Egyptian Influences in Semitic Languages

This past Wednesday, the ANELC eLecture was presented by Dr. Aaron Rubin, a Semiticist at Penn State University. Dr. Rubin walked us through linguistic exchanges that suggest kinship between Egyptian and Semitic languages. Semitic languages and Egyptian are two branches of a group of ancient Near Eastern languages referred to as Afroasiatic. Dr. Rubin’s presentation reviews evidence of shared features joining these branches.

While Semitic languages and Egyptian do not seem at first glance to have much in common, there are enough shared grammatical features to suggest a connection. Dr. Rubin demonstrated similarities between Akkadian, Hebrew, Egyptian grammar features in a number of areas. Some of these included pronominal suffixes, enclitic pronouns, broken plurals, feminine endings, uses of m, occurrence of n for repetitive sounds, verbal forms and stem parallels, including the shared causative stem prefix š, a final t occurring in certain forms, and others. Rubin’s list of examples that demonstrated semblance between Semitic and Egyptian languages was impressive. These connections in the grammar provide compelling evidence for considering a shared linguistic history.

In addition to commonalities in grammatical features, there are also instances of Egyptian and Semitic words occurring in texts of the other. Rubin showed an example of a proto-Semitic ostracon which contained Egyptian numerals. He also noted that scholars have presented occasions where Semitic roots occur in Egyptian texts. One especially interesting proposal was that of Dr. Richard Steiner, who submits the possibility of Semitic loanwords in a 24th C. BCE Egyptian Pyramid Text. This is a minority reading, which, if supported, would certainly offer an incredibly early attestation of Semitic linguistic influence! More importantly, the proposal offers further evidence of contact between Semitic and Egyptian languages.

The shared features and linguistic influences between Egyptian and Semitic languages in the ancient Near East is significant to Hebrew Bible studies. Scholars have already pointed out a large number of Egyptian roots and words in the Hebrew Bible (particularly in the book of Exodus). Aside from the commonly recognized Egyptian words, like Pharaoh, the names of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam all have Egyptian origins.

Borrowed and shared language is evidence of sustained contact between the cultures for a significant period of time. The implications of such contact can extend beyond linguistic influences. Other areas of comparative research have suggested commonalities of world view, legislative and ethical virtues, and even basic religious ideals. Not many Hebrew Bible scholars become Egyptologists, but there is a strong connection between ancient societies of Egypt and the Levant. It is a context worth exploring.

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