by Patrick C. Ryan


There have been several different versions of vocalization proposed by Egyptologists for sDm.f, which, I think, have probably had many interested students wondering at the complexity of the subject.

From a comparative linguistic standpoint, the situation is more straightforward; and I hope will be easier to understand for those who have been intimidated by previous explanations.


The language (Nostratic) from which Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European are descended had a simple device for distinguishing between activity which was durative, i.e. pictured as lasting over time; or momentary, i.e. as an activity viewed from the point of its inception ("start to ...") or conclusion ("cease; stop").


In IE studies, this mechanism has already been recognized:

Lehmann writes: "...momentary and durative, was expressed primarily through forms of the durative by an accented and ... momentary by lack of principal accent on the root..." (Lehmann 1974: 186). For IE biliteral roots, this results in the patterns:

"CV-C(V) = durative

C(V)-"CV = momentary

As a consequence, an IE root like *der-, "run", has this form (which results from "dV-r(V), and is durative) but also occurs as *dra:-, which is momentary, and is the result of dV-"rV. Different nuances are associated with each: *dra:- means primarily "run away, flee"; this is "running" looked at as a single act with an outcome. *der-, on the other hand, means "run around", activity that continues for some time.


Contrary to what others have written, the earliest Egyptian had ONLY one vowel: a; however, it did have vocalic nuclei that were the result of earlier reduction of a+/j/ and a+/w/. Egyptian utilized biliterals to indicate these "unwritten" semi-vocalic additions: e.g. the biliteral MS represents M(I)S (cf. Coptic mIse, give birth [from *ma"isai]).

Loprieno rightly rejects some of the excesses of the "semitocentric" Berlin School [Ossing, Schenkel, etal.] (Loprieno 1995:75) but unfortunately accepts the primary SEMITOCENTRIC postulate: that Egyptian had an I-A-U vowel inventory. It did not.

So, a simple bi-consonantal root in Egyptian has basically two simple forms: e.g. *"Dam(a), durative, and *Da"ma, punctual. When additional formatives are added to the beginning of the word, such as s- (representing sa-), the stress-accent moves one syllable to the left: sa+"Dam(a) becomes "saDam(a); this is the form we see reflected in the Coptic infinitive so:tm after Egyptian backed a central low a (a in fAther) to back low o (o in nOt), and then lengthened and raised stress-acccented vowels in open syllables (*"so-tm, o - open and stressed -> so:-tm) [o has been raised to o: in nOte].

The punctual form also persists into Coptic in the imperative for some verbs: *sa+Da"ma = *ya"nai (from ini, "fetch") is Coptic e/anai (that is e/a-"na-i) though the simple infinitive is more commonly used in Coptic for the imperative so that the distinction between "be listening" and "start to listen" has been lost.

If you review the scheme recently proposed by John D. Ray (indicative: *saDmUf; prospective: *saDmAf; circumstantial: *saDmIf), you still see the Semtic triad (i-a-u) in its latest re-incarnation.

There is ABSOLUTELY no credible evidence for reconstructing U-I-A as components of Egyptian verbal forms; it is rather a speculative (Platonic) attempt to connect Egyptian morphology with the Semitic nominal pattern: nominative -u; genitive -i; accusative -a [which "must" be there somewhere!!!]. In addition, he postulates a doubling of the medial consonant for an emphatic form, patterned on the Semitic kat-taba, for which not a shred of evidence exists in Egyptian either.

Both durative and momentary forms were in use in earliest Egyptian.

Unfortunately, the terms imperfective and perfective have been and continue to be employed by some Egyptologists in a way contrary to the practice of other linguists. It is truly amazing that Egyptologists actually justify "special" definitions for many common linguistic terms when applied to Egyptian when it is quite unnecessary. Properly, perfective means "engaging in an activity to its logical completion"; e.g. "eating up the bread" as opposed to imperfective "eating (some) bread". Egyptian did have ways of indicating proper perfectives and imperfectives but this was not done through stress-accentual modifications of the plain root.

Edel (1955/64) says : "Die sDm.f-Form ist in sich nicht einheitlich"; and details the use of the momentary form which he characterizes as "zum Ausdruck des Perfekts" (pp. 213-215); e.g. h3b w(i) Hm.f, "His Majesty dispatched me", in which h3b was almost certainly conceptualized as a momentary act, and vocalized ha"Rab. Loprieno also cites this example (1995:77) and correctly illustrates that the stress-accent shifted because of the addition of a personal suffix; his proposed "/hVR'bif/" should, however, be emended to haR"baf (from *ha"Raba+fa -> *haRa"bafa).

It can also be "zum Ausdruck des Präsens und Futurs": Di Hm ir.t.f Hr-<.w, "(My) Majesty will have it accomplished immediately". It is treacherously easy to associate the imperfective with present and future occurences but the passage does not visualize the order of the king having a duration but is at a point in the future, hence punctual and momentary: and vocalized Da"ya.

Loprieno (1995:75) correctly perceives that the basic division among Egyptian verbs is based on whether the action takes place "before (past tense or preterite), in concomitance (present or unmarked tense), or after (future tense)".

Unfortunately, Egyptian did not indicate tense but only whether an action was concomitant, i.e. occurring at the same time, or non-concomitant, occurring in either the future or the past. The earliest mark of non-concomitance was prefixing i-, which I interpret as an adverbial element meaning "*then", either past or future (analogous with IE e-).

J. Vergote correctly captured the essence of this situation.

J. Vergote concluded: "A detailed examination...convinced me of the exactness of these three vocalizations and I have even proposed to complete, by means of the neutral vowel /a/, the unaccented syllables: såDmaf, saDåmmaf, saDmåf, which he labels perfective, imperfective, and prospective" (Vergote 1971: 56). For Vergote, å indicates a stress-accented a.

If we assume that the subject suffix of Egyptian drew the stress-accent one syllable to the right, then a durative form, "saDam(a) + fa will become sa"Damaf (not Vergote's "saDåmmaf" but essentially right).

The momentary form, sa"Dam(a) + fa will become saD"maf, which corresponds to Vergote's prospective, non-concomitant (future) time.

Early Egyptian (and Late Egyptian but Middle Egyptian hardly at all) shows forms with the i-prefix, which Elmar Edel calls "j-Augment", and discusses (Edel 1955/64: 199-203) its appearance in various verbal classes without assigning it a defined function.

The momentary form, *saD"maf, became *ya"saDmaf when prefixed with it. Since the form without ya- was distinctive, ya- could be deleted, leaving *"saDmaf (corresponding to Vergote's "såDmaf"). This new formulation could be used tense-like as a past opposed to *saD"maf, future (and therefore, prospective).

The proof that i- originally indicated any non-concomitant time is its employment in Coptic as a component of the imperative of bi-consonantal verbs: e.g. aco: (from *iDd from *ya+Da"da -> ya"Dad). An imperative, is, of course a kind of future.

Egyptian did have devices for indicating verbal aspects: imperfective (-w); perfective (-i); iterative (-t), and habitual ([partial] reduplication) as well as a verbal nominalization (-n), among others.

Dd.n Hm.f is properly translated "What His Majesty was saying." Dd.i.n Hm.f is "What His Majesty said."

The distinction between imperfective (-w) and perfective (-i) is clearly seen in *i, "come". The form iw implies the process of "coming"; the form ii focusing on the perfective result of "coming", i.e. "arriving".

It is also present in the so-called negative complement which occurs when needed in the negative imperative where a distinction could be made between m snD, "do not be frightened" and m snD.w, "do not be afraid".

It is pointless to speculate about ONE circumstantial form because the circumstance can be either "After I had ...ed." or "While I was".

The Egyptian clauses formed with iw are properly identified by Loprieno as clauses beginning with "while" (1995:91), coming as it does from i.w, "coming", i.e. "in progress"; in some cases "now", with the further implication of durative activity will be the smoother translation.

Much has been made of verbs which repeat the final consonant in certain forms; e.g. ir(i), to do.

A look at the texts will make it clear, even to beginners, that in each of the cases where irr occurs, the translation is improved by adding "always" or "ever".

In the earliest Egyptian, we see triconsonantal verbs doubling the final consonant to indicate habitual activity: the pious wish that their souls ...n Xf''...n 3mm (will NEVER be captured...will NEVER be seized ) by evil entities. This shows fairly conclusively that the original significance of a form like irr or mrr is "always/ever doing/loving or done/loved".

This analysis makes clear why so-called weak verbs, ending in -i, need to form infinitives in -t; since the -i connotes perfective, an element to suggest duration is needed: *ink m ii would mean "I am arrived"; in order to express repeated activity aimed at the goal of arriving, the iterative -t must be added: ink m ii.t, "I am arriving" contrasting with ink m iw.t, "I am coming".

A further now transparent use of -t is in the sDm.t.f form. Loprieno (1995:76) translates it as "he has/has been heard", showing that Egyptian verbs were originally neutral towards active or passive interpretations. What sDm.t.f conveys is that repeated listening has occurred, is occurring, or will occur; and the implication is even though this repeated listening takes place, all that could be heard has not necessarily been heard; it stops short of the perfective -i.

A final comment: it is difficult to believe that a phrase which literally means "Now I am in front of hearing" should translate "Now I am hearing"; would not iw.f Hr sDm be better translated as "I am about to hear"? As opposed to iw.f r sDm, "I am toward hearing" = "I intend to hear".

Is it not time to exorcise the semitocentric ghost from Egyptological studies?


Edel, Elmar. 1955/64. Altägyptische Grammatik. Rome: Pontificum Institutum Biblicum

Lehmann, Winfred P. 1974. Proto-Indo-European Syntax. Austin, Texas and London: University of Texas Press

Loprieno, Antonio. 1995. Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Vergote, J. 1971. Egyptian (40-67) in Afroasiatic: A Survey. Edited by Carleton T. Hodge. The Hague/Paris: Mouton

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