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Affinities and Characteristics of Egyptian.

Excerpted from Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Third Edition, Griffith Institute, 1999

The Egyptian language is related, not only to the Semitic tongues (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Babylonian, &c.), but also to the East African languages (Galla, Somali, &c.) and the Berber idioms of North Africa. Its connection with the latter groups, together known as the Hamitic family, is a very thorny subject, but the relationship to the Semitic tongues can be fairly accurately defined. In general structure the similarity is very great; Egyptian shares the principal peculiarity of Semitic in that its word-stems consist of combinations of consonants, as a rule three in number, which are theoreti­cally at least unchangeable. Grammatical inflexion and minor variations of meaning are contrived mainly by bringing the changes on the internal vowels, though affixed endings also are used for the same purpose . . . There are, moreover, many points of contact in the vocabulary though these are very frequently obscured by metathesis and by unobvious consonantal changes. In spite of these resemblances, Egyptian differs from all the Semitic tongues a good deal more than any one of them differs from any other, and at least until its relationship to the African languages is more closely defined, Egyptian must certainly be classified as standing outside the Semitic group. There are grounds for thinking that it is a language which, possibly owing to a fusion of races, had, like English as compared with the other Teutonic dialects, disintegrated and developed at an abnormally rapid pace. This may be well illustrated in the case of the verb: no trace of the old Semitic imperfect has survived in Egyptian, where, moreover, the old Semitic perfect is already much restricted in its use; and it is exceedingly interesting to note that the participial formations by which these tenses have been or are being replaced find analogies in certain of the most recent offshoots of the Semitic family, namely the Neo-Syriac dialects.

The state of affairs just described is exhibited even in the oldest known stages of Egyptian. The evidence from the noun is less illuminating, but the oldest forms which can be deductively reconstructed show by the quantity of their vowels that the case-endings of early Semitic had already vanished. The entire vocalic system of Old Egyptian may indeed be proved to have reached a stage resembling that of Hebrew or modern Arabic as compared with classical Arabic; the free and open vocalization of the earlier times has given place under the influence of a strong tonic accent to a system in which all the secondary syllables are shortened down and subordinated to the one accented vowel in the ultimate or penultimate syllable; a theoretic, prehistoric ratarata 'goddess' has in historic Egyptian become entaret, which we may infer to have been the pronunciation about the time of the Pyramids.

Towards the end of the Old Kingdom new grammatical tendencies manifest themselves. The 'synthetic' tenses sdm f and sdm n f mentioned above are first supplemented and then gradually replaced by 'analytic' forms. Thus iw f hr sdm ' he is upon hearing ' (cf. French il est a lire) appears in Old Egyptian side by side with sdm f ' he hears ', though it does not wholly replace the latter until the Coptic period. In Late Egyptian, i. e. the vernacular of the Eighteenth Dynasty and after, such analytic forms already predominate. In various respects the relationship of Late Egyptian to Middle Egyptian is closely parallel to the relationship of French and the other Romance languages to their common parent Latin: in the already mentioned substitution of analytic for synthetic verb-forms, cf. je vais faire, 'I am going to do', as against Latin faciam; in the possession of an indefinite article derived from the word for 'one ' (Late Eg. wi, French un) and a definite article derived from a demonstrative adjective (Late Eg. pa, French le = Latin ille); in the substitution of new words for many old words signifying quite common things (ex. ' head', Middle Eg. tp, Late Eg. dada; Latin caput, French téte, from Latin testa); and, lastly, in the fact that Middle Egyptian, like Latin, survived as the monumental and learned language long after it had perished as the language of everyday life.

The most striking feature of Egyptian in all its stages is its concrete realism, its preoccupation with exterior objects and occurrences to the neglect of those more subjective distinctions which play so prominent a part in modern, and even in the classical, languages. Subtleties of thought such as are implied in 'might', 'should', 'can', 'hardly', as well as such abstractions as 'cause', 'motive', 'duty', belong to a later stage of linguistic development; possibly they would have been repugnant to the Egyptian temperament. Despite the reputation for philosophic wisdom attributed to the Egyptians by the Greeks, no people has ever shown itself more averse from speculation or more wholeheartedly devoted to material interests; and if they paid an exaggerated attention to funerary observances, it was because the continuance of earthly pursuits and pleasures was felt to be at stake, assuredly not out of any curiosity as to the why and whither of human life. The place taken elsewhere by meditation and a philosophic bent seems with the Egyptians to have been occupied by exceptional powers of observation and keenness of vision. Intellectual and emotional qualities were ordinarily described by reference to the physical gestures or expressions by which they were accompanied, thus 'liberality' is 'extension of hand', 'cleverness' is 'sharpness of face (sight)'. Another feature of Egyptian is its marked preference for static over dynamic expression; apart from the rare survivals of the active Old Perfective, there is no genuine active tense, all others being derived from passive or neuter participles. No less salient a characteristic of the language is its concision; the phrases and sentences are brief and to the point. Involved constructions and lengthy periods are rare, though such are found in some legal documents. The vocabulary was very rich, though, as may be inferred from our previous statements, not equally well developed in every direction. The clarity of Egyptian is much aided by a strict word-order, probably due in part to the absence of case-endings in the nouns. There remains to be mentioned a certain formality that is conspicuous in Egyptian writings—a rigidity and conventionality which find their counterpart in Egyptian Art. The force of tradition discouraged originality alike in subject-matter and in expression, but there were some notable exceptions.

 

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