Ancient Egyptian has the longest written history of all the earth's languages, although the day may come when Chinese overtakes it. It is first attested slightly before 3000 bc, and lengthy texts occur from about 2500 bc. It lasted, in the Christian form known as Coptic, until well after 1000 ad, when it was superseded by Arabic. Contrary to what one reads in some textbooks, ancient Egypt did not operate in isolation, but was in constant contact with the neighbouring cultures of north-east Africa, and above all the Near East. The elite culture of Egypt adopted a pose of superiority over such alien cultures, but in practice this pose hid a marked tendency towards assimilation and absorption of foreign ideas. Egypt itself was the home to sizeable groups of immigrants, notably from Syria and Palestine, and such groups were welcomed as long as they subscribed to Egyptian religion and practices, and followed the laws of Pharaoh; it was a society which was multiracial, but not multicultural.
It was natural in such circumstances that Egyptian would absorb foreign words and expressions. Such a conformist society had always found attraction in the exotic, and Near Eastern words are found in Egyptian as early as the end of the third millennium bc. The process increased greatly after about 1500 bc, when Egypt found itself in political control of large areas of Syria-Palestine. Unfamiliar geography, climate, costumes, flora and fauna, and religions demanded new words, and the necessities of commerce and taxation familiarised the Egyptians with the Near Eastern terms in which they were expressed. Bears, deer, sunflowers and snow were occasional novelties, as were the more practical technicalities of horse training and chariot driving. The impact of Greece on Rome, or that of India on 19th-century Britain, are obvious parallels. In addition to this, there was a constant stream of Near Eastern loanwords from the resident communities who chose, or were obliged, to live in the country which had come to dominate their original homelands. In some cases, Semitic words were absorbed by the host-language even when it had adequate words of its own; this was particularly true in the realms of story-telling and of lyric poetry, both of which flourished under the Egyptian empire.
The area of Syria-Palestine was the home of a variety of Semitic languages, or dialects as it would be better to describe them, since the reality was closer to a continuum of merging varieties of one overall, if hypothetical, language. The major exception is Hurrian, which was spoken in northern Syria and was not Semitic (Egyptian borrows from this source as well). Some of the Semitic languages are well attested from the first millennium bc, but part of the importance of the material preserved in Egyptian is that it predates even the earliest Semitic inscriptions: to look at these words is to glimpse the prehistory of these languages. At the same time, there are difficulties in identifying Semitic words in Egyptian: although the languages in question are related, their phonetic systems are subtly different, and there is no doubt that Egyptian scribes heard the same unfamiliar sound in differing ways. In addition, both host language and the various dialects from which loans were taken were constantly changing. Fortunately the Egyptian use of determinatives (unpronounced signs at the end of a word to show to what category it belongs) helps considerably, as does the existence of a special "syllabic orthography", a system designed to write foreign words in a way that could readily be pronounced. The use of the latter corresponds roughly to the employment of italics in modern languages, and its importance in identifying strange words is obvious.
There is no modern treatment of this important subject, although there have been occasional monographs on topographical or religious names. James E. Hoch has supplied this need: his treatment includes a full glossary, and discussions of phonetic systems, both Egyptian and Near Eastern, morphological development, and the relationships of the various languages which contributed to this pool of loanwords. Particularly interesting, although necessarily incomplete, are the statistical tables for the various types of words which are attested. It is no surprise to find military terms (13.4 per cent) and geographical words (8.2 per cent) near the top of the list, but it is remarkable that expressions of emotion appear high in the second division at 3.2 per cent while musical terms, at 1.1 per cent, come far lower than artistic and material evidence would suggest. James Hoch has both summarised an important body of material, and taken its resolution further, and his monograph is a fine achievement.
John Ray is reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge.
Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period
Author - James E. Hoch
ISBN - 0 691 03761 2
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 572