Ancient Remains in English: Unexpected Leftovers from Ancient Egypt

Sorry for being so behind on my posts. If this is anything like usual, I should finish up my travel narratives sometime shortly before my next trip next summer… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I have never taken classes during the summer before, and they have taken up a lot of my time. If you’re in need of reading material while I work on the usual blogs, please enjoy the research paper that I spent the past few weeks furiously researching. I’m rather proud of it. Hopefully you have an interest in the connections between modern English and ancient Egyptian vocabulary!

Ancient Remains in English:

Unexpected Leftovers from Ancient Egypt

The English language is famous, or rather, infamous, for borrowing words from other languages. Unlike many other widely spoken modern languages, English frequently steals new vocabulary from others. No linguist could deny the importance of the Germanic language on the composition of our modern vernacular, and even though these Germanic origins compose eighty percent of the thousand most common English words, a remarkable sixty percent of the second most common thousand words are borrowed from foreign languages (Curzan, 2012a). This paper will study two words English borrowed from the ancient Egyptian language. This is an ancient language which continues to be unexpectedly spoken, albeit infrequently, to this very day. Like Latin, few people outside of an elite group remain familiar with it, but several of its words are a part of our language. Even though ancient Egyptian is no longer spoken by anybody on this planet, only rarely by Egyptologists — and this is usually guesswork — bits and pieces of this supposedly dead language remain alive in our modern tongue. Consider the following sentence. She placed the ebony statue inside of her adobe home. Though this sentence is somewhat stilted, it is grammatically correct and contains two words which have their origins in ancient Egypt. Ebony and adobe are words in modern English which our ancestors once spoke in some form along the banks of the Nile.

Ancient Egypt is inarguably one of the origins of human writing. Egyptologists have evidence of the earliest forms of this language going back millennia to 3250 BCE (Regulski, 2016).The language evolved, matured, developed different offspring, and then finally it died. On the island of Philae, just north of the Second Cataract on the Nile River, is what is known as the Graffito of Esmet-Akhrom, the very last known hieroglyphic inscription (Vassilika, 1989). It was carved into the wall of the Temple of Isis on the 24thof August, 394 CE and fails to say anything of great interest to anybody outside of Egyptological circles, and aside from its finality, it holds little interest to scholars. One would hope for more from the swan song of ancient Egyptian than a glorified signature.

For centuries, scholars believed the ancient Egyptian language, like Akkadian and Etruscan was a dead language, unspoken by any living soul. However, when people talk about adobe roof tiles or the ebony on a piano keyboard, they are bringing life back to this dead language. The Egyptian language never did die out completely. Much, if not most of it has faded, but whenever a copy of Ebony magazine is spotted on a bookshelf or a homeowner goes shopping for adobe pots for a garden, remarkably similar words to our ancient Egyptian predecessors are being used. Languages do not truly die. They are immortal. Like Latin, it may be a dead language, but it never died. The philosophical and religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians thought to call something by its name would render it immortal (Wiedemann, 1895). And so the ancient Egyptian language is immortal. So too is ancient Greek, Latin, and any other supposedly dead language from which English borrowed. This language is a wonderful mess of new and old words.

Jean-François Champollion is a pivotal character in the modern understanding of ancient Egyptian, a fully rational and readable language which requires considerable study. He is the first living soul since the scribe on the island of Philae to use the pharaonic language correctly. This transformed the world’s understanding of Egyptian culture and history. When he unlocked the clues to comprehending this dead language, he did something else entirely unexpected. Champollion discovered the words of the dead kings and the ancient laborers were still being spoken, albeit in a new fashion, and he found it being spoken just a few blocks away from the Parisian apartment where he unraveled this timeless philological mystery (Adkins & Adkins, 2000). At a Coptic church, traces of ancient Egyptian were still being spoken.

Of course, the author must note the similarities between Coptic and the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians is roughly equivalent to modern English and the English found in Beowulf. Few modern readers aside from dedicated scholars can read (or desire to read) Beowulfin its original form. “The language of Beowulf is so unfamiliar now that it is hard for us even to recognize the words that have survived, and the ones that have not, we think of as dead” (Curzan, 2012b, 13). However difficult they are to recognize as ancient words, the presence of ancient English remnants in modern English is as thrilling as discovering the living trail of ancient Egyptian in modern Coptic. Coptic itself is a language being threatened with extinction, if not already dead and living on only in liturgical communities (Mayton, 2015).

A word still frequently used today is ebony. This word has been used in one way or another since the ancient Egyptians began trading with what is now modern day Ethiopia, known to the ancients as Punt, for gold, spices, ebony, resins, and animals. Trade with this region may have gone back to the reign of Khufu, who is more well-known for the construction of the Great Pyramid. However, the earliest known record of trade in this region goes back to the reign of Pharaoh Pepi II, who began to rule Egypt around 2278 BCE. Amusingly, when he sent his first expedition to Punt, he was still very young and much more interested in a dwarf promised to him rather than expensive wood (Breasted, 1906).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ebony as “heavy blackish or very dark brown timber from a mainly tropical tree.” Conveniently, it also proposes an etymology for this word and gives it an origin from the Greek word “ebenos.” This, however, does not go far enough back to the actual roots of this word, which will be explored here. The word was already in usage centuries earlier in Egypt. Consider Figure 1 written in Middle Egyptian.

Figure 1:


(Rosmorduc, 2014).

The reader will forgive a brief description of the hieroglyphic text to acquire a better understanding and appreciation of this remarkable word. The first symbol, from left to right, is one of many “h” sounds in the Egyptian language. This one is a highly stylized representation of a simple reed hut as viewed from above with the door open. The second hieroglyph is a foot and makes a “b” sound. Egyptian scribes were exceptionally concerned with aesthetics, so the next two symbols are stacked on top of each other. The zigzag line represents water and produces an “n” sound. Directly below are two slashes which are a simplified way to write two feathers, put together this way they make an “ee” sound. Following this are two very interesting hieroglyphs which would never be vocalized. These are determinatives and are used to aid the reader in understanding what the preceding hieroglyphs represent. The branch is a reference to wood, reinforcing and clarifying the meaning of the word, and the three vertical marks are a way to indicate plurality. Ancient Egyptian specified its plurals. Either it was a dual with only two items or three or more (Gardiner, 2012). When these hieroglyphs are put together, phonetic signs are mixed with determinatives to get H-B-N-Y. Written Egyptian, like Hebrew, did not make use of vowels except in rare examples. Said aloud, this is “ebony.” The determinatives make it clear to the reader how this word is referring to the wood ebony, still called the same today. This is a truly delightful example of continuity over many millennia.

Ebony was a valuable wood in the ancient world and maintains its elite status today. As it continues to do so, the word ebony does not only refer to wood but also the dark color of the wood itself. In an amusing discovery in the tomb of Duaerneheh, the first herald of Pharaoh Thutmose III, visitors can view the remains of a painting of the pharaoh’s throne with a black dog beneath it. This dog is named Hbny (Wilkinson & Hill, 1983). The same hieroglyphs are represented next to the animal without the determinatives because this example refers to an animal, not wood. Additionally, the order of the hieroglyphs is reversed, but this is perfectly acceptable in this written language. See Figure 2.

Figure 2:

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 1.10.23 AM

(Wilkinson & Hill, 1983, 75).

Egypt was not ruled by the pharaohs for its entire history. Alexander the Great came stomping through on his campaign to rule the entire known world, and many rumors suggest his body is still entombed somewhere in Alexandria. With Greek occupation of Egypt, many words were adopted by the Grecian people who were, in one of the first cases of Egyptomania, obsessed with all things Egyptian (Brier, 2013). Many words in the Egyptian vocabulary were adopted by the Greeks, ebony being one of them.

In Greek, the word changed very little, although the script used to represent it was much different from the hieroglyphs used by the Egyptians. See Figure 3.

Figure 3:


(Wilford, 2012).

When this Greek word is vocalized, it is pronounced, “ebenos,” quite similar to the ancient Egyptian original. Interestingly, this word is a singular noun unlike the ancient Egyptian word, which was quite specifically referring to ebony in the plural. The philological history of this word from the Oxford English Dictionary can now carry on from these ancient origins.The word left Greek and entered Latin as “hebenus,” into Old French as “ébène,” into Middle English as “ebenif,” and finally into our modern form of “ebony.” This is one of very few examples of such an ancient word remaining in modern vernacular.

The journey the word took is truly remarkable in scope. Unlike so many words still used which have changed, shifted, and become utterly unrecognizable from their first known usage, this word has come full circle in modern English. If ancient Egyptian philological scholars were correct (and it is impossible to know with complete certainty as the vowels were not recorded), then the way modern English speakers pronounce the word for a dark wood, ebony, is quite literally the same as it was thousands of years ago when the pharaohs demanded expeditions to the exotic land of Punt for the treasured substance.

Not only does the word sound the same, but it is used for the same meanings. Oftentimes people refer to the ebony keys of a piano because of the dark wood pianos originally used for these keys to produce sharp and flat notes and because of the color itself. Ebony magazine, which was published to celebrate the culture and achievements of African Americans, uses the word and readers understand the title is referring back to color once again just as the Pharaoh Thutmose III did when he named his pet dog, HBNY.

It is quite reasonable to conjecture if one was in possession of a time machine, one could go back to the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt, say the word ebony, and have somebody know what was being said. This hypothetical time traveler wouldn’t get much further, of course! Not all remnants of ancient Egyptian in our modern language are so neat and easily recognizable as ebony. Another word traced from this ancient civilization to modern English is adobe. The ancient Egyptians would not recognize this word in the same fashion they would ebony, but without the original word used by the Egyptians, it would not be in modern vocabulary.

To begin charting the evolution of this ancient Egyptian word into modern English, one must look at the original hieroglyphs for the word “brick.” Examine Figure 4.

Figure 4:


(Rosmorduc, 2014).

To quickly explain these symbols, from left to right, first is a rather infrequently used bird, the Hoopoe, considered sacred from the oldest times in ancient Egypt (Marshall, 2015). This bird’s pronunciation, unlike the hooting sound produced by the actual animal, is “DJEB,” quite a mouthful. Following the bird is a foot, pronounced “b.” This sound is not spoken, the hieroglyph is placed here merely to reinforce the importance of the “b” sound in the first hieroglyph. On top of the stacked hieroglyphs, first is the symbol of a baked loaf of bread, pronounced “t,” and indicative of a feminine noun. Finally, there is an unvoiced determinative, a stone slab, which was placed at the end of the word to reinforce the meaning of the word is referring to a construction material. Put together, this is the ancient Egyptian word, “DJBT.” Vowels can be added between these letters to make a word which may have once sounded something like, “djebet.” Admittedly, this sounds nothing like the modern word, adobe, and would seem to go against this paper’s hypothesis.

Though adobe does not sound like the Egyptian word for brick, and modern usage of adobe does not mean brick in the same sense, this does not make it any less valid an example of ancient Egyptian’s linguistic survival. To think in such a way would be a classic example of the etymological fallacy, a misguided belief where a word must stick with its original conceptual meaning throughout its entire existence (Greene, 2011). Although the ancient Egyptian word referred to a mud brick and the modern word adobe means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a kind of clay used as a building material,” this is only a slight deviation in meaning. It would be absurd to suggest these terms are not related.

The author would propose it is hardly necessary for a word to sound exactly alike for it to still have merit as a piece of ancient vocabulary. After all, words in the English language are in a process of constant evolution. New words can still retain old meanings and are formed through the process of combining morphemes, adding a prefix or a suffix, shortening, clipping, or any other number of word-forming processes (Curzan & Adams, 2012.) One hardly refers to a man using the Old English “wer,” in this century, but the meaning is still understood when one hears about a “werewolf,” a wolf man. This word has not been in common usage since the fourteenth century and yet it still retains the original conceptual meaning (Hiskey, 2012).

Ancient Egyptians – and still some poor modern Egyptians – built their structures out of mud bricks. Even the pharaohs built their palaces with this material. These structures were covered in plaster and elaborately decorated, but the same materials were used for the very wealthy and the tragically poor (Mud Brick, n.d.). Although stone was readily available for construction, the Egyptians had little interest in using it for their domestic structures. They instead used the rich deposits of limestone and granite for their tombs and memorial temples, known as “Temple of Millions of Years” (Wilkinson, 2012). Stone would last through the ages, so they used it for these memorial constructions. Mudbrick was just fine for the living.

To fully chart the journey this word took, one must look at yet another ancient Egyptian script, the perplexing writing used as a kind of ancient Egyptian cursive, Demotic. Demotic was not used to record great victories on the walls of temples or to ensure everlasting life on the insides of tombs. It was used instead for “business, legal, scientific, literary, and religious documents” (Ager, n.d., para. 2). Curiously, it was chiseled into the Rosetta Stone, the source Jean-François Champollion initially used to crack the code of hieroglyphic text. Regardless of its usage, it is this script one must turn to next to see the next evolution of the ancient Egyptian word “DJBT.” When scribes put this word down on their papyrus scrolls, they would have written something like Figure 5.

Figure 5:


(Wilford, 2012).

It is not important to get deeply involved in the particular ink strokes which make up this word, mainly to understand in this simplified form of the original hieroglyphs, this is the word “TBY.” This word came into usage nearly seven hundred years after the Middle Egyptian “DJBT,” therefore one can begin to understand the shift in pronunciation, if not meaning. This still firmly means brick.

Unlike the word ebony, which evolved through Classic and Romantic languages, adobe grew up in the Middle East. The next language to come through Egypt, and as mentioned above was a continuation of the ancient Egyptian language, is Coptic. Coptic is written using Greek letters and brick in this language looks like Figure 6.

Figure 6:

Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 6.30.12 PM

(Wilford, 2012).

This Coptic word was pronounced as “tubey” and delightfully retains the feminine gender of the original ancient Egyptian noun (Coptic, n.d.). The history of the Middle East might best be understood through a study of its philological evolution. By tracing the diverse dialects and the similarities they shared, an understanding of the political developments which shaped this region is gained. This has never been more clearly demonstrated than the next shift the word took in its next adopted language.

Coptic was the language of a Christian community, and the nation of Egypt was largely Christian from the fourth century until the ninth century CE. During this time Coptic was the lingua franca of the Egyptian people, but like so many things in Egypt, this was not to last (Sauter, 2018). In the mid-seventh century CE, the Islamic Conquest of the nation began. Egypt was now ruled by Muslims, who were more interested in power and wealth than converting the people to a new religion. Of course this has changed and one need look no further than the newspaper every few months to see reports of a new attack on some of the nine million people still actively practicing Coptic Christianity in Egypt by Islamic extremists (Sauter, 2018). In addition to a new bureaucracy and rapid construction of mosques, the most profound change to Egypt was the introduction of the Arabic language (Kennedy, 2008).

Arabic was not frequently used in Egypt before this time, only the occasional visitor to Cairo might use Arabic, but after the Islamic Conquest, this changed quite rapidly. Rapidly implies great speed, and when looking a timeline of Egypt’s history, this conversion did happen quite quickly. In reality, it took centuries to become the main language of Egypt. Once it did become the common language, the word for brick was of course still necessary.

The Coptic pronunciation “tubey” was very little changed when it was adopted into Arabic. When written, it obviously looks nothing like the ancient hieroglyphs where it originated. Take a look at Figure 7.

Figure 7:

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 1.27.30 PM.png

(Wilford, 2012).

Like ancient Egyptian could be done, Arabic was read from right to left. Figure 7 shows the word still used in modern Arabic, “al-tube.” This word remains very similar to the Coptic word it was borrowed from, and proves to be the penultimate step on adobe’s journey to being a regularly used word in modern English.

The Islamic Conquest did not stop in Egypt. The culture, religion, and language of the Arab people swept across northern Africa and then skipped over the Strait of Gibraltar, which, at its narrowest, separates Africa from Europe by a distance of less than eight miles (Kennedy, 2008). The Arabs were now in Spain, and as languages have a wonderful way of doing, Arabic blended with the Spanish language.

To become the recognizable word adobe, the Arabic word made a slight transformation when adopted by Spanish speaking people, now referring to a material made of clay rather than a readymade brick. Between the two words required to say “the brick” in Arabic, there is a glottal stop, a vocal pattern never used in Romance languages like Spanish, so to make the word easier to say in Spanish, an elision occurred. An elision is the deletion or emission of a phenome in a word. The glottal stop in the original Arabic was removed and resulted in the modern Spanish word “adobe.” This word has entered the modern English lexicon and refers to a type of material used for, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, either “a kind of clay used as a building material,” or “a building constructed from adobe clay or bricks,” or most like its original meaning, “a brick formed from adobe.”

The word adobe has made quite a linguistic journey through the millennia to arrive in modern English. Unlike ebony, the appearance and pronunciation of this word has no obvious connection to the original word, but the conceptual meaning has remained true since its birth in Egypt. The hypothetical time traveler mentioned before could hardly go talk to ancient Egyptians about adobe, but looking back through the years it can be traced right back to this ancient civilization.

The two words presented in this paper have nothing at all to do with each other aside from the fact they have survived so long in their various forms from the same point of origin. It is intriguing to note, too, the perceived worth behind these words and what makes them so lasting. Ebony is an elegant material, refined, used by the elite and purchased by the wealthy. Its enormous value and privileged status as a material has allowed it to be preserved, like a mummy, over thousands of years as a treasured thing. Adobe, on the other hand, could not be more common. It is simply dried mud. Mud is not elite or precious. It is because of this, though, that it has remained a part of our vocabulary in its many. It was a necessary word because mud was a necessary item. Almost all ancient people in the Middle East used mud bricks in some form. For thousands of years, peasants lived in shelters made of mudbrick and reeds. At the same time, the great pharaohs of Egypt lived in palaces made of this very same material. It was necessary for people from all walks of life, and because of this commonality, the word remains in modern English.

Words and languages can die and go extinct. There is no point arguing this is not the case. Nobody can fully understand ancient Etruscan. For now, it is gone. Yet, like ancient Egyptian, there is hope it might be revived. It is the author’s belief that once etymologies of the ancient words still used are traced, it will be possible to resuscitate little bits of dead languages. After all, modern English does not use the majority of the Old English and Germanic words upon which it was originally based. One day long from now, the words written here will seem archaic and unintelligible. A few occasional words and phrases might be used in a thousand years, but the rest will be an old-fashioned curiosity. Like this example, hidden in the commonly used words of modern English, and tucked in the pages of dictionaries, it is possible to find words of great historic origin. Ebony and adobe live on in English, far removed from their Egyptian origins, and like the ka spirit of the Egyptian dead, they are reborn each time they are said.


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