As I have mentioned previously, Afro-Asiatic is an extremely important language family. Not only because it includes two of the earliest languages ever recorded in writing – Egyptian and Akkadian – but also for a reason somewhat related to that: it is old, very old, possibly twice as old as Indo-European (unless you favour the Anatolian hypothesis). Yet, Afro-Asiatic is recognisable as a family and it can be reconstructed, giving hope to the supporters of long-range comparisons in a number of other cases worldwide.
It could be argued that such recognition is only due to the fact that we have records of some of its branches since nearly five thousand years. Well, Indo-European has also a long (though not as long) tradition of written languages, and the fact that we can compare Latin, Greek and Sanskrit (not to mention Hittite) greatly facilitates the work of reconstruction. It was the similarity between those ancient languages that led to the recognition of Indo-European as a family, but no one would seriously doubt that one could arrive at the same conclusion or that Proto-Indo-European could be reconstructed based solely on the modern languages. As for Afro-Asiatic, the same holds true: even it might have started to split around 10 thousand years ago or even earlier, we would still recognise it as a family solely based on languages spoken today.
The antiquity of Afro-Asiatic cannot be questioned: the Egyptian language is well attested since a bit less than five thousand years ago (or more if you consider Predynastic seals, although they cannot be read with certainty in the way later inscriptions can). Akkadian, the second oldest Afro-Asiatic language ever recorded, starts to be written around 4500 years before present. Yet, the differences between those languages are so large that they must have begun to diverge millennia before that. In the table to the left you can see around 20 words of basic vocabulary in Egyptian and Akkadian. Only two of those (highlighted in red) are cognates, descending from a common root in Proto-Afro-Asiatic (be aware that the words for ‘two’, sn and šina, and for ‘to give’, rdj and nadānu, are not related, despite the superficial resemblance).
The spread of Afro-Asiatic has been thought to be intimately connected with the dispersal of farming, and its age is certainly consistent with that. Interestingly, the modern distribution of the family roughly coincides with the distribution of Y-chromosome haplogroup E1b1b (a.k.a. E-M35), which is also assumed to have arrived in Europe during the Neolithic (though it is not really as frequent in archaeological samples as G2a, and a lot of the presence of E-M35 in the Iberian peninsula could be explained by recent gene flow from North Africa). Recent genetic research has shown that individuals from the earliest culture of settled hunter-gatherers of the Levant, called Natufian, belonged to this haplogroup. Natufians lived around 12500 years ago in the key region of western Eurasia where domestication of a number of cereals and animals has taken place, and they were followed, ca. 11500 years ago, by the first Neolithic cultures of the Near East – samples of which were also found to belong to haplogroup E. On the other hand, the spread of E-M35 could have happened long before the Neolithic, and to assume that its carriers expanded from the Levant to Africa, largely replacing the local populations, simply does not agree with the archaeological record. Furthermore, it would imply a Western Eurasian Urheimat for the Afro-Asiatic family, whereas the highest diversity within the family is undoubtedly found in Africa.
Thus, it is reasonable to situate Proto-Afro-Asiatic somewhere in Eastern Africa around 10 millennia ago or more, but whether its expansion has anything to do with the spread of farming and E-M35 is uncertain. The two latter might be connected in the Levant and in Europe, but I would argue that European Neolithic farmers almost certainly did not speak an Afro-Asiatic language. Rather, it seems that the big expansion of Semitic – the only Afro-Asiatic branch in Eurasia – was, like Indo-European, a Bronze Age phenomenon (more about that in the future…).
P.S.: As I was finishing writing this post, this new paper was published showing a genetic affinity between ancient Egyptians and modern Near Eastern/Anatolian populations, in contrast with modern Egyptians, who have a higher contribution from Sub-Saharan Africa. The individuals that were sequenced for the Y-chromosome belonged, unsurprisingly, to haplogroups J and E1b1b.
In any case, this will be a light, almost recreational post, showing Afro-Asiatic roots that made it into Egyptian and, later, Coptic basic vocabulary. The comparison with Akkadian shown above is somewhat unfair, since many basic Egyptian words actually have cognates in Akkadian and many other Afro-Asiatic languages, even though the semantic correspondence is not exact. We will see how a language family can still be recognised even after ten thousand years (let’s say nine and a half, since Coptic is no longer spoken except as a liturgical language).
NOTE: I offer below a few examples of languages from each branch of Afro-Asiatic. The complete etymologies are available in Sergei Starostin’s site. The Proto-Afro-Asiatic forms (PAA) given at the end of each etymology are taken from the reconstructions of Militarev and Stolbova in that website. When the form originally reconstructed by Orel and Stolbova differs, I note it in parenthesis (OS). Just for the fun of it, some words are accompanied by examples from hieratic papyri, with the respective hieroglyphic equivalents and transliteration.
Man and his Occupations
sn *san “brother”. In Coptic, ⲥⲟⲛ. A very common Egyptian word, with cognates in quite a few Afro-Asiatic branches. In the Chadic languages, for example, we find Cagu šǝn, Dangla sino, and others. The Cushitic languages have Beja saan, Bilin šan and Gawwada aššinko – the later meaning “nephew”. PAA *san-/sin-.
Parts of the Human Body
cn “eye”. This is an Old Egyptian word, later replaced by the usual jrt (which also has an Afro-Asiatic etymology). Derived from this obsolete root is the verb cn “to glance”. A number of words with the phonetic combination cn have as a complement. The obvious cognate is the word for “eye” in the Semitic languages: Akkadian īnu, Arabic عين, Hebrew עין, Amharic አይን etc. In the Chadic languages, the cognate for this word appears in the verb “to see”, as in Bole (closely related to Hausa) ‘inn-. Among the Omotic languages, a very divergent branch of Afro-Asiatic, we have Bench an “eye”. PAA *ʕayVn-.
jrt *jārat “eye”. The usual word in Coptic is ⲃⲁⲗ, but ⲉⲓⲁ and ⲉⲓⲉⲣ persisted in prefixes. This has cognates in the word for “eye” among many Chadic languages: Zaar yīr, Musgu arai, Mubi irin etc. Among the Cushitic languages, we find Beja iray- “to see” and Iraqw ara “eye”. PAA *ʔir-.
fnd “nose”. This root is not so well attested in other Afro-Asiatic branches, but it is there. In Chadic, it appears in words for “hole” or “mouth”, as in Sura fuŋ and Pa’a vingi, respectively. In the Cushitic languages, we have a possible cognate in Beja gunuf “nose”. The final d /dʒ/ in Egyptian must have been palatalised from /g/. PAA *fung– (OS *funVg-).
ns *nīs “tongue”. In Coptic, ⲗⲁⲥ. This is a widespread root in Afro-Asiatic. In Semitic, as noted in the table in the beginning of the post, we have Akkadian lišānu and, among modern languages, Arabic لسان, Hebrew לשון, Amharic መላስ etc. Berber languages have ilǝs or ils. In the Chadic branch, we have cognates in many languages, as in Angas leus, Musgu εlεsi, Dangla lēse etc. Egyptian did not have an independent glyph for /l/, although this phoneme must have been present, given the evidence from Coptic. Cognates of words with /l/ in other Afro-Asiatic languages were written with n, r or j in Egyptian. PAA *lis– (OS *les-).
ts “tooth”. There are not many cognates for this word, evidence being mostly limited to the Cushitic branch, with Beja koos “tooth” and Qwadza koʔosiko “molar”. As in the case for “nose”, the initial t /tʃ/ must have been palatalised from the original /k/. PAA *kV(ʔ)Vs– (OS *kos-).
jb *jib “heart”. This is a beautiful etymology, with cognates in many branches of Afro-Asiatic. The Semitic languages are an obvious example, with Akkadian libbu, Arabic لب, Hebrew לב, Amharic ልብ etc. In the Chadic languages, this root is represented by forms like Kilba libibi, Musgoy lib (meaning “belly”) and Mokilko ʔulbo. The Cushitic branch has Afar lubbi, Somali laab and Sidamo lubbo – the later meaning “soul”. Finally, Omotic (this very divergent branch of Afro-Asiatic!) can be included in this etymology, with Anfillo yiboo “heart”. PAA *libb-/lubb– (OS *lib-/lub-).
qs “bone”. In Coptic, ⲕⲁⲥ. This word is not well attested in Semitic, with few examples like Arabic قص “chest (bone”). In the Berber languages, however, we find a good cognate in the usual word for “bone”, iɣǝs or similar variants. The Chadic languages are also well represented, with Hausa k’ašii, Musgu kεskεε, Dangla kaaso and many others, all meaning “bone”. In Cushitic, a few examples exist, like Warazi mik’eče. Finally, among the Omotic languages, we may cite Nao k’us. In summary, this word has cognates in all Afro-Asiatic branches. PAA *ḳ(ʷ)as– (OS *ḳaċ-).
Sky, Earth, Water
mw *māw “water”. In Coptic, ⲙⲟⲟⲩ. This is, of course, a very basic word, and it has many obvious cognates in other Afro-Asiatic languages. In fact, words for “water” with the general form mV– are widespread in other families, as exemplified by a famous Nostratic etymology. But let’s stick to Afro-Asiatic. Curiously, it is not attested in many branches. Among the Semitic languages, we have Akkadian mū, Arabic ماء, Hebrew מים etc. Cognates in the Chadic languages are not many: we have Guruntum ma, Gude maʔine, among a few others. In the Cushitic languages, cognates of this word appear in Beja muʔ “liquid”, Iraqw maʔay and Dahalo maʔa. PAA *maʔ-.
nf “breath, wind”. In Coptic, ⲛⲓϥⲉ. Perhaps this should have been included among the parts of the human body, especially given the meaning this root acquired in some Afro-Asiatic branches. The cognates of Egyptian nf mean “nose” in the Semitic languages: appu, Arabic أنف, Hebrew אף etc. In Chadic languages, it came to mean “to breathe” or “life”, as in Daba nip and Tera nifi respectively. The Cushitic languages also include similar semantic shifts. Thus, we have Beja nifi “to blow”, Saho naf “to breathe; soul”, Afar neef “face”, and Somali naf “soul, life”. Finally, the Omotic languages can be included in this etymology, e.g. Kafa naf “to blow, swell”. PAA *(ʔa–)naf-/(ʔa–)nif– (OS *naf-).
jmnt “west”. In Coptic, ⲉⲙⲛⲧ. The West is not just a cardinal direction in Egyptian: it is also the land of the dead, where Osiris reigns. This word also happens to have an interesting Afro-Asiatic etymology. In the Semitic languages, the cognates mean “right” or “right hand”: Akkadian imnu, Arabic يمنى, Hebrew ימין etc. In Hausa, the most widely spoken Chadic language, the meaning is closer to Egyptian: yammaa “westward”. The trick is to think that, if you have the South, not the North, as your reference, then the West will be at your right hand side! PAA *yamin-.
km “black”. In Coptic, ⲕⲁⲙⲉ. This is an important word, since it is the root of the name for Egypt itself in the ancient language: kmt *kūmat (ⲕⲏⲙⲉ in Coptic), the “black land”, a reference to the fertile soil in the Nile floodplain in contrast with the surrounding desert. Unfortunately, it does not have many cognates in other Afro-Asiatic languages. Evidence is limited to the Chadic and Cushitic languages. In the Chadic branch, semantics have changed a little bit, as in Buduma kaimē “shadow” and Awiya kəmən “evening”. In the Cushitic languages, correspondence is more obvious, with Gawwada kumma “black”. PAA *kum-.
w3d *wāʀid “green”. In Coptic, ⲟⲩⲱⲧ. This etymology is somewhat ambiguous, but I will assume that the best cognates are in the words for “green” in the Semitic and Berber languages. In the Semitic branch, we have Akkadian warqu, Hebrew ירוק etc. Among the Berber languages, we have awraɣ, irwaɣ and related forms, sometimes meaning “yellow”. Presumably, as in a few other roots listed above, there was a palatalisation from q > d in Egyptian. PAA *wVraḳ– (OS *wVriḳ-).
qbb *qabab “cool” (actually a verb, “to be cool”). In Coptic, ⲕⲃⲟ. The only cognates are found in the Cushitic languages, as in Somali qabow “cold”. Nevertheless, I thought I should include it! PAA *ḳab-.
mwt “to die”. In Coptic, ⲙⲟⲩ. Unlike the previous one, this is a very common and widespread root – and “to die” seems like an appropriate way to finish this list! In the Semitic languages, cognates include Akkadian mātu, Arabic مات, Hebrew מת, Amharic ሞተ etc. Berber, on its turn, has əmmət. Among the Chadic languages, we can cite Hausa mutu, Buduma matte, Dangla mate, and many others. Cushitic languages also have cognates for this root, as exemplified by Somali mōd “death”. PAA *mawVt– (OS *mawut-).