Greek Transcriptions


The rendering of Egyptian proper names into Greek characters was a first step toward the writing of Egyptian in an alphabetical script, that is, toward the creation of the Coptic script (see PRE-COPTIC). These proper names are mainly thousands of Egyptian anthroponyms, toponyms, and temple names, as well as names of gods, divine epithets, and sacerdotal titles, written in the Greek alphabet in order to adapt them to, and insert them into, a Greek context.

Apart from Homer (ninth century B.C.), where one finds, for instance, the first mention of the term A guptoj, the oldest real examples are from the Saite period (Twenty-sixth Dynasty), when Greek mercenaries and merchants were present in Egypt. To this early period belongs the famous Greek graffito of Abu Simbel (on Egypt’s southern border), which dates back to 589 B.C. and which contains, among other things, the name of a well-known Egyptian general, rendered as Potasimto (see Dittenberger, 1915, no. 1). As early as Herodotus, who must have visited Egypt around 430, the language problem the Greeks had to cope with in Egypt appears clearly in the evidence.

Writing for Greeks, Herodotus gave several Egyptian gods the names of Greek counterparts (e.g., “Hephaestos” for “Ptah,” and “Aphrodite” for “Hathor”), but he had to transcribe the “barbarian” personal names into Greek characters. Apart from a number of words adopted in the Greek vocabulary (e.g., „ bij, œbenoj, Ôasij; see Pierce, 1971), there are only a few, quite exceptional cases of indigenous generic names that are transliterated into Greek, such as pirwmij (Herodotus 2.143), corresponding to the Bohairic pirwmi, the man, the human being.

Following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great (332 B.C.), a large number of Greeks settled in the Nile Valley, and with the establishment of Ptolemaic rule, Greek became, along with Egyptian, a commonly spoken tongue. The increasing contact between natives and Greek-speaking people in everyday life and on a more intellectual level led to rather widespread bilingualism on the upper levels of native Egyptian society (see, e.g., Peremans, 1982).

A number of Greek words were even adopted by demotic (see Clarysse, 1984); they can be considered distant forerunners of the Copto-Greek vocabulary (see VOCABULARY, COPTO-GREEK). Throughout the Roman occupation (from 30 B.C. onward) and until the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT (640 AD.), Greek remained the language of the administration.

The innumerable Greek documentary texts from the end of the fourth century B.C. and later (contracts, letters, tax lists, inventories, etc., written mostly on papyrus, ostraca, or wooden tags) contain numerous Egyptian proper names written in Greek letters, usually provided with a Greek ending to integrate them better into the Greek context. It is clear that the Greek phonological system was quite different from the Egyptian and that the Greek alphabet was not an ideal means to render Egyptian. Thus, the schwa had to be rendered by e or o (see Lacau, 1970, pp. 131-36) and consonants such as d or t, unknown in Greek, were written in various ways (see Quaegebeur, 1973, p. 99).

Although the graphic transposition can vary widely, detailed study clearly reveals some systemization in the transliterations. Many of the scribes of Greek documents were Egyptians, so one need not be surprised that attempts were made to write sequences of words, short sentences, or formulas in the Greek alphabet. Since the intention here is less restricted than, and different from, the purpose of the Greek transcriptions of Egyptian proper names, and since it concerns here only a temporary stage in an evolution, these cases merit separate treatment (see PRE-OLD COPTIC).

From the first century AD. onward, there appeared Egyptian texts, most of a magical or related nature, in which the Greek alphabet was enlarged with a varying number of supplementary signs derived from demotic (see OLD COPTIC). One can also notice in Greek transcriptions of Egyptian proper names, especially from the later Roman period, that occasionally supplementary signs were used to render phonemes that do not occur in Greek, such as and . Since they were incorporated in Greek texts (often without Grecization), these cases are also regarded as Greek transcriptions. Greek texts containing transcriptions of Egyptian proper names continued to appear along with Coptic until about the eighth century (i.e., even after the Arab conquest).

A special case is the collection of texts published by Crum (1939b). These documents of the eighth century or later in the Coptic language are written in a cursive hand making exclusive use of the Greek alphabet. They are much too late to be considered Pre- Old Coptic and seem to represent a particular idiom related to BOHAIRIC (see DIALECT G).

The importance of the Greek transcriptions for the study of Coptic is apparent from, among others, Crum (1939a), Cerny (1976), and Vycichl (1983). The toponyms in Greek transcription mentioned by Crum have also been registered in a separate index (see Roquet, 1973), but for the numerous anthroponyms incorporated in his dictionary, there is no index. In this field, indeed, much work remains to be done (see, e.g., Quaegebeur, 1981). A comparison of Coptic with the data of the Greek transcriptions can be important for various research aspects. Thus, for instance, Coptic orthography sometimes reveals the influence of Greek transcriptions, such as y for p (ps).

As for the study of phonetics, the occasional rendering of f by (o)u can be mentioned: for example, -euthmij alongside nefqimij, and hippef for ƒppeÚj (see Quaegebeur, 1974, p. 417, and 1978, p. 255). With Coptic and, for much earlier periods, cuneiform transcriptions, Greco-Egyptian onomastics also supply interesting information on the vocalization of Egyptian, which in its own written form noted only the consonants; mention can be made of research on word accent and word formation (see Fecht, 1960; Vergote, 1973; Osing, 1976).

Finally, the study of spoken dialects and their dispersion must be undertaken for the Pre-Coptic period in the light of present knowledge of Coptic dialects. A methodical investigation in this field (of which the first results, Ouaegebeur, 1975, were challenged by Brunsch, 1978, on—in the view of this author—inadequate and insufficient grounds) is being continued.


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