Dialects of Egyptian
Dialects of Egyptian
Linguistic Differences . Even though scribal training worked to keep the written language of Egypt as stable and “correct” as possible, there were clear differences of speech among people who lived in various regions of the Nile Valley. When people are conscious of speaking a common language, but there are nevertheless noticeable differences in speech patterns among subgroups, then these people are said to speak dialects of the common language. Speakers of varying dialects of the same language can usually understand one another; if two dialects are so different that one cannot understand the speakers of another dialect, then it is often more accurate to consider them two different languages. Nevertheless, it is sometimes the case—as in the modern Arabic- and German-speaking worlds—that for cultural reasons, speakers of dialects that are virtually or completely incomprehensible to each other consider themselves to speak the same language. When this situation happens, there is often a standard “literary” language that all educated persons speak and write in formal situations, regardless of the dialect that they learned as their mother tongue and that they continue to use in day-to-day life.
THE DIALECTS OF COPTIC
The Coptic language shows several dialects being spoken in Egypt after about 450 c.e., dialects that, in all probability, were mutually comprehensible, at least for persons with some education. However, there is a problem: it is still not completely possible for scholars to tell what parts of Egypt were the homes to specific dialects. To take a few examples: the “Sahidic” dialect of Coptic has a name that suggests that it originated in southern Egypt, but many linguists believe it actually originated in the north. In contrast, Fayyumic is fairly easy to spot: like Demotic texts from the Fayyum, the consonant “l” (written with the Greek letter lamda) often appears where other Coptic dialects use the consonant “r” (written with the Greek letter rho). The variety of Coptic used most often by modern Egyptian Christians is Bohairic, a dialect that appears in written sources only after the ninth century c.e., and is traditionally believed to come from the western Delta region, including Alexandria. The fourth major dialect was called Akhmimic, usually associated with the city of Akhmim in central Egypt. Aside from these four major dialects, Coptic scholars have identified others, and undoubtedly there were many others, lost forever because none of their native speakers ever wrote them down in text. These Coptic dialects give us some hint of the richness of the Egyptian language that must have existed from the earliest times.
A Problem of Mutual Misunderstanding . The Egyptians themselves occasionally mention the existence of dialects in ancient Egypt, and it is at least implied that some dialects were so far apart in their pronunciation, or perhaps their basic grammar, as to make comprehension difficult. This situation is expressed in a letter from the Egyptian Dynasty 19, in which the letter writer complains that in a previous communication his correspondent has been talking such nonsense that he might as well be speaking in some foreign language, or at least in some barely understandable
dialect. “There is no interpreter who can translate what you say,” says the letter writer. “Your words are like the speech of a Delta man (from the far north of Egypt) with a man from Elephantine (an island at Egypt’s extreme southern boundary).”
No Vowels . Aside from the inherent conservatism of Egyptian scribes, the other principal force working to disguise local dialects in documents is the fact that Egyptian writing did not ordinarily represent vowels, and often differences in pronunciation are primarily a result of how vowels are pronounced. Nevertheless, dialectical differences are occasionally visible in written Egyptian. In some cases, texts that earlier generations of Egyptologists could not understand and had pronounced to be either corrupt or the product of inept scribes have been shown to be written in local dialects that had grammatical rules different from the standard language. In other cases, spellings that were so different that they were thought to reflect entirely distinct words that have been shown to be merely regional variations.
Dialects in Coptic . Once native, consonantal Egyptian scripts fell out of use, however, and the fully alphabetic Coptic script became the main medium of writing the Egyptian language, at least some regional dialects became fully visible. Several major and minor dialects have been identified for Coptic; the differences are more apparent in how vowels are supplied for words than they are in matters of grammar or vocabulary. There is little to suggest that educated speakers of any Coptic dialect would have had much difficulty in understanding speakers from other parts of the country. So one might surmise that the writer of the Dynasty 19 letter quoted above was deliberately exaggerating the differences in regional speech patterns.
W. Vivian Davies and Louise Schofield, eds., Egypt, the Aegean and the Levant: Interconnections in the Second Millenium B.C. (London: British Museum Press for the Trustees of the British Museum, 1995).
Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).