How To Pronounce Egyptian -Introduction
Please note that I am not talking about how Egyptologists pronounce Egyptian, because from all I have seen, heard and read, they mostly don't care how it was pronounced. I ran into serious problems needing to be able to understand some verb nuances without knowing how to pronounce them, and had to work on finding out. As a number of people have said, it is indeed difficult to learn a language with no idea of how it sounds!

While it is true that we do not, and never will (until someone takes a tape recorder back to ancient Egypt with them!) know how Egyptian was pronounced at any given time, we do know a certain amount about it - more than is generally covered in the textbooks. However I shall do my best to provide some guidance, the best that I have been able to piece together. One of the most accessible (though not necessarily easy to read) books which deals with this topic to any extent is Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction.

Unfortunately, most books on ancient Egyptian give basically no guidance on this topic, limiting themselves to saying that you can shove in a short 'e' wherever needed to make things pronounceable. I think enough is known about the actual pronunciation of Middle Egyptian that we should be able to do a little better than that without getting ourselves too far into disputed territory.

First of all, to review what you probably already are aware of:

CONSONANTS

The first and most obvious aspect of pronouncing Egyptian is the consonants, which the Egyptians themselves wrote down. There is an interesting page discussing the pronunciation of these consonants created by Kelley Ross at:

http://www.friesian.com/egypt.htm

Unfortunately we don't really know how some of these sounded in the Middles Kingdom. The one which is most discussed is the one represented in transliterations as 'A' and usually assigned the value of 'glottal stop.' However evidence shows that this was not the case in the Old and Middle Kingdoms; that whatever sound it represented could be used to transcribe 'r' or 'l' in foreign words, and when doubled, sounded to the Egyptians like an 'n'. You'll have to make your own best guess from that. However, the generally agreed on sounds will be adequate for our purposes (though you may have to practice a little to get the sound of a ('ayin') right!)

It should also be mentioned that in the Middle Kingdom, there was no distinction between s and z, the signs for these are interchanged quite freely. Also, the difference between t and T seems to have pretty much disappeared also, since we frequently find one substituted for the other. Whether you want to make a distinction in your own pronunciation is up to you.

SYLLABLES AND VOWELS

It is generally agreed that the Egyptian language in the Middle Kingdom had six vowels: a, i, and u, each in long and short versions. The 'e' used conventionally in pronouncing Egyptian was even part of the language at that time. Basing a guess on what I know of Semitic languages, the most common, "default" vowel was probably 'a,' either long or short. (If I need to indicate a long vowel in these essays, I shall put a colon ":" after the vowel.) For purposes of learning Middle Egyptian, though, we can probably survive with using the conventional 'e,' since we don't always really know which vowels were used. But if you prefer to use 'a' wherever you don't have reasonable evidence as to what the actual vowel was, you will probably get a sound somewhat closer to the original.

The big question that arises from the usual conventional instructions for pronouncing Egyptian words is "Where do you put the 'e's?" I mean, should we pronounce "nfr" as "nefer," "nefre," "enfer," or "enfre?" Well, as a start, you should probably limit yourself to making syllables of the types CvC (consonant-vowel-consonant) or Cv (consonant-vowel). This cuts our choices down to "nefer" or "nefre." You can also be guided by the rule of thumb that words should begin and end with consonants. (As we go along we shall meet situations where these rules are broken, but they give a reasonable starting point at least.)

So for the moment, words with 3 consonants would come out as CvCvC:

nfr nefer
sDm seDem
mr(i) mere(i)
And so on.

But what about words with 4 consonants? This is indeed a more complex situation, and I would suggest that one of two patterns should be used:

CvCvCvC or CvCCvC.

The first is probably most suitable for feminine forms of nouns, the latter for feminine forms of adjectives:

nTr neTer nTr.t neTeret
nfr nefer nfr.t nefret
We shall discuss the reasons and evidence for this later.

One aspect of Egyptian pronunciation that people don't usually think about is "stress." Which syllables were accented? It seems to me from the way the Egyptian language developed that not only did it have a very definite stress accent in words and phrases, but that, like English, it was a "stress-timed" language, rather than a "syllable-timed" language, like Japanese. By this I mean that the time between accented syllables tended to be about the same, rather than each syllable taking about the same time. This resulted over the course of time in unaccented syllables being lost. The rule for Middle Kingdom Egyptian is that the accent was usually on the second-last syllable, or sometimes on the last syllable. As examples, using a capital E to represent a stressed vowel:

nTr nETer nTr.t neTEret
nfr  nEfer nfr.t nEfret
sDm sEdem    
 

SYLLABLE-FINAL CONSONANTS

Having discussed syllables a little, I can now add in some more about the pronunciation of some of the consonants. The weak consonants, i and w tended to become silent, especially at the ends of syllables. This is evident in the case of the weak verbs, which you have met somewhat in the Grammar lessons.

Mr(i)
mere(i)
The strong consonants r and t also tended to disappear at the ends of syllables. We can see this by the effect it sometimes had on spelling: From this you should see that we can get at least some clues to how words were divided into syllables from the contemporary spelling variations of the Egyptian scribes themselves. There is also evidence about this which can be derived from studying how the word forms end up in Coptic. Sometimes the two lines of evidence contradict each other, and we are left to decide whether we trust the contemporary scribes or our reconstructions from Coptic more.

Anyway, I think that is probably sufficient to get you started for now. I will write some more on this later, after you have had chance to digest this and ask questions about it.

    Comments and suggestions are very welcome!
sfryer@prcn.org
Part 2: Verb Pronunciation