How To Pronounce Egyptian -A Study of Verb Forms


    This all grew out of my attempts to learn Ancient Egyptian (the Middle Egyptian variety) and my insistence on understanding why things are the way they are.

    When I first started learning from James Hoch's Middle Egyptian Grammar, I found his clear explanations made it possible for me to progress quite rapidly, and with a feeling that I had a grasp on what was happening.  Then I got to the Prospective sDm=f form of the verb.  Unfortunately this looks exactly the same as the Cicumstantial sDm=f form, but is used quite differently.  Now with other languages I have learned, there were different pronunciations or inflections to go with differences in usage.  I also tend to learn languages by talking them to myself (if no other victim is available).  In this case I seemed to have no way of keeping myself straight as to which form was what, so my progress slowed dramatically.  Of course the fact that I was puzzling over this problem took time and concentration away from learning the grammar too.

    At first it occurred to me that maybe I should just make an arbitrary variation in the forms, but that seemed like cheating.  Of course, all the textbooks seemed to be all in favour of such cheating, since all they tell you about pronunciation of Egyptian is the sounds of the consonants and stick in a few short e's to make them pronounceable.  To someone like me with no teacher to emulate, this is not a very satisfactory piece of advice, and had been bothering me for a while.
    So it eventually occurred to me that maybe I would find a solution if I could just figure out where those e's were supposed to be.  The rest, as they say, is history.

    Since then, Antonio Loprieno published Ancient Egyptian: A linguistic introduction, which might have solved my original problem for me, and confirmed a number of my conclusions.  However there are some discrepancies between what I figured out and what is presented in the book  By the time the book was published I had found out that the conclusions I had reached explained a number of otherwise somewhat mystifying vagaries of Egyptian, so I was naturally a little reluctant to simply say "He's right and I must be wrong."

    I have discussed some of the discrepancies with people who might know about such things, but so far no-one has managed to shoot down my ideas.  Perhaps publishing this essay will remedy that, or perhaps I might turn out to be right.  We shall see.

Assumptions and Method

    Having a profound ignorance of both Coptic and Akkadian, and no access to information about them, I couldn't use the preferred methods of Egyptologists in determining how Egyptian was pronounced.  All I had available was a limited amount of material on Middle Egyptian itself, so obviously that was going to have to be my starting point.

    The assumptions I started out with:

  1. Egyptian had two kinds of syllables: closed, with a structure CvC (consonant-vowel-consonant), and open with a structure Cv (consonant-vowel).  This was based on what I knew of Biblical Hebrew.  This reduces the possiblities for the pronunciation of the root sDm to se-Dem or seD-me.
  2. Egyptian verbs (the class I was originally most concerned with) probably inherited the basic consonant root + vowel scheme mode of inflection from Afro-Asiatic.  I based this idea partly on what I knew of Biblical Hebrew, and encyclopedia material on the Afro-Asiatic language family.
  3. When two identical consonants occurred in the root of a word with no intervening vowel, they were written as a single consonant.  I got this idea from James Hoch's Middle Egyptian Grammar (p.46).  A.H. Gardiner mentions it in his Grammar too.  This also happens in Hebrew if, like the original Bible, you leave out the vowel points and the little dots marking double consonants.
    Well, that's it!  Now what did I do with these ideas?

    Well, there is a class of strong verbs (that is they don't contain consonants that are in the habit of getting lost, like an i at the end of the root) which have the last two consonants of the root identical.  Such verbs are called II-gem. verbs.  They exhibit an intersting feature - in some forms of the verb the are witten with all root consonants (they "display gemination"), and in others they are written with only one of the two identical consonants.

    For example: the verb qbb, to be cool.  The Circumstantial is written qbb=f and the Prospective is written qb=f.
    Therefore, by Assumption 3, the Circumstantial form should be qebebef and the Prospective should be qebbef.
    And further, by Assumption 2, we can apply this to all strong verbs (however weak verbs might be different, because of their weak consonants).  So the Circumstantial sDm=f form should be the seDemef form and the Prospective sDm=f form should be the seDmef form.

    And so my problem with the Prospective form was solved! I could now distinguish it in pronunciation  from the Circumstantial form and feel that I was being reasonably true to the ancient language.


    Applying this method to other verb forms produced the results in the following table.
Circumstantial: Present sDm=f CvCvC= sedemef
Circumstantial: Past sDmn=f CvCCvn= sedmenef
Circumstantial: Pres. Pass. sDm=tw=f CvCvC= sedemtewef
Circumstantial: Past Pass. sDm=(w)=f CvCCv= sedmewf
Infinitive sDm CvCvC sedem
Prospective sDm=f CvCCv= sedmef
Stative sDm=kwy CvCCv= sedmekwy
Participle: imperf. act. sDm CvCvC sedem
Participle: imperf. pass. sDm CvCvC sedem
Participle: perf. act. sDm CvCC sedm
Participle: perf. pass. sDm CvCC sedm
Participle: future sDm.ty.fy CvCvC sedemtyfy
2nd Tense sDmf sDm=f CvCvC sedemef
2nd Tense sDmnf sDmn=f CvCCvn= sedmenef


    When I applied this method to the sDm.n=f form, I found that the result was a pronunciation of sedmenef whereas I had notes taken from Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar where he says that it was pronounced sedemnef (one of the few places he makes such a defintie statement, by the way).  Naturally this troubled me.  Either I had to accept Gardiner's judgement and give up this method as invalid, or I could stick with my results and say that Gardiner was wrong.  I decided to go with my results at least tentatively, since at least I had some reason for this interpretation, whereas I had no indication of the rationale behind Gardiner's statement.  Loprieno, I later discovered, also supports this view in Ancient Egyptian, which made me even more nervous, though many of my results matched his.  Also by then I had found that these results could be used to explain a number of otherwise rather puzzling features of Egyptian spelling of verb forms.

Testing the Results

    Not having access to resources that would confirm or deny my conclusions it was not possible to test my hypothesis directly.  One indirect test of an hypothesis is whether it can predict or explain facts which lie outside the scope in which it was originally developed - its explanatory value.  Two such tests seemed encouraging

    The Egyptian verb "see" mAA is a II-gem verb which exhibits the strange property of sometimes being written with an n in non-geminating forms (mAn=f in the Prospective).  The sound represented by A is not exactly known, but generally held to have features in common with r and l and n.  In non-geminating forms, my hypothesis says that we have a doubled consonant - meAAe.  Now what did the doubled consonant AA sound like to the Egyptians?  It seems reasonable to propose that the n was written to represent this sound, so that the word sounded something like menef with the first A still written because it was felt as an essential, defining part of the verb root.

    One class of verbs has a final weak consonant (i or w), which is generally not written (these are called III-inf. verbs).  In some of these verbs in forms where II-gem verbs show no gemination sometimes have the i or w written.  This can be explained in terms of this hypothesis as follows (using the example of mri)

Circumstantial sDm=f mr=f mereief =>mere(i)f
Prospective sDm=f mry=f meryef
In this scheme, the i vanishes when it comes between the two vowels, but is strengthened to a y when it opens a syllable following a consonant.


    Well, that leaves many unanswered questions of course, however it does seem to fit the facts of Middle Egyptian spelling reasonably well, and even manages to make a certain amount of sense out of some otherwise puzzling spelling quirks.  This theory says nothing about either the quality or the quantity of the vowels, only their position in the words.  (For what it's worth, my guess is that in most cases the vowel was an a as a sort of "default" vowel, the use of other vowels having some grammatical significance.)

    Since developing this theory, I have found that there are a number of discrepencies between these results and what others have concluded based on Coptic.  How these discrepencies can be reconciled is yet to be seen, and for now I prefer to give my results based directly on Middle Egyptian spelling some preference over results based on a chain of reasoning and assumptions spanning 2000 years.

    Comments and suggestions are very welcome! Return to Egyptology Page