this issue
previous article in this issuenext article in this issue

Document Details :

Title: Egyptian Reconstituted
Author(s): DEPUYDT, L.
Journal: Bibliotheca Orientalis
Volume: 62    Issue: 1-2   Date: januari-april 2005   
Pages: 20-29
DOI: 10.2143/BIOR.62.1.2011716

Abstract :
The ancient Egyptian language was both written and spoken from around 3000 B.C.E. to sometime in 100-1500 C.E. Over this long time-period, the spoken language naturally changed a lot. Middle Egyptian, sometimes also called classical Egyptian, was the first language phase in which a sizable body of literature was composed. The Middle Egyptian phase of the language was spoken around and about 2000 B.C.E. It is common knowledge that ancient Egyptians came to view Middle Egyptian, the language of many of the nation’s early great literary monuments, as a classical idiom worthy of imitation. And imitating Middle Egyptian is precisely what scribes did for more than two thousand years, until long after Middle Egyptian had ceased being spoken and Egyptian had evolved into the later phases of the language. But the practice of imitating linguistic idioms was not necessarily limited to Middle Egyptian. Any kind of earlier idiom could acquire an aura of antiquity and venerability and become a target for imitation. Imitation Egyptian is now commonly called traditional Egyptian. The crucial question is: How close is traditional Egyptian to genuine spoken earlier Egyptian? First of all, it seems clear that there are as many types of traditional Egyptian as there are scribes that wrote it and that none of all these types is quite like any Egyptian ever spoken. No grammars of Egyptian written in Egyptian ever existed in antiquity. Furthermore, many distinctions of Old and Middle Egyptian, especially in the verbal system, are denoted by vowels alone. And vowels remain unwritten. No empirical record of grammatical distinctions expressed by vowels was therefore accessible to later generations. Consequently, two factors mainly caused traditional Egyptian to depart from earlier spoken Egyptian: first, ignorance of what the earlier spoken Egyptian had been like; and second, conscious or unconscious influence from later spoken stages of the language. Traditional Egyptian’s Middle Egyptian was what scribes thought Middle Egyptian had been or even what they wanted it to be.

Download article