الاثنين، 14 أبريل 2014

THE HISTORY AND LITERATURE OF THE ANCIENT EGYPTIAN AND COPTIC LANGUAGES

 

The Origin of the Coptic Language



 

Semitic or Hemitic: The ancient Egyptian language, which was the origin of the Coptic language, was one of the groups of languages scholars have classified as Hemito- Semitic.1 This classification includes as well ancient Egyptian, Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic. The philologists who agree with this classification discovered that the ancient Egyptian language consisted of two elements: Semitic and Hemitic, or Indian-European. Other scholars believe that the language tended to be of the Semitic group because there was a great similarity between the Semitic and ancient Egyptian languages. At this time, there is no definite answer as to which group is related.2

The Ancient Egyptian Literature: The ancient Egyptian language has its own grammar and literature. Many thousands of distinct texts were left on their pyramids, temples, tombs, obelisks, statues, ostraca, stela, papyri, sarcophagi, coffins, vessels, and different objects. Theses texts can be classified as follow: funeral, military, political, daily life, stories, morals, principles, and instructions, hymns, religious and ritual, and historical.

Stages of the Ancient Egyptian Language: Ancient Egyptian evolved in various stages. It was used from Dynasties I-VIII or from 3180 to 2240 B.C. The writing/inscriptions included the pyramid texts, official documents, formal funerary formulae, tomb inscriptions, and some biographical texts. This stage continued with little modification to the second stage, considered the Middle Egyptian, from Dynasties IX-XI or 2240-1990 B.C. Middle Egyptian was “later contaminated with popular elements. In the later form it survived for some monumental and literary purposes right down to Greco-Roman times, while the earlier form was retained as the religious language.”3 Late Egyptian, from Dynasties XVIII-XXIV (1573 to 715 B.C.), included business documents, letters, stories, literary compositions, and official monuments related to Dynasty XIX and later. In addition to few texts, “wherein the vernacular shows itself unmixed with the ‘classical’ idiom of Middle Egypt,” different non-Egyptian vocabulary appeared in this Late Egyptian stage.4

The Ancient Egyptian Writing: The ancient Egyptian writing began to be abandoned following the fourth and fifth century A.D. but it was used side by side with the Coptic language until the fifth century A.D. The Byzantine occupation of Egypt in the fourth century A.D. and the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century A.D., followed by the widespread use of Arabic, caused the ancient Egyptian language (in Hieroglyphics, Hieratic, and Demotic) to be totally forgotten, along with its scripts.

After many centuries, writers, scholars, and amateurs began the attempt to find an explanation for the Hieroglyphic writing and to decipher the ancient Egyptian language. One of these pioneers was the Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher, of the 17th Century. In the 15th Century and after Horapollo tried to interpret the Hieroglyphic symbols, others copied the Hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Egyptian monuments, such as P. Lucas, R. Pococke, C. Niebuhr and other visitors to Egypt such as F.L. Norden. Through the 18th Century, few scholars succeeded Father Kircher. Among those were: A. Gordon, N. Freret, P.A.L. D’Origny, J.D. Marsham, C. de Gebelin, J.H. Schumacher, J.G. Koch, T.Ch. Tychsen and P.E. Jablonski. Also, few scholars in the 18th Century could identify the meaning of the oval as J.J. Barthélemy, de Guignes and F. Zoega.

Towards the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 envaded Egypt. Pierre Françoise-Xavier Bouchard, an engineer and one of Napoleon’s officers, was engaged in cleaning the ruined Fort Rashid. In 1799 he discovered the Rosetta Stone, a slab made of basalt, which measures 3 feet 9 inches long by 2 feet 4 ½ inches wide by 11 inches thick. A copy of the inscriptions of the stone was sent by Bonaparte to Paris but the Rosetta Stone itself became the property of the British and was later housed in the British Museum in 1802. The slab was inscribed in 196 B.C. in Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek, during the time of Ptolemy V Epiphanies.

Sylvestre de Sacy in 1802 could read some of the names mentioned on the slab but he failed to recognize an alphabet. De Sacy was followed by J.D. Akerbald, who read the inscriptions unsuccessfully but identified a few words in addition to the names written in Demotic and their equivalent in Greek.

Others showed their interest in deciphering the lab but they failed to read it until Thomas Young, who studied the inscriptions on the slab and finally “was able to compile a Greek-Demotic vocabulary containing eighty-six groups, most of them correct.” “…This effort, however, was based largely on guesswork.”

The last scholar who deciphered the Ancient Egyptian language and its symbols successfully was Jean François Champollion, who recognized “that the Hieroglyphics were neither exclusively phonetic, nor wholly symbolic, but a combination of the two.” According to this he was able to read many of the names of the kings and queens of Egypt and he wrote a book about Egyptian grammar and an Egyptian dictionary. After the death of Champollion in 1832, other scholars continued the study of the Ancient Egyptian language and made a lot of progress, among those were: Lespsius, Ludwig Stern, Adolph Erman, K. Sethe, W. Speigelberg, H. Thompson, H. Grapow, H.K. Brugsch, L. Griffith, E. Revillout and S. de Buck.5

As a result of such decipherment, we know that the ancient Egyptian language was written with different syllables and began with pictures borrowed from nature, such as drawings of human beings (men, women, and children), animals, plants, houses and palaces, water, hills, the sun, moon, and sky, wind, and ships. All of these signs number about 721 syllables. Every sign was first written as a picture of one of the syllables in its complete form, which is called a pictograph or “ideogram, or pictures for whole words; phonograms, or pictures for syllables; alphabetic signs, or pictures for individual letters.”6

In many words, written with syllabic signs, the last letter of the syllable is written out. This letter is called the phonetic complement. It is not to be pronounced separately, but it is used in order that the reader may know how the syllable should end.7

Moreover, the ancient Egyptian writing had what we call determinatives, which usually attached to the end of the word and were silent. To some extent, these gave the meaning or the general idea of the word as well as a picture. When one reads a text, there are no spaces between the words as the texts were written as one sentence with syllables or alphabetic signs, but those who can read the ancient Egyptian language know the end of each word from the determinatives. Some words express abstract ideas; in these cases, they used the picture of a roll of papyrus. Thus, determinatives are useful in knowing the meaning of some words but in other instances, they indicate just a general idea. Still other words have no determinatives and their meaning is known through practice in reading Hieroglyphics.8

The Different Writing: The ancient Egyptians considered their language sacred, taught to them by the God Thoth. For this reason, the language lasted about 4,000 years with some changes from one period to the next. Even the number of signs remained the same through the history of ancient Egypt, and the syllables and signs of Hieroglyphics remained likewise the same. Before Dynasty XI until Dynastic XXV, they used abbreviated writing, which is called Hieratic. After this period, Hieratic became abnormal Hieratic; it was then abbreviated and become more cursive, which scholars consider the Demotic writing.9 When the Greeks saw the Hieroglyphic writing form, they gave it the name “hiergrammata,” which was derived from “hieros” (“holy”) and “glyphein” (“to carve”). “Grammata” means “letters”; thus, the entire meaning was “sacred carved letters.”10

Hieroglyphic: The Egyptians began to use their hieroglyphics writing during Dynasty I (about 3200 B.C.) — or probably not long before the First Dynasty — until August 24, 394 A.D.

Hieroglyphics has its own system of writing, being written from left to right, right to left, or from top to bottom. This system agrees with the “Boustrophedon” theory11 that, when a bull ploughed the land, he started from left to right or from the right to left and went from one row to the next from the top to the bottom. When the ancient Egyptian noticed this, he used the same method in his writing. This system was adopted by other nations as well.

On the walls of various monuments can be seen ancient Egyptian inscriptions without any spaces, punctuation, or special signs. Moreover, ancient Egyptians never wrote in separate sentences.

Hieratic: Before the Middle Kingdom the Egyptians abbreviated their syllables and the Greeks gave it the name of “hieratikos,” meaning “sacred or priestly.”12 It is now know as Hieratic, “Because in the Greco-Roman age it was the usual script employed by the priests . . .And in the latest period, as already said, Hieratic was generally employed by the priests when writing religious texts on papyrus.”13

The direction of the hieratic writing was from right to left but during the Middle Kingdom, Hieratic was often written in vertical columns. Gradually, it also came to be written horizontally.

Hieratic was used for writing on papyrus and on wooden sarcophagi. Thus, it was employed for the purposes of administration, legal documents, religious and magical texts, private and official letters, instructions and educational morals, stories and literature, accounts, inventories, lists, and scientific books.

Many of the hieratic texts found in the desert on stelae and rocks, considered graffiti writing, were left by travelers or those working the mines and quarries. Writing Hieratic on stone became widespread among the Egyptians, especially toward the end of the New Kingdom and Dynasty XXII, which was established by Libyan mercenaries.14

Around the eighth century B.C., Hieratic became a more cursive script, called “abnormal Hieratic,” after which Demotic writing appeared.15

Demotic: The third script used by the ancient Egyptians was Demotic, which was named from the Greek word “demotikos,” meaning “common.”16 Its use began about 715 B.C. and continued until around 470 to 476 A.D., from Dynasty XXV to late Roman times.17 We have many papyri written in Demotic script, including different forms of legal documents dealing with marriage, divorce, buy, selling, slavery, and inheritance, administrative documents, stories, literature, texts of wisdom, prophesies, and magical and funeral texts.

In the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language, the Demotic became group writing, meaning that one word was written in four or five syllables and the scholars transliterated them into one or two letters. Thus, the language became complicated and, with the presence of the Greeks in the ancient Middle East, their language became widespread during the Ptolemaic period. The Ptolemy employed the Greek language in administration and soon it became the official language of the rulers. During this period, the Egyptians were using Demotic as their native language with Greek being the official language. At the same time, many Greek words found their way into Demotic writings. And “none of these styles of writing (Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Coptic) utterly banished the others, but each as it arose restricted the domain of its progenitor. In the Greco-Roman period all these were in use contemporaneously.”18
 



The Ancient Egyptian Language

and Its Two Systems




 

 

The ancient Egyptian language had two systems: written and spoken.

The Written Language: The Hieroglyphics, Hieratic, and Demotic are considered written language because they were written with consonants and semi-consonants and did not include any kind of nunnation, which is contrary to Hebrew and Arabic. Both of these latter two languages contain nunnation, symbols that should be located above and below the letters. Such symbols represent the vowels and could assist in reading Hebrew and Arabic texts correctly although most of their alphabets are considered consonants. The ancient Egyptians did not invent such nunnation. Thus, the pronunciation of the ancient Egyptian language disappeared gradually after the Byzantine Empire. But during the Roman Empire in the third century A.D., the Egyptians started to write their language with the 24 Greek letters in addition to 7 letters from Demotic. They wrote using these 31 letters, ignoring the approximately 720 symbols employed by their ancestors. By doing this, they preserved the pronunciation of their language and giving us Coptic.

The Spoken Language System: Some scholars hold that the ancient Egyptians had another language in addition to the written form. Father Shenouda Maher summarized the opinion of Chain concerning the popular national language of ancient Egypt, . . . in which he emphasizes that the Egyptian and Coptic languages have been together simultaneously since olden times. Chain has presented a copious and detailed study and has indicated that the Egyptian language is not a spoken language is so far as it is basically derived from Coptic, assuming that Coptic is the origin, and that the Egyptian language was used by the priests and the scribes in their written work only.

This means that the Egyptian language is the language of the Egyptian who spoke in Coptic and who used this language for scriptural purposes only. This Egyptian language was only known to scribes and totally unknown to the public.19

The two systems could be explained by assuming all Egyptian since very ancient times spoke one language, but this language took a different form when used in writing. The oral language was colloquial and used by the common people. Although the spoken language developed over time, it was not written during the rule of the pharaohs. As noted earlier, it was finally written in the third century A. D., utilizing the 31 letters from Greek and Demotic. Utilizing all of these letters allowed for the correct pronunciation of the written language, primarily because the ancient Egyptian did not include vowels.20

In any case, the Coptic language “is, at base, a dialect of Ancient Egyptian; many of the nouns and verbs found in the Hieroglyphic texts remain unchanged in Coptic, and a large number of others can, by making proper allowance for phonetic decay and dialectic differences, be identified without difficulty.”21


The Coptic Language

Its Script, Dialects, and Literature




 

 

        The importance of Coptic philologically is due to its being the only form of Egyptian in which the vowels are regularly written . . .. The vocabulary is very different from that of the older period and includes many Greek loan-words . . ..

The word order is more Greek than Egyptian . . . at all events it is extensively influenced by Greek biblical literature. The first entative efforts to transcribe the old Egyptian language into Greek letters belong to the second century A.D., and are of a pagan character (horoscopes, magical texts, and the like).22

Attempts toward Proto-Coptic: It is difficult to accept that the Egyptian language “is basically derived from Coptic, assuming that Coptic is the origin.”23 More usually, Coptic is considered a continuation of the ancient Egyptian language but written in with the Greek and Demotic alphabets in the third century A.D. There were some attempts to write the ancient Egyptian language using the Greek Alphabet before this time.

One of the oldest attempts to write verbal Egyptian (Proto-Coptic) with Greek script is the Heidelberg Papyrus no. 414 which goes back to the middle of the third century B.C. It contains a list of Coptic terms written with Greek script and a Greek-Coptic glossary, which is written by a Greek . . .. text, however, is a collection of Inscriptions at Abidos (Abydos) (the western side of Balyana), which is dated to the second century.24

Old Coptic: Father Shenouda continues his study concerning the development of the pronunciation system of the ancient Egyptian vocabulary, noting that “during the Roman period . . . an increasing number of Greek characters mixed with words derived from Demotic, most particularly in the cases where the accurate pronunciation of certain Egyptian terms is mostly needed.”25

As an example, Father Shenouda writes about the Munich Papyrus, the Egyptian Pagan Papyri dated from the second Century A.D., the London and Leiden Magical Papyrus dated in the third century A. D., and other magical papyri dated in the first three centuries A.D. Why are all these papyri written in Greek scripts with Demotic characters? Father Shenouda answers,

Writing in Greek script with Demotic characters is a safeguard in these magical papyri against mispronunciation of certain terms related to magic and the devils . . .. It becomes evident then that the above papyri which are known as Old Coptic and to which we refer in the Coptic dictionaries with this sign O evolved out of necessity among pagan groups before the appearance of Christianity in Egypt.26

The Dialects of the Coptic Language: The Coptic language was divided into different dialects according to the regions of Egypt and the length of the Nile Valley. Egyptians lived in varied places — around the marshes, close to the banks of the Nile, in oases, in cities, while many worked in agriculture and dwelt in villages. For this reason, we can trace the dialects in Egypt from the earliest time of the ancient Egyptian language until it appeared clearly and was written in the Greco-Roman era. From studying the early manuscripts and inscriptions onward, philologists have divided the Coptic language into Boheiric, and the Upper Egyptian dialects of Sahidic, Faiyumic, and Akhmimic, as well as secondary dialects that follow.27

Boheiric Dialect: This is the dialect of Lower Egypt. Some scholars gave it this name thinking it belonged to the language of the area neighboring the Mediterranean. However, it probably belonged to the province of Bohira in Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt lies in the northern part of the country and the North in Egypt refers to Bahri. The Boheiric dialect was previously and wrongly called the Memphatic dialect. It is believed that Boheiric was the first dialect used in the style of writing upon which agreement was reached in the city of Alexandria. In general, Boheiric is the only dialect whose writing form was to some extent borrowed from the Demotic. It appears that the pronunciation in the other dialects had no relation to the Demotic nor did those creating the other dialects use Boheiric spelling as a beginning point. Unfortunately, the original pronunciation of the Boheiric dialect is not known exactly as all the papyri having linguistic importance have disappeared. In the eleventh century A.D., after the seat of the Pope was moved from Alexandria to Cairo, the Bohairic dialect became the literary language for all of Egypt and is still used, to some extent, in Coptic liturgy.28

The Boheiric dialect was employed in Alexandria and its districts, the Nile Delta, and the Valley of Natrun. The books of the Coptic Church today are written in the Bohairic dialect, with the sole exception of one hymn. Another manuscript, entitled “The History of How the Miaroun Is Made,” was written mostly in Boheiric although some parts are in the Sahidic dialect.29

Upper Egyptian Dialects (Sahidic, Faiyumic, and Akhmimic): (1) Sahidic refers to Upper Egypt or the “high land,” for the Nile runs from Upper to Lower Egypt. “Upper” refers to the south of Egypt and in Arabic has the name “Sahid,” from which the Sahidic dialect appeared. This dialect belongs to area around ancient Thebes and thereafter was employed for the literature of Upper Egypt. From the point of view of Worell, “the dialect [was] established after the Boheiric dialect and it seems that it was borrowed from one of the dialects which was used as a spoken dialect in the northern part of the Nile Valley from Memphis until Asyut.”30

(2) Faiyumic was employed in Faiyum and incorrectly called Bashmouria.

(3) Akhmimic was used in the city of Akhmim until it weakened and gave way to the Sahidic.31

These are the main dialects and from them appeared some secondary dialects, including the following.

(a) The Memphitic was used as a spoken language in Memphis and replaced the Boheiric dialect. (b) The secondary Akhmimic or the Asyutic was used from Oxyrhynchus (El Behnisa) to Asyut and was descended from the Akhmimic. (c) The dialect of Bashmur was borrowed from the Boheiric. According to Worell, the native writers of Egypt mentioned this dialect in their books. It was probably an Egyptian dialect spoken by the Greeks who lived in the eastern part of the Nile Delta and was written in Greek letters. (d) The Oasis dialect was a mixed dialect from the Faiyumic and Sahidic according to the Coptic text discovered by Ahmed Fakhry in 1951.32

The Coptic Literature: The Copts used their language with its dialects in their literature, religious texts, the Bible, letters, stories, receipts, the Books of the Coptic Church, legal documents, histories of their church, and general among the Coptic population. In addition to their writing in Coptic, they translated different books from Greek into Coptic and from Coptic into Arabic or from Coptic into Greek, Syriac, and Latin. The most important translation was that of the Bible from Greek into Coptic. This was an easy task for the Egyptian as many of the time as well as some scholars of ours were familiar with the two languages: Greek and Coptic. Even though the work was time consuming, the religious zeal of the translators prodded them to an accurate translation. It appears that the entire Bible was translated into the two dialects of Boheiric and Sahidic.33

Coptic literature was divided into two categories: Greek influenced and non-Greek influenced. The first category was influenced by the Greek culture and was widespread in Alexandria; a city established by Alexander the Great. Most of its inhabitants were Greek with the Hellenistic culture widely known, which compelled many fathers of the church to write in Greek. For a time, their writings were translated into Coptic for the benefit of Copts in different parts of Egypt. The second category was pure Coptic literature such as that which appeared in the writings of St. Anthony, St. Pachomius, and others who knew no language other than Coptic. Moreover, Saint Shenoute knew the Greek language but did not use it in his writings or preaching, preferring Coptic in its Sahidic dialect, which was employed by the Coptic Church during its periods of greatest activity.34

Also relevant to the second category are the many elements of ancient Egyptian civilization inherited by the Copts, especially in the fields of science such as medicine, anatomy, chemistry, pharmacy, architecture, and engineering as well as mathematics and astronomy. Various Coptic documents available to us have revealed such branches of study from the Greco-Roman times until the Arab conquest.35

Along with scientific topics, the Copts also wrote the history of the church and the history of the Patriarchs of Alexandria. The most famous writers included: John of Nikiu (second half of the seventh century A.D.); Sawirus Ibn al-Muqaffa (second half of the tenth and early eleventh century); Bishop Mikhail of Tanis, who was contemporaneous with Sawirus the Patriarch and who wrote the history of the Patriarchs (especially from Khael the Third, 880-907 A.D., until Senouthios, 1032-1046 A.D.); and Bishop Yusab of Fowa (from the thirteenth century A.D.)36

(2) The Synexarium is the book that includes the biographies of the fathers and the saints of the church and their deeds. In addition to the Synexarium, some other volumes on Coptic saints exist, including those of Palladius, Athanasius, Jerome, and John Cassian. The Synexarium is still in the Coptic Church on specific occasions, especially during the Mass, and usually is read by one of the priests of the church.

(3) In “The History of the Councils,” the Copts wrote about local and international assemblies.37

(4) Several books and documents have been discovered that were written by the Copts on general history, such as that by John of Nikiu concerning the history of the world from the creation until the Arab conquest.38

Moreover, the Copts worked in different braches of literature, both religious and general, in addition to their translation activities. An example is the translation of the Bible from Greek into Coptic started in the second century A. D. This translation was very accurate because the translations were familiar with both languages. As mentioned earlier, between the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the entire Bible was translated into two Coptic dialects, Boheiric and Saidic, and some portions were translated into Akhmimic and Faiyumic dialects. At the same time, many “patristic” texts were handed down in their writings. In addition, the biographies of the saints were important in strengthening the faith of the people. For this reason, thousands of books were written about these saints, monks, martyrs, and some of the bishops and patriarchs. The Coptic literature is rich in its novels and stories, which scholars have divided into two categories: native and religious. Little remains of the native literature, but the deeds and documents that have survived were letters and contracts that give us an idea concerning the everyday life in Coptic Egypt. Other writings referred to the monks and the activities inside the monasteries.39

The Copts did not use poems in the non-religious sense. Any poetry they wrote belonged to the hymns of the angles, Saint Mary, prophets, saints, and martyrs; thus, they names the poems “alhan,” meaning “hymns.” They also used poems form in some stories and in prayers borrowed from the Bible, especially from the Book of Psalms or the New Testament. They were employed in praising the Lord. Many of the church fathers wrote articles on theology and were famous for their writings that defended their faith. Many others wrote about monks, their life, their conduct, and about how to be isolated in the desert to worship God. They also wrote about the laws of the monks, which should be followed in order to be certain of inheriting the eternal kingdom.40

The Copts took the custom of wailing from the ancient Egyptian, which is clear from the hundreds of funeral stelae discovered in various parts of Egypt.41

Coptic magic was widespread among both pagans and Christians. This was not a new phenomenon in Coptic Egypt but goes back to ancient Egyptians when magicians practiced; this practice continues to the present time. The belief in magic came about as a result of the limited knowledge of the common people concerning the natural occurrences in everyday life, which they believe were caused by evil or good spirits. Accordingly, the populace thought it had to practice magic to discourage the evil spirits and encourage the good ones. Thus, the study of magic is of utmost importance in supplying us with information on cultural anthropology when we study the problems of humans in different societies. Scholars noted from their study of Coptic magic that many Eastern and Western nations have borrowed spells from the Coptic tradition.42 In addition, Flinders Petrie has published 270 spells well known to the ancient Egyptians in his book Amulets, where he mentioned, “the Egyptian Magic is the foundation for all kinds of magic in the earth.”43

The Role of the Coptic Church: “The confirmation of the Coptic Alphabet as well-know to-day, in addition to the spelling of words and laying the foundation of stylistic and grammatical regulations, are mostly the work of the Christian church in Egypt.”44

The Greek language was utilized in Alexandria in a missionary role between the Greek and the Copts.45 As Christianity was adopted by many of the Egyptians (Coptic Christianity), their language was used throughout Lower and Upper Egypt; however, Greek did not spread widely among the Egyptians except in Alexandria.46

As a result of Christian missionary activity, the translation of the Four Gospels took place before 270 A.D., but all “the translation of the Scriptures which started in the third century A.D. was completed in full in the fourth century.”47

The Annunciation tidings and the Psalms, however, are probably the first Scriptures that were the subject of the translation from Greek. This was followed by the translation of the rest of the Holy Scriptures and other church books into Coptic up until the Council of Chalcedony in 451 A.D. After which the Copts lost interest in the translation from Greek.48


The Authors and Their Work

in the Coptic Language




 

         In addition to that mentioned earlier, it would be useful to cite here those who started to use the Coptic language in their literature between the second and fourth centuries, including the following saints: Antony, Hieracas (the scribe of Leontopolis), Pachomius, Theodorus of Tabennese, and Horsiesos.49

Even the texts of the Nag Hammadi Library do not have any dates, but a good number of scholars believe that these texts, which were translated from Greek into Coptic, were from the main period “ranging at least from the beginning to the end of the fourth century C.E.”50

St. Shenoute, one of the greatest writers in Coptic literature in the fifth century, “knew theology and was interested in many subtle questions of ethics and physics, which he treated in a manner characteristic of his times. His influence on Coptic literature is due not only to his vast production but also to the work of translation that he fostered and supervised, as it seems, in his monastery.”51

Most of those who worked in Coptic literature during the fourth and fifth centures were translators. They translated from Greek into Coptic many “hagiographical works.” Some of the names of these translators included “Athanasius I, Basil the Great, Cyril I of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ephraem Syrus, Epiphanies of Salamis, Jerome the Presbyter, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius, Proclus of Constantinople, Severian of Gabala, Severus of Antioch, Theodosius I, Theophilus of Alexandria. In addition to the topics noted earlier, “There are also the Apocrypha . . . the Agophthegmata Patrum, and the Canonical literature, which are treated in their particular articles.”

Because of the severe conflict between the Coptic Church and that of Byzantium as well as others, “This is probably the moment when Greek began to be perceived as the language of the oppressors and the patristic Greek (“’international’) culture was looked upon with suspicion as the vehicle of false dogmas and misleading historical information.”52

In the sixth century, we read of the following books written in Coptic, one by Eusebius about the history of the church (in two parts) and others by Macarius of Tkow about his Panegyric.

The same mixture of history and legend is to be found in many other texts Recounting the lives of such figures as Severus of Antioch, the famous monk John of Lycopolis, and Dioscorus . . .. Of a more polemic character were the “Plerophories,” a series of little stories by John of Mayuma to prove the thesis of anti-Chalcedonians.53

In this century, we also read about the Council of Nicea, the Didascalia and the Acts of Ephesus, which concentrated on Victor of Tabennese, the monk.

In the sixth century as well, the Coptic literature included the Nicean Council and other texts, including the lives of great monks, their history, legends, and miracles. Among these monks were Abraham of Farshut, Matthew the Poor, and Moses of Balyana.

In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, we have different documents written in Coptic by St. Damian, the patriarch of Alexandria, St. Pistentius, bishop of Coptos (Qift), St. Athanasius, the martyr, Claudius, and the martyr George. John of Shmun wrote a panegyries about St. Mark the Evangelist and another about . Anthony. Bishop John of Parallos in the northern Delta wrote “against the apocryphal and heretical books”; Rufus of Shotep “wrote the last preserved example of exegetical activity before the Arab invasion of 642.” The Patriarch Benjamin I left a “homily on the miracle of Cana” and a “short passage of the panegyrie of Shenoute.” Patriarch Agathon wrote a homily and “composed a panegyric of Benjamin.” Of the patriarch John III, St. Menas of Pshati, bishop of Nikiou, Zacharias Bishop of Sakha, and the patriarch Mark III, some wrote a panegyric of saints and others composed theological treatises or described some of the lives of the patriarchs or wrote Coptic homilies. Because of their usage of the Coptic language, they demonstrated that one should “appreciate . . . the ability of all these men to write and speak a Coptic language that is perfectly capable of expressing any concept desired.”54

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Coptic writings were concentrating on propagandist, to strengthen the faith of the people in their church and for those outside the church “to affirm the existence, antiquity, and orthodoxy of the doctrine of the Coptic church.”55

The ninth to the eleventh centuries was a period of decline for the Coptic language and literature because of the spread of the Arabic language.

Therefore, the historian should first recognize in this final stage of Coptic literature the last activity of Coptic writers — an activity of redaction, choice, and systematization, not creation. Then, by means of these late texts, the historian may trace stratifications to recover the older stages of literature. For, if it is true that the Coptic writing is consistent in quality and subject matter, being almost exclusively religious, its products are in fact diverse in character, content, and style.56


The Decline of the Coptic Language




 

        The Coptic language is the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language but is written in the Greek alphabet plus seven Demotic letters.57 The Copts or the Christian Egyptians employed it as their spoken and written language in their daily lives as well as in their churches for several centuries before the Arab conquest. After the invasion of the Arabs in 642 A.D., Arabic gradually began to replace the Coptic language, especially in 705/706 A. D. when the “Umayyad Viceroy ‘Abd-Allah Ibn ‘Abd-al-Malik issued the hazardous and untimely decree substituting Arabic for Coptic in all state Affairs.”58 Thus, the native scribe had to learn Arabic, which is attested by the number of bilingual documents written in different centuries.

The decline in the use of Coptic was also linked to the widespread acceptance of Islam, with many Christians adopting the new religion in order to work as officials in the Islamic government. Evidence of the decline of Coptic can be seen in a text from the tenth century urging the preservation of the Coptic language. From this we can deduce that Arabic had begun to replace Coptic in most parts of the Nile Valley in this century.

The grip of the Coptic language grew weaker even though it continued to be used as a spoken and liturgical language until about the thirteenth century A.D. until the thirteenth century, when Arabic became the written and spoken language and Copts began to write their theological books in Arabic. However, in Upper Egypt, Coptic was still in use until the seventeenth century. When the language began to fade, Copts wrote it in Arabic letters, some manuscripts of which we have indicating this usage.59

The Arab writer Al-Maqrisi, who lived in the fifteenth century, mentioned that the monks in some monasteries were still using the Coptic language and most of the wives and children of Christians living in Upper Egypt used Coptic in their daily speech. In addition, Maspero stated that the inhabitants of Upper Egypt were speaking and writing the Coptic language until the early years of the sixteenth century A.D. By the eighteenth century, the Coptic language was considered dead even though it is still employed in the many prayers and liturgies of the Coptic Church to this day and some of its vocabulary has been mixed into the Arabic in the modern, common spoken Arabic of Egypt.60



Notes
 

1 W. Lu, “Semitic Languages,” Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 20, p. 314.
2 E.A. Wallis Budge, The Mummy (New York: Causeway Books, 1974), pp. 3-7; George Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 144; R. Engelbach, editor, Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, 2d edition (Cairo: Ministry of Culture and National Orientation, Antiquities Department of Egypt, 1961), pp. 303-304; Stephen Quirke and Jeffrey Spencer, editors, The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992), pp. 118-123.
3 Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3d edition (Oxford: Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, 1976), p. 5.
4 Ibid.
5 P.E. Cleator, Lost Languages (New York: Mentor Books, 1962), pp. 34-59; Stephen Quirke and Carol Andrews, editors, The Rosetta Stone (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), pp. 3-5; Georges Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, p. 248.
6 Samuel A.B. Mercer, An Egyptian Grammar (New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1978), p. 3.
7 Ibid. p. 8.
8 Ibid. pp. 10-13.
9 George Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, pp. 121, 125.
10 P.E. Cleator, Lost Languages (New York: Mentor Book, 1962) p. 35.
11 Hans Jensen, Sign, Symbol and Script (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969) p. 148.
12 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 10.
13 Ibid. See also, Engelbach, Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, pp. 322-323
14 Georges Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, p. 121
15 Ibid.
16 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 10; Engelbach, Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, p. 324.
17 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 10.
18 Ibid. p. 9.
19 Fr. Shenouda Maher, “The Evolution of the Coptic Language,” Coptologia (Historica Coptica), vol. 16, 2000, pp. 61-62.
20 Ibid. p. 62.
21 E.A. Wallis Budge, The Mummy, p. 355.
22 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 6.
23 Fr. Shenouda Maher, “The Evolution of the Coptic Language”, p. 62.
24 Ibid., p. 63.
25 Ibid. p. 64.
26 Ibid.
27 Yassah Abd El-Messieh, “el-Lahagaat el-Qibtiya wa-athaaruha el-Adabiya,” Safhet Min Tarikh el-Quibt, Resalet Mar Mina el-Khamesa, (Alexandria, Egypt: The Society of Mar Mina the Meraculos, 1954), pp. 41.  Some parts of the Coptic dialects originally written in Arabic, but the author of this article translated them into English.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid. pp. 41-42.
30 Ibid. p. 42.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid. p. 43.
33 Ibid. p. 44.
34 Murad Kamil, The Civilization of Egypt in the Coptic Period, Matba‘at Dar el-‘Alam el-‘Arabi, Cairo, p. 123 (in Arabic).
35 Murad Kamil, “From Diocletian to the Entrance (Occupation) of the Arabs,” The History of the Egyptian Civilization (Cairo: The Ministry of Culture and National Organization), vol. 4, p. 245 (in Arabic).
36 Ibid. pp. 248-250.
37 Ibid. pp. 250-251.
38 Ibid. p. 251.
39 Ibid. pp. 252-253.
40 Ibid. pp. 253, 255, 256.
41 Murad Kamil, The Civilization of Egypt in the Coptic Period, p. 122.
42 Murad Kamil, “el-Qibt fi Rukb el-hadarah el-‘Aalamiya”, safhat Min Tarikh el-Qibt, Resalet Mar Mina el-Khamesa (Alexandria, Egypt: The Society of Mar Mina the Meraculos, 1954), pp. 20-21.
43 Murad Kamil, “From Diocletian to the Entrance (Occupation) of the Arabs,” pp. 253, 255, 256.
44 Fr. Shenouda Maher, “The Evolution of the Coptic Language”, p. 65.
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid.
47 Ibid., p.67.
48 Ibid. p. 68.
49 Tito Orlandi, “Literature, Copte,” The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), vol. 5, p. 1451.
50James M. Robinson, General editor, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers), p. 15.
51 Tito Orlandi, “Literature, Copte,” p. 1453.
52 Ibid., p. 1454.
53 Ibid., p. 1455.
54 Ibid. pp. 1455-1456.
55 Ibid. p. 1457.
56 Ibid. p. 1459.
57 Murad Kamil, Coptic Egypt (Cairo: Scribe Egyptien, 1968), pp. 23-24
58 Aziz S. Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1968), p. 17.
59 Murad Kamil, The Civilization of Egypt in the Coptic Period, pp. 71-72; Yassah ‘Abd el-Messieh, “El lahagaat el-Qibtiya wa-ataaruha el-Adabiya,” pp. 49-52.
60 Ibid. p. 50; Fr. Shenouda Maher, “ Coptic Language, Spoken,” The Coptic Encyclopedia, pp. 605-606.


ancient Egyptian Language

Egyptian Language
 
Our knowledge of ancient Egyptian is the result of modern scholarship, for since the Renaissance, a symbolical and allegorical interpretation was favored, which proved to be wrong.

The learned Jesuit antiquarian Athanasius Kircher (1602 - 1680) proposed nonsensical allegorical translations (Lingua Aegyptical restituta, 1643). Thomas Young (1773 -1829), the author of the undulatory theory of light, who had assigned the correct phonetical values to five hieroglyphic signs, still maintained these alphabetical signs were written together with allegorical signs, which, according to him, formed the bulk. The final decipherment, starting in 1822, was the work of the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion, 1790 - 1832, cf. Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiens par M.Champollion le jeune, 1824.

Champollion, who had a very good knowledge of Coptic (the last stage of Egyptian), proved the assumption of the allegorists wrong. He showed (especially aided by the presence of the Rosetta Stone) that Egyptian (as any other language) assigned phonetical values to signs. These formed consonantal structures as in Hebrew and Arabic. He also discovered that some were pictures indicating the category of the preceding words, the so-called "determinatives".

After Champollion's death in 1832, the lead in egyptology passed to Germany (Richard Lepsius, 1810 - 1884). This Berlin school shaped Egyptian philology for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular scholars such as Adolf Erman (1854 - 1937), Kurt Sethe (1869 - 1934), who, together with Francis Griffith (1862 - 1934), Battiscombe Gunn (1883 - 1950) and Alan Gardiner (1879 - 1963) in England, laid the systematic basis for the study of Egyptian. Later, Jacob Polotsky (1905 -1991) established the "standard theory" of Egyptian grammar.

These efforts finally made the historical record available to scholars of other disciplines, so that through interdisciplinarity, the impact of Pharaonic Egypt on all Mediterranean cultures of antiquity could be weighed. The result being, that Ancient Egypt is no longer neglected in the history of the formation of the Western intellect.
Chronology
approximative, all dates BCE
Predynastic Period
  • earliest communities - 5000
  • Badarian - 4000
  • Naqada I - 4000 - 3600
  • Naqada II - 3600 - 3300
  • Terminal Predynastic Period : 3300 - 3000
Dynastic Period
  • Early Dynastic Period : 3000 - 2600
  • Old Kingdom : 2600 - 2200
  • First Intermediate Period : 2200 - 1940
  • Middle Kingdom 1940 - 1760
  • Second Intermediate Period : 1760 - 1500
  • New Kingdom : 1500 - 1000
  • Third Intermediate Period : 1000 - 650
  • Late Period : 650 - 343
In order of difficulty, the reader may study the following recent books & dictionaries to be able to read classical Egyptian, i.e. hieroglyphic Middle Egyptian. When this is acquired, a large section of the literature can be directly addressed. Middle Egyptian was first introduced in the Middle Kingdom and used in religious contexts until the Late Period (italics refer to the presence of outdated entries or grammar) :
  • Davies, W.V. : Reading the Past : Egyptian Hieroglyphs, 1987.
  • Hiéroglyphes : écriture et langue des Pharaons, CD-Rom, Khéops - Paris, 2001.
  • Colling, M. & Manley, B. : How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, 2001.
  • Gardiner, A. : Egyptian Grammar, 1982.
  • Du Bourguet, P. : Grammaire Egyptienne, 1980.
  • Lefebvre, G. : Grammaire de l'Égyptien classique, 1955 (2 volumes).
  • Allen, J.P. : Middle Egyptian, 2000.
  • Budge, E.A.W. : A Hieroglyphic Vocabulary to the Book of the Dead, 1911.
  • Budge, E.A.W. : An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, 1920 (2 volumes).
  • Erman, A. : & Grapow, H. : Aegyptisches Handwörterbuch, 1921.
  • Faulkner, R.O. : A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, 1972.
  • Van der Plas, D. : Coffin Texts Word Index, 1998.
  • Hannig, R. : Ägyptisches Wörterbuch I, 2003.
The first hieroglyphs of the Egyptian language, often attached as labels on commodities, were written down towards the end of the terminal predynastic period (end of the fourth millennium BCE). There is a continuous recorded until the eleventh century CE, when Coptic (the last stage of the language) expired as a spoken tongue and was superceded by Arabic.

Egyptian knew six stages :
Archaic Egyptian (first two Dynasties), Old Egyptian (Old Kingdom), Middle Egyptian (First Intermediate Period & Middle Kingdom), Late  Egyptian (New Kingdom & Third Intermediate Period), Demotic Egyptian (Late Period) and Coptic (Roman Period).

In the last two stages, new scripts emerged and only in Coptic is the vocalic structure known, with distinct dialects.  Archaic Egyptian consists of brief inscriptions. Old Egyptian has the first continuous texts. Middle Egyptian is the "classical form" of the language. Late Egyptian is very different from Old and Middle Egyptian (cf. the verbal structure). Although over 6000 hieroglyphs have been documented, only about 700 are attested for Middle Egyptian (the majority of other hieroglyphs are found in Graeco-Roman temples only).

Egyptian hieroglyphs is a system of writing which, in its fully developed form, had only two classes of signs : logograms and phonograms.

logogram (word writing) 

A logogram is the representation of a complete word (not individual letters of phonemes) directly by a picture of the object actually denoted (cf. the Greek "logos", or "word"). As such, it does not take the phonemes into consideration, but only the direct objects & notions connected therewith.

For example :

, depicting the sun, signifies : "sun", is a logogram

, depicting a mouth, signifies : "mouth", is a logogram

A writing system exclusively based on logography would have thousands of signs to encompass the semantics of the spoken language. Such a large vocabulary would be unpractical. Moreover, which pictures to use for things that can not be easily pictured ? How to address grammatics ?

phonogram (sound writing)

Egyptian phonography (a word is represented by a series of sound-glyphs of the spoken sounds) was derived through phonetic borrowing. Logograms are used to write other words or parts of words semantically unrelated to the phonogram but with which they phonetically shared the same consonantal structure.

For example :

The logogram  , signifies "mouth". It is used as a phonogram with the phonemic value "r" to write words as "r", meaning "toward" or to represent the phonemic element "r" in a word like "rn" or "name".

    "rn" or "name" : the logograms of mouth and water

This pictoral phonography is based on the principle of the rebus : show one thing to mean another. If, for example, we would write English with the Egyptian signary, the word "belief" would be written with the logograms of a "bee" and a "leaf" ... The shared consonantal structure allows one to develop a large number of phonograms. They are the solid architecture of the language. In Egyptian, the consonantal system was present from the beginning.

Three main categories of phonograms prevailed :
  • uniconsonantal hieroglyphs : 26 (including variants) - they represent a single consonant and are the most important group of phonograms ;
  • biconsonantal hieroglyphs : a pair of successive consonants (ca. 100) ;
  • triconsonantal hieroglyphs : three successive consonants (ca. 50).
The last two categories are often accompanied by uniconsonantal hieroglyphs which partly or completely repeat their phonemic value. This to make sure that the complemented hieroglyph was indeed a phonogram and not a logogram and/or to have some extra calligraphic freedom in case a gap needed to be filled ...

This phonography allowed a word of more than one consonant to be written in different ways. In Egyptian, economy was exercized and spellings were relatively standardized, allowing for variant forms for certain words only.

ideogram or semogram (idea writing)

Logograms are concerned with direct meaning and sense, not with sound. Likewise, Egyptian used so-called "determinatives", derived from logograms, and placed them at the end of words to assist in specifying their meaning when uncertainty existed.

A stroke for example was the determinative indicating that the function of the hieroglyph was logographic. The determinative specified the intended meaning. Some were specific in application (closely connected to one word), while others identified a word as belonging to a certain class or category (the generic determinatives or taxograms). Determinatives of a word would be changed or varied to introduce nuance. The same hieroglyph can be a logogram, a phonogram and a determinative.

For example :

The logogram , depicting the sun, signifies : "sun" (in continuous texts, a stroke would be put underneath the hieroglyph to indicate a purely logographic sense). Placed at the end of words, it is related to the actions of the sun (as in "rise", "day", "yesterday", "spend all day", "hour ", "period") and so the hieroglyph is a determinative. In the context of dates however, it is a phonogram with as phonetic value "sw".

Besides these purely semantical functions, the determinatives also marked the ends of words and hence assisted reading. They helped to identify the "word-images" in a text. Once established, these were slow to change, causing, as early as the Middle Kingdom, great divergences between the written script, becoming increasingly "historical", and the spoken, contemporary pronunciations.

Logograms and determinatives are both ideograms. Pictoral ideography (a variety of hieroglyphs representing idea's, notions, contexts, categories, modalities or nuance's) conveys additional meaning. Ideograms are purely semantical (or semograms). To the objective sound-glyph (the phonetics, in this case, being the consonantal structures with no vocalizations) an ideogram is added changing the overall meaning.

Hieroglyphic writing remained a consonantal, pictoral system, allowing for both phonograms and ideograms to convey meaning.
Ante-rational cognition and Archaic, Old and Middle Egyptian.
modes
of thought
examples
in Egyptian literature
major stages of growth in the formation of Middle Egyptian
mythical :
sensori-motoric
Gerzean ware design schemata, early palettes
individual hieroglyps, no texts, no grammar, cartoon-like style
pre-
rational :
pre-operatoric
Relief of Snefru, Biography of Methen, Sinai Inscriptions, Testamentary Enactment
Pyramid Texts
individual words with archaic sentences, a very rudimentary grammar applied to simple sentences in the "record" style of the Old Kingdom
proto-rational :
concrete operations
  Maxims of Ptahhotep, Coffin Texts, Sapiental literature, ... Great Hymn to the Aten ... Memphis Theology
from simple sentences to the classical form of a literary language capable of further change and refined meanings
mythical writing

• Neolithic Period

Before the differentiation between the spoken and the written language, no identification and transmission of meaning was possible, except through oral means. Insofar as the ability to identify conscious activity was concerned, only anonymous cultual productions prevailed. Mythical memory produced its tales, legends and typical designs. No individual consciousness can be denoted. The differentiation between, on the one hand, nature and its processes and, on the other hand, human consciousness is very small or completely absent. The graven images found in graves, point to the start of the first decentration and the rise of the idea of objectifying meaning in picture-glyphs (beginning of logography ?).

• Middle to Terminal Predynastic - Archaic Egyptian

This slow process of objectification gave rise to the experience of spatiality : navigation on the Nile and the emergence of cult centers and urban centers, associated with chiefdoms, principalities, provincial states and village corporations, finally united into regional kingdoms. Trade continued to flourish and wealth distinctions became more salient. The subject experienced itself for the first time as source of cultural actions. Differentiation (between object and subject) led to logico-mathematical structures, whereas the distinction between actions related to the subject and those related to the external objects became the startingpoint of causal relationships. The grammar of ware design is used, allowing for the decentration of actions with regard to their material origin, for now myths could be recorded in schemata which could be objectified by later subjects. The linking of objects was also evident. Means/goals schemata rose. The dependence between the external object and the acting body was mediated by elementary rules of design and cultural dressing. These schemata led to spatial & temporal permanency.

This process of interiorization (starting with the first decentration and ending with the exhaustion of the mythical mode of thought) led in the terminal predynastic period to an entirely new subjective focus which exteriorized itself in single hieroglyphic writing. This event defined the most important breach with the past : the end of the exclusivity of the mythical mode of thought and its already complex spoken language and the start of the history of Ancient Egypt. The advent of political unification is consistent with this radical change.

In the mythical "first time" (zep tepy), the "primordial hill" (benben) emerged out of the undifferentiated. In the passive principle (Nun), the active (Tatenen) lay dormant. In the resulting Ennead, 4 feminine & 4 masculine deities formed a balanced Ogdoad + a "Great One" (Atum or Re or Ptah or Thoth or Amun-Re). The active pole drew its "force" out of the balanced passive Ogdoad (reminiscent of the pre-creational primordial Ogdoad of chaos-deities - cf. Hermopolitan theology).

The final unification of the Two Lands became possible thanks to the centralizing, masculine role of Pharaoh and his justice & truth. He was the falcon who oversaw everything, the witnessing eye. Instead of the emergence of conscious focus out of the inert, there came the conscious awareness drawn from the panoramic overview. This presence of the "Followers of Horus", was like the divine-on-earth (not the divine-in-the-sky). The masculine is not drawn from (or constructed upon) the feminine (as in the natural order), but the feminine is assimilated by the masculine (as in the cultural order). The "onanism" of Atum may also be linked with this connotative field, for masturbation does not serve procreation (neither does taking seed in one's mouth). The proto-typical battle between Horus and Seth is one in which the feminine is totally absent.

This formidable political unification needed its landmarks. The "Followers of Horus" became divine ancestors. They had to create a material blueprint of their presence. The divine power of words being very firmly established, no elaborate hieroglyhic writing was called upon. A few signs in stone sufficed.

The rise of semiotics transformed the sound-glyph into logograms & phonograms. The fact phonograms and logograms were used in an outstanding, monolithic way (hand in hand with artistic pictoral representations) shows the need to exteriorize, in heraldic fashion, this collosal attainment around 3000 BCE (unification) and the foundation of the Dynastic Age (Dynasty I & II).

pre-rational writing

• Early Old Kingdom (Dynasty 3 - 5) - Old Egyptian

When the difference between subject and object became a sign, a higher mode of cognition could be expressed. This involved the written language to realize its first internal structure, so words could be joined together in simple sentences. Internalization led to the formation of pre-concepts, i.e. word-images created through imagination and the interplay of meaningful objective relational contexts. Subjectivity was expressed as a function of an objective state. The actions of the "I"-form are objective states which are not yet (self) reflective. The opacity of the material side of presence prevailed. The subject has no transparancy of its own.

The Relief of Snofru (first Pharaoh of Dynasty IV, ca. 2600-2571) shows Pharaoh with the Atef-crown and upraised war-club (hedj) about to smite a Bedwi, whom he has forced to kneel, holding him by the hair of his head. During Snefru's mining operations in the Sinai, he probably had to battle with the Bedwin of the region. The inscriptions accompanying the relief contain only titles and attributes of Pharaoh. It reads :

"King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Favorite of the Two Goddesses, Lord of Truth, Golden Horus : Snefru, Great God, who is given satisfaction, stability, life, health, all joy forever. Horus : Lord of Truth. Smiter of Barbarians."
Sinai Inscriptions of Snofru, rock-walls of the Wadi Maghara in the Peninsula of Sinai and palace façade (the "banner"), translated by : Breasted, 2001, p.75, § 169.

The earliest biography is of Methen, who died in the reign of Snefu, but who's affiliations were with the preceding Pharaohs. His was the story of the gradual rise of a scribe to overseer of provisions, and governor of towns and districts in the Delta. He also was deputy in the eastern part of the Fayum and the 17th Anubis nome (Upper Egypt). He was amply rewarded and tells the reader about the size of his house with an account of the grounds. He was buried near the terraced pyramid of Zoser of the earlier part of Dynasty III.

An excerpt :

"He was made chief scribe of the provision magazine, and overseer of the things of the provision magazine. He was made (...) becoming local governor of Xois, and inferior field-judge of Xois. He was appointed judge, he was made overseer of all flax of the king, he was made ruler of Southern Perked and deputy, he was made local governor of the people of Dep, etc ..." 

Biography of Methen, from his mastaba-chamber in Sakkara, Berlin Nos.1105-1106, translated by :
Breasted,  p.77, § 172.

In 400 years, the written language had considerably developed. But although words could be joined together in simple sentences and the latter in pragmatical groups (dealing with honors & gifts, offices, legacies, inventories, testaments, transfers, endowments, etc.), the additive, archaic quality of the style remained. The composition between these groups was loose or absent. Subjectivity was still objectified. Pre-operatoric activity is limited by the immediate material context. Writing reflected the part one had played in the state.

The Pyramid Texts have their own particular problems and difficulties. They are a set of symbolical "heraldic"  spells mainly dealing with the promotion of Pharaoh's welfare in the afterlife. These spells were recited at various ceremonies, mostly religious and especially in connection with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Pharaoh. These texts are to a large extent a composition, compiling and joining of earlier texts which circulated orally or were written down on papyrus a couple of centuries earlier. Some of them go back to the oral tradition of the Predynastic era, for they suggest the political context of Egypt before its final unification. The relative rarity of corruptions is another important fact making their study rewarding.

However, these texts are pre-rational because they are an amalgam of thoughts in which contradictions occur which are left intact (between the Heliopolitan and Osirian elements). In harmony with the writing practice of the Egyptians, older structures were mingled with new ones and many traces of earlier periods remained. The extent with which this layeredness took shape is rather pronounced. The language itself has the style of the "records" of the Old Kingdom, often additive and with little self-reflection (which starts with the First Intermediate Period). These Pyramid Texts are the culmination of pre-rationality.

"While there is some effort here to correlate the functions of Re and Osiris, it can hardly be called an attempt at harmonization of conflicting doctrines. This is practically unknown in the Pyramid Texts. (...) But the fact that both Re and Osiris appear as supreme king of the hereafter cannot be reconciled, and such mutually irreconcilable beliefs caused the Egyptian no more discomfort than was felt by any early civilization in the maintenance of a group of religious teachings side by side with others involving varying and totally inconsistent suppositions. Even Christianity itself has not escaped this experience." -
Breasted, 1972, pp.163-164.

In this collection, no epics or drama is to be found. Didactic poetry (precepts) and lyrics in which personal emotions & experiences are highlighted are nearly  absent. The texts mainly deal with religious & political literature. One of the common forms of this literature was the litany-like scheme. We also find hyms & songs of triumph. Stylistically, the texts reveal that parallelism and paranomia are numerous. Various types of parallelism can be observed : synonymous (doubling or repetition), symmetrical, combined, grammatical, antithetic, of contrast, of constraint, of analogy, of purpose and of identity. Metrical schemes of two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight lines occur (the fourfold being the most popular). The play of words is the commonest literary feature and depends on the consonantal roots of the words. Alliteration, metathesis, metaphors, ellipses, anthropomorphisms and picturesque expressions are also found.

early proto-rational writing ?

• Late Old Kingdom (Dynasty 6) - Old Egyptian

The administration of the Pharaonic State was considerable. The need to develop the language rose. In the Old Kingdom, we see the rise of three independent literary genres : religious poetry, sapiental instructions and the biography. The literary style of the period reflects the tranquil security of and unshaken faith in the power of kingship.

At a certain point, these realized interiorizations became operations, allowing for transformations. The latter make it possible to change the variable factors while keeping others invariant. Conceptual and relational structures arise. We see an increase in the formation of coordinating conceptual structures capable of becoming closed word-images by virtue of a play of anticipative and retrospective constructions of thought (imaginal thought-forms). This anticipation is clearly attested in the legal documents. Retrospection was also firmly established.

A good example of this early proto-rational writing are the Maxims of Ptahhotep. Here the rhetorical device of playing with words having identical consonantal skeletons was used. In other texts, identical grammatical formulæ are repeated, and ready made groups of word-images are used.

"Ensuite, il faut avouer qu'à notre goût la composition paraît décousue. Des conseils de civilité puérile et honnête voisinent avec des fines remarques psychologiques. Mais si la forme de notre exprit exige une organisation rationnelle et un classement de matières, l'alternance de conseils de politesse et une tentative, requérant l'effort, pour modifier son propre caractère, est peut-être pédagogiquement excellente et résulte d'une grande expérience de l'enseignement."
Daumas, 1987, p.354, my italics.

The Middle Egyptian of this and other text from Dynasty VI (cf. the Instruction to Kagemni), may be explained as resulting from only minor alterations, for the end of Dynasty VI and the beginning of Dynasty XI are only a hundred years apart. Moreover, many of the forms characteristic of Middle Egyptian are found in the biographical inscriptions from Sixth Dynasty tombs. Dynasty VI is hence transitional. Also politically, for the importance of the provinces had risen, preparing the great changes introduced in the First Intermediate Period and in the Middle Kingdom.

In the
Discourse of a Man with his Ba and the Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb the acquired introspection leads to inner dialogues (in the first work between the "I" and its "soul", in the second between the "I" and its heart).

advances in proto-rational writing

• First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom - Middle Egyptian

The increase of individuality forced the language to acquire more reflective capacities. The formal system underlying it became more complete. All necessary word-images were present and a variety of literary styles existed (religious, funerary, legal, sapiental, poetic, prose, etc.). The classical form of the language could already be sensed in the
Maxims of Ptahhotep (late VIth Dynasty), and the Discourse of a Man with his Ba (First Intermediate Period) but clearly emerged in works like the Instruction to Merikare (XIIth Dynasty), the Prophecies of Neferti (XIIth Dynasty), the Eloquent Peasant (XIIth Dynasty), the Admonitions of Ipuwer (late XIIth Dynasty), the Story of Sinuhe (late XIIth Dynasty) ...

Constructive abstraction, new, unifying grammatical and semantical coordinations allowed for the emergence of a total system and its auto-regulation (or the re-equilbration caused by perfect regulation). That mental operations were "concrete", not "formal", i.e. they exclusively appeared in immediate contexts, is evidenced by the inability of the writing to realize a system which :
  • was liberated from the limitations of a pictoral signary ;
  • defines its vowels and 
  • was able to specify meaning otherwise than through determinatives and ideography.
Furthermore, the position of a noun in the sentence determined whether it was the subject or the object of a verb. The normal word order being : verb + noun-structure + noun-object. Complex sentences (with more than one subsentence) were rare, and the meaning of a sentence could only be derived one step at a time.

This concrete, proto-rational writing contained a paradox : a balanced development of logico-mathematical operations was evident, but the limitations imposed upon the concrete linguistic operations pushed the language to move beyond this.

The Story of Sinuhe shows the complexity arrived at. The composition contained a lot of variety : narration, hymn, epic, monologue, dialogue, copy of a royal letter and epistle-like response with stereotypical expressions ... This work is also a psychological novel, explaining the adventures of its hero on the basis of his character. The style of the writing is of an elegant simplicity and the verbal forms have been carefully chosen. The narrative style is organized by rhythmical prose using parallelism and constituting a veritable religious song.

• New Kingdom - Late Egyptian

Late Egyptian introduced considerable grammatical changes. As a result, the differences between Late Egyptian and Classical Egyptian are as considerable as those existing between modern French and Latin, although the literary genres remained unchanged (with greater originality though) ...

The verbal structure developed, but the pictoral, consonantal and ideographic limitations were kept in place. Just like the New Solar Theology was able to naturalize the deities without eliminating the old pantheon, so were new linguistic innovations introduced side by side the "old" language. This conservative tendency was one of the chief causes of the layeredness of the language and suited the "multiplicity of approaches" (cf. Frankfort) extremely well. Old forms (although syntactically problematic) were retained because of the divine nature of words and the idealization of the Old Kingdom. In the New Kingdom as well as in the Late Period, archaism were savoured because the ancient word-images were believed to arouse the Kas of old and hence provide the necessary magical succession. To change a pattern for formal reasons was deemed less important than to maintain a wrong combination which had proven its magical merits.

We therefore see in pre-rational writing the remnants of mythical thought at work, and this by virtue of its psychomorph features. The presence of Predynastic material in the pre-rational Pyramid Texts is attested. In proto-rational writing, these confusions were at times left behind (cf.
Great Hymn to the Aten). Amarna theology banished the old pantheon. Only the light-presence of the Aten, absolutely alone, was divine, just as Pharaoh, son of the Aten, receptacle of the revelations of the Aten and teacher. However, after Amarna, the ante-rational confusion of object & subject was restored (together with its foundational mythical identifications) and the plurality of contexts was never conceptually transcended by means in a theoretical form.

Insofar as Ancient Egyptian civilization as a whole is concerned, the decontextualization of meaning in an abstract theoretical form never took place. The language remained layered and archaic elements were sometimes introduced or copied to give the text a feeling of antiquity (for that reason, the
Memphis Theology was regarded as an Old Kingdom text). Pictoral representations elucidating the text remained in place (cf. the vignette), as well as a type of ideogram called "orthogram" or "calligram", which conveyed neither meaning nor sound but was written for aesthetic reasons & pleasure. The cultural form of Ancient Egyptian civilization remained at the level of the concrete operations.

Summarizing :
  • Archaic Egyptian = mythical : the myth of divine writing - single hieroglyphs as divine passage-ways to the divine - cartoon-like messages (pictures accompanied by logograms & phonograms). This phase ends with single inscriptions without grammar, culminating in loose pictoral narratives assisted by a few phonograms (Palette of Narmer).
  • Old Egyptian = pre-rational & early proto-rational : the actual initiation of writing - written monuments for practical purposes - the first pre-rational linguistic structures appear - single sentences with simple forms - the emergence of contextualizing determinatives - beginning of anticipation & retrospection - single word-images forming groups which convey a particular style - the differentiation of literary genres - sapiental writings. This phase ends (in the late VIth Dynasty) with sentences in a particular style, able to convey in a short and laconical way insights of incredible depth (Maxims of Ptahhotep).
  • Middle Egyptian = proto-rational : the formation of the classical form - interiorization leading to a stable, self-reflective first person singular - object & subject conceptually & relationally distinguished - verbal structures and the form of sentences allow for greater nuance and poetry - the explosion of literature and a further differentiation of the literary genres. This phase ends with sentences and styles competing with the classical literatures of all times. The classical form was flexible enough to change even further in the New Kingdom (Late Egyptian). However, proto-rationality was never superceded ...

     
Chronology
in BCE
Pharaonic
Dynasties
the Two
Lands
Stages of
Egyptian
Modes Stages of
Piaget 
ca.3600 none Gerzean schemata mythical sensori-
motoric
ca.3300 none Terminal Predynastic
ca.3000 I and II Archaic
Period
archaic pre-
rational
pre-
operational
ca.2600 III - IV Old
Kingdom
old
ca.2400 V
ca.2300 VI
ca.2200 VII - XI First Intermediate Period middle proto-
rational
operational

and

concrete
ca.1940 XII Middle Kingdom
ca.1760 XII - XVII Second Intermediate Period
ca.1500 XVIII - XX New Kingdom late
ca.1000 XXI - XXV Third Intermediate Period
664 XXVI - XXX Late Period
Besides the general principles developed in the context of my study of Flemish mysticism, namely the Seven Ways of Holy Love of Beatrice of Nazareth (1200 - 1268), and the last part of the Spiritual Espousals by Jan of Ruusbroec (1293 – 1381), called The Third Life, Ancient Egyptian literature calls for special considerations :
  • semantic circumscription (Gardiner) : to those unaware of the semantical problem in mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational thought and its literary products, the differences between various translations may be disconcerting. Ancient Egyptian literature is a treasure-house of this ante-rational cognitive activity, and its "logic" is entirely contextual, pictoral, artistic and practical. The meaning or conception of the sense of certain words, especially in sophisticated literary context, is prone to large discrepancies. Gardiner spoke of "interpretative preferences" (Gardiner, 1946). Furthermore, despite major grammatical discoveries, Egyptian writing is ambiguous qua grammatical form. Some of its defects can not be overcome and so a "consensus omnium" among all sign interpreters is unlikely. The notion of "semantic circumscription" was derived from this quote by Gardiner : "If the uncertainty involved in such tenuous distinctions awake despondency in the minds of some students, to them I would reply that our translations, though very liable to error in detail, nevertheless at the worst give a roughly adequate idea of what the ancient author intended ; we may not grasp his exact thought, indeed at times we may go seriously astray, but at least we shall have circumscribed the area within which his meaning lay, and with that achievement we must rest content." (Gardiner, 1946, pp.72-73, my italics). To the latter, more attention to lexicography (a discussion of individual words) and the rule that at least one certain example of the sense of a word must be given were considered as crucial. Personally, I would add the rule that one has to take into consideration all hieroglyphs (also the determinatives) and try to circumscribe the meaning by assessing the context in which words and sentences appears ;
     
  • the benefit of the doubt (Zába) : amendments should be introduced with great caution and for very good reasons. Indeed, some egyptologists change the original text with great ease, considering Egyptian scribes to be careless and prone to mistakes. This is not correct. Zába (1956, p.11)) prompted us to respect the original text and made it his principle. He wrote : "Pour ce qui est la traduction d'un texte égyptien dans une langue moderne, l'étude de divers textes (...) m'a amené au principe dont je me suis fait une règle, à savoir de considérer a priori un texte égyptien comme correct et de m'en expliquer chaque difficulté tout d'abord par l'aveu de ne pas connaître la grammaire ou le vocabulaire égyptien aussi bien qu'un Egyptien. (...) et ce n'est donc qu'après avoir longement, mais en vain, consulté d'autres textes et ne pouvant expliquer la difficulté autrement, que je suis enclin à croire que le texte est altéré."
     
  • multiple approaches (Frankfort) : this notion implies one has to assimilate the Egyptian way of thinking before engaging in explaining anything. Their "method" not being linear, axiomatic (definitions & theorema) or linea recta. Frankfort (1961, pp.16-20) explains : "... the coexistence of different correlation of problems and phenomena presents no difficulties. It is in the concrete imagery of the Egyptian texts and designs that they become disturbing to us ; there lies the main source of the inconsistencies which have baffled and exasperated modern students of Egyptian religion. (...) Here then we find an abrupt juxtaposition of views which we should consider mutually exclusive. This is what I have called a multiplicity of approaches : the avenue of preoccupation with life and death leads to one imaginative conception, that with the origin of the existing world to another. Each image, each concept was valid within its own context. (...) And yet such quasi-conflicting images, whether encountered in paintaings or in texts, should not be dismissed in the usual derogatory manner. They display a meaningful inconsistency, and not poverty but superabundance of imagination. (...) This discussion of the multiplicity of approaches to a single cosmic god requires a complement ; we must consider the converse situation in which one single problem is correlated with several natural phenomena. We might call it a 'multiplicity of answers'."
     
  • integral acceptation (Zimmer) : in his study of Eastern religions and exegesis of Hindu thought, the German scholar Heinrich Zimmer introduced a principle which implies that before one studies a culture one has to accept it exists or existed as it does and claims. One should approach and interprete its cultural forms as little as possible with standards which does not fit in, which focus on subjects which were of no interest to it (like the colour of the hair of royal mummies) or which reduces it to what is already known. This means one, as does comparative cultural anthropology with its methodology of participant observation, accepts the culture at hand without prejudices and projections. Zimmer (1972, p.3) explains himself : "La méthode -ou, plutôt, l'habitude- qui consists à ramener ce qui n'est pas familier à ce que l'on connaît bien, a de tout temps mené à la frustration intellectuelle. (....) Faute d'avoir adopté une attitude d'acceptation, nous ne recevons rien ; nous nous voyons refuser la faveur d'un entretien avec les dieux. Ce n'est point notre sort d'être submergés, comme le sol d'Egypte, par les eaux divines et fécondantes du Nil. C'est parce qu'elles sont vivantes, possédant le pouvoir de faire revivre, capables d'exercer une influence effective, toujours revouvelée, indéfinissable et pourtant logique avec elle-même, sur le plan de la destinée humaine, que les images du folklore et du mythe défient toute tentative de systématisation. Elles ne sont pas des cadavres, mais bien des esprits possesseurs. Avec un rire soudain, et un brusque saut de côté, elles se jouent du spécialiste qui s'imagine les avoir épinglées sur son tableau synoptique. Ce qu'elles exigent de nous ce n'est pas de monologue d'un officier de police judiciaire, mais le dialogue d'une conversation vivante."
     
  • non-abstraction : egyptologists are aware the cognitive abilities of the Ancient Egyptians were not the same as the Greeks. Thanks to Piaget's description of the genesis of cognition, we can assess the Egyptian heritage with the standards of ante-rational thought, to wit : the mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational modes of thoughts, each having its specific modus operandi. Hence, when we try to interprete a text, the question before us is : in what mode or modes of thought was this written (which kind of text is this) ? Indeed, because of the multiplicity of approaches, the Ancient Egyptians left old strands of thought intact, with an amalgam of approaches placed next to each other without interference as a result ;
     
  • spatial semantics : Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was more than a way to convey well-formed meaning (i.e. language), but tried to invoke the magic of the "numen praesens", involving the use of artistic space (a contemporary equivalent is the Zen garden) as a additional element in the composition of meaning. The Shabaka Stone, is only one (late) example of the principles of spatial organization which governed Egyptian from the start (besides honorific or graphic transpositions). Unsightly gaps and disharmonious distributions were rejected. Groupings always involved the use of imaginary squares or rectangles ensuring the proportioned arrangement. This allowed for slight imperfections. Furthermore, important hieroglyphs were given their architectonic, monumental or ornamental equivalent. Spatial semantics was at work in large monumental constructions as well as in small stela or tiny juwelery and important tools (for Maat is at work in both the big and the small) ... Egyptologists have not given this aspect of Egyptian "sacred geometry" the attention it deserves (besides Schwaller de Lubicz), leaving the horizon wide opened to wild stellar, historical & anthropological speculations.
     
  • metaphorical inclination : Ancient Egyptians "spoke in images". This holds true in a linguistic sense (namely their use of pictograms), but also with regard to their literary inclinations. When somebody grabbed his meat violently, the Egyptian thought of the voracious crocodile who has no tongue and who has to grab his food with his teeth and swallow it in one piece. When they saw the Sun rise and heared the baboons sing, they associated this activity with praise and the glorification of light, etc. Some hymns speak in images, poetical phrases, metaphors and other sophisticated literary devices. Literary and metaphorical meaning overlapped and interpenetrated (for example : "He who spits to heaven sees his spittle fall back on his face.) ... The epithets of the deities too are full of visual elements. Some egyptologists tend to rewrite this to comfort the contemporary readers. This offends the fluid nature of the texts and makes them dry and gray. The contrary (leaving these images intact) works confusing when Egyptian literature is new. As a function of their intention to try to really grasp the sense, translators make a compromize between literal and analogical renderings. I myself tend towards the analogical (which was closer to the Egyptian way of life), leaving room for explicative notes and comments.

    "The only basis we have for preferring one rendering to another, when once the exigencies of grammar and dictionary have been satisfied -and these leave a large margin for divergencies- is an intuitive appreciation of the trend of the ancient writer's mind."
    Gardiner (1925, p.5).
It goes without saying, that all the hermeneutical rules-of-tumb in the world will not guarantee a perfect translation, which simply does not exist. The Italian dictum "traduttore traditore" (the translator is a traitor), is especially true for Egyptian. As with all texts of Antiquity, large scale comparison is the best option. Not only has the text to be contextualized, but one has to acquire the habit of looking up the same word or expression in various contexts across time (lexicography). But even then, one should be content with Gardiner's view that to circumscribe sense is the best one can do.

"Although we can approach its grammar in an orderly fashion (...) we are often puzzled and even frustrated by the continual appearance of exceptions to the rules. Middle Egyptian can be especially difficult in this regard ..."
Allen (2001, p.389).

So the best one can do, given these difficulties -which can not be taken away- is to publish the original hieroglyphic text along with new translations, influenced as they are by consulting the original texts along with those of the most published specialists at work in the field for the last century, i.e. people like Breasted, Sethe, Gardiner, Faulkner, Lichtheim, Allen, Hornung, Assmann, Grimal and other dedicated contemporary scholars. In this way, alternative translations can be made by the competent sign interpreter. This process is unending. I wholeheartedly admit to be an amateur compared with professional linguists like Gardiner, Lichtheim or Allen. But to gain a good understanding of the context and its problem (the reason why the original text had to be invoked), the amateur has to know all available linguistic tools well enough to identify a possible rule at work, and he must have the time to think all possible solutions over many times to "untie the knot" ...