Sounds From the Past

Genesis 10 lists Noah’s sons as Ham, Shem and Japeth. Ham had his own sons, including ‘Mitzrayim’, or Egypt, and Cush.

Genesis 11 begins with everyone on earth speaking the same language. People migrated to the “land of Shinar,” which based on the earlier description of Nimrod’s kingdom, is ancient Babylonia, modern day Iraq.

There the settlers conspired. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” God said “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel (Babylonia) — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.

The languages that are spoken from North Africa thorough West Asia belong to the Afro-Asiatic language group. The Afro-Asiatic language group was originally known as the Hamo-Semitic language group, the moniker borrowed from the names of Noah’s sons. 

There are six divisions of the Afro-Asiatic language group:

  1. Semitic, which includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and a number of Ethiopian languages
  2. Berber, which is spoken in North Africa
  3. Chadic, spoken in West Africa
  4. Cushitic, in East Africa
  5. Omotic, Central Africa
  6. Egyptian, the language spoken by the ancient Egyptians.

Languages tend to evolve over time from an original proto-language. In related languages, a historical kernel can be discerned in similar words or features. Afro-Asiatic languages all use a feminine gender marker -t and the second-person marker -k.

Languages can also fall into disuse. The Egyptian language ceased to be used as a spoken language, replaced by Greek and Arabic. However, the Egyptian language survived as a liturgical language in the Coptic Orthodox Christian Church, much as Hebrew survived as the liturgical language for the Jews after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Egyptians call their own country “Misr,” more similar to the Hebrew word for the country, Mitzrayim. The name Egypt comes from the Greek term Aigyptos, a derivation of Hut-ka-Ptah, the Palace of the Spirit of Ptah, Ptah being an Egyptian god. The ka-Ptah forms the term Coptic, the primary church of Egyptian Christians.

Today, the Coptic language is only used in the Coptic Church service, by Coptic priests such as the one in the photo above. To hear the closest facsimile of the language that was spoken by the pharaohs in the biblical stories, one can listen to this well known Christian prayer in Coptic: