Classifying the Other—Research project

“The classification of Semitic loanwords in the Egyptian script in New Kingdom Egypt”

Research project funded by ISF (Israeli Science Foundation), 2017–2020, PI Prof. Orly Goldwasser.

Loanwords originating in Semitic languages reflect the transfer of technological innovations, social concepts and religious beliefs into the Egyptian language. The Egyptian script records those words with an additional emic Egyptian layer of information, their classifiers. The classifiers of Semitic loanwords in Egyptian have never been studied systematically.

Classifiers are hieroglyphs that play a special role in the Egyptian writing system. They appear at the end of almost every written word, but they are unpronounced. They are semograms, as they mostly carry semantic information alone. The Egyptian classifiers constitute a linguistically dynamic and highly developed system. They may follow almost every lexical category — nouns (including compounds), verbs, adjectives, adverbs, adpositions, and pronouns. The relations between a classifier and its host are never arbitrary. In many cases, the classifiers add important semantic information about the host-word, assigning it to various Egyptian semantic categories represented pictorially by the classifier. For example, the Egyptian compound noun ḥryw-šꜥ “the ones who are on sand,” features the classifiers [sand], [foreign] and [people]. These classifiers “silently” deliver rich semantic data from a uniquely Egyptian perception = sand + foreignness + people. This word indeed usually refers to non-Egyptian desert nomads.

The classifier 𓌙 represents a throw-stick— a stereotypically non-Egyptian weapon — and is widely used to mark the semantic category of [foreign].

Like all other indigenous Egyptian words, almost all loanwords written in Egyptian texts exhibit classifiers, and these are priceless nuggets of emic ancient information. One such example is the hieroglyphic writing of the Canaanite god, Baʿal . Remarkably, the Egyptians assigned to Baʿal, in most occurrences, the “silent” classifier that signified their own god, Seth 𓁣. This constitutes exceptional evidence of a Canaanite–Egyptian syncretism that was deeply rooted in the Egyptian mind. Our project stands at the intersection of semantics, language contact, sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics, and cultural interference studies. It will surely uncover invaluable new information on the attitudes of ancient Egyptians to the language and culture of the Canaanite “Other”.

Map of classifiers of Semitic loanwords in Egyptian