Ancient Egyptian Compound Nouns


Since the investigation of the Egyptian language is largely dependent on epichorian written sources, the specific characteristics of the writing system which was used to denote it must be taken into consideration. It is thus of particular importance that the hieroglyphic script only denotes consonants, but no vowels. Accordingly, the morphological structure and phonological appearance of words is recorded rather imperfectly. Linguistic research on and the evaluation of morphology, syllable structure and vocalisation patterns of the Egyptian language therefore becomes an enormous challenge. Any attempt to reconstruct Egyptian vowels must be based either on the Coptic descendants of the Egyptian words or on the so-called “Nebenüberlieferung”, i.e. renderings of Egyptian words by means of Cuneiform, Hebrew and Greek scripts. Earlier evaluation of this material led to the result that every Egyptian word bore its stress on either the final or the penultimate syllable.

Nevertheless, there are also a limited number of words that at first glance appear to contradict the general rules of stress and syllable structure, because they carry their word stress on their antepenultimate syllable. A closer look, however, reveals that these apparent exceptions are compound structures consisting of more than one word, which also display further peculiarities: the word stress rests on their first component, while compounds which emerged from syntagmata via the process of univerbation always bear their word stress on the last (i.e. usually the second) component. The origin and the significance of those peculiar compounds have not been investigated in detail, although they sometimes served as cornerstones for far-reaching theories and reconstructions of the development of the Egyptian language.

Further evaluation and in-depth analysis of this phenomenon remains a desideratum that shall be addressed in this project. For that purpose, a comprehensive collection of compound structures will be assembled in cooperation with the (traditionally so-called) “Berliner Wörterbuch”, a research project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities entitled “Structure and Transformation in the Vocabulary of the Egyptian Language: Texts and Knowledge in the Culture of Ancient Egypt”, and the “Chicago Demotic Dictionary” of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. All compounds collected shall thenntly be categorised in order to differentiate between proper compounds (nomina composita) and improper compounds, which are the result of phrases and syntagmata having merged into a single word (iuxtaposita).

Furthermore, the evaluation of the constituting elements of these compound structures with respect to their morphology and semantics will provide insights into the processes of lexicalisation, semantic change and, in the case of proper compounds, the generation of meaning via processes of word formation (composition and derivation). The methodology of this analysis will be based on the model of Indo-European Studies, which will augment and improve the current methodological repertoire of Egyptological linguistic studies. Finally, the position of proper and improper compounds within the system of Egyptian noun formation and their significance for the assessment of the diachronic development of the Egyptian language shall be determined.

Consequently, Egyptian compounds, which too long have been overlooked, will allow for a critical review of the current state of research on the system of Egyptian noun formation, and they will furthermore help to get a step closer towards the reconstruction of what the language of one of the most ancient civilisations could have sounded like.

Since all proper compounds were formed in the third millennium BC or earlier and since most of them denote key concepts of Egyptian royal ideology, religion and elite-culture, this allows for a unique glimpse onto the Egyptian mindset at the genesis of Egypt as we know it.