Listenwissenschaft, Lexicography and Philology

Reflecting on language as a system presumably began with the first communication attempts between speakers of different languages. For us, this reflection becomes evident with the invention of writing and with the decisions regarding what kind of linguistic information was depicted by means of abstract symbols e.g.: complex ideas and concepts that can be understood even without knowing the respective language (pictographic writing), specific words or syllables of a specific language (Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and their cursive equivalents, the Hieratic and Demotic), or single sounds (alphabet scripts, including the Coptic alphabet). The last two types of script only need signs for those sounds and sound combinations that exist in the respective languages and that are perceived as necessary enough to be encoded by their community. The latter issue explains the high number of different alphabets.

Ancient Egyptian writing is as old as the Egyptian state and it appeared at approximately the same time as writing in Mesopotamia. A series of ivory labels with place names and numbers was found in the Predynastic royal tomb U-j in Abydos (c. 3150 BC), which indicates that the hieroglyphic writing system was already advanced at this point in time. The hieroglyphic script never lost its pictorial character, because it allowed its users to provide additional semantic information instead of sounds alone, and this allowed plays with the Egyptian script that are not possible in more abstract writing systems. These benefits, among others, are the reason why this type of script was used until the 4th century AD, i.e. over a period of 3500 years, and thus longer than any alphabet.

Explicit emic statements about how the Egyptian script worked, are rare and date very late in Egyptian history: The so-called Sign Papyrus from Tanis (2nd century AD) arranges hieroglyphs (in their Late Period shapes) according to their semantic meaning: standing men, sitting women, falling men, animals, body parts, etc. This list is laid out like a table, with the hieroglyphic sign at the beginning of the line, followed by its corresponding hieratic sign and an explanation.


So called drawing papyrus Tanis

Another kind of list can be seen with Demotic papyrus Saqqara 1 27 that is arranged according to phonetic criteria, and not according to graphic criteria. This papyrus provides a list of bird names in an acrophonic sequence, and each item is integrated into a short sentence with another term with the same initial as a memory aid, e.g.: pꜣ hb ḥr hbyn “The ibis sits on the ebony tree” (line 2), šmi̯ n=f bnw r Bbl “The Benu bird went to Babylon” (line 10). The papyri Carlsberg 7 and Oxyrhynchus B.3 6/2 are other papyri that use bird names to memorize phonetic order. Such documents are presumably from a didactic context, and they allow us to reconstruct an alphabetical sequence that can be traced back to the 15th century BC at the latest. Although such sources attest that the ancient Egyptians sometimes used a purely theoretical sequence based on the sound of words, if they wanted to list them, they never felt the need to reduce their script to these single sounds and to develop a real alphabet. It was not before the Graeco-Roman Period that the Egyptians started using alphabetic writing, and for doing so, they modified the – then already existing – Greek alphabet according to their needs, instead of inventing a new one from the scratch. This adapted Greek alphabet is known as the Coptic alphabet.


Reconstruction of the Egyptian alphabet

Egyptian students also had to learn their grammar, and a few of their exercises are still preserved. They are mostly written in Demotic, as with the Demotic papyrus Vienna 6464 that has an exercise on conjugation patterns. A few older examples for such linguistic exercises are known as well: The wooden writing board Berlin 8934 from the Ramesside Period, for instance, gives a short sequence from the “Teaching of Ani” in Middle and Late Egyptian, which helped the student understand older phases of their language.

While Egyptian approaches to linguistics are only known from these later times, lexicographical interest is already attested in the late Middle Kingdom: the so-called “Ramesseum Onomasticon” was written at this time. Preliminary approaches are even known from the late Old Kingdom. Such onomastic lists were not composed purely out of lexicographic interest, but to serve as inventories for what the god’s created (cf. the introduction to the “Onomasticon of Amenemope”). This purpose explains the focus of these lists on the natural world, place names and other geographical terms, offices, occupations and types of human beings, animals, plants and agricultural products. The respective terms were collected in lists and arranged according to semantic categories. The Ramesseum Onomasticon presents this as an actual list, while the Onomasticon of Amenemope and later examples are written as running texts. Similar inventories are also known from Mesopotamia to a far greater extent; here, this branch of science is labelled today as “Listenwissenschaft”, a term that was coined by the German scholar von Soden and is also used in English scholarly literature for lack of an appropriate English equivalent.

Gardiner edited the most important pre-Demotic Egyptian texts in 1947 and labelled them as “Onomastica”, because they were primarily lists of names, i.e. “onomastics”. Onomastica from a later time also collect other word classes, as e.g. a writing board from the Schøyen Collection with verbs of movement. The Onomasticon of Amenemope is completely preserved; but contains only 610 terms, which is surprisingly short for an inventory of divine creation. Many parts of nature (e.g. animals) and culture (e.g. commercial products) are totally absent from this onomasticon. Moreover, it is unclear whether its order is based on contemporaneous ontological models or individual decisions by its author – nonetheless, it is not canonical, because the older Ramesseum Onomasticon shows a different arrangement, even in its fragmentary state of preservation.

In addition to these proper onomastica, similar lists of terms and items were integrated into the so-called “Miscellanies” of the Ramesside Period. These Miscellanies are collections of model letters with religious (e.g. royal hymns), didactic (e.g. reproaches to lazy students) and administrative content (e.g. requests from workers) – and with brief onomastic lists mostly on administrative topics (e.g. barn products or tributes from the Nubian province). The main purpose of these miscellanies is still debated, yet it is possible that they also served for education, in order to make future officials familiar with their “technical vocabulary”. According to J.F. Quack, their integration into such model letters would perhaps make them “less boring” for the student.

Such onomastic lists were actually taught at school, as can also be indirectly proven: Both the tale of the “Eloquent Peasant” and “The journey of Wenamun” contain long lists of products, which obviously were written down with ease by their scribes, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that one copy of the former text was found together with the Ramesseum Onomasticon and the latter together with the most complete copy of the Onomasticon of Amenemope.

Onomastica from the Roman Period had to cope with the additional challenge of outdated terminology. For this reason, the “Tebtynis Onomasticon” contains supralinear additions of more recent translations, and this provides an additional, important insight into the development of the Egyptian language and also the Egyptian worldview. Moreover, the “Tebtynis Onomasticon”, along with other onomastica from this period, adds further information to some of its items and thus, it stands on the border to priestly handbooks and texts of normative knowledge.