Meroitic script
The Meroitic script is an alphabetic script originally derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, used to write the Meroitic language
Meroitic language
The Meroitic language was spoken in Meroë and the Sudan during the Meroitic period and went extinct about 400 CE. It was written in two forms of the Meroitic alphabet: Meroitic Cursive, which was written with a stylus and was used for general record-keeping; and Meroitic Hieroglyphic, which was...

 of the Kingdom of Meroë
Meroë Meroitic: Medewi or Bedewi; Arabic: and Meruwi) is an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, approximately 200 km north-east of Khartoum. Near the site are a group of villages called Bagrawiyah...

Kingdom of Kush
The native name of the Kingdom was likely kaš, recorded in Egyptian as .The name Kash is probably connected to Cush in the Hebrew Bible , son of Ham ....

. It was developed in the Napatan Period (about 700–300 BCE), and first appears in the 2nd century BCE. For a time, it was also possibly used to write the Nubian language
Old Nubian language
Old Nubian is an ancient variety of Nubian, attested in writing from the 8th to the 15th century . It is ancestral to modern-day Nobiin and related to other Nubian languages such as Dongolawi. It was used throughout the medieval Christian kingdom of Makuria and its satellite Nobadia...

 of the successor Nubian kingdoms. Its use was described by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus was a Greek historian who flourished between 60 and 30 BC. According to Diodorus' own work, he was born at Agyrium in Sicily . With one exception, antiquity affords no further information about Diodorus' life and doings beyond what is to be found in his own work, Bibliotheca...

 (c. 50 BC).

If the Meroitic alphabet did continue in use by the Nubian kingdoms that succeeded the Kingdom of Meroë, it was replaced by the Coptic alphabet
Coptic alphabet
The Coptic alphabet is the script used for writing the Coptic language. The repertoire of glyphs is based on the Greek alphabet augmented by letters borrowed from the Demotic and is the first alphabetic script used for the Egyptian language...

 with the introduction of Christianity to Nubia in the sixth century CE. The Nubian form of the Coptic alphabet retained three Meroitic letters.

The script was deciphered in 1909 by Francis Llewellyn Griffith
Francis Llewellyn Griffith
Francis Llewellyn Griffith was an eminent British Egyptologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.F. Ll. Griffith was born in Brighton on 27 May 1862 where his father, Rev. Dr. John Griffith, was Principal of Brighton College. After schooling at Brighton College , then privately by his...

, a British Egyptologist, based on the Meroitic spellings of Egyptian names. However, the Meroitic language
Meroitic language
The Meroitic language was spoken in Meroë and the Sudan during the Meroitic period and went extinct about 400 CE. It was written in two forms of the Meroitic alphabet: Meroitic Cursive, which was written with a stylus and was used for general record-keeping; and Meroitic Hieroglyphic, which was...

 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 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, is one of the largest museums in the United States, attracting over one million visitors a year. It contains over 450,000 works of art, making it one of the most comprehensive collections in the Americas...


Form and values

There were two graphic forms of the Meroitic alphabet: a monumental epigraphic
Epigraphy Epigraphy Epigraphy (from the , literally "on-writing", is the study of inscriptions or epigraphs as writing; that is, the science of identifying the graphemes and of classifying their use as to cultural context and date, elucidating their meaning and assessing what conclusions can be...

 form taken from Egyptian hieroglyphs
Egyptian hieroglyphs
Egyptian hieroglyphs were a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood...

, and a cursive
Cursive, also known as joined-up writing, joint writing, or running writing, is any style of handwriting in which the symbols of the language are written in a simplified and/or flowing manner, generally for the purpose of making writing easier or faster...

 form derived from Demotic Egyptian. 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 alphabetic, the Meroitic script worked differently than Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some scholars, such as Harald Haarmann
Harald Haarmann
Harald Haarmann is a German linguist and cultural scientist who lives and works in Finland. Haarmann studied general linguistics, various philological disciplines and prehistory at the universities of Hamburg, Bonn, Coimbra and Bangor. He obtained his PhD in Bonn and his habilitation in Trier...

, believe that the vowel letters of Meroitic are evidence for an influence of the Greek alphabet
Greek alphabet
The Greek alphabet is the script that has been used to write the Greek language since at least 730 BC . The alphabet in its classical and modern form consists of 24 letters ordered in sequence from alpha to omega...

 in its development.

There were 23 letters in the Meroitic alphabet, 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 (Egyptian names at the time were written in the Coptic alphabet, which contained vowels, and are also attested from Greek transcriptions). 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
Voiceless velar fricative
The voiceless velar fricative is a type of consonantal sound used in some spoken languages. The sound was part of the consonant inventory of Old English and can still be found in some dialects of English, most notably in Scottish English....

, as the ch in Scottish loch or German Bach. Ch was a similar sound, perhaps uvular
Uvular consonant
Uvulars are consonants articulated with the back of the tongue against or near the uvula, that is, further back in the mouth than velar consonants. Uvulars may be plosives, fricatives, nasal stops, trills, or approximants, though the IPA does not provide a separate symbol for the approximant, and...

 as g in Dutch dag or palatal
Palatal consonant
Palatal consonants are consonants articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate...

 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
Assimilation (linguistics)
Assimilation is a common phonological process by which the sound of the ending of one word blends into the sound of the beginning of the following word. This occurs when the parts of the mouth and vocal cords start to form the beginning sounds of the next word before the last sound has been...

 over time to t and l (perhaps /t/ and /ll/).

The only punctuation mark was a word and phrase divider of two to three dots.


Meroitic was a type of alphabet called an abugida
An abugida , also called an alphasyllabary, is a segmental writing system in which consonant–vowel sequences are written as a unit: each unit is based on a consonant letter, and vowel notation is obligatory but secondary...

: 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
Brahmic family
The Brahmic or Indic scripts are a family of abugida writing systems. They are used throughout South Asia , Southeast Asia, and parts of Central and East Asia, and are descended from the Brāhmī script of the ancient Indian subcontinent...

 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
A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. For example, the word water is composed of two syllables: wa and ter. A syllable is typically made up of a syllable nucleus with optional initial and final margins .Syllables are often considered the phonological "building...

, 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
Coptic language
Coptic or Coptic Egyptian is the current stage of the Egyptian language, a northern Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Egypt until at least the 17th century. Egyptian began to be written using the Greek alphabet in the 1st century...

. He believed that e functioned both as a schwa
In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa can mean the following:*An unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in some languages, often but not necessarily a mid-central vowel...

 [ə] and a "killer" mark
Virama is a generic term for the diacritic in many Brahmic scripts, including Devanagari and East Nagari, that is used to suppress the inherent vowel that otherwise occurs with every consonant letter. The name is Sanskrit for "cessation, termination, end"...

 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 cluster
Consonant cluster
In linguistics, a consonant cluster is a group of consonants which have no intervening vowel. In English, for example, the groups and are consonant clusters in the word splits....

s 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 consonant
Alveolar consonant
Alveolar consonants are articulated with the tongue against or close to the superior alveolar ridge, which is called that because it contains the alveoli of the superior teeth...

s 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 C
In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are , pronounced with the lips; , pronounced with the front of the tongue; , pronounced with the back of the tongue; , pronounced in the throat; and ,...

In phonetics, a vowel is a sound in spoken language, such as English ah! or oh! , pronounced with an open vocal tract so that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis. This contrasts with consonants, such as English sh! , where there is a constriction or closure at some...

C, 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
A determinative, also known as a taxogram or semagram, is an ideogram used to mark semantic categories of words in logographic scripts which helps to disambiguate interpretation. They have no direct counterpart in spoken language, though they may derive historically from glyphs for real words, and...

 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.

Computer Encoding

The two Meroitic scripts are in the beta release of the Unicode Standard, version 6.1.0. The Meroitic Hieroglyphic script is encoded in the range U+10980..U+1099F, while Meroitic Demotic is at U+109A0..U+109FF. The final approved Unicode version 6.1.0 is scheduled for release in February 2012.

Additional reading

Török, László (1998). The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meriotic Civilization (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik). New York: Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 9004104488.

External links

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