For years I’ve lugged around the massive, reassuring bulk of Gardiner‘s Egyptian Grammar, occasionally looking up the odd hieroglyph but never getting serious about the language. I think the main reason is my discomfort at not knowing how to pronounce the words; Egyptological practise is to insert e when a vowel is called for (except next to the consonants corresponding to Arabic alif and ‘ayin, when a is used), but this is pure convention, and we have no idea how the words actually sounded. (It’s as if we wrote English without vowels, and later generations read this sentence “Tese se fe we werete negeleshe…”)

But my resistance has been overcome. The other day at the Strand I saw a copy of How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-By-Step Guide to Teach Yourself by Mark Collier and Bill Manley and was smitten. Compact, attractively produced, with quite a few photographs of texts alongside the typeset ones, it makes you want to pick it up and start studying. And that’s just what I did.

However, I’m still bothered by the pronunciation problem. I know it’s basically insoluble, but I’ve found some intriguing information here, and if anybody out there can recommend useful reading on the topic, or indeed on anything having to do with the Egyptian language (anything recent and rigorous, I mean—I’m not interested in the thoroughly outmoded work of E.A. Wallis Budge), I will be most grateful.


  1. I was going to ask the question, “what about Coptic?” until I was drawn to your Friesian School site link (a very interesting site that one, Google has brought me there on more than a few occasions). I particularly liked this bit:
    …”Coptic,” from the Arabic term for Egyptian Christians, the Copts, al-Qubt. (or Qibt.). That word was from, via Coptic, the Greek name for Egypt, Aigyptos, which was derived from an Egyptian name for Memphis, H.wtk3pth. (or 8wtk3pt8, see below for the use of the numbers), the “House of the Soul [K3] of Ptah.” Ptah was the patron god of Memphis. The name Memphis itself apparently comes from Mnnfr, originally the name of the pyramid of King Pepi I of the VI Dynasty, “Enduring Beauty,” or, with the name of the King understood, “The Goodness of Pepi Endures”.

  2. I have gone through the paces of Gardiner’s grammar in college (took Egyptian 101/102 and Russian 101/102 as electives, go figure…), and this post brought back many funny memories.
    Have you read Middle Egyptian, by James P. Allen, 2000, Cambridge UP? It is quite good, though very dense. I never had the time to go farther Lesson 6 or 7, but it was a great experience…
    I still like H. Sottas & E. Drioton’s “Introduction à l’étude des Hiéroglyphes”, 1922, reprint 1989, Geuthner. Although outdated, it was a good work.

  3. John: Yeah, I’d love to know more about the relationship between Coptic (where the vowels are written) and Egyptian; you’d think they’d be able to reconstruct at least some of the earlier vowels.
    dda:Thanks for the Allen recommendation; I’ll look for it.

  4. My prof was himself a Copt (aka a “real” Egyptian). Contended that because he was a Copt he was better than the average Egyptologist (but he was teaching in a 3rd tier college, lugging Gardiner in the classroom. So…).
    Apparently, reconstruction hasn’t been, ah…, forthcoming so far…
    About names and origins, I seem to remember that I’ve read somewhere that “desert” comes from dsrt, the name for the “sacred area”, which was basically a big chunk of Sahara. I have difficulties with this one, although it does fit with the habit of sticking ‘e’ everywhere. Anyone?

  5. ‘Fraid not. “Desert” is (via Anglo-French) from Latin desertum ‘deserted/unpopulated place,’ which is the past participle of deserere ‘to desert, abandon’ (which is de- + serere ‘join’). But “adobe” is apparently from Coptic tob, from Egyptian dbt.

  6. humpf. Looked to good to be true. Thanks!

  7. Xhenxhefil says

    What about “deseret”?

  8. Sorry, Steve, I know I owe you some bibliography on the pronunciation of Egyptian.
    It’s interesting how few Egyptologists I’ve met know all that much, or care all that much about reconstructing pronunciation. I find it fascinating myself.

  9. There was a Professor John Callendar at UCLA who reconstructed Ancient Egyptian. He even had language tapes for practising prnunication in the lab. (I heard this from a friend who majored in Egyptology at Cal.) Also, Stuart Tyson Smith, a PhD in archaeology / egyptology created the “Egyptian” spoken in some of the scenes in the film Stargate. See also ANE digest. Smith also worked on one of the Mummy movies.

  10. Wow. A Google search on [“John Callendar” egyptian] gets only two hits! One is your ANE link; the other is in a more recent thread, which has some very interesting messages relating to changes in Egyptian. Thanks for the information, and Mad Guy, I’ll be expecting that bibliography!

  11. LH: Sorry about that, but I misspleled his name. It’s John Bryan Callender (1940-87). Melvyl lists a Middle Egyptian Grammar for 1975 and Studies in the nominal sentence in Egyptian and Coptic in 1984.

  12. Aha! Thanks for the correction, and don’t feel too bad — you expect wrong vowels when it comes to Egyptian.

  13. Ah, Stargate… every linguist must love that movie, because, of course, the linguist saves the universe.
    Also, it has the classic line, uttered after our time-traveling hero has finally heard just a few real live utterances of Egyptian (in which he immediately becomes fluent),
    “It’s easy once you know the vowels.”

  14. It’s also funny in Stargate that the linguist is totally helpless until he figures out that it’s EGYPTIAN WITH VOWELS! I mean, I figured out some words the first time I saw the movie, when I knew no Egyptian. After I started studying the language officially, I had my study partner over to do some homework and then watch the movie- we could pick out dozens of words (and we were rank amateurs; just imagine how well an expert would do.)

  15. Oh, and as for the real world linguists, I once emailed Stuart Tyson Smith to ask him about his experiences and methods. He cited a book by Dr. Callender as his source on the verbal system (that will go on my bibliography, if I can find my xerox copy of it 😉 ), but I was totally unaware of the language lab tapes. I wonder if those are still available.

  16. Me again. I wrote:
    Sorry, Steve, I know I owe you some bibliography on the pronunciation of Egyptian.
    Finally got around to this. See http://www.livejournal.com/users/jdm314/45151.html

  17. Can’t seem to get there at the moment. I’ll keep trying. Thanks in advance!

  18. Ah, got it! I look forward to investigating it at leisure.

  19. Gianluch-Pàul Perrini says

    There is a little book which might help those who are interested in how the Egyptian words should be pronounced.
    The title is:Hieroglyphisch wort fuer wort ( Reise Know-How Verlag Peter Rump GmbH Bielfeld.
    The author of this work is Carsten Peust) There’s also a French adaptation of this handbook by Jean-Pierre Paetznick ( Le hiéroglyphe de poche, Assimil,2000 Chennevières-sur-Marne BP25 Cedex, France ).
    It’s very difficult to reconstruct the whole of the ancient egyptian pronunciation, since the lack of written vowels is not the only problem: we have to deal with a language whose recorded history is extremely long, and everybody knows languages tend to evolve and to change: this is
    entropy at work.For instance, my mother tongue, Piedmontese ( a western Romance language closely related to French and Occitan ), has undergone tremendous changes ( unlike Italian, Sardinian or Rumanian ) and though it derives from Latin,the Piedmontese have to study the language of the Romans if they want to be able to read it.
    The problem is pronunciation: when pronunciation changes take place, then it’s almost certain that morphology will undergo changes, too ( but not viceversa).
    As for Egyptian, we are capable to reconstruct the pronunciation of the language as it was spoken during the Novum Regnum ( New Empire ) period;
    of course, we are far from reaching everything concerning sandhi, but scholars are at work, and our knowledge is constantly increasing.
    Whoever is fond of the Egyptian language should better study Coptic, before initiating himself to the ancient language: in fact, Coptic is not a difficult language to learn; moreover, its vowels are written: to tell the truth, Coptic is what we should better call “modern Egyptian”. This fascinating tongue is not yet utterly a dead one, and revivalist movements are triyng to repeat the miracle of Hebrew, revived by Ben Yehudah.
    In passing, the chief-town of Piedmont is Turin, in which you can find one of the most important Egyptian museums on Earth.
    Gianluch-Pàul Perrini,
    Turin, Piedmont, Italy.

  20. Thanks! I would indeed like to study Coptic, and if I’m ever in Turin I will definitely check out the Egyptian Museum.

  21. daniel davies says

    i want to learn egyptian….. please help

  22. shelley says

    does any1 know a site where i can learn to speak the egyption language. i love egypt and i want to learn the langage but im also a little dumb so if u cud make it like
    the= (the egyptian word 4 the)
    please help

  23. Does anybody know what Egyptian callender was used with Hierogylphs as the markers for the time of the year? I have tried the Coptic callender, but that callender system uses Greek text. I have also tried the Nile calender, but that did not prove sufficent.
    Can anybody help me please?

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