One of my passions when it comes to things Kemetic is the sounds of the language used in ritual… So I comb through the linguistic Egyptological literature looking out for reconstructed vocalizations, especially those relevant to Earlier Egyptian (Old Egyptian + Middle Egyptian). Among those, the reconstructions of names of Gods and Goddesses are important since they impact ritual so directly. They also differ from the forms known to us all, since most of the names we use today are a) Greek or Coptic forms that had undergone a number of sound shifts and translation into an entirely different language (in the case of Greek names) by the time they were written or b) pronunciations according to the intentionally artificial system Egyptologists use for Egyptian words or c) hybrids of a) and b). The reconstructed vocalizations scholars have and are developing work with various kinds of evidence (including the Greek and Coptic versions of words) to arrive at form that better reflects the sounds earlier in Egyptian history. This is often a fuzzy target, but sometimes we can recover a series of stages as a word changed over time. Scholars (and whole schools of scholars) vary in their approaches to this, of course. There are many open questions as to what can and cannot be safely inferred and how the writing system can be used to recover vowels (or not). Many of the reconstructions in the literature are incomplete in the sense that certain vowels (and sometimes consonants) are left unspecified when we do not have adequate evidence to define them. Other times reconstructions contain vowels that had already transformed historically and so represent a later historical period than Earlier Egyptian (1). The field is quite a live one in Egyptology though now, after a period of around 50 years in the latter part of the twentieth century when syntactic arguments dominated the field and morphology and phonology was distinctly less emphasized.
So I face a conundrum in trying to fully pronounce a word or name for singing or recitation – I can’t rely on complete data all the time. In those cases, I will do my best to pick the sound that best fits known patterns (there are many well documented patterns for nouns, and some for verb forms too) or that sounds best to me. I do confess I rely on Arabic in this process sometimes, which shares kinship and many phonological and morphological similarities with Egyptian. That way I can use the names and words now, to deepen practice and get closer to the poetics and rhythms of the language, which we know were very important to how ritual speech worked in Egypt. This is something I will return to again and again in these postings, so bear with me if I leave details aside for now. My hope, of course, is that new evidence and/or theoretical progress will arise to fill in some of these gaps. But we will always be using vocalizations that are partially synthesized and simplified from the actual speech situation at any particular time among any particular speech community from Ancient Egypt. We will never achieve perfection in this. But I believe it is an honorable goal to attempt to get as close as possible as way to deepen our appreciation of the art, the magic, and the power of these words.
With that said, here are some names of Gods and Goddesses in a form closer to how they sounded in the early New Kingdom Temples (2). They will undoubtedly change over time as more information is gathered, and I’ll try to post those updates as they come along. Please know that they are presented here not to say that you have to use them or to disparage the names you already use for the Gods and Goddesses. Use them if and as you like – for experimenting in your own practice, or to help you understand the rhythmic structure and word plays found in the ritual texts (refer to slide 19 in Weaving the Cloth of Reality: Word and Sound in Egyptian Ritual).
(1) This often results in originally different vowels being combined into a neutral schwa-like sound, or ‘e’ (written in Coptic with the Greek letter epsilon) or long stressed e (represented in Coptic by the Greek letter eta). For example, stressed e results from earlier stressed i or stressed u (the two shifts happening sequentially). So, in a word that survives in Coptic with eta, we can only say the vowel was likely í: or ú: originally.
(2) An asterisk will indicate names where I have supplied a vowel. A double asterisk will indicate a name I have reconstructed myself, using vowel transformation rules, survivals in Coptic and Greek, and other evidence in the literature.
Amun amá:nu [amána / amánu (Schenkel shows iamá:nuw). “Hidden One” NK Cun. a-ma-na ~ ‘amánə > ~ amáne (LE) (Peust)] Allen AEL 2013, 24; Schenkel EAS 1990, 89 ; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Anubis ** aná:pu [mjw *aná:pu (on basis of Coptic survival panub ~ Arabic banu:b and the similarly patterned names imn, itm, which see for more bibliography].
Atum *atá:mu [ia:tāmuw = mjw: ‘atámu >~ atʰám (LE) (Peust)] Schenkel LingAeg 2005, 147; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Bastet *bu’ísti:t [buʔísti:t or buʔístiat > béstʰe (LE) (Peust) > ubísti (late); buʔísti:t or buʔístiat > béstʰe (LE) (Peust) > ubísti (late) (Osing : b(u)Ꜣést˘t) > Copt F. ubesti; mjw preferred form buʔísti:t according to feminine singular nisbe ending for f. nouns ult-t ‘-ti:t’ from Werning] Allen AEL 2013, 74; Osing NB 1976, 310, 855-856; Peust Hiero 2001, 117; Werning Glides 2016, 33, 37, 38
Hathor ** ḥatḥáru or (possibly?) ḥatḥára [*mjw ḥatḥáru or ḥatḥára > ~ ḥatḥáre (LE) (Peust)] Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Horus ḥára or ḥáru [ḥára (Allen)] [ḥá:ruw > ḥó:rə after Ramses II c. 1200 BCE (Loprieno, Schenkel)] [ḥá:ruw > ḥá:rə ~ NK Cun. ḫa-a-ra > ḥó:rə after Ramses II c. 1200 BCE. (Loprieno, Schenkel) ~ Akk Neo-Assyrian -ḫuru- >~ (LE) Háre (Peust) > Copt. S hōr] Allen AE 2013, 25; Loprieno AE 1995, 38, 55; Schenkel EAS 1990, 61, 70, 88; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Isis úsit [úsit ~ Meroitic Wos (*usa) (Schenkel Meroitic Woš /wusa/) > (Peust LE úse) > Assyrian (8th C. BCE) ešu > Copt S e:se B, A e:si] Allen LingAeg 2013b; Schenkel EAS 1990, 90; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Khonsu ḫánsu [ḫánsu (Osing shows ḫánz˘w). in Cun. compound U-ṣi-xa-an-ša (probably for wḏꜢ-ḫnsw) > (LE) chánse (Peust)] Osing 1976, 166; Vycichl Vocalisation 1990, 180; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Maat mú’Ꜥat [múʔʕa (Allen) / (múʀʕat Lop.) / (múꜢ`at Ray) (múꜢꜤ˘t > múꜢꜤə Schenkel)] Allen AEL 2013, 25; Loprieno AE 1995, 39; Ray LingAeg 1999, 134; Schenkel EAS 1990, 88
Mehit *maḥú:yat [maḥú:jvt > məḥú:ʔ] Loprieno AE 1995, 39
Min mínu [mínu (Allen) >~ (LE) mín (Peust)] Allen AEL 2013, 82; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Montu ** mánṯu [*mjw mánṯu >~ mántʰe (LE) (Peust); mjw: using ṯ instead of t on basis of OE attestations, all of which use the spelling mnṯw (see Hannig)] Peust Hiero 2001, 117; Hannig WAR 2003, 1594
Mut ** mí’wat [*mjw mí’wat < meʔwat (Loprieno) > méwtʰ (LE) (Peust)] Loprieno AE 1995, 245; Peust Hiero, 117
Neith ní:yit [nīrit / nīyit (Ray) > néjtʰ (LE) (Peust)] Ray LingAeg 2004, 153; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Nephthys ** nibatḥáwt [*mjw nibatḥáwt > ~nebtʰḥá (LE) (Peust)] Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Osiris usúri [usúri > (by 8th c. BCE) uséri Meroitic: Asori (*usúri) (Schenkel shows /(a)sure/ for the Meroitic) > wsíre (LE) (Peust); Coptic Ousiri, Ousire] Allen LingAeg 2013b; Schenkel EAS 1990, 90 ; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Ptah pitáḥ [pitáḥ > ~ pʰtʰáH (LE) (Peust)] Loprieno AE 1995, 34; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Ra rí:Ꜥu [rí:ʕuw/rí:ʕu > (*LE) ré:ʕə >~ (LE) pʰe-rí* (Peust; note: for pʰe-ríʕ) ~Akk -ri-ia, -re-e in ša-ti/e-i/ep-na ri-a = stp.n rꜤw ? > Copt. S, B, Sub-A rē, A ri; but F, M re] Loprieno AE 1995, 39, 62; Gundacker LingAeg 2011, 59; Schenkel EAS 1990, 89; Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Sekhmet ** síḫmat or **sáḫmit [**mjw síḫmat < sí:ḫimat < si:ḫimat (Ray) > (LE) séchme (Peust; note: for séḫme)] Ray LingAeg 1999, 126, 130; Peust Hiero 2001, 117 (Note: I am not convinced of this reconstruction. It seems **sáḫmit fits the Greek evidence at least as well).
Seshemtet saší:mti:t [*mjw saší:mti:t ~ sašîmtiyat/sašîmtiyit (*mjw frrom general discussion in Ray); with feminine singular nisbe ending for f. nouns ult-t ‘-ti:t’ from Werning] Ray LingAeg 2004, 152; Werning Glides 2016, 33, 37, 38
Set sútḫ [sútḫ ~ sútʰch (LE) Peust)] Peust Hiero 2001, 117 (this needs more work, to confirm the antecedent to Peust’s LE reconstruction)
Shu šáw [šáw] Osing NB 1976, 45, 511-512
Tefnut * tifú:nat [t^(f)fûnat] Ray LingAeg 2004, 150 (For those with sharp eyes, you may notice that this vocalization is different from the one used in the Weaving the Cloth presentation at Pantheacon. My bad there, I simply did not cross check with my database, and substituted the pattern found in the name of Wadjet erroneously).
Thoth ** ḏaḥáwti: or ḏaḥú:ti: [*mjw ḏaḥáwti or ḏaḥú:ti < tḥáwtʰe (LE – Peust)] Peust Hiero 2001, 117
Wadjet *wa’ḏá:wat [*mjw wa’ḏá:wat ~ Osing: waꜢḏá:w˘t (OK) (Noun pattern VI , f.)] Osing NB 1976, 168, 669 (Note 736), 758-760 (Note 919), 791 (Note 993)
Key to pronunciations of Egyptian words in the God Names in this post. Note that the explanatory text in square brackets , contains other characters as well, since I have tried to stick as closely as I can to the various authors’ usages. WordPress also limits posts to one very limited font, so I have had to expunge text in Coptic and Greek (mostly) and convert some characters to reasonable equivalents for the Blog.
a, i, u = short pure vowels: the ‘a’ of “father”, ‘ee’ of “beet”, ‘u’ of “Luke” but short in duration.
´ = primary syllable stress, no vowel quality change, though perhaps a bit longer in duration
: = long vowel duration, hold the vowel preceding the colon longer – about twice as long
’ = glottal stop, a catch in the throat that stops the sound momentarily, like the transition between the two syllables of English “Uh-oh” or the way a person speaking British Cockney slang would say the two ‘tt’ in “bottle”
Ꜥ = a consonant with the sound of the Arabic letter `ain – not present in English or related languages. It is common in languages of the Afro-Asiatic language phylum, to which Egyptian, Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Somali, and many others belong. It is made by constricting the throat and forcing air past the blockage. To give a rough idea of the sound, try saying ‘ah’ and slowly (carefully!) pushing your throat just above the Adam’s apple with your fingers to restrict the airflow. Here is a video which may help: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0ro6b50-Lk
ḥ = an h stronger than English, sort of like a cat or iguana hissing, similar to the strong ‘j’ in Latin American Spanish “Juan”
ḫ = like ‘ch’ in German “Ach”, Scottish “Loch”, or Hebrew “la-Chayim”
ẖ = a soft ch sound – like the ‘ch’ in southern German “ich”
ḳ = a sound like English ‘k’ but further back in the throat.
ḏ = dj like English “just”
ṯ = ch like English “chip”
Bibliography of books and articles cited:
Allen AEL 2013:
James P. Allen. The Ancient Egyptian Language: an historical study. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Allen LingAeg 2013b:
James P. Allen. The Name of Osiris (and Isis). In: Lingua Aegyptia 21 (2013), 9–14
Gundacker LingAeg 2011:
Roman Gundacker. On the Etymology of the Egyptian Crown Name mrsw.t. In: Lingua Aegyptia 19 (2011), 37-86
Hannig WAR 2003:
Rainer Hannig. Ägyptisches Wörterbuch 1. Altes Reich und Erste Zwischenzeit. Zabern, 2003
Loprieno AE 1995:
Loprieno, Antonio. Ancient Egyptian: a linguistic introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Osing NB 1976:
Jürgen Osing. Die Nominalbildung des Ägyptischen. Mainz 1976
Peust Hiero 2001:
Peust, Carsten. Hieroglyphisch Wort für Wort. Reise Know-How Verlag, Bielefeld 2011
Note: Peust here uses an aspirated/unaspirated opposition for the sounds represented by graphemes t (Gardiner X1, bread loaf) and d (Gardiner D46, hand), instead of the more typical unvoiced/voiced opposition. But cf. his paper: Peust, Carsten 2008. On consonant frequency in Egyptian and other languages. Lingua Aegyptia 16, 105-134, where he revises this view in favor of an unvoiced/emphatic (not voiced) opposition. All reconstructions are noted here as published in Peust Hiero 2001.
Ray LingAeg 1999:
John D. Ray. The Vocalisation of Adjectives in Egyptian in: Lingua Aegyptia 6, 1999. 119-140.
Note: â = long, stressed; á = short, stressed; ā = long; e = reduced unaccented vowel, perhaps but not necessarily similar to Hebrew shewa. Coptic and Later Greek equivalents: short a > Coptic o; long i: and u: to Coptic long e:; long a: to Coptic long o: .
Ray LingAeg 2004:
John D. Ray. “The Vocalisation of Middle Egyptian: A Survey”. Lingua Aegyptia 12 (2004), 143-155.
Schenkel EAS 1990:
Wolfgang Schenkel. Einführung in die altägyptische Sprachwissenschaft. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1990.
Schenkel LingAeg 2005:
Wolfgang Schenkel. Die ägyptische Nominalbildungslehre und die Realität der hieroglyphischen Graphien der Sargtexte. Die Nominalbildungsklassen A I 5 und A I 6. In Lingua Aegyptia 13 (2005), 141–171
Vycichl Vocalisation 1990:
Werner Vycichl. La Vocalisation de la Langue Égyptienne. Institute Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire, Le Caire, 1990
Werning Glides 2016:
Werning, Daniel A. . “Hypotheses on Glides and Matres Lectionis in Earlier Egyptian Orthographies” in Coping Wit Obscurity: The Brown Workshop on Earlier Egyptian Grammar. Lockwood Press 2016