Iâ€™ve decided that it might be interesting to share some of my favourite Egyptian words each week, so that even if you donâ€™t read hieroglyphs, you can enjoy some of the flavour and character of the language that is often lost in translation.
The basis of certain words and the special ways in which they were used can give us key insights into Egyptian culture and the way the people thought. For example, the Egyptians were very keen on puns or play-on-words, which often formed a key symbolic part of religious and political ideology. Also, although hieroglyphs werenâ€™t just simplistic representative pictures, their pictorial form was still significant and often exploited in art and texts. And sometimes itâ€™s not just our understanding of Egyptian culture that can be enlightened by examining Egyptian wordsâ€”sometimes itâ€™s our own culture as well. Some Egyptian words have made it into modern languages, including English.
I remember learning one of my favourite examples of an Egyptian loan word into English back during my undergraduate degree in Toronto when we read an inscription about Queen Hatshepsutâ€™s trading expedition to the exotic land of Punt (which some argue is modern Eritrea). The word is hbny and you might be able to guess what the English loan word is!
hbny is written like this:
with the phonetic â€˜hâ€™ symbolâ€”a walled courtyard, the symbol for â€˜bâ€™â€”a leg, a plow sign that is the phonetic symbol for ‘hb’, the squiggly line depicting water that is the phonetic â€˜nâ€™ sign, two dashes representing the sound â€˜yâ€™, and a branch symbol acting as a determinative to the word to specify itâ€™s wood-related meaning. hbny is the word for the dark tropical hardwood that we call â€˜ebonyâ€™. Weâ€™ve just simply dropped the â€˜hâ€™ sound from the Egyptian word.
The word was borrowed by the Greeks and entered into English. So whenever you say â€˜ebonyâ€™, bear in mind that youâ€™re speaking ancient Egyptian!
Some examples of the wordâ€™s use in Egyptian texts can be found in lists of luxury products from foreign countries, such as in the autobiographical inscription in the rock-cut tomb of the official Harkhuf, describing the products he acquired during his travels:
Here is my translation of the above text transcribed in Sethe 1932, 126: ‘I returned with 300 donkeys, which were laden with incense, ebony, hekenu-oil, sat, moringa oil, panther skins, ivory tusks, throwsticks, and all good products’.
hbny is also used in the Punt expedition text that I mentioned above. A relief from the temple depicting Punt is pictured below:
In the temple of Hatshepsut (the Egyptian queen who ruled as king) at Deir El Bahri, over an image of ships being loaded with the products of Punt, is the inscription:
â€˜The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of Godâ€™s Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivoryâ€¦Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginningâ€™ (translation from Breasted 1906-7 vol.2, 263-5).
‘hbny and ivory’. So it turns out that that old Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder lyric is actually over three thousand years old!