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Ancient Egyptian Orthography (Was: Conlang orthographies [was Re: Latin grammar])

From:David Peterson <digitalscream@...>
Date:Wednesday, September 4, 2002, 9:52
    I'm taking Middle Egyptian right now (the period right after Ancient
Egyptian), and one of the things that has surprised me the most has been the
orthographical conventions.  I've been meaning to share, but kept on
forgetting; Barry's e-mail reminded me.  :)
    Anyway, you know how some languages have class systems, right?  Bantu
languages have a bunch, for example.  Well Ancient Egyptian has
orthographical class systems.  It's really weird.
    Say you have the word /sn/ (written left-facing sword plus water symbol).
 If you add the man determinative (they're called determinatives), it means
"brother".  If you add a /t/ and then the female determinative, it means
"sister".  The determinatives are hieroglyphs just like all the rest, but
they have no phonetic value, oftentimes, but even if they do, they're never
pronounced when they're acting as determinatives.
    One interesting determinative is the bar determinative.  So, say you have
the consonant /r/, which looks like an oval that's pointed on the long ends
(shaped like a mouth).  It can make the sound /r/, but if you put the bar
determinative under it, it becomes the word for "mouth", /re/ or /rA/.  The
bar determinative tells you that the hieroglyph is standing for what it looks
like.  But, of course, it has no phonetic value.
    Similarly, there are three alphabets for Egyptian: One of uniliterals
(just an alphabet, like English: One hieroglyph = one sound); one of
biliterals (each hieroglyph stands for two consonants, so, for example, the
house shaped one stands for /pr/); and one for triliterals (each hieroglyph
stands for three consonants, like the Ankh, which I'm sure everyone knows the
look of, which is /?\nx/, where /?\/ is a pharyngeal approximant).  Now, with
the latter two alphabets, you think it'd be more efficient, so if you've got
the word Ankh (which means "life"), you just write the /?\nx/ triliteral,
right?  Wrong!  Egyptian has this funny thing called phonetic complements.
What you actually write for the word for life is the triliteral /?\nx/ (the
ankh), followed by the water waves (phonetic value of /n/), followed by the
ball with horizontal lines (phonetic value of /x/). The word is not
pronounced /?\nxnx/, though; just /?\nx/.  The phonetic complements are just
there to remind the reader of some of the phonetic elements of the bi or
triliteral.  Sometimes you just put one phonetic complement; sometimes two;
sometimes none at all.  And sometimes they're written before the bi or
triliteral, and sometimes afterwards.  It all depends on what looks good.
But the point is, these are extra elements that are purely orthographic and
have no bearing on the language itself.  This (and especially the
determinatives, since it's like a whole class system that exists solely on
papyrus) seems like some interesting stuff that could go into a conlang in
some form.
    So, that's what I wanted to share.  :)


"imDeziZejDekp2wilDez ZejDekkinel..."
"You can celebrate anything you want..."
            -John Lennon


Christophe Grandsire <christophe.grandsire@...>