Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache (of Doom!)


On Thursdays from 8 AM-12 PM, the five undergraduates studying Egyptology at Johns Hopkins would gather in the Near Eastern Studies room—nicknamed “the Fish Bowl”—of Gilman Library’s basement for four rollicking hours of uninterrupted Middle Egyptian text reading. Presented here, in a fairly regular manner, will be some of my favorites from that class.


When people discover that I was an Egyptology major in college, they ask me why I didn’t continue my formal studies of ancient Egypt. After explaining my solid conviction that I have no desire to spend the rest of my days alternating between the basement of a library and the 115 degree heat of the Giza Plateau, I then add, “Besides which, I never learned German.” Most think this is a joke. It isn’t.

It was largely assumed, when one entered the graduate text reading classes, that the student was fluent in German. Discussions usually drifted – oftentimes mid-sentence – into unser Verstandis der Koenigslexicon, und sein Verhaltnis zur der grosser Priesten. This is because those who enter the (insanely rigorous) German academic system not only have to earn a Doctorate, they also have to earn a Professorship – a process that can often take many, many years, most of this time being spent on insanely specific and/or thorough investigations of pretty much any aspect of ancient life one could imagine (I once came across a dictionary of Egyptian nautical terms). Thus, most of the good scholarship in Egyptology comes from Germany.

When a heady, young student first enters an introductory course in Middle Egyptian, he usually start with Raymond Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, a hand-written, 349 page single-volume work containing 5,400 of the most common words found on monuments, papyri, and stelae (I’m convinced that the only people who use Budge‘s dictionary are those who believe the Egyptians were aliens, or those who want Anubis’s name tattooed across their ankle). My favorite Amazon customer reviews on Faulkner’s work are those that complain about the dictionary being handwritten. If somebody wants to build a keyboard containing the more than 1,000 hieroglyphic sign, each found in a variety of sizes and running from left-to-right, right-to-left, bottom-to-top, or top-to-bottom, then they’re more than welcome to do so. In the meantime, we’ll just have to make do with hand-written dictionaries.

As one would imagine, the Egyptian language contains many nuances, including visual puns, religious allusions, and variant spellings, and at a certain point, Faulkner’s book doesn’t quite cut it. That’s where the seven hefty volumes of the Egyptian-to-German Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache come in.

Obviously, seven volumes of Wörterbuch don’t just sprout out of thin air. Working from 1897, Prof. Adolf Erman and Prof. Hermann Grapow started to work on collecting every instance of every word ever found in the Egyptian language. Erman and Grapow spent 30 years gathering, cataloguing, and organizing over 1.5 million entries, thus producing the dictionary Egyptologists use today. (I believe most of the 1.5 million notes were incinerated when a bomb struck the Berlin Academy during World War 2.)

I have a photocopied version of the Wörterbuch, which I’ve affectionately nicknamed my Wörterbuch of Doom! Below, I’ve posted pages 242-243 of the Wörterbuch‘s first volume – the beginning of the quail chick section – or, for those of you currently residing in library basements, Bird Sign G43 of Sir Alan Gardiner‘s Sign List. More on that, next time, here at GB,HR’s Matters Archeological &. Egyptological.


1 Comment

Filed under Matters Archeological &. Egyptological//

One response to “Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache (of Doom!)

  1. Desmarais

    I love this! It is so true about Egyptologists (as one myself). We do frequently change languages in mid sentence. And the Worterbuch…I used to absolutely hate that thing. Now we’re on friendly terms.

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