Elements of Characterisation in Middle Egyptian Language

All languages are made up of various elements, which are used to construct sentences and phrases. These sentences and phrases are then used for any number of purposes, from telling a story to describing a person, place or event. In Egyptian texts, there are a number of ways people and events were described and characterised. Often, characterisations are used to emphasise the deceased persons good deeds, ensuring they are recognised for eternity for their accomplishments and ethical behaviours. The grammatical concepts present in ancient Egyptian characterisations are used on monumental inscriptions and non-royal inscriptions to provide a narration of ordinary events and to describe people. They can also be used to denote the owner of a tomb, or the donor of a stela.

Characterisation sentences are a type of non-verbal sentence, which explains the property and qualities of the subject (Collier 2004:37). There are numerous elements present in the construction of characterisations. Relative Forms, pronouns, nty-clauses and participles are just a few important parts of these sentences. Each is key in providing a characterisation of an event or a person.

In characterisations, adjectives can be used as a predicate, preceding the noun. The sentence is then constructed as adjective followed by subject (Collier 2004:37).

nfr pr=ì wsh st=ì

My house is splendid, my place is spacious.

Participles are verbs created for the purpose of working with adjectives. They also are used to express a relative clause in a single word (Allen 2001:319). There are five types: present (incomplete active), past (complete active), present (incomplete passive), past (complete passive) and future. When expressing the present (incomplete action), doubling, weak and extra weak verbs will double. Passive participles often look similar to active participles, and weak verbs usually have a y or w ending.

Participles can also act as nouns, and denote both a verb and it’s subject (Allen 2001:345). They are the main way of expressing a direct relative clause with a verbal predicate ìn Egyptian, and can be paraphrased by relative clauses (Allen 2001:345). Using the ìnk + noun + participle formula emphasises the person doing the action in a participle statement. The formula is the equivalent of “it is he who did,” highlighting the person performing an action (Collier 1998:100).

Relative forms characterise or attribute something to a noun. Although they agree with the antecedent, they have their own subject. The relative clause can be used in the present or the past. The can also be used as nouns to represent abstract concepts such as ‘what’ or ‘that which’.

ìnk b3k=f m3c ìr hsìt=f nb

I am his true servant who does that which he favours everyday.

Relative forms consist of both direct and indirect relative clauses. Direct relative clauses involve the subject of the verb being the same as the antecedent, while indirect relative clauses consist of the subject of the verb being different (Allen 2001:345).

Also a part of characterisation and relative forms, ìnk is used to describe someone with particular morals, successes and achievements (Collier 1998:97). nty-clauses work with participles and relative forms as a connecting word. Usually, the meaning is who, which or what. nty usually characterises through location where participles and relative forms characterise people, things and events through actions. nty is the masculine singular. In the plural, it is seen as ntw. Feminine form appears as ntt, with plural also appearing as ntt.

nsw ntw ìm

The king of those who are there.

Dependent pronouns are also part of characterisation in ancient Egyptian. There are three uses of these pronouns, the first being used after initial particles as the subject (mk –wì ìì.kw). Second, they can be used as the subject of an adjectival predicative (nfr –sw), and lastly as the object of suffix conjugation verb forms (ìw m3.n=ì –sw). They are always used after some other word, and never stand alone (Allen 2001:49).

The various elements that make up Egyptian characterisations can help us learn more about the people buried in the tombs of ancient Egypt. There are a number of possible ways these descriptions can be constructed, but the important grammatical elements are always present. This gives us just another way to peer into the lives of the ancient Egyptians.

    Works Cited:
  • Allen, James P. 1999 Middle Egyptian: an introduction to the language and culture of hieroglyphs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Collier, Mark. 2004 Further Hieroglyphs: module notes
  • Collier, Mark. and Bill Manley. 1998 How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs, London: British Museum Press