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Middle Egyptian

James E. Hoch
Middle Egyptian
James E. Hoch
SSEA Publication XV
Benben Publications, Mississauga, 1997
Copyright @ 1997 by James E. Hach, Toronto
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in
any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written
permission of the copyright owner.
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
Hach, James E. (James Eric), 1954-
Middle Egyptian Grammar
(SSEA Publications; v. 15)
Co-pUblished by the Society for the Study of Egyptian
ISBN 0-920168-12-4
1. Egyptian language-Grammar. 1. Saciety for the Study of
Egyptian Antiquities. II. Title. m. Series.
PJ1135.H63 493'.1 C95-932358-9
1. Egyptian Connections to African and West Asian Languages
The Egyptian language has usually been taught as a unique language in isolation. But, in fact, it
is a member of the large Afro-Asiatic language family. Older works refer to this family as
"Hamito-Semitic," but this is not a scientific categorization, since it assumes a false dichotomy
between the Semitic languages and the "Hamitic languages." Afro-Asiatic languages were-and
still are-spoken by people in central, northern, and eastem Mrica, the Arabian Peninsula, the
Levant and Mesopotamia.
There are five or six main branches of the Afro-Asiatic family: Berber, Chadic (including
Hausa), Cushitic, Egyptian, and Semitic. Bach of these branches-apart from Egyptian-has sub-
divisions into distinct languages. Of the ancient Afro-Asiatic languages, both Egyptian and
Akkadian (the Semitic language of Assyria and Babylonia) exhibit a considerable degree of
linguistic change, right from the earliest traces in writing. In Egyptian, there are, not surprisingly,
many words cognate
to counterparts in Hebrew, Arabic, and Akkadian, the best known of the
ancient languages. For example, Egyptian Ir J ~ IJ,sb "to calculate," Hebrew :1W ('b,liSa12) "to
reckon," and Arabic ~ (tuzsaba) "to calculate."2 There are also cognates with many modern
Mrican languages, but these have not yet been studied as thoroughly and in any case are more
difficult to compare, given the large gap in time.3 Many of the connections are difficult to
recognize because of metathesis (a shift in the order of the consonants) and phonetic changes-
some of which are quite drastic. Similarly, there are many affinities in the grammatical features
of these languages. The exact grammatical mechanisms may be quite different, but frequently the
general approach is similar.
2. The Historical Phases of Egyptian
Egyptian writing at its incipient stage before 3000 B.C.E. is mostly used to identify individuals
and groups by name, as on the Narmer palette, which contains depictions of historical events,
lI.e. historically (genetically) related to each other, having descended from a common ancestrallanguage. For
example English "cow" is cognate with German Kuh and English "father" is cognate with Spanish padre. By
contrast, English "facade" is a loan-word borrowed from the French /Qfade, but is not "cognate" to it.
2The cognates will be indicated in the vocabulary lists to show the extent of the relationship with the Semitic
languages. Cognates with other Afro-Asiatic languages are not included since almost all of the evidence is from
modem languages, and is in any case e y o ~ d the scope of an introductory grammar.
3 A good introduction is J.H. Greenberg, The Languages 0/ Africa (Bloomington: 1966), pp. 42-51. Our recently
expanding knowledge of Old Nubian. although dating to ca. 1200 C.E., may stimulate scholarship in the relations
between Egyptian and other African languages.
symbolic pictograms, and rebus (sound alike) signs for the names. Somewhat later, pictographic
. signs are used in offering lists to represent such things as a leg of OX, a bundle of onions, and
offering Ioaves. Some of these signs developed directly into hieroglyphic writing; others did not.
The Egyptian language has an extremely long history,-spanning some 4,500,years,.....and can
be divided into five main phases, although with some overlaps:
I Old Egyptian ca. 3000-2135 B.C.E., Dynasties 1-8
n Middle Egyptian, classical ca. 2135-2000 B.C.E., Dynasties 9-12
post-classical, ca. 2000-1300 B.C.E., Dynasties 13-18
m LateEgyptian ca. 1550-715 B.C.E., Dynasties 18-24
IV Demotic ca. 715 B.C.E.-470 C.E. .
V Coptic third-sixteenth centuries C.E. (still used as the liturgicallanguage in the rites of the
Coptic church, and spoken to a certain extent as a revived Ianguage by modem Coptic
Old Egyptian and classical Middle Egyptian are presumed to be fairIy elose to the spoken
language of their respective eras, and almost certainly reflect the dialect spoken by the royal
family or that of the capital city. Old and Middle Egyptian are generally quite similar, apart from
a few changes in the verbal system and the use of differing particles. Middle Egyptian continued
to serve as the written Ianguage into the early New Kingdom (Eighteenth Dynasty) although the
spoken dialect had undergone some major structural changes.
Late Egyptian reflects the spoken Ianguage of the New Kingdom, but after the Twenty-first
Dynasty, monumental inscriptions were written in something approximating Middle Egyptian.
The dialects attested in the later periods are all fairly elose to Late Egyptian, the major break
being between Middle and Late Egyptian.
3. The Scripts of Egyptian
Over the course of four and a half millennia, Egyptian was written with four distinct scripts:
I Hieroglyphic ("holy carving"): The forms elosely reflect what they represent; they are often
carved in stone; sometimes they are written on papyri, especially for religious texts.
n Hieratic ("priestly"): A cursive script for use with pen on papyrus (or on an ostracon-a
potsherd or limestone flake-a cheap, common, and very durable writing surface). The
cursive forms emerged very early, and there is evidence from the First Dynasty. Only rarely
were inscriptions written on stone in this script.
m Demotic ("popular''): This is a late (7th century B.C.E. on) cursive script that derives from
hieratic, but is much abbreviated. It was used for everyday documents and literary works.
Religious texts continued to be written in hieratic and sometimes cursive hieroglyphs.
IV Coptic (from Greek "Egypt"): The script is Greek, but with additional Ietters derived
from demotic, e.g. t (tz), (S), q (j), (b), (b), (tsh), r:; (gy).
A comparison of a few signs in the various scripts is presented in Table 1. Of course, as can be
easily seen, Coptic is an alphabetic script. The Egyptian script is not direCtly related to the
Semitic and Greek (and Roman) alphabets, but it served as the inspiration. Many hieratic and
signs .were used in the. ancient Phrenician syllabic script of Byblos (ca .. 2000 B .C.E.)
that evolved into the western alphabets.
Sign Beetle Ring Stand Foot Owl
IJpr g b m

l 1\
Demotic J:, \r- L

& Al
4. The Writing System of Egyptian
From the earliest phase down to its demise, Egyptian is characterized by two principal features:
the use of logograms and the rebus principle. Logograms are signs that represent words, both
concrete and abstract. For instance, the sign 0 represents the sun, and could be read varlousIy
depending on the meaning: r"sun," the god Ree, "(every) day"; hrw "day(time)"; sw "day x (of
the month)" in dates. This is easy enough for simple, concrete words, such as C? pr "house."6
But how, for example, might one write the preposition "to," the noun "life," or the verb "to be-
come"? The rebus principle was the solution: one used words that sound alike (Le. have the same
root consonants) to stand for these words that could not be easily depicted. Thus, the sign
depicting a "mouth" <> (pronounced r) was used for the preposition "to" (r). The "sanda! strap"
.sr- (':nlJ) was used to write "life" (enlJ), and the scarab beetle (lJprr) was used to write "to
become" (lJpr). These signs, since they are used for their similar pronunciation and not for their
basic meaning, may be termed "phonetic signs." A core group of phonetic signs must be Ieamed
by memory, since according to rules of Egyptian orthography, certain combinations of
consonants are written only with particular phonetic signs.
Very early on in the history of Egyptian writing, certain signs were assigned the values of the
Egyptian consonants, thus forming an alphabet of sorts (minus vowels). The Egyptians never
4M. Dunand, Byblia Grammata (Beirut: 1945), pp. 71-138; G.E. Mendenhall, The Syllabic Inscriptions from
Byblos (Beirut: 1985); J.E. Hoch, "The Byblos Syllabary: Bridging the Gap Between Egyptian Hieroglyphs and
Semitic Alphabets," Journal of the Society for the Study 0/ Egyptian Antiquities 20 (1990), pp. 115-24.
SThe transliteration ofthe Egyptian signs and their probable phonetic values will be discussed in S.
&rite use ofthe strake indicates that the sign is to be read as what it represents (and not phonetica1ly, for instance).
The strake will be dealt with in 13.