The Anxious Scribe.

I just ran across a quote attributed to an Egyptian scribe named Khakheperresenb (Walter Jackson Bate, in The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, says 2000 BC, Wikipedia says ca. 1900 BC) that I found irresistible:

Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.

A lot of other people have found it irresistible, too (four thousand years ago they were already complaining everything had been written!); if you put “Would I had phrases that are not known” into Google Books search you get a whole lot of hits. But it’s very odd that the Wikipedia article linked above cites no references other than Bate; at first I had the uncharitable suspicion Bate might have invented both scribe and saying, but then I found it in Thomas Eric Peet’s A Comparative Study of the Literatures of Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia: Egypt’s Contribution to the Literature of the Ancient World (Oxford University Press, 1931). Peet attributes it to “the Complaint of Khakheperresenb, of which a fragment has come down to us on a pupil’s writing-tablet now in the British Museum,” but if you search on “Khakheperresenb” at the museum’s site you get no results. So I ask the Varied Reader: do you happen to know anything more about this elusive author, fragment, and quote? Is there a currently more favored form of the name Khakheperresenb? The thanks of a grateful Hat await you.

Update. The thanks of a grateful Hat go to MMcM, who points out that the name is better spelled Khakheperraseneb. See thread below for British Museum link and translation.


  1. I had a little bet with myself that you’d find it, and I won! Here’s their current translation:

    He says, `If only I had unknown utterances
    and extraordinary verses,
    in a new language that does not pass away,
    free from repetition,
    without a verse of worn-out speech
    spoken by the ancestors!
    I shall wring my body for what is in it,
    – a release of all my speech.
    For what is already said can only be repeated;
    what is said once has been said;
    this is no vain boast of the ancients’ speech
    that those who are later should find it good.

  2. When reading Egyptological transliterations, it’s important to remember that the written “e” is purely epenthetic. So you aren’t going to have a word ending in “-rasenb”; it’s going to end in “raseneb”. And since “a” means aleph/glottal stop, the word is really “r-ʔ-s-n-b”, where “-” is the unwritten vowel.

  3. He’s not only an early proponent of “it has all been said before”, if you continue reading, he’s also an early proponent of “the world’s going to hell in a handbasket”. I pity those scribe disciples who had to copy the rantings of their old master…

  4. Good point, and of course he had probably been subjected to similar rants from his own master in his youth. The circle of life!

  5. I pity those scribe disciples who had to copy the rantings of their old master…

    They made up for it in the margins.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    This is referenced in the introduction to Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar, on “Pessimistic Literature” :

    “The keynote is one sounded by conservatives and aristocrats of all ages: wickedness and misery are everywhere rife, and the poor have usurped the place of the rich

    One Khakheperra’sonb, a priest of Heliopolis, is yet another critic of his own age, who naively voices his desire for original phraseology and new expressions wherewith to unburden his troubled heart.”

  7. des von bladet says

    Entitlement: demanding novel expressions of the most cliched complaints.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    The varying transliterations come about because hieroglyphic didn’t write vowels. In general people stick in an -e- wherever they feel it helps to make the form actually pronounceable, substituting -a- when an adjacent consonant was one thought (wrongly in some cases, probably) to have been a glottal stop or ayin type sound. This bears no relation to the actual vocalisation of ancient Egyptian, which can however be reconstructed partially from transcriptions in cuneiform or, later, in Greek, and from Coptic.

    Gardiner has an appendix entirely on the question of transliteration of Egyptian names. Basically he suggests as a default a sort of artificially Copticizing form, on the grounds of consistency, because we only have the information to do better than this in a minority of cases. This results in anachronistic forms for Middle Egyptian names, but they are perhaps not too far from the way an Egyptian of the Ptolemaic or Roman periods would have said them. Because the morphological structure of Egyptian names is generally clear, and the language resembled the Semitic languages in using particular vowel patterns to mark particular verb forms, the system can be carried through more consistently than one might have thought.

    I don’t know how far he succeeded in making this a usual practice.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Judging by Bubba Ho-Tep, Gardiner’s efforts were not altogether in vain.

  10. A number of years ago, I did a cursory review of Middle Egyptian. There are a number of similarities to Semitic grammar (at least Arabic & Hebrew), particularly in morphology. However, in my very limited review, I encountered almost no recognizable cognates.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Apparently, a great deal of progress has been made in reconstructing Ancient Egyptian vowels at several stages. For its relationships, scroll up to “Classification” right under the introduction.

  12. We discussed these matters over a decade ago (!), back when I was briefly interested in Egyptian. (I may get back to it someday.)

  13. “Chacheperreseneb” is discussed at length in Jan Assmann’s Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (1997), which I just read and recommended to Des.

  14. Assmann is Altägyptologe. I had already guessed from that book that there was uncertainty about vowels in Ancient Egyptian. Apart from certain words such as ma’at, and proper names such as Ipuwer and Chacheperreseneb, Assman reproduces Egyptian words without vowels. Example: jnj jtj “bringen, nehmen” (there is an underscore beneath the “t”).

  15. In the WiPe article linked by David, I find this: “As a convention, Egyptologists make use of an “Egyptological pronunciation” in English, in which the consonants are given fixed values and vowels are inserted in accordance with essentially arbitrary rules. … Experts have assigned generic sounds to these values as a matter of convenience, but this artificial pronunciation should not be mistaken for how Egyptian was actually pronounced at any point in time. For example, twt-ꜥnḫ-ı͗mn is conventionally pronounced /tuːtən.ˈkɑːmən/ in English, but in his time was likely realized as something like [*tawaːt ʕaːnax ʔaˈmaːn]”. That explains why I have encountered different versions of that name over the years.

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