Barthélemy Discovers the Relationship of Egyptian Hieroglypics to Phoenician and Greek

1761 to 1763

Having deciphered Palmyrene in 1754 and Phoenician in 1758, Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy directed his attention toward Egyptian hieroglyphs. He is considered the first to suggest that the cartouches or oval-shaped framed sections of hieroglyphic inscriptions contained the names of gods and kings. The date he made this observation is unclear; Murray, Milestones in Archaeology. A Chronological Encyclopedia (2007) page 177 set the date of that key observation at 1761. I have also seen the year 1762 associated with this observation, and where it was first published was unclear in August 2014.

On April 12, 1763 Barthélemy read a report to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres entitled "Reflexions générales sur les rapports des langues egyptienne, phenicienne & grecque." This was not formally published until it appeared in Vol. 32, pp. 212-233, of the Mémoires of the society issued in 1768. The printing that I own of this report is paginated 1-22 and was printed from a different setting of type than the journal. Because this was bound in a volume containing other separate printings and preprints by Barthélemy, I think that it is logical to assume that what I have is a preprint in view of the five year delay between the time the paper was read and its eventual journal publication.

Regarding this paper historian Martin Bernal wrote in Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume 3, p. 171:

"In 1763 the brilliant Abbé Barthélemy, decipherer of Palmyrene and Phoencian, presented a paper entitled 'General reflections on the relations between the Egyptian, Phoenician and Greek languages'. In this his first correct assumption, based on Kircher—whose other work he considered fantastic—was that Coptic was a form of Ancient Egyptian. He also recognized the language family later known as Semitic, which he called 'Phoenician'. On these two bases, he established that Egyptian, although not a Semitic language, was related to the Semitic family. It is true that some of his lexical evidence can now be seen to have been faulty, as some Coptic words derive from Semitic loans into Late Egyptian. However, the main lines of his argument, based on similarities between pronouns and grammatical features, are irreproachable. In this sense, then, Barthélemy was a pioneer of what we should now call Afroasiatic studies.

"Barthélemy admited that he could see no such grammatical parallels between Coptic and Greek. Nevertheless he believed in the Egyptian colonization and civilizing of Greece and maintained that 'It is impossible that in this echange of ideas and goods, the Egyptian language did not participate in the formation of Greek. He then gave a list of etymologies from Egyptian into Greek, several of which - such as the Coptic hof, Demotic hf to the Greek ophis (snake) - would seem plausible today."

David, "En marge du mémoire de l'abbé Barthélemy sur les inscriptions phéniciennes (1758)", Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres  105 (1961) 30-42.

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