Meroitic language

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Meroitische Inschrift, Meroe 1. Jh. n. Chr., Aegyptisches Museum, Muenchen-1.jpg
Meroitic inscription (1st century CE), Egyptian Museum of Berlin
Native toKingdom of Kush
RegionSouthern part of Upper Egypt around Aswan (Lower Nubia) to the Khartoum area of Sudan (Upper Nubia).
EraPossibly attested as early as 12th Dynasty Egypt (ca. 2000–ca. 1800 BCE) and fully extinct no later than the 6th century CE
Meroitic alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3xmr

The Meroitic language (

Meroitic alphabet: Meroitic Cursive, which was written with a stylus and was used for general record-keeping; and Meroitic Hieroglyphic, which was carved in stone or used for royal or religious documents. It is poorly understood, owing to the scarcity of bilingual


Meroitic is an extinct language also referred to in some publications as Kushite after the apparent attested endoethnonym[1][2] Meroitic qes, qos (transcribed in Egyptian as kꜣš).[3] The name Meroitic in English dates to 1852 where it occurs as a translation of German Meroitisch. The term derives from Latin Meroē, corresponding to Greek Μερόη. These latter names are representations of the name of the royal city of Meroë of the Kingdom of Kush.[4] In Meroitic, this city is referred to as bedewe (or sometimes bedewi), which is represented in ancient Egyptian texts as bꜣ-rꜣ-wꜣ or similar variants.[5][6]

Location and period of attestation

The Meroitic period began ca. 300 BCE and ended ca. 350 CE. Most attestations of the Meroitic language, via native inscriptions, hail from this period, though some attestations pre- and post-date this period. The Kushite territory stretched from the area of the

Roman periods – respectively corresponding to the Kushite Kerman (ca. 2600–ca. 1500 BCE),[8] Napatan (ca. 900/750–ca. 300 BCE), and Meroitic periods.[9] The Meroitic toponym ⟨qes⟩, ⟨qos⟩, as well as Meroitic anthroponyms, are attested as early as Middle Kingdom Egypt's 12th Dynasty (ca. 2000 BCE) in the Egyptian execration texts concerning Kerma.[10][11][12][13] Meroitic names and phrases appear in the New Kingdom Book of the Dead (Book of Coming Forth by Day) in the "Nubian" chapters or spells (162 – 165).[14][15][16][17] Meroitic names and lexical items, in Egyptian texts, are most frequently attested during Napatan Kushite control of some or all parts of Egypt[18] in the late 3rd Intermediate and Late Periods (ca. 750–656 BCE).[19][20] Both the Meroitic Period and the Kingdom of Kush itself ended with the fall of Meroë (ca. 350 CE), but use of the Meroitic language continued for a time after that event[21] as there are detectable Meroitic lexemes and morphological features in Old Nubian. Two examples are: Meroitic: ⟨m(a)s(a)-l(a)⟩[22] "the sun" → Old Nubian: mašal "sun"[21][23] and Old Nubian: -lo (focus particle) ← Meroitic: -⟨lo⟩ which is made up two morphemes, -⟨l(a)⟩ (determinant) + ⟨o⟩ (copula).[24] The language likely became fully extinct by the 6th century when it was supplanted by Byzantine Greek, Coptic,[25] and Old Nubian.[26]


During the Meroitic period, Meroitic was written in two forms of the

Meroitic alphasyllabary: Meroitic Cursive, which was written with a stylus and was used for general record-keeping; and Meroitic Hieroglyphic, which was carved in stone or used for royal or religious documents. The last known Meroitic inscription is written in Meroitic Cursive and dates to the 5th century.[27]


A hieroglyphic Meroitic inscription adorns this royal votive plaque of king Tanyidamani. It is from the temple of Apedemak in Meroë. Circa 100 BCE, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

The classification of the Meroitic language is uncertain due to the scarcity of data and difficulty in interpreting it. Since the alphabet was deciphered in 1909, it has been proposed that Meroitic is related to the Nubian languages and similar languages of the Nilo-Saharan phylum. The competing claim is that Meroitic is a member of the Afroasiatic phylum.[28]

Rowan (2006, 2011) proposes that the Meroitic sound inventory and phonotactics (the only aspects of the language that are secure) are similar to those of the Afroasiatic languages, and dissimilar from Nilo-Saharan languages. For example, she notes that very rarely does one find the sequence CVC, where the consonants (C) are both labials or both velars, noting that is similar to consonant restrictions found throughout the Afroasiatic language family, suggesting that Meroitic might have been an Afroasiatic language like Egyptian.[29][30] Semitist Edward Lipiński (orientalist) (2011) also argues in favour for an Afro Asiatic origin of Meroitic based primarily on vocabulary.[31]

Claude Rilly (2004, 2007, 2012, 2016) is the most recent proponent of the Nilo-Saharan idea: he proposes, based on its syntax, morphology, and known vocabulary, that Meroitic is Eastern Sudanic, the Nilo-Saharan family that includes Nubian. He finds, for example, that word order in Meroitic "conforms perfectly with other Eastern Sudanic languages, in which sentences exhibit verb-final order (SOV: subject-object-verb); there are postpositions and no prepositions; the genitive is placed before the main noun; the adjective follows the noun."[32][33]


Below is a short list of Kushite words and parts of speech whose meanings are positively known and are not known to be adopted from Egyptian. Angle brackets (⟨...⟩) represent the

into coda position are written.

  • ⟨(a)b(a)r(a)⟩ "man"[35]
  • ⟨at(a)⟩ "bread"
  • ⟨ato⟩ (← *as[V]tu)[36] "water"
  • -⟨b(a)⟩- (plural)
  • ⟨(e/t[e]-)d(a)x(e)⟩ "born, be born, child of"
  • ⟨(t/y-)erik(e)⟩ "beget, begotten"
  • ⟨k(a)(n)di⟩[37] "woman, lady, female".
  • -⟨k(e)⟩ (ablative)
  • -⟨l(a)⟩- (determinant)
  • ⟨l(a)ẖ(a)⟩ "great, big"
  • ⟨m(a)k(a)⟩ "god, deity"
  • ⟨m(a)t(e)⟩, (later) ⟨m(a)s(e)⟩ "child, son"
  • ⟨m(a)s(a)⟩ "sun, sun god"
  • ⟨qor(e)⟩ "king, ruler"
  • ⟨s(a)t(a)⟩ "feet, foot, pair of feet"
  • -⟨s(e)⟩- (genitive)
  • ⟨t(a)k(e)⟩ "to love, beloved, to respect, to revere, to desire"
  • -⟨t(e)⟩ (locative)/ -⟨y(a)t(e)⟩ (a type of locative)[38]
  • -⟨x(a)⟩-, (later) -⟨x(e)⟩- (verbal pronominal suffix)
  • ⟨yet(a)m(a)d(e)⟩ "a non-filial, non-(grand)parental, non-avuncular-maternal familial relation"


  1. ^ "Vers 2000 av. J.-C., la montée en puissance du royaume de Kerma, le premier État historiquement connu d'Afrique noire, fondé au sud de la 3e cataracte cinq siècles plus tôt, stoppa l'avance égyptienne et contraignit les rois de la xiie dynastie à ériger un dispositif de forteresses entre la 1e et la 2e cataracte pour se protéger des incursions kermaïtes. Un nom apparaît alors dans les textes égyptiens pour désigner ce nouvel ennemi : Koush (ég. Kȝš), sans doute l'appellation que se donnaient les Kermaïtes eux-mêmes, et qui continuera à les désigner jusqu'à la disparition de la langue égyptienne. " — paragraph #2 — Claude Rilly, « Le royaume de Méroé », Afriques [En ligne], Varia, mis en ligne le 21 avril 2010, consulté le 20 juin 2018. URL:
  2. ^ "En fait, si notre hypothèse concernant l'équivalence du peuple de langue méroïtique avec l'ethnonyme « Koush » est avérée, c'est plus au nord encore, entre la deuxième cataracte et l'île de Saï 3, qu'on pourrait envisager de situer le berceau de cette population." — Rilly, Claude. 2007. La langue du royaume de Méroé: Un panorama de la plus ancienne culture écrite d'Afrique subsaharienne. (Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Hautes Études, 344.) Paris: Honoré Champion. 624pp. p. 37
  3. ^ ⟨qes⟩ phonetically = q/kwesa, ⟨qos⟩ phonetically = q/kwusa. There is a form ⟨qesw⟩, but this may simply be ⟨qes⟩ + an affix. See, J. Leclant: "Recherches sur la toponymie meroitique". La toponymie antique. Actes du Colloque de Strasbourg, 12–14 juin 1975, Université des sciences humaines de Strasbourg, Travaux du Centre de recherche sur le Proche-Orient et la Grèce antiques, t. 4, 1977, Leiden. Brill. p. 264. pp.155 - 156.
  4. ^ "Meroitic, adj. and n." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  5. ^ Rowan, Kirsty (2006). Meroitic – a phonological investigation. London. p. 231.
  6. .
  7. ^ Egyptian rulers recognized the 1st Cataract of the Nile as the natural southern border of ancient Egypt. — Bianchi, Robert Steven. Daily Life of the Nubians. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004. p.6.
  8. ). p. 414.
  9. ^ "Meroitic was the main language spoken in northern Sudan not only during the time of the Kingdom of Meroe (c. 300 BCE–350 CE), after which it is named, but probably from as early as the time of the Kingdom of Kerma (2500–1500 BCE), as is suggested by a list of personal names transcribed in Egyptian on Papyrus Golenischeff (Rilly 2007b). Similar transcriptions of early Meroitic names are known from some Egyptian texts of the New Kingdom, but such names occur with particular frequency with the rise of the Kushite 25th Dynasty and its Napatan successor state (664–ca. 300 BCE), since the birth names of rulers and other members of the royal family were necessarily written in Egyptian documents. These Napatan transcriptions in Egyptian paved the way for the emergence of a local writing around the second half of the third century BCE." - Claude Rilly (2016). "Meroitic" in UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. p. 1
  10. ^ Claude Rilly (2011). Recent Research on Meroitic, the Ancient Language of Sudan. Under the sub-heading - The original cradle of Proto-NES: chronological and palaeoclimatic issues. p. 18
  11. ^ Claude Rilly (2007). La langue du royaume de Méroé, Un panorama de la plus ancienne culture écrite d'Afrique subsaharienne, Paris: Champion (Bibliothèque de l'École pratique des hautes études, Sciences historiques et philologiques, t. 344)
  12. ^ Claude Rilly (2004). THE LINGUISTIC POSITION OF MEROITIC. Archived 2015-09-23 at the Wayback Machine. p. 1
  13. ^ Ahmed Abuelgasim Elhassan. Religious Motifs in Meroitic Painted and Stamped Pottery. Oxford, England: John and Erica Hedges Ltd., 2004. xii, 176 p. BAR international series. p.1.
  14. ^ Leonard Lesko (2003). "Nubian Influence on the Later Versions of the Books of the Dead", in: Zahi Hawass (ed.), Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century: Proceedings of the Eight International Congress of Egyptologists. Cairo 2003. vol. 1,314-318.
  15. ^ "III. G. Jebel Barkal in the Book of the Dead".
  16. ^ Leonard Lesko (1999). "Some Further Thoughts on Chapter 162 of the Book of the Dead", in: Emily Teeter and John A. Larson (eds.), Gold of Praise: Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honor of Edward F. Wente. SAOC 58. Chicago 158 1999, 255-59.
  17. ^ Leonard Lesko (2006). "On Some Aspects of the Books of the Dead from the Ptolemaic Period". Aegyptus et Pannonia 3 2006. pp. 151 -159.
  18. ^ Peust, Carsten (1999). "Das Napatanische: Ein ägyptischer Dialekt aus dem Nubien des späten ersten vorchristlichen Jahrtausends". Monographien zur Ägyptischen Sprache 3. Göttingen: Peust & Gutschmidt Verlag.
  19. S2CID 46989272
  20. .
  21. ^ .
  22. ^ masa (sun) + la (determinant)
  23. ^ MEROITES AND NUBIANS: TERRITORY AND CONFLICTS: 2.5. Traces of extinct languages in Nile Nubian, p. 222 — There is also Ken(u)z(i): masil. See\esu\nub&first=1&off=&text_word=sun for Ken(u)z(i). Further notes, Midob: *massal — proto-Nubian: */b/ or */m/ → Midob: /p/ and Midob: /l/ → /r/.
  24. .
  25. .
  26. .
  27. ^ The inscription of the Blemmye king, Kharamadoye.
  28. CiteSeerX {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help
  29. ^ Rowan, Kirsty (2011). "Meroitic Consonant and Vowel Patterning". Lingua Aegytia. 19 (19): 115–124.
  30. ^ Rowan, Kirsty (2006). "Meroitic - An Afroasiatic Language?" (PDF). SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics (14): 169–206.
  31. ^[bare URL PDF]
  32. .
  33. ^ Rilly C (June 2016). "Meroitic". UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology.
  34. ^ "Resyllabification is a phonological process in which consonants are attached to syllables other than those from which they originally came." Kirsty Rowan speaking of the adoption of Egyptian ⟨Hm-nTr⟩ (literally, servant of god) → Coptic (hont) "prophet, priest" into Kushite as ⟨an(a)t(a)⟩ /anata/ which, in later Kushite, becomes ⟨at(a)⟩ /anta/, "However, the nasal sign ⟨n(a)⟩ /na/ is not written in the late period form ⟨at⟩, as the nasal has become resyllabified into coda position due to diachronic vowel reduction/weakening and subsequent complete syncope of the following vowel: ⟨ant⟩ /ˈanata/ → /ˈanəta/ → /ˈanta/ = ⟨at⟩..." — Rowan, Kirsty (2015) 'The Meroitic Initial a Sign as Griffith's Initial Aleph.' Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 142 (1). pp. 70-84. Under 2.2 Meroitic forms with no loss of initial ⟨a⟩, p. 78
  35. aphetic
    process. Kirsty Rowan states, "The stress assignment of Meroitic forms can only be speculated although there are common variant forms where the Meroitic sign ⟨a⟩ is frequently omitted and these forms are suggestive for proposals on the placement of stress. It is claimed here that the omission of ⟨a⟩ in Meroitic is due to its pretonic position in the word. When ⟨a⟩ is not in a pretonic position, there is no omission of this sign. This is comparable to the diachronic loss of Egyptian ⟨3⟩ /ʔ/ in pretonic position (Peust 1999b, 149)." — Rowan, Kirsty (2015) 'The Meroitic Initial a Sign as Griffith's Initial Aleph.' Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 142 (1). pp. 70-84. Under 2.1 Pretonic loss of Meroitic ⟨a⟩, p. 77
  36. ^ Apparently, the /s/ is resyllabified in the same manner as ⟨na⟩. The /s/ is known to exist via the Egyptian transcriptions of Kushite toponyms from the New Kingdom African Peoples List ⟨ı͗stʰ(w)-dg(3)(y)r/l𓈗𓈘𓈇 (ı͗s[V]tʰ[w]...𓈗𓈘𓈇), from the late Napatan era Nastasen Stele ⟨ı͗sd𓈗-rs(3)tʰ⟩ (ı͗s[V]tˀ / tʰ𓈗), and Ptolemaic Era Greek transcriptions of Ἀστά- from the hydronyms: Ασταβόρας, Ἀστάπους/ Ἄσταπος, and Ἀστασόβας. Based on the Egyptian and Greek transcriptions, the /s/ is present before the 1st century CE then disappears after the first century CE. See, Peust, Carsten (1999a). 20. "Namen von Personen, Göttern, Tempeln, Städten, Völkern, und Ländern". In Napatanische: ein ägyptischer Dialekt aus dem Nubien des späten ersten vorchristlichen Jahrtausends. Peust & Gutschmidt Verlag, 1999 - 371 pages, Under "Jsdrst" on p. 222. After discussing the 𓈗 determinative in ⟨ı͗-s-d(tˀ / tʰ)-𓈗-r-s(3)-tʰ⟩, Mr. Peust says: "Dasselbe determinative steht schon im Neuen Reich in dem toponyme istdgr, das als ortschaft in Kusch gennant wird." → English: "The same determinative is already in the New Kingdom in the toponym, ⟨istdgr⟩, which is called as a village in Kush."
  37. ^ The resyllabified /n/ is known, firstly, from transcriptions of Kushite: ⟨kdke⟩, ⟨ktke⟩ "female ruler" as Egyptian: ⟨kntı͗ky⟩, Greek: κανδάκη, Latin: Candace, and Ge'ez: xan(ə)dākē of which ⟨k(a)(n)di⟩ is the base and, secondly, from Hesychius' gloss of Kushite: ⟨k(a)di⟩ as κάνδη /kɒndɛː/ translated as Greek: γυνὴ "woman, lady, wife". See, I. Hofmann, Material für eine meroitische Grammatik (Veröffentlichungen der Institute für Afrikanistik und Ägyptologie der Universität Wien 16. Beiträge zur Afrikanistik 13), Wien 1981, p. 41.
  38. ^ The regular locative is -⟨t(e)⟩. A form of the locative, written as -⟨y(a)t(e)⟩, seems to indicate direction towards a destination, the destination arrived to, or is arriving to. For instance, in the Kushite phrase: ⟨Sim(a)lo-k(e) dik(a) Selele-y(a)t(e)⟩ = "From Simalu (going/ traveling/ proceeding) to Selele."