Essays on the history of writing: Afro-Asiatic roots in Egyptian

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.

(Modern) extent of the Afro-Asiatic languages and key languages that have ancient written records (expressed in k = thousands of years before present). Berber and South Arabian are rather groups of languages than single languages, but are so named here for convenience.

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 Occupationsmanandhis-01

sn 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-.

“Once there were two brothers…” (From the Tale of the Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney)

Parts of the Human Bodyhuman_body-01-01

an cn “eye”. This is an Old Egyptian word, later replaced by the usual jrt jrt (which also has an Afro-Asiatic etymology). Derived from this obsolete root is the verb an2 cn “to glance”. A number of words with the phonetic combination cn have an_det as a complement. The obvious cognate is the word for “eye” in the Semitic languages: Akkadian akk_iinu 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 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 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-).

“The nose is blocked, it cannot breathe…” (from the Precepts of Ptah-Hotep, Papyrus Prisse)

ns 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 akk_lisaanu 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-).

tst 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 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 akk_libbu 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-).

“The good conduct of his heart and his tongue…” (from the Precepts of Ptah-Hotep, Papyrus Prisse)

qsw 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, Waterskyearth-01

mw 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 akk_mu , 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-.

“She did not pour water into his hands…” (from the Tale of the Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney)

nfw 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: akk_appu 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 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 akk_imnu 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 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 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-.

“And the stream carried it to Egypt…” (from the Tale of the Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney)

wad 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 akk_warqu warqu, Hebrew ירוק etc. Among the Berber languages, we have awraɣirwaɣ 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 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-.

Verbs verbs-01

mt 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 akk_maatu 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-).

“Death is reached…” (from the Precepts of Ptah-Hotep, Papyrus Prisse)

5 thoughts on “Essays on the history of writing: Afro-Asiatic roots in Egyptian”

  1. From an Afroasiatic lover, I loved this. Although I was taken aback by the mention of the age of Afroasiatic and farming because Omotic borrows most of its vocabulary from Semitic and Cushitic in those fields, but nonetheless this was absolutely wonderful. It’s good to see someone else writing about my native phylum despite its historical reconstructions being so questionable at the moment.


    1. Thanks! Well, I actually don’t think the spread of Afro-Asiatic has anything to do with farming, as it would imply a diffusion from the Near East. As for the age, I think there is a good environmental context in the period after 10,500 BP, when savannas dominated North Africa ( With desertification after 7,300 BP, branches like Egyptian and Berber would have been isolated. So, anything between 11 and 8 thousand years seems plausible to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hm, that’s an interesting viewpoint. The Saharan origin has always been hard to support and to my knowledge only individuals such a Diankoff and Bender have claimed it outright with little supporting evidence. It’s an interesting conclusion nonetheless I think after re-reading the only thing I can’t agree with is the idea of Semitic expanding due to the Bronze Age, because there’s a variety of evidence against such conclusions. I personally see Semitic as fairly old, and originally dispersing due to farming in the Horn of Africa and then moving to and expanding in Arabia toward the end of the Holocene due to pastoralism brought from the Near East, making the expansion of Northwest Central Semitic and Akkadian the only truly Bronze Age expansions.


    1. You are a very perceptive reader! Actually, what you say is right and is precisely what I meant. I don’t believe Afro-Asiatic originated in the Sahara, I think it expanded there from somewhere in the South during the humid period of 10-7 BP, then branches like Egyptian, Berber and Chadic became isolated with the retraction of the savannas that ensued. I was too laconic in expressing my thoughts about Semitic: the argument I wanted to make is that the Semitic languages spoken in the craddle of domestication in the Levant arrived there during the Bronze Age. Hence, Natufian/PPNA have to be dissociated from Afro-Asiatic. Similar to the European case that I wrote about previously, there are a bunch of (what I believe to be) very diverse Neolithic “survivors” in the Mesopotamia-Anatolia corridor, and none of them is Afro-Asiatic. This is what the next post will be about 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah okay! Entirely makes sense. I actually think you’d be really interested in Blench’s inter-Saharan hypothesis for the origin of Chadic which actually places Chadic as an offshoot of Cushitic that expanded along the wadis of Sudan and Chad toward the end of the Saharan wet phase. I’m definitely looking forward to your next posts!

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