratic documents are in Date Egyptian# The best evidence of the pronunciation of Date Egyptian, however, is from the documents found in the diplomatic archives of Amenhotep 000 and A!henaton at Amarna, for these documents were !ept in A!!adian, not in Egyptian# A!!adian was the diplomatic language of the day, essentially the same language as its two daughter languages, 1abylonian and Assyrian and its system of writing, cuneiform, represented vowels# Date Egyptian  grammar   also begins to be revealed by hieroglyphic inscriptions during the reign of A!henaton, when the spo!en language briefly replaced 6iddle Egyptian# Thus, while 8ld and 6iddle Egyptian did not have a definite article (&the& , Date Egyptian does, p3 , later pronounced &pi& or &pe& in Coptic -- though now it appears that this change had already begun in the actual spo!en language of the 200 .ynasty# $ollowing Date Egyptian are two stages of the spo!en language, .emotic (c# 3? 1C-*3< A. and Coptic (c# *<< A.-c# 5<< # Egyptian words borrowed into early ree!  probably reflect .emotic (ree! demotikos   &popular& pronunciation# .emotic was written in its own cursive script, so this form of the written language is also called &.emotic#& +hile the last hieroglyphic inscription was made at 9hilae in ;)* A., not long after the Christian 'oman Emperor  Theodosius 0 (;3)-;)? ordered the closure of  pagan temples, the last .emotic text is from *3<# .emotic writing disappeared only because, as the Egyptians themselves converted to Christianity, they ceased to use the old script# 0nstead, they began to write in the ree! alphabet, with the addition of seven letters borrowed from .emotic to write sounds that didn/t exist in ree!# ince vowels did  exist in ree!, we suddenly have the complete vocaliFation of the last stage of the Egyptian language, which is then called &Coptic,& from the Arabic term for Egyptian Christians, the Copts, al-Qubt.  (or Qibt. # That   word was from, via Coptic, the ree! name for Egypt,  Aigyptos , which was derived from an Egyptian name for 6emphis, H.wtk3pth.  (or 8wtk3pt8 , see below for the use of the numbers , the &House of the oul @ K3 B of 9tah#& 9tah was the patron god of 6emphis# The name 6emphis itself apparently comes from Mnnfr , srcinally the name of the  pyramid of 7ing 9epi 0 of the >0 .ynasty, &Enduring 1eauty,& or, with the name of the 7ing understood, &The oodness of 9epi Endures&# Coptic slowly died out as Egyptians converted to 0slam and Arabic became the spo!en language# Although it ceased to be a spo!en language by the 3th century, Coptic remains the liturgical language of the Coptic Church, to which 5G of Egyptians still belong, and thus is as well remembered and used in that context as Datin is in the Catholic Church or classical Arabic is in 0slam# o even now Coptic is not   a &dead& language the way 1abylonian is (whose last cuneiform inscription was in 3? A. # ean !ran oi# $ha%pollion  (3)<-4;= learned Coptic because he suspected it was the same language written in the hiergylyphics of the 'osetta tone# He was right, and was thus aided in his epic decipherment# The Copts themselves recently achieved international prominence when one of their number, 1utros 1utros-hali, served as ecretary eneral of the nited %ations# There is also now a large Coptic immigrant community in the nited tates, swollen by people fleeing terrorist activity by 0slamic fundamentalists in Egypt#  There are different !inds of signs used in Ancient Egyptian writing# &0deograms& represent whole words, usually with a two or three consonant root, as in Arabic or Hebrew# Thus the glyph is the word &good& or &beautiful,& or & be  good,& &beautiful,& &happy,& although it is a picture, according to ir Alan ardiner, of the heart and windpipe (it loo!s li!e a banjo to me # An ideogram that is an image of its object is a &pictogram,& li!e the glyph for the scarab or dung-beetle, , or li!e that for the sun, # However, if the consonant root of the ideogram or pictogram occurs in other words, it can  be transferred to use as a &phonogram,& simply representing the sounds# Thus the glyph , a picture of a gaming board, is used as a &biliteral& phonogram in many words, e#g# %n  &remain,& %nkh  &efficient,& %nt  &thigh,& in the common name of the god Amon, etc# The glyph can be used as a &triliteral& phonogram to mean &become& or can occur in khpr#h , a certain blue crown worn by the !ing# This could be confusing, so words are often also written with &generic determinatives,& glyphs that were not  pronounced but indicated what !ind of thing a word was, e#g#   which shows that a word is the name of a god, or which shows that a word has something to do with writing# This device was also used in cuneiform# 1esides phonograms that stand for two or three consonants, there are also =* (or =? signs that represented single (&uniliteral& sounds, the Egyptian &alphabet#& These were srcinally ideograms also, and some continued to stand for common words# $or instance,  is the picture of a mouth, is used to mean &mouth,& &language,& etc#, and is a uniliteral sign# These alphabetic signs were freuently written with ideograms or  pictograms as &phonetic complements,& both to provide reminders about pronunciation and to distinguish meanings, as when grammatical endings differentiate between nouns and verbs, or between singular and plural# $or us, the alphabetic signs can conveniently  be used to represent and discuss Egyptian phonology#  %ote that Egyptian glyphs have a front and a bac!# All the images above and below face to the left, e#g# the alphabetic sign , which indicates that the text is to be read from left to right# This is conformable with the usage of English and other European languages# However, although this would be familiar and agreeable to the Egyptians, Egyptian usage was ordinarily  to write from right to left  , as today is done in Hebrew and Arabic# They indicated this direction by having all the glyphs  face to the right   instead of to the left, which transforms the sign for d  above to # 6uch the same thing was done with the ree! alphabet, whose left to right form consisted of mirror images of the srcinal 9hoenician letters that had been adopted and that were at first written, li!e 9hoenician, right to left# The Egyptians also often wrote from top to bottom in narrow columns, so Egyptian text could even be easily integrated into Chinese and Iapanese  boo!s# 'esources on ancient languages are sparse today# $or a long time the only Coptic grammar 0 had seen, some years ago in the CDA 'esearch Dibrary, was in $rench, for Catholic missionaries to Egypt (0 thin! this was A# 6allon/s Grammaire copte @0mprimerie catholiue, 1eirut, )?5B # %ow, one !ind of thing that seems to be easily obtainable are reprints of older, even much older grammars# Thus, 1ritish American 1oo!s (+illits, California , has reprinted Henry Tattam/s Coptic Grammar   of 4;<# The  print is clear and it loo!s to be a fairly complete grammar (for its day and age , but it lac!s a vocabulary list# imilarly, a reprint of +illiam 1# 6ac.onald/s Sketch of Coptic Grammar   of 4?5 is available from the same publisher, but its usefulness is compromised  by its being a hand written text# 0 have just obtained, however, a good modern grammar, although it is intended as a textboo! more than a scientific description of the languageJ  ntroduction to Sahidic Coptic , by Thomas 8# Dambdin @6ercer niversity 9ress, 6acon, A, )44B# Although set up in courier, which ma!es the whole thing loo! li!e typescript, the boo! has a clear Coptic typeface# 0t also has a ?< page Coptic-English glossary#
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