12 Nov 2011

A matter of the Egyptian heart

The Egyptians placed a lot of importance on the heart and it was believed to be the seat of the mind and the soul. In the English-speaking world, we usually treat "heart" as a symbolism of the feelings but for ancient peoples around the Mediterranean, it was instead the seat of reason and essence. They didn't realize yet the significance of the brain in that regard and of the bodily organs that Egyptian mummifiers traditionally preserved in their sacred rites, the brain wasn't one of them.

Considering how central the heart was to the ancient Egyptian perception of the soul, one would think we'd know how to pronounce the word by now. In hieroglyphs, it's represented only in consonants and we write this in standard orthography as ỉb. This unfortunately gives the false impression that we should just assume a pronunciation of /ib/. Indeed, Antonio Loprieno does reconstruct */jib/ and compares it directly with Semitic *libb- assuming in turn an Afro-Asiatic reconstruction of *lib (see Ancient Egyptian: A linguistic reconstruction [1995], page 31). So isn't that our answer?

I'm beginning to think it isn't. For one thing, this reconstruction could only work for the earliest stage of Egyptian before all instances of word-initial *y- were nullified in the language. Since the reed leaf symbol came to represent a glottal stop as a result, by the time of Middle Egyptian, we could only have had *ib at best. So isn't this our answer then?

To be honest something still seems off. The related Cushitic branch seems to instead point to *lub- with a rounded back vowel. If we derived an expectation of the Egyptian form from that piece of external data, we'd arrive at *ub, not *ib! Adding to the difficulty is that Coptic has replaced the word for "heart" with a completely different word, hēt (from ḥȝty). No clues there.

So what can we rely on to decide the matter? I finally came across the Hebraicized name Ḥophraˁ, the name of a pharaoh of the sixth century BCE. The original Egyptian form is represented in hieroglyphic writing as wȝḥ-ỉb-rˁ. It suggests that ỉb was at that point pronounced like the -oph- in Ḥophraˁ, causing me to want to side with the Cushitic reconstruction. Therefore *ub seems far more sensible than Loprieno's *(y)ib.

I'm curious about this word lately and want to get it right because of the parallel Proto-Berber form reconstructed as *ulβ. I wonder then if this might suggest that Proto-Berber had coloured the prothetic vowel with the original quality of the root vowel now lost between the two surviving consonants. If so, I have no clue how to account for the *i in Semitic *libb- however. The Semitic vocalism of the root now becomes the outlier.


  1. If the prefix was colored to *u- in Berber, this is at least a process not yet documented. Might be something to look into at one point.

    Although there is no direct evidence for it, the Afro-Asiatic recontruction probably does motivate a Proto-Berber reconstruction *uləv. Nothing in the Berber evidence suggests that the schwa wasn't there. Just nothing in favor either. So deeper comparative evidence makes the final decision. If you'd want to avoid that *ul(ə)v would still be the more accurate reconstruction.

    I've started writing the blog article on the PB *u, but it's gonna be a long one.

  2. I'm pissing in the wind here, but I'm oddly reminded of the "long schwa" phenomenon PhoeniX discussed in February - to what extent can the thinking from that discussion be transplanted to this one?

  3. Could you precise further on the idea you have in mind?

  4. Interesting post. As far as I know, Loprieno's *i is uncertain. The Papyrus BM 10808 (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_BM_10808) gives eeb-, which could reflect old *jib- or *jub-, but not *jab-. The Hebrew transcription is very interesting, but unfortunately it does not tell us much, since it is from the 1st millenium B.C., when /o/ reflected old /a/, while old /u/ had become /a/ or /ee/ (as in Coptic). I don't know of any other evidence for the vocalization.