Nouns in Egyptian are much like nouns in any European language, in terms of what they represent: a living thing, inanimate object, abstract concept, fictional entity, etc.
Egyptian has two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. The good news is that remembering the gender of nouns is a good deal easier than in some European languages.
Nouns in Egyptian do not inflect for case (what their role in a sentence is); that is determined by word order. They do however inflect for gender and number.
Middle Egyptian (in its written form) had neither definite nor indefinite articles. It did have demonstrative pronouns, some of which evolved into articles in later Egyptian, but without those or some contextual aid, a noun could be either definite or indefinite. So when you see zꜣ, you must be prepared to render it as “a son” or “the son” depending on the context provided by the other words.
With very few exceptions (see Exceptions below), the gender of an Egyptian singular noun is easy to determine: If it ends in a 𓏏t, it’s feminine; if not, it’s masculine.
Unlike most European languages, Egyptian has a third grammatical number besides singular and plural: dual, for when there are two of the noun. It is still productive in the Middle Kingdom but is already becoming archaic: most types of pronouns don’t have a dual, and the plural does the job for two things as well as for more than two.
Nouns have roots. In most cases of masculine nouns, the root is the same as the noun itself, but some nouns have a j or w that is added to the root. For example, the root of ḫftj “enemy” (masc.) is ḫft.
- To form the plural of a masculine noun, add a w to the singular; to form the dual, add wj to the singular.
- To form the plural of a feminine noun from the singular, add a w before the feminine ending t. To form the dual, add j to the singular (after the t ending).
There is only one exception that I know of to these declension rules, and that is nswt “king” (see Exceptions below). (Allen 2014 says there are no exceptions, but there is disagreement.)
The following table illustrates some examples. An example of a masculine in w and a feminine in wt are included to show that the same rules apply to them, even though it results in two consecutive w sounds.
|Type of noun
|Masculine (singular ending in w)
|Feminine (singular ending in wt)
How to write the dual and plural
The w of plurality is a weak consonant, so it often gets left out in writing, but usually there will be a set of plural strokes after the word, which can be written in several ways, depending on which suits the artist and fits with the other glyphs in the text: 𓏥, 𓏪, 𓏫, 𓏦, 𓏨
An older way to show plurality was to write three of the determinative, in words which had it: 𓌢 𓈖𓏏𓁐𓁐𓁐 snwt “sisters”. The only plural that really continues to be written that way in Middle Egyptian (outside of some religious texts) is 𓊹𓊹𓊹 nṯrw “gods”.
For the dual, 𓏲𓏭 wj or 𓏏𓏭 tj were usually used, though tj could use the pestle biliteral as well: 𓍘 or 𓍘𓇋. Using two determinatives for the dual was more common in Middle Egyptian than using three for the plural was: 𓌢 𓈖𓏏𓏭𓁐𓁐 “two sisters”.
There are very few nouns which break the normal t rule for determining masculine and feminine, and only one that I know of with an irregular plural. This is not necessarily an exhaustive list but these are the most common ones.
- 𓆱𓏏𓏤 ḫt “wood, stick, tree, timbers” is masculine; the t is part of the root, so its plural and dual would be ḫtw, ḫtwj.
- 𓐍𓏏𓏛 ḫt derives from earlier 𓇋𓐍𓏏 jḫt. It can mean “thing, goods, property” and is feminine (jḫt, jḫwt, jḫtj) when it does, but it can also mean the indefinite “something, anything”, and when it does, it is masculine (jḫt, jḫtw, jḫtwj).
- 𓇓 𓏏𓈖 nswt “king” is irregular in several ways:
- It is masculine, despite the t.
- There are disagreements in some sources about its plural, but it appears in the Westcar Papyrus, in the story about the woman who is mother to three kings, as 𓇓 𓏏𓈖𓇌𓏲𓅆𓏪 nsyw. As for the dual, I’ve not found a reference to it in the sources I’ve checked, so perhaps it is unattested (but always remember my disclaimer!)
- Two possible reasons for its irregularity have been suggested: that it comes from a phrase nj swt “owner of the sedge”, since the sedge plant symbolizes Upper Egypt, or that it is related to a Sumerian word ensi(k) for “ruler”.
- The sedge swt is written before the n presumably as honorific transposition, since it represents Upper Egypt (and the king themselves).