Научная статья на тему 'The Egyptian origin of names and forms of the West Semitic (Canaanite) consonantal graphemes illustrated by mīm / mēm and nūn'

The Egyptian origin of names and forms of the West Semitic (Canaanite) consonantal graphemes illustrated by mīm / mēm and nūn Текст научной статьи по специальности «Языкознание и литературоведение»

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Ключевые слова

Аннотация научной статьи по языкознанию и литературоведению, автор научной работы — Nemirovskaya A.V., Soushchevsky A.G.

Being a result of fruitful cooperation of Semitologist (A. Nemirovskaya) and Egyptologist (A. Soushchevsky) the article proposes a reconstruction of graphic and lexical prototypes of the two West Semitic graphemes that are presumed to stem from two( M Ī M ) and three-component ( N Ū N ) Egyptian groups: M Ī M with the internal structure in Hieratic ‘owl + an arm with a round cake in the palm’, and lexically meaning m-im(j) (the deictic particle + ‘to give’, imperativ); N Ū N with the internal structure in Hieratic ‘rippling wave + pot + reduced w’, and lexically meaning n-w-nw.

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Текст научной работы на тему «The Egyptian origin of names and forms of the West Semitic (Canaanite) consonantal graphemes illustrated by mīm / mēm and nūn»

A. V. Nemirovskaya, A. G. Soushchevsky


Существуют две концепции происхождения западносемитского консонантного алфавита из египетского письма. Протосинайская (акрофоническая), опираясь на идею так наз. акрофонического принципа, в качестве прототипа консонантных графем рассматривает иероглифику, т. е. лапидарное культово-официальное письмо египтян. Иератическая (новоорфографическая) - прототипом считает иера-тику, т.е. египетское скорописное письмо, или эпистолярный курсив, приспособленный для письма на папирусе и имевший более утилитарное назначение и, соответственно, более широкую сферу применения: литературные тексты, деловые и хозяйственные документы, письма.

С позиции иератической концепции западносемитское консонантное письмо сформировалось в результате адаптации в Ханаане во 2-ой пол. II тыс. до н.э. египетской практики записи неегипетской лексики («силлабическое письмо», или «новая орфография»). В 1960 г. было выдвинуто предположение о том, что названия западно-семитских букв восходят к мнемотехническим наименованиям скорописных знаков египетского силлабического письма (Weidmuller 1960). Продолжая разрабатывать тему происхождения западносемитского консонантного письма на фоне египетско-левантийской писцовой пропедевтики (Nemirovskaya, Soushchevsky 2015), авторы предлагают свою реконструкцию египетского скорописного (иератического) и лексического прототипа графем для /m/ (MIM / MEM) и /п/ (NUN).

Ключевые слова: Египет, Левант, Новое царство, ханаанский, западносемитский, акрофоническая гипотеза, иератика, групповое письмо, консонантное письмо, алфавит.

Hieratic origins of the consonantal script in Levant as the most reasonable developing from the historical viewpoint

The Hieratic hypothesis - alternative to the much more famous "protosinaitic (acrophonic)" one (Gardiner 1916; Sethe 1917-1918; Hamilton 2006; Morenz 2011) - implies in its present form that the prototypes of the Levantine letters should have been the cursive characters of the so-called Egyptian syllabic (group) writing widely used by Egyptian scribes from the mid-2nd millennium B.C. onward

* The authors are very grateful to Dr. Ilya Yakubovich (Russian State University for the Humanities / Philipps-Universitat Marburg) for reading the text through and improving its English.

for recording foreign words, in particular, those of the Canaanite origin.

In the 19th century, E. de Rouge was the first one to state that the immediate prototypes of Semitic letters were to be sought among the Hieratic (cursive Egyptian) characters (Taylor 1883: 98-99). A century later W. Helck and K.-Th. Zauzich determined that the West Semitic alphabet comprised only those Egyptian cursive characters which had been used in Egyptian syllabic/group writing (Helck 1972; Zauzich 2002; Zauzich 2003).

This innovative Egyptian scribal practice was widely introduced as the consequence of the Egyptian conquests in Western Asia during the reign of the XVIII Dynasty (Albright 1934: 12-14; Helck 1971: 505 ff., 580). Egyptian military and administrative control over Levant was exercised for 400 years and achieved its maximum in the Ramesside period in the reign of the XIX-XX Dynasties (the 13th—12th century B.C.) (Na'aman 1981: 177; Weinstein 1981; Higginbotham 2000: 34—40; Redford 2003: 255; Hoffmeier 2004: 141; Gadot 2010: 52; Gilmour, Kitchen 2012).

Since it was Hieratic (the official cursive script) that was directly employed for writing on papyrus to compose administrative documents, letters and pieces of literature (as opposed to formal hieroglyphs carved in stone), now official documents were written the same way in Levant as in Egypt (Goldwasser 1984; Goldwasser 1991; Goldwasser, Wimmer 1999; Sweeney 2005; Wimmer, Lehmann 2014).

The widespread occurrence of syllabic writings in Egyptian papyrus documents might have been affected by the syllabic principle of the Mesopotamian cuneiform, which was generally practised in this period in Levantine city-states and elsewhere in the Near East: "Since the influence of cuneiform in Egypt probably reached its maximum in the reign of Ramesses II, owing to the extensive correspondence with Asiatic princes required by his wars and diplomatic relations with the Hittites, a slight cuneiform influence on the syllabic orthography seems not unlikely" (Albright 1934: 13). "There can thus be no doubt that the Egyptian scribes of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries actually learned cuneiform in order to write letters abroad" (Albright 1934: 13, n.50).

There is no surprise that this was this historical epoch when the first really successful project of Levantine consonantal phonography was launched in the city-state of Ugarit. Although the cuneiform shape and clay tablets may seem to have prevented anyone from even thinking of anything Egyptian, C. T. Hodge dared to assume

that since the scribal practice of group writing "was the normal representation of foreign words in Egyptian, it would be logical to look to it as a possible 'model' for Ugaritic. It should also be remembered that what the Egyptian wrote was Hieratic, not hieroglyphic" (Hodge 1969: 278). In addition to cuneiform alphabetic texts from Ugarit "the earliest buildup of well-dated alphabetic inscriptions in Palestine belongs to the 13th century. The dozen or so preserved examples from the end of the Late Bronze Age, mostly on pottery, are evidently but a fraction of the bulk of the texts, written on perishable papyrus and now lost" (Sass 2004— 2005: 153—154).

Graphic and lexical prototypes of the West Semitic graphemes: lexical identification as based on graphic representation

As for the names of the West Semitic letters, as early as the 1950s-1960s, W. Weidmuller shrewdly proposed that they were derived from the technical (mnemonic) designations of the characters of "Egyptian syllabic writing" (Weidmuller 1960). His most accurate suggestion — though taken elsewhere as "an den Haaren herbeigezogen" (Krebernik 2007: 138, n.100) — was probably the prototype of ?ALEPH: meaning in Hieratic 'sitting man with his finger at his mouth' and lexically meaning in Egyptian i.n=f 'thus he said' (Nemirovskaya, Soushchevsky 2015).

Comment. The matter was actually about the originally two-component group (Fig. 1) ( 'fluttering reed + standing man with his arm stretched') used by Egyptian scribes to record the Egyptian deictic particle (z), on the one hand, and the Semitic glottal stop laryngeal (?aleph) in Egyptian transcriptions of Semitic words, on the other. When written in cursive (Hieratic), the 'standing man with his arm stretched' used to be misrepresented by the 'sitting man with his finger at his mouth' (Fig. 2), whose role as the graphic prototype of the ?ALEPH was also endorsed by W. Helck (Helck 1972: 43).

When recording Pi in the Semitic word ?il 'deity' this group is attested many times in Egypt proper (Hoch 1994: 27—28) as well as through an ink Hieratic inscription on a ceramic sherd dating to the Ramesside period which was found in Canaan (Wimmer, Maeir

Fig. 1

2007). An early occurrence of this group being used for recording a non-Egyptian name containing this laryngeal (ItA) is witnessed by the Abydos stele dating back to the reign of Senusret II (the 19th century B.C.) (Peet 1914: 6, pl. II).

As for the expression z'n=/'thus he said', which presumably constituted the prototype of the name ?ALEPH and whose recording normally began with this group, it was in general a typical literary cliché in Neo-Egyptian narratives with the help of which Egyptian scribes (authors) of the New Kingdom used to mark the end of one's direct speech in their literary compositions (Korostovtsev 1973: 268). The fact that this literary cliché was particularly typical of Neo-Egyptian literature allows to treat the New Kingdom as the terminus ante quem for the developing of the long-lived alphabetic scribal curriculum that has come down to us.

The proposal for this lexical origin of the Semitic letter's name finds unexpected support in Late Babylonian cuneiform through the spelling il-pi (beginning with /i/ and not /a/) glossed in Akkadian as mi-hi-il-<ti> sá s[e]-pi-ri ("an Aramaic character") (Jursa 2005).

"standing man with_''sitting man with his pM

his arm stretched" ^ finger at his mouth" Levantine ALLr 11

Fig. 2

C. T. Hodge made reasonable assumptions about roots of the Egyptian tradition to represent "each consonant by a sign or group which (originally) represented more than one consonant in Egyptian" (Hodge 1969: 278). "There is no explanation for the origin of this tradition. I suspect, totally without evidence, that the groups used were the names of hieroglyphs (after the manner of the names of Akkadian signs)" (Hodge 1969: 289, n. 2). It is a fruitful idea indeed because writing (at least in the Ancient Near East if not in general) must have developed as continuity of systems and traditions of scribal education. And the influence of the Akkadian writing practice and hence that of the Akkadian scribal education upon Egyptian scribes has been proposed elsewhere (Albright 1934: 13).

One must keep in mind that writing in the Ancient Near East was to be closely connected with scribal education, naturally based on memorising characters, and an essential principle of this practice must have been providing them with names. Similarly, the Levantine alphabet must have been transmitted as a unity of the professional scribal drawing of characters (ductus) combined with their technical mnemonic designations, while the latter must have actually described the appearance of the characters. The Levantine consonantal letters evolved from certain Egyptian groups which were initially used for transcribing and recording Canaanite and other foreign words, presumably imitating the syllabic principle of the cuneiform. The Levantine consonantal letters seem to have preserved traces of their origin in their names through centuries.

Thus, we propose here our reconstruction of graphic and lexical prototypes of the two West Semitic graphemes that are presumed to stem from two- (mim) and three-component (nun) Egyptian groups.

An Egyptian syllabic group with the internal structure in

Hieratic: 'owl + an arm with a round cake in the palm', and

lexically meaning m-im(j) (the deictic particle + 'to give',

imperativ) * MEM (Hebrew) // MIM (Arabic) // my / ma


Comment. E. de Rouge had already derived the West Semitic grapheme from the Egyptian character 'owl'; and so did W.Helck who illustrated this derivation with the shape that occurs in pEbers (Helck 1972: 43). It is probably more reasonable to assume here the two-component group: a) the cursive form in pEbers is surely to be taken as a ligature in Hieratic (Fig. 3); b) this derivation seems to be additionally confirmed by the name of the Semitic grapheme MEM/MIM spelled as me-e-u and mi-i-mi in Late Babylonian cuneiform (Jursa 2002; Jursa 2005).

The two Egyptian allographs for Semitic m put together (Hoch 1994: 126-180) could be interpreted as scriptio confirmationis just to show that - in our terms - "owl is to be taken phonographically simply as m and not morphologically as m-particle". The principle of scriptio confirmationis was originally implemented by the likely forerunner of the Egyptian scribal innovation, namely the Akkadian scribal tradition of "Reduplizierte Lautnamen", thus the Akkadian sign GI was named gigu, MA - mamu, NU - nunu, etc. (Gong 2000: 15-16).

Fig. 3

An Egyptian syllabic group with the internal structure in Hieratic: 'rippling wave + pot + reduced w', and lexically meaning N-W-NW * NUN (Hebrew, Arabic) // ny / n^ (Greek)

Comment. Generally speaking, in papyri documents of the New Kingdom the following spellings of Semitic '/n/+a vowel' can be found (Albright 1934: 45-47; Helck 1989; Hoch 1994):

- the three-component group 'rippling wave + reduced w + pot';

- the two-component group 'pot + reduced w';

- the single glyph 'pot'.

E. de Rouge traced this Semitic grapheme back to the 'rippling wave' (n), and so did W.Helck (Helck 1972: 43). But the very designation in Semitic and Greek hints that the grapheme should rather be traced back either to the 'pot' (nw), hence Greek vu / vro (which probably originated from Northern, or Coastal Canaan), or to the whole three-component group 'rippling wave + reduced w + pot (*nwnw), hence Semitic NUN (which probably originated from Southern Canaan, Shefelah). And the ductus seems to back up this proposal as well (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

One may also propose that some role in this "pot" background of the form and name of Semitic NUN might have been played by the lexical association with the Egyptian word nwn 'primordial waters', which was normally recorded by the glyph 'three pots' ODD. cf. the Assyrian city of Nineveh spelled in the Egyptian syllabic

--- A ,

orthography as v( n-nwn-w .


As witnessed by cuneiform transliterations of a few Aramaic characters recovered in Late Babylonian tablets - namely za-a (and not zayn or zayt) (Jursa 2002; Jursa 2005) - the short ("reduced") designations of the Semitic letters were as old as their long ("broadened") counterparts. This evidence provides a reasonable proof of taking the Arabic names (that seem to go back to their Canaanite / Aramaic predecessors) into serious consideration and not dismissing them as mere simplification of some previous letter names. Note that nearly half of Arabic names find etymological matches in other Semitic alphabets:

Hebrew/Aramaic (the 3rd-2nd century B.C.)2: - Pn0 -yi^a^ - Se^0 - n - ouau - Zai - n0 - - iro0 - - ^apS - ^n^ -vouv - oa^% - aiv - ^n - oaSn - Kro^ - pn£ - oev - 0au.

Hebrew/Aramaic (modern tradition)3: 'aleph - bet - gimel -dalet - hej - waw - zajn - het - tet - yod - kaf - lamed - mem -nun - sameh - !ayn - pe - sade — kof - res - sin/sin - taw.

Greek (Krebernik 2007: 125-126): a^a - p^xa - ya^a, ye^a - Se^xa - el, eyi^ov - pao - Z^ta - ^xa > ^xa - 0^xa -iroxa - Kanna - ^apSa, ^a^pSa - ^o, ^ro - vo, vro - ^ei - ou, o ^iKpov - nei - oav - Vonna - pro - oiy^a - xau.

Ethiopic (Dillman 2005): hoi - lawe - haut - mai - saut -re'es - sat - qaf - bet - tawe - harm - nahas - alf - kaf - wawe -"■am - zai - yaman - de/ant - gaml - tait - sadai - ef.

1 It is transliterated as N-nu-wa (Helck 1989: 130) obviously under the influence of its Akkadian antecedent Ninu(w)a, which was normally recorded in cuneiform by the ideogram K"'T NINA (Labat 1988: 115, 299). The same toponym was spelled variously in non-cuneiform sources: Ninwe(h) (Hebrew Bible), Nivsu'i (Septuagint), Nivo^ (Herodotus), Nvvua? (Ctesias), Niniveh (Vulgata) (HALOT 696).

According to Psalm 118 of the Septuagint (Psalmi 1979) which corresponds to Psalm 119 of the Hebrew Bible (the longest biblical stanzaic alphabetic acrostic).

3 Vowel length usually marked in the names has been omitted here.

Arabic: 'alif - ba - ta - ta - ^Im - ha - ha - dal - dal - ra -za - sin - sin - sad - dad - ta - za - '■ayn - gayn - fa - kaf - kaf -lam - mim - nun - ha - waw - ya.

The combination of philological and historical arguments is conducive to a conclusion that the Canaanite consonantal alphabet developed as a local adaptation of the Egyptian scribal practice of recording non-Egyptian words ("New orthography") that was in use during the second part of the second millennium B.C. This local adaptation must have occurred under Ramesside rule, when Egyptian or Egyptian-trained scribes resided at Canaanite sites (Goldwasser 1991): "Two types of Egyptian inscriptions have been recovered in Canaan: hieratic inscriptions written in cursive script with ink on Egyptian-style bowls; and hieroglyphic inscriptions carved into stone. Hieratic inscriptions are the more numerous of the two and are apparently related to the economic administration of the region. All these inscriptions, dating broadly to the Ramesside period, have been recovered from sites in Canaan with Egyptian ties <...> Although the Lachish ostraca were not found in situ, one of the sherds contains the word for «scribe». Orly Goldwasser <...> suggests that this may indicate that Egyptian or Egyptian-trained scribes resided at the site" (Killebrew 2005: 67).

This is why names of Levantine letters should be logically traced back to some technical designations of Egyptian characters or their groups that were transmitted together with "New orthography". Properly interpreting the names of graphemes could help, in turn, to establish their graphic prototypes. Special attention here should be paid to the similarity of ductus rather than to someone's individual visual impression.


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A. V. Nemirovskaya, A. G. Soushchevsky. The Egyptian origin of names and forms of the West Semitic (Canaanite) consonantal graphemes illustrated by MIM / MEM and NUN.

Being a result of fruitful cooperation of Semitologist (A. Nemirovskaya) and Egyptologist (A. Soushchevsky) the article proposes a reconstruction of graphic and lexical prototypes of the two West_ Semitic graphemes that are presumed to stem_ from two- (MIM) and three-component (NUN) Egyptian groups: MIM with the internal structure in Hieratic 'owl + an arm with a round cake in the palm', and lexically meaning m-im(j) (the deictic particle + 'to give', imperativ); NUN with the internal structure in Hieratic 'rippling wave + pot + reduced w', and lexically meaning n-w-nw.

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Keywords: Egypt, Levant, the New Kingdom, Canaanite, West Semitic, acrophonic hypothesis, Hieratic, syllabic writing, group writing, consonantal grapheme, alphabet.

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