Ancient Egyptian vocalization project/General principles

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For the first three millenia of its history, Egyptian writing by and large only recorded the consonantal shape of the Egyptian language, giving little indication to the position of vowels, their quality and quantity and any additional features like tone and stress. Without this information, it is nearly impossible to fully appreciate the ancient literature.

The single most important source for filling in the missing information is Coptic, as it is the only stage that systematically records the vowels. Coptic does have some shortcomings, though: All vowels but those of the main stressed syllables of words are often reduced to [e] or [ə] and entire syllables that are indicated in the hieroglyphic writing have disappeared from the language by the time it got recorded in Coptic. Also, many older words and grammatical forms from the time of the Middle Kingdom have already disappeared when Coptic replaces the older literary norms. And finally, even the accented vowels will have changed substantially over the millenia before the Coptic stage so that Coptic vowels can only be an important starting point, but in itself not sufficient for a reconstruction of early stages of the language.

Important additional information is provided by Egyptian words and names that were recorded in the languages of Egypt's neighbours or entered their vocabulary as loan words. Most of these languages recorded vowels (Akkadian, Greek, Meroitic) and can thus be used to give snapshots of how an Egyptian word was pronounced one or even two millenia before the Coptic stage. If Amenophis III's throne name Nb-m3ˤt-Rˤ is transcribed as Ni-ib-mu-a-ri-ia in cuneiform of the Amarna tablets this gives us at least the approximate vowels for nb (lord), m3ˤt (truth) and (the sun god) more than a thousand years before the Coptic stage. It also shows us that the H in Coptic ΜΗΙ descends from an older [u] sound.

Putting both pieces of information together one can formulate rules of how the older vowels changed into the Coptic stage and then (although not always unambiguously) how to calculate backwards from the Coptic stage. This extends the scope of words that can be reconstructed for the first and even the second millenium before the common era dramatically.

Another feature that comes in helpful is the paradigmatic nature of the Semitic languages - if the vowel structure for a few infinitives of one class of verbs is known, for example, the same vowels can be assumed for all other infinitives of the same class. The relationship to other Semitic languages may also help in reconstructing grammatical forms or words that have not survived into Coptic but may have close analoga in other languages of the Semitic branch.

Finally, there is also quite a bit of information contained within the Egyptian orthography and literature itself. Examples are puns on words, mistakes in writing one word for its homonym, spelling errors and, more intricately, phonetic complements and other conclusions drawn from the regular spelling itself (e.g. adding a /w/ at the end of ḫpr indicates that the /r/ was already not being pronounced at the time and a change from writing a single /n/ to a double /n/ in certain verb forms may indicate that there was a vowel in between in the double forms[1])

The following presents a list of the rules that have been found based on the different types of evidence described above. The idea of this list is to facilitate future reconstruction be it from Coptic or from other sources (see: List of vocalized forms).

Abbreviations for commonly used reference works[edit | edit source]

The following list is meant to make referencing the sources easier (separate endnotes for each example would take up significantly more space). Please use this format and add the page number to make future look-ups easier!

  • AE: A. Loprieno "Ancient Egyptian - A linguistic introduction" Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995
  • EAS: W. Schenkel "Einfuehrung in die Altaegyptische Sprachwissenschaft" Wissenschaftl. Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1990
  • EP: C. Peust: "Egyptian Phonology" Peust und Gutschmidt, Goettingen, 1999
  • KG: W. Till: "Koptische Grammatik" VEB Verlag Enzyklopaedie, Leipzig, 1970
  • ICG: J. Plumley: "An introductory Coptic grammar" Home & van Thal, London, 1948

Coptic syllable structure[edit | edit source]

Syllables begin with a consonant - where this doesn't seem to be the case in Coptic, a (weak) consonant is found in the hieroglyphic form (e.g. aleph or ayin).

Syllables can be open (CV) or closed (CVC). Open syllables generally contain a long vowel, closed syllables a short vowel. Apparent violations can usually be explained by the consonants still present in the hieroglyphic writing that have disappeared in the Coptic stage, e.g. ϢѠΠЄ which seems to violate the 'open syllables have long vowels' rule in ΠЄ but can be explained by ḫpr (to become) having a final /r/ in earlier stages of the language. Note that the general rule can only be upheld if we accept consonants from significantly earlier stages into the model. This is equivalent to saying that the Coptic rule about the relation between vowel quantity and syllable type is actually a New Kingdom Egyptian rule. This assumption (if correct) makes this rule very useful for the reconstruction of the Egyptian language of the New Kingdom.

Evolution of Precoptic vowels into Coptic[edit | edit source]

Vowels of the tone syllable

[a] in closed syllables generally → O, but before ˤ,h,ḥ,ḫ,h → A (exception: before ˤ with vowel doubling → A or O)

[a:] in open syllables generally → ω, but after M, N → ΟΥ (exception: → ω before 2.Pl -TN)

&c. - under construction :-)

References[edit | edit source]