Project description

On January 1, 2013, the Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities at Leipzig and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities started the project “Structure and transformation in the vocabulary of the Egyptian language. Text and Knowledge in the Culture of Ancient Egypt” as part of the Academys' Programme. This is jointly financed by the federal government of Germany and by the state governments of Saxony, Berlin and Brandenburg and it builds upon the results of the project "Ancient Egyptian Dictionary" (1993–2012). Where this earlier project  resumed the great dictionary tradition of Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow and developed the then new tool of a digital and annotated text database as a preliminary step towards a new (digital) dictionary, this time the vocabulary itself comes to the fore. The Leipzig team therefore concentrates its work on the corpus of ancient Egyptian scientific  texts and the associated specialist vocabulary. The aim of the project is to create an infrastructure in order to pursue two research questions. The first being: How are ancient Egyptian words built and how do they relate to one another at the level of meaning? Or to put it another way: How is the vocabulary of the Egyptian language structured? The second question is: What changes over time can be observed in the vocabulary of Egyptian, what semantic change do we have? Or: How is the vocabulary of the Egyptian language transformed? The primary goal in pursuing these questions is to open a door to ancient Egyptian knowledge, the mind and ways of thinking. Humans expresses their perception of objects, phenomena and activities in words and phrases. If a language does not possess an expression or a phrase for a certain phenomenon, this infers the language community has not perceived it as an independent entity.




semantic widening:

Tz.png ṯz: „vertebra“
(vgl. Tz-n-psD.png ṯz n psḏ: „vertebra from the spine“)

 Ts.t_demotisch.png ṯse(.t):
„back bone; back“
⇒ ϫⲓⲥⲉ: „back, spine"
(vgl. ⲕⲁⲥ ⲛⲧϫⲓⲥⲉ:
„bone from spine, vertebra“)
restriction of meaning:
wgt.png wg.t: „mandible“  ⇒ (?) ⇒ ⲕⲉⲗⲟⲩⲟⲛϫϥ:
„Connection of the mandible“ =
„chin cheek, mandible
semantic shift:
mHA.png mḥꜣ: „back of the head“
mkHA.pngmkḥꜣ: „back of the head, neck“
 ⇒ mqH-demotisch.png mqḥ: „back of the head, neck“  ⇒ ⲙⲁⲕϩ: „neck“
Loss of word:
a.png : „forearm + hand“ ⇒ „arm, hand“  a-demotisch.png only dual:
ꜥ.wy: „the two arms“
new word creation through lexical borrowing from another language:
Ø  Ø (griech. ἰσχίον ⇒) ⲡⲉⲥⲭⲓⲟⲛ: „hip“
new word creation through word formation:
Ø ⇒ qrqH-demotisch.png qrqḥ:
„elbow; hip joint (???)“
⇒ ⲕⲉⲗⲉⲛⲕⲉϩ: „elbow“
new word creation through shift of meaning:  
(swḥ.t: „egg“)     ⲥⲟⲟⲩϩⲉ: (u.a.) „calvaria“
Fig. 1: Examples of change in ancient Egyptian medical vocabulary.

Comparing the presence or absence of words in Egyptian and in German, or in English, is one possible way of contrasting language cultures. However, in order to do so, the Egyptian vocabulary must first be classified and structured according to various parameters. Next, one can examine whether and where there are accidental gaps (due to the preservation or transmission of texts) or gaps in the system (compared to German). However, this system is not static; it is subject to different transformations, both within the same period of time and over the centuries. Changes in vocabulary (old words disappear, new ones are built, foreign words are borrowed) and in the meaning of the words are indications that not only the language, but also the ancient Egyptian speaker community and their culture have changed.

The individual domains of knowledge and associated specialist vocabulary are dealt with by the Leipzig team in the following order using man and his body as the point of reference: The first five years module (ancient Egyptian medicine) deals with the diagnostics and therapies applied to the human body as a microcosm. The second module (ancient Egyptian magic) also covers the body in its numinous-psychological or demonological dimension.Then the view is expanded out once again to the macrocosmic and celestial integration of the body, e.g. how stellar entities influence man’s wellbeing (third module: ancient Egyptian mantic and divination, including dream interpretation, astronomy and astrology, calendar and mathematics). Finally, the fourth module covers the natural environment of humankind (geography, botany, zoology, chemistry / alchemy). At a relatively early date in their cultural history the ancient Egyptians collected and classified all of this knowledge in a philological, or more precisely, lexicographical manner. They excerpted and structured it, first in word lists (the so-called onomastic texts) and later in handbooks or encyclopedias for priests. These philological texts form the conclusion of the knowledge/scientific texts studied by the Leipzig team.

Logos BBAW SAW.png