February 29, 2004

Language Internal Reanalysis

Geoff Pullum has mentioned some nice examples of how English has created new singular stems from words borrowed from other languages, whose original singular form looked like a native English plural. What is more surprising is that this kind of reanalysis sometimes occurs within a single language; an inherited word is reanalyzed as containing an affix that it does not, historically, contain.

A neat example is found in Coptic, the latest form of the ancient Egyptian language. Coptic ceased to be spoken several hundred years ago, but it is still in use as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church. It is written in a variant of the Greek alphabet.

In Coptic (the Sahidic dialect, to be precise), the way you say "the king" is πρ̄ρο [pr̩ra]. (The stroke under the first <r> means that it is syllabic, so this sounds something like "purr-rah".) This may ring a bell, and it should. It is the descendant of the ancient Egyptian word prʕʔ, which is the ultimate source of our word pharaoh. (ʕ is the phonetic symbol for the voiced pharyngeal fricative, the sound represented by the Hebrew letter ע and the Arabic letter ع. ʔ is the phonetic symbol for the glottal stop, the sound represented by the Hebrew letter א and the Arabic letter ء. We generally know only the consonants, since Egyptian writing does not represent the vowels.) This term originally referred to the palace. pr means "house", ʕʔ "great", so together they mean "great house". But by the beginning of the 18th dynasty (1539 B.C.E.) it had taken on the meaning of "king", just as "The White House" now refers to the President of the United States as well as his residence.

The catch is that πρ̄ρο means "the king", not "king". "king" is just ρ̄ρο [r̩ra]. "the kings" is ν̄ρ̄ρωου [nr̩rou], and "queen" is τρ̄ρο [tr̩ra]. To understand this, you need to know a little bit about the grammar of Coptic. In Coptic the masculine singular definite article is a prefix π [p]. The feminine singular definite article is τ [t], and the common plural is ν̄ [n]. For example, "man" is ρωμε [rome]. "the man" is πρωμε [prome]. "the men" is ν̄ρωμε [nrome].

So, the original word for "king" in Coptic must have been πρ̄ρο [pr̩ra]. But because this began with a [p], it looked like it began with the masculine singular definite article, and so at some point "king" was mistaken for "the king", the initial [p] was taken to be the masculine singular definite article and stripped off, and the stem of "king" became -ρ̄ρο [-r̩ra]. In short, speakers of Egyptian misanalyzed their own inherited word for "king".

Posted by Bill Poser at February 29, 2004 12:37 AM