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It was realized early in the study of Ancient Egyptian that when the sounds of words are written out at all, the most you get is the consonants. Arabic and Hebrew, distantly related to Egyptian, are written in a similar fashion: only the consonants are generally written down. (There are, as always, exceptions, but they aren’t relevant here.) In those languages, it makes sense, since changing the vowels in a word is the most common way to mark, say, plurals, or verb tense changes. It stands to reason that the same is true of Egyptian.
But in the case of Egyptian, we have no living specimens, no Ancient Egyptians to go listen to, or learn the spoken language from, and so we can’t say firsthand what those vowels might have been. Now return with me to our Early Days of Egyptology. This presents an obvious problem for anyone who wants to discuss the vocabulary of the language, in spoken conversation: Hw d y prnnc wrds tht hv n vwls? As you can see, it’s not that difficult if you already know what vowels to expect; the problem was precisely that no one did know which ones to expect. They could have been anything.
So a convention was patched together. Certain consonants could be pronounced as vowels: w becomes u, j (y) becomes i, and the sounds a lot of Europeans, at least, had trouble with, ꜥ and ꜣ (usually interpreted as a voiced pharyngeal fricative and glottal stop, respectively) could be pronounced as a. If you were still left with something unpronounceable, you could just insert an e wherever you needed one. As an example, the name ḏḥwtj becomes ḏeḥuti.
But as it turns out, the Egyptian language did not actually die out until well into the Christian era. Instead, it evolved, as languages will do given time. The Christians of Egypt are known as Copts, and their liturgical language remains, to this day, the tongue known as Coptic, the latest form of the Egyptian language. And Coptic is written in a true alphabet, derived from the Greek one, complete with vowels.
So, as usual, the sounds of Coptic can be worked back to shed a little light on the sound of earlier forms of Egyptian. In addition, there exist records in Assyrian cuneiform that mention Egyptian personal names, dating from the later Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom; these too indicate vowel sounds. Also, a few place-names here and there were borrowed into neighboring languages, such as Hebrew, in which the subsequent sound changes can be inferred from what’s already known about the language that did the borrowing.
It turns out ḏḥwtj was probably something more like ḏiḥawtij!
Unfortunately, in spite of this plethora of indirect evidence, scholars still disagree on the exact pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian, with vowels. In any scientific field, evidence can be interpreted in any number of ways; how well you back up your interpretation is what determines how seriously you’ll be taken. Linguistics is certainly no exception. I choose here to draw primarily on the work of Antonio Loprieno (see Main Sources below), because it is recent, and therefore has, at least in theory, the benefit of all previous works; and because this happens to be a convenient starting place for me.
I’ve found a lot of sites on the web that claim to give the names of the months in the “Egyptian” calendar. While this may be one accepted name for it, the calendar used by the Coptic Church is more widely — and correctly — termed the Coptic Calendar. It’s misleading and confusing to present Coptic words as if they were Ancient Egyptian. Coptic is certainly Egyptian, and it may seem ancient from a non-Egyptian point of view, but to say that Coptic is the same language as Ancient Egyptian is a little like saying that Spanish is the same language as Latin, or that Panjabi is the same language as Sanskrit. Speakers of one would not be able to understand the other.
The names are given in several variant forms from two or three Coptic dialects, followed by the Greek and Arabic forms derived from them. Information in this chart is from Vycichl, Černý, and Atiya. Some information on the pronunciation of Coptic can be found in Loprieno.
I don’t give equivalent modern month names, because the traditional year in this calendar is shorter than an actual (astronomical) year; the months tend to shift over time, so that what was January in any given year might be May in some other year. They were always in the same order, though: Thoout was always first. I do attempt to give the actual translations, where possible.
|thōout||Thōth||Tūt||(the god) Thoth|
|Athyr||Hātūr||(the goddess) Hathor|
|tōbi||tōbi||Tybi||Ṭūba||(month of) the sacrificial offering|
|7||parmhotp||phamenōth||Phamenōth||Baramhāt||(month of the deified) Amenhotep|
|8||parmoute||pharmouthi||Pharmouthi||Baramūda||(month of the goddess) Renenutet|
|Pakhōn||Bašans||(month of the god) Khonsu|
|12||mesorē||mesōrē||Misrā||birth of (the god) Re|
Information here is from Vycichl and Loprieno, except that some of the proposed vocalizations are mine, based on their works. A few of the Coptic forms are extracted from longer names. Transcriptions of Greek forms employ the circumflex and acute to indicate accented vowels and diphthongs. The macron is used to distinguish ōmega and ēta from omicron and epsilon.
In the hieroglyphic forms and proposed vocalizations, I have used the traditional Egyptological transliteration convention. A pronunciation guide is available on the Web, courtesy of the AEgyptian-L mailing list.
|Hathor||athŷr||hathōr||ḥwt‑ḥr(w)||ḥawit‑ḥāru(w)||“house of Horus”|
|Nephthys||néphthys||nebthō||nbt‑ḥwt||nibat‑ḥāwit||“lady of the house”|
* In this name and a few other words, Loprieno reconstructs an actual, original glottal stop, whereas in most cases the later glottal stop came from a uvular r sound. ↩
Atiya, Aziz S., ed. in chief. The Coptic Encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan, 1991.
Černý, Jaroslav, paleographer. Coptic etymological dictionary. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Loprieno, Antonio. Ancient Egyptian: a linguistic introduction. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Vycichl, Werner. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue copte. Leuven: Peeters, 1983.