Alphasyllabary with inherent vowel /a/ except on the vocalic signs: <a>, <e>, <i>, <o> and the syllabic <ne>,<se>,<te>, and <to> signs
|Languages||Kushite and possibly Old Nubian|
|300 BC to 600 AD|
The Meroitic script refers to two alphasyllabaric scripts developed to write the Kushite language at the beginning of the Meroitic Period (3rd century BC) of the Kingdom of Kush. The two scripts are Meroitic Cursive derived of Demotic Egyptian and Meroitic Hieroglyphics derived of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Meroitic Cursive is the most widely attested script, comprising ~90% of all inscriptions, and antedates, by a century or more, the earliest, surviving Meroitic hieroglyphic inscription. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (ca. 50 BC) described the two scripts in his Bibliotheca historica, Book III (Africa), Chapter 4. The last known Meroitic inscription is the Meroitic Cursive inscription of the Blemmye (see Beja people) king, Kharamadoye, from a column in the Kalabsha temple (REM 0094), which has recently been re-dated to AD 410/ 450 of the 5th century. Before the Meroitic Period, Egyptian hieroglyphs were used to write Kushite names and lexical items.
Though the Kingdom of Kush ended with the fall of the royal capital of Meroë, use of the language and Cursive script continued for a time after that event. During the 6th century Christianization of Nubia, the Kushite language and Cursive script were replaced by Byzantine Greek, Coptic, and Old Nubian. The Old Nubian script, derived of the Uncial Greek script, added three Meroitic Cursive letters: <ne>, <w(a)>, and possibly <kh(a)> for Old Nubian [ɲ], [w - u], and [ŋ] respectively. This addition of Meroitic Cursive letters suggests that the development of the Old Nubian script began, at least, two centuries before its first full attestation in the late 8th century and/ or that knowledge of the Kushite language and script was retained until the 8th century.
The script was deciphered in 1909 by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, a British Egyptologist, based on the Meroitic spellings of Egyptian names. However, the Kushite language itself has yet to be translated. In late 2008, the first complete royal dedication was found, which may help confirm or refute some of the current hypotheses.
The longest inscription found is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Form and values
There were two graphic forms of the Meroitic alphasyllabary: monumental hieroglyphs, and a cursive. The majority of texts are cursive. Unlike Egyptian writing, there was a simple one-to-one correspondence between the two forms of Meroitic, except that in the cursive form, consonants are joined in ligatures to a following vowel i.
The direction of cursive writing was from right to left, top to bottom, while the monumental form was written top to bottom in columns going right to left. Monumental letters were oriented to face the beginning of the text, a feature inherited from their hieroglyphic origin.
Being primarily alphasyllabaric, the Meroitic script worked differently than Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some scholars, such as Harald Haarmann, believe that the vowel letters of Meroitic are evidence for an influence of the Greek alphabet in its development.
There were 23 letters in the Meroitic alphasyllabary, including four vowels. In the transcription established by Griffith and later Hintze, they are:
- a appears only at the beginning of a word
- e was used principally in foreign names
- i and o were used like vowels in the Latin or Greek alphabets.
The fourteen or so consonants are conventionally transcribed:
- ya, wa, ba, pa, ma, na, ra, la, cha, kha, ka, qa, sa, da.
These values were established from evidence such as Egyptian names borrowed into Meroitic. That is, the Meroitic letter which looks like an owl in monumental inscriptions, or like a numeral three in cursive Meroitic, we transcribe as m, and it is believed to have been pronounced as [m]. However, this is a historical reconstruction, and while m is not in much doubt, the pronunciations of some of the other letters are much less certain.
The three vowels i a o were presumably pronounced /i a u/. Kh is thought to have been a velar fricative, as the ch in Scottish loch or German Bach. Ch was a similar sound, perhaps uvular as g in Dutch dag or palatal as in German ich. Q was perhaps a uvular stop, as in Arabic Qatar. S may have been like s in sun. An /n/ was omitted in writing when it occurred before any of several other consonants within a word. D is uncertain. Griffith first transcribed it as r, and Rowan believes that was closer to its actual value. It corresponds to Egyptian and Greek /d/ when initial or after an /n/ (unwritten in Meroitic), but to /r/ between vowels, and does not seem to have affected the vowel a the way the other alveolar obstruents t n s did.
Comparing late documents with early ones, it is apparent that the sequences sel- and nel-, which Rowan takes to be /sl/ and /nl/ and which commonly occurred with the determiner -l-, assimilated over time to t and l (perhaps /t/ and /ll/).
Meroitic was a type of alphabet called an abugida: The vowel /a/ was not normally written; rather it was assumed whenever a consonant was written alone. That is, the single letter m was read /ma/. All other vowels were overtly written: the letters mi, for example, stood for the syllable /mi/, just as in the Latin alphabet. This system is broadly similar to the Indian abugidas that arose around the same time as Meroitic.
Griffith and Hintze
Griffith identified the essential abugida nature of Meroitic when he deciphered the script in 1911. He noted in 1916 that certain consonant letters were never followed by a vowel letter, and varied with other consonant letters. He interpreted them as syllabic, with the values ne, se, te, and to. Ne, for example, varied with na. Na could be followed by the vowels i and o to write the syllables ni and no, but was never followed by the vowel e.
He also noted that the vowel e was often omitted. It often occurred at the ends of Egyptian loanwords that had no final vowel in Coptic. He believed that e functioned both as a schwa [ə] and a "killer" mark that marked the absence of a vowel. That is, the letter m by itself was read [ma], while the sequence me was read [mə] or [m]. This is how Ethiopic works today. Later scholars such as Hitze and Rilly accepted this argument, or modified it so that e could represent either [e] or schwa–zero.
It has long been puzzling to epigraphers why the syllabic principles that underlie the script, where every consonant is assumed to be followed by a vowel a, should have special letters for consonants followed by e. Such a mixed abugida–syllabary is not found among the abugidas of India, nor in Ethiopic. Old Persian cuneiform script is somewhat similar, with more than one inherent vowel, but is not an abugida because the non-inherent vowels are written with full letters, and are often redundantly written after an inherent vowel other than /a/.
Millet and Rowan
Millet (1970) proposed that Meroitic e was in fact an epenthetic vowel used to break up Egyptian consonant clusters that could not be pronounced in the Meroitic language, or appeared after final Egyptian consonants such as m and k which could not occur finally in Meroitic. Rowan (2006) takes this further and proposes that the glyphs se, ne, and te were not syllabic at all, but stood for consonants /s/, /n/, and /t/ at the end of a word or morpheme (as when followed by the determiner -l; she proposes Meroitic finals were restricted to alveolar consonants such as these. An example is the Coptic word ⲡⲣⲏⲧ prit "the agent", which in Meroitic was transliterated perite (pa-e-ra-i-te). If Rowan is right and this was pronounced /pᵊrit/, then Meroitic would have been a fairly typical abugida. She proposes that Meroitic had three vowels, /a i u/, and that /a/ was raised to something like [e] or [ə] after the alveolar consonants /t s n/, explaining the lack of orthographic t, s, n followed by the vowel letter e.
Very rarely does one find the sequence CVC, where the C's are both labials or both velars. This is similar to consonant restrictions found throughout the Afro-Asiatic language family, suggesting to Rowan that there is a good chance Meroitic was an Afro-Asiatic language like Egyptian.
Rowan is not convinced that the system was completely alphabetic, and suggests that the glyph te also may have functioned as a determinative for place names, as it frequently occurs at the end of place names that are known not to have a /t/ in them. Similarly, ne may have marked royal or divine names.
Meroitic scripts, both Hieroglyphic and Cursive, were added to the Unicode Standard in January, 2012 with the release of version 6.1.
The Unicode block for Meroitic Hieroglyphs is U+10980–U+1099F. The Unicode block for Meroitic Cursive is U+109A0–U+109FF.
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
As a Meroitic Unicode font you may use Aegyptus which can be downloaded from Unicode Fonts for Ancient Scripts.
- Afro-Asiatic Languages
- Claude Rilly (2011). Recent Research on Meroitic, the Ancient Language of Sudan. http://www.ityopis.org/Issues-1_files/ITYOPIS-I-Rilly.pdf, p. 13. Where Rilly states, "...For all the other purposes, including royal chronicles and even some royal funerary texts, the cursive script is used, so that 90% of the current corpus is made of cursive inscriptions."
- Claude Rilly. Arnekhamani’s sistrum. New Insights on the Appearance of the Meroitic script . 12th Conference for Meroitic Studies, Sep 2016, Prague, Czech Republic. http://www.nm.cz/m/Naprstek-Museum/Events-NpM/12th-International-Conference-for-Meroitic-Studies.html?xSET=lang&xLANG=2. <halshs-01482759>. Where Rilly states, "...For these reasons, some very early inscriptions in Meroitic cursive with signs that are more primitive than the sistrum’s and that were tentatively dated to the early 2nd century must be placed now in the first half of the 3rd Cent. BC. It means that the appearance of the Meroitic script is probably linked with the rise of the Meroitic dynasty."
- The Meroitic hieroglyphic cartouche of kandake Shanakdakheto (170 BC to 150 BC) in Temple F at Naqa.
- "LacusCurtius • Diodorus Siculus — Book III Chapters 1‑14". penelope.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
- Claude Rilly (2011). Recent Research on Meroitic, the Ancient Language of Sudan. http://www.ityopis.org/Issues-1_files/ITYOPIS-I-Rilly.pdf, p. 12. Where Rilly states, "The script actually outlived the fall of Meroe (ca. AD 350), for the latest known text is the inscription of King Kharamadoye from a column in the Kalabsha temple (REM 0094), which has recently been re-dated to AD 410/450 (Eide et al. 1998: 1103-1107)."
- Unless it is a ligature between two gammas
- Satzinger, Helmut (2004). Some Peculiarities of Greek and Coptic Epigraphy from Nubia. In Coptic Studies on the Threshold of a New Millennium I. Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Coptic Studies, Leiden, 27 August - 2 September 2000. Edited on behalf of the InternationalAssociation for Coptic Studies (IACS) by Mat Immerzeel and Jacques van der Vliet with the assistance of Maarten Kersten and Carolien van Zoes. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 133. Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies Leuven – Paris - Dudley, MA. 2004. p. 529. https://homepage.univie.ac.at/helmut.satzinger/Texte/EpigrNubia.pdf - p. 535 of this pdf
- Ochała, Grzegorz. “Multilingualism in Christian Nubia: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches.” Dotawo 1 (2014): pp. 1–50. pp. 7, 8. “It has been pointed out many times that the Greek epitaph of (I)stephanou also called Eiñitta from Dongola (DBMNT 74), dated to 797 [CE], is the first appearance of Old Nubian, with its use of the words “Eiñitta, Maraña, choiakiššil, joknaiššil, and Puš.” While this is demonstrably the first attestation of the Old Nubian alphabet, with its characteristic enchoric letters, the first Old Nubian word ever to occur in writing is “Samata”, attested in the Coptic foundation inscription from Dendur (DBMNT 517), dated to the second half of the sixth century.29” Footnote 29: “…Cf. Millet, “Writing and literacy in ancient Sudan,” p. 54, who supposes that the invention of the Old Nubian script might have taken place around ce 600, when the inhabitants of the Middle Nile Valley could still read and understand Meroitic. The evidence of the inscription from Dendur, so far unnoticed, may thus be seen as a ‘missing link’ in his theory of development.”
- Rilly, C., & De Voogt, A. (2012). Introduction. In The Meroitic Language and Writing System (pp. 1-34). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511920028.002. p. 8. “The oldest documents using the Old Nubian script date to the end of the eighth century AD, indicating that the Meroitic signs continued to be read at least two centuries after the Kharamadoye inscription. Perhaps one day, in Sudanese archaeology, other evidence will fill in the gaps in our understanding of this history.”
- Millet, N. B. (1974). Writing and literacy in Ancient Sudan. In Studies in ancient languages of the Sudan : papers presented at the Second International Conference on Language and Literature in the Sudan sponsored by the Sudan Research Unit, 7–12 December 1970, edited with an introd. by Abdelgadir Mahmoud Abdalla. p. 54. https://books.google.com/books?id=0B65AAAAIAAJ&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=A.D.%20600
- "Sudan statues show ancient script" (BBC 16 December 2008)
- Everson, Michael (2009-07-29). "N3665: Proposal for encoding the Meroitic Hieroglyphic and the Meroitic Cursive scripts in the SMP of the UCS" (PDF). Working Group Document, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2.
- Rowan, Kirsty (2006). "A phonological investigation into the Meroitic 'syllable' signs ne and se and their implications on the e sign". SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics, Volume 14. pp. 131–167. Retrieved 2013-10-24.
Török, László (1998). The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meróitic Civilization (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik). New York: Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-10448-8.