Pre-Late Egyptian Reconstruction/Bound Constructions

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Bound Construction[edit | edit source]

For the expression of a possessive relation between two full nouns, Egyptian of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE basically had two different attributive constructions that Egyptologists traditionally labeled the “Direct Genitive” and “Indirect Genitive” (in both cases, the notion “genitive” refers not to a morphological case but to an attributive possessive function). The former is a productive type of noun compound construction, the later is comparable to the English of - construction.

The Direct Genitive[edit | edit source]

The Direct Genitive, is a kind of noun compound construction [NPOSSED=NPOSSOR]. The possessed and the possessor form a compound that cannot normally be broken apart. Notably, no personal suffix pronoun or enclitic morpheme may occur between the two nouns. As for the phonetic/prosodic markedness of this construction, there is inconsistent evidence. Based on evidence from Coptic, the latest phase of Egyptian, we know that, at least in some of these compounds, the main stress was on the first noun, i.e., the possessed, for example:

Earlier Egyptian (3rd millennium BCE) - 'ħam (Hm) servant + 'naːcaɾ (nTr) god = 'ħamnacaɾ (Hm=nTr) priest => ϩⲟⲛⲧ (Bohairic 1st millennium CE). Some other examples are, ⲤⲒⲦ(Ⲉ) - snake (lit: zɜ tɜ, son of ground).

Some Egyptologists take this head marking construction to be an old compound construction that was not productive anymore already in the 2nd millennium BCE.

It seems, however, that the stress in the Direct Genitive construction was usually on the second noun, i.e., the possessor, and that the first noun appeared in a phonetically somewhat reduced form, which Egyptologists and Semitists call status constructus, for example:

Earlier Egyptian (3rd millennium BCE) - 'ni:bat (nb.t) mistress + 'ħaːjit (Hy.t) mansion = nib'ħaːjit (nb.t=Hy.t) - goddess Nepthys => ⲛⲉⲃⲑⲱ (Bohairic 1st millennium CE)

There were, therefore, two types of such compounds:

  • a noun compound with a stress on the first/head noun [NPOSSED:STRESS=NPOSSOR] and
  • a compound with a phonetically reduced first/head noun and a stress on the second/dependent noun [NPOSSED \ STC =NPOSSOR :STRESS]

In a nutshell, one of the two nouns carried the main stress, while the other was attached to it in a reduced clitic-like form. There is currently no credible known resolutions as to why one was used vs the other[1], but as is shown in the Hebrew language[2], which appears to follow almost identical bound construction rules, the 2nd noun being accented seemed to be the most popular:

... a pair of words in the construct state is considered a single unit. Phonetically, the accent shifts away from the first noun to the absolute noun, and this loss of stress causes changes in the first noun...

Also, an excerpt taken from here[3] says:

... Conversely, in the Hebrew language compound, the word בֵּית סֵפֶר bet sefer (school), it is the head that is modified: the compound literally means "house-of book", with בַּיִת bayit (house) having entered the construct state to become בֵּית bet (house-of)....

In addition to and in contrast to the Hebraic bound construction rule, James P. Allen[4] adds on these two stress patterns:

... The distribution of these two patterns is not entirely clear; they may have been historical or dialectal variants, or most likely both. Lexicalized compounds generally show stress on the first element. In noun phrases with initial ky 'other', productive into Coptic, the second element was stressed: ky sn - kay-sán > ⲔⲈⲤOⲚ / ⲔⲈⲤⲀⲚ - other brother...
James P. Allen also gives an example of a lexicalized noun which shows both stress patterns for the same word: ⲤⲐOⲒ ⲚOⲨϤⲈB (satái náfir) / ⲤϮⲚOⲨϤⲈAFS (sati náfir) - perfume (lit: good smell).[5]

Fortunately, Antonio Loprieno does shed some light on the matter:[6] ... However, the structure of a set of Egyptian words known as "compound nouns" shows that already in early historical times these compounds were lexicalized and treated as a single lexical item: while in the genitival construction and in the pattern "noun + adjective" the stress falls on the rectum (md.t rmt ~ madat'ra:mac - the thing of man ~ Ⲙ(Ⲉ)ⲚⲦⲢⲰⲘⲈ, rmt ꜥɜ - great man Ⲣ(Ⲉ)ⲘⲘⲀO ~ ramma'ʔoʔ - rich), in the compound nouns it falls on the regens: 'ħamnacaɾ (Hm=nTr) priest => ϩⲟⲛⲧ, ⲤⲒⲦ(Ⲉ) / ⲤⲒⲦⲦ - snake ~ 'ziRtaR ~ zɜ tɜ, son of earth). The same pattern is shared by a few instances of adjectival or participial constructions, such as mnnfr /'minnafvr/ "stable of beauty" (the reference is to King Pepi I) Μεηφις ~ Ⲙ(Ⲉ)ⲚϤⲈ /'menfə/, originally the name of the king's pyramid, metonymically extended to the whole city of "Memphis," the first capital of Egypt. Compound nouns are rare and their etymology often unclear; however, they point back to a phase in the history of Egyptian, which probably lasted until the end of the Old Kingdom, in which the old tonic pattern with antepenultimate stress (Dreisilbengesetz) was still productive...

More Than 2 Nouns in Bound Construction?![edit | edit source]

There are only few hints regarding a potential third genitive construction in original Earlier Egyptian, namely a mere juxtaposition of two nouns without salient phonetic effect, henceforward Simple Juxtaposition Genitive Construction. The decisive point is that, in these cases, it is difficult to imagine that the whole sequence of words carried only one main stress, while the other words appeared in a phonetically reduced form. Most of the possible examples seem to be instances of a very specific kind, which often could be explained otherwise. For example, some official professional titles come as sequences of three or more full nouns:

zhɜ(w)==pr(w)==mdɜ - Scribe of the House of Manuscripts

An analysis as a nested Direct Genitive construction would suggest that all but one of the nouns were spoken in a phonetically reduced form. As to official titles like this, however, one may wonder whether the written form of the titles always reflects the actual spoken construction properly, or whether the spelling is just an abbreviation[7].

There are two (2) examples of 3 + Nouns in (In)Direct Genitive forms of this construction in Egyptian, one is spelled in the normal grammar the other takes the opposite direction and is grammatically rare. Notice which words are in bound construction, the first noun is in question, these are example of more than two full nouns in bound construction:

tpḥ.t?==sntḥ==(W)sjr - the cave of the divine body of Osiris
tpḥ.t n(j)-t sntḥ==(W)sjr (reconstructed) - should be, the cave of the divine body of Osiris
bɜ-w?==ḫft(j)-w==(W)sjr - the souls of the enemies of Osiris
bɜ-w n(j) ḫft(j)-w==(W)sjr (reconstructed) - should be, the souls of the enemies of Osiris

The same can be said of the adjective modifying a noun:

qrr.t dp(j)-t dwɜ.t - the first cave of the netherworld
qrr.t dp(j)-t n(j)-t dwɜ.t (reconstructed) - should be, the first cave of the netherworld

It is hard to imagine how this could be a Direct Genitive, i.e., a phonetically marked compound, since both nouns are separated from each other by the word dp(j)-t 'first, one upon, one ahead'[8]. As in the case of other adjectival attributes that accompany the first noun to their right, we would rather expect an Indirect Genitive here. Therefore, the first example above, is a potential example for a third genitive construction, a Simple Juxtaposition Genitive Construction.

Notes[edit | edit source]

This article[9], explains these type of constructions in lay-men terms:

...something to note is this article appears to define a direct genitive a little been differently than what most other grammars do, it takes it a step further by distinguishing between a bound construction and it's relationship to another noun which thus can be viewed as an entire 3 + noun bound construction on its own...

When two nouns are placed next to each other, they are described as being in apposition. This type of relationship is common in Middle Egyptian. For example:

nswt wt-ʿnḫ-imn - the king Tutankhamun - when these nouns are placed in apposition, they form a noun phrase, “(the) king, Tutankhamun.”

The direct genitive is formed by two nouns that are placed in apposition. However, the direct genitive expresses a relationship of possession, X Noun’s Y Noun (The king’s wife) – the possessor noun and the possessed noun. In Middle Egyptian the possessed noun always precedes its possessor. For example:

ḥq3 iwnw šmʿw - The Ruler of Upper Egypt’s Heliopolis

In this example, the direct genitive is composed of a noun (ḥq3) and a noun phrase (iwnw šmʿw). We know this is a direct genitive through a process of elimination. If we were to translate this example without the possessive relationship, it would be “The Ruler, Upper Egypt’s Heliopolis.” The more likely option would be to translate it as a direct genitive, “The ruler of Upper Egypt’s Heliopolis,” describing Tutankhamun’s role as Heliopolis’ ruler. There are two ways to translate the genitive: Apostrophe + s attached to the possessor noun, followed by the possessed noun (The king’s wife); the possessed noun followed by “of” + possessor noun (wife of the king).

The Indirect Genitive[edit | edit source]

The indirect genitive is another construction that expresses possession. This construction is easier to identify, because it uses genitival adjective (see chart below). The genitival adjective is placed in between two nouns, and like direct genitives, the first noun is the possessed noun. The genitival adjective that is used is determined by the first noun–it must match in both gender and number.

Number Masculine Feminine
Singular n(y) nt
Plural n(y)w n(y)t
Dual n(y)wy n(y)ty
mwt nt s3t - the mother of the daughter

In the example above, the first noun, mwt, is singular and feminine, so the corresponding singular, feminine genitival adjective (nt) follows it.

Direct VS Indirect Genitive: Which One To Use?![edit | edit source]

We have to be prepared to consider that not only one factor, but rather a set of factors, is responsible for the choice of the Direct or the Indirect Genitive construction. Among these, the following three parameters seem to have a certain influence:

Constructional influences:
  • If the first noun (i.e., the possessed) is accompanied by further attributes, the Indirect Genitive is preferred
  • If a personal suffix pronoun is attached to the first noun, the Indirect Genitive is obligatory
  • Certain inflectional forms of the first noun seem to prefer one of either constructions (e.g., SG vs. PL / DU).
Lexical influences
  • Certain lexemes seem to prefer one or the other of the constructions

Note: Hypothesis that qualitative possession is not normally expressed by Direct Genitives and that “qualitative” possessive relations like, e.g., in ‘a statue of stone’ or ‘a man of honor, ’ the Indirect Genitive is obligatory. However, we also find comparable meanings with Direct Genitives, though are rather rare:

nb==mɜꜥ.t - possessor of truth; one who is truthful


  4. The Ancient Egyptian Language An Historical Study by James P. Allen pg 71
  5. The Ancient Egyptian Language An Historical Study by James P. Allen pg 77
  6. A Linguistic Introduction by Antonio Loprieno pg 57
  8. Technically speaking this should be in bound construction with its modifying noun.