Noun compounding in ancient Egyptian is a largely unexplored and unexplained phenomenon. It is thus paramount to search for compound words and to establish a system of categories in order to determine their place in the history of the Egyptian language. Furthermore, their role as part of the Egyptian lexicon and their significance in the wider frame of the ancient Egyptian culture shall be investigated.

The investigation of the Egyptian language suffers from the nature of the Egyptian writing system which does not denote vowels. Details of morphology, first and foremost syllable structures and word stress, can be assessed only with great effort on the basis of Coptic offspring of Egyptian words and the so-called ‘Nebenüberlieferung’ (Egyptian words in Cuneiform, Hebrew and Greek rendering). This holds true for the analysis of individual words (nomina simplicia) as well as multipartite word formations sensu lato. Whether examples of the latter group constitute idiomatic, but grammatically free syntagmata or coalesced combinations of words (nomina composita), only can be determined with attention to syntactic phenomena or the reconstruction of their syllable structure and stress patterns.

Morphological Categorisation

According to data obtained from Coptic and the ‘Nebenüberlieferung’, essentially all Egyptian words – nomina simplicia and nomina composita alike – bore word stress on the last or penultimate syllable. This also pertains to free syntagmata which always display stress on the last word of the entire phrase. Even when syntagmata coalesced into words, the resulting complex word formation adopted phrasal stress as word stress which, therefore, always rests on the last element’s last or penultimate syllable. However, a small group of nomina composita, which in the course of this research project grew to c. 120 specimina, are conspicuous insofar as, in blatant contradiction to common stress rules, they bore word stress on a non-last element and on the penultimate or antepenultimate syllable. Accordingly, there is a kind of nomina composita, which can be traced back to syntagmata (improper or syntactical compounds, juxtaposita), whereas another kind must have resulted from some kind of morphological process, the result of which were true or morphological compounds.

Evolution of Compounding Processes in Egyptian

Traditionally, proper or morphological compounds have been viewed as relicts of an earlier phase of the Egyptian language, when, basically, all words, specifically including nomina composite, were capable of bearing word stress on the antepenultimate syllable. As a result, this type of nomina composita has been called ‘Ältere Komposita’ (‘Older Compounds’), whereas those nomina composita with word stress on their last element have become known as ‘Jüngere Komposita’ (‘Younger Compounds’). By means of individual compound nouns, this research project demonstrated that ‘Ältere Komposita’ (e.g. Mn-nfr > Memphis) and ‘Jüngere Komposita’ (e.g. Ḥw.t-Ḥrw > Hathor) have been created side by side. Nevertheless, according to the collected data, true or morphological compounds formed a productive category only until the end of the 3rd millennium BC, while improper or syntactical compounds (iuxtaposita) continued to be unrestrictedly generated all throughout the history of the Egyptian-Coptic language.

Compound Nouns in a Wider Cultural Context

The temporal limitations for the formation of true or morphological compounds offer the unique opportunity of tracing the origins of specimina, which are attested rather late due to the coincidence of preservation, to the 3rd millennium BC by means of linguistic dating. Toponyms, among others, which belong to this category are particularly notable as they contribute not only to the reconstruction of the topography of Egypt in the 3rd millennium BC but also to the assessment of the oldest tangible phase of the dialectal landscape of ancient Egyptian. It is furthermore remarkable that numerous key expressions of the élite culture of the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom can be identified as true or morphological compounds. Their linguistic determination and evaluation in a broader context can provide insight into the mindset of the Egyptians during the formative phase of the ancient Egyptian culture.