Most of the languages of the Afro-Asiatic (Chadic, ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, Canaanite/Ugaritic, Hebrew/Aramaic, Coptic, and Arabic, etc.) group were originally visibly related to each other. Some more than others and their similarities were greater the further back we go in time.  Holger Pedersen (1867-1953), a Danish linguist who made significant contributions to language science once wrote in his famous 1931's book "The Discovery of Language" about the so-called "Semitic languages". According to him (and linguists in general), the Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian languages had all undergone significant linguistic degeneration. Only  Arabic, due to its relative isolation in the Arabian peninsula, remained closer to the old stratum of the "Semitic" form of the proto-language and therefore was closer to the Phoenician, Canaanite/Ugaritic, than Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and/or  Aramaic. 

Historically, Hebrews living in the Persian Empire adopted Aramaic, and quickly enough Hebrew fell into disuse as Aramaic became the vernacular language. By the time the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), was written down (perhaps as late as 500 BC), the language had considerably deteriorated. The vocabulary of the Hebrew language had changed so much that there was no similarity to the original. 

Perhaps the following example in the case of Aramaic/Hebrew "Charash" in the Old Testament offers to an Arabic speaking audience, such as this group, the dramatic degree of this linguistic deterioration.

CHARASH (pronounced Khaw-rash) in the Old Testament conveyed the following three contradictory and irreconcilable meanings: 

A- to Plough, B- to scratch, C- to be silent and/or to become mute.

The Arabic equivalent of (A) is Harath ; to plough [initial Ha' and final tha'],  (B) is Kharash; to scratch [initial kha' and final shiyn] and to (C) is Kharas; to become mute [initial kha' and final siyn]. Because of the smaller Hebrew/Aramaic alphabetic inventory ( Hebrew lacks  Kha' and tha'  letters) in relation to Arabic and Ugaritic languages, many individual words have been erroneously lumped together as if they had developed from a single etymological source. 

The above dramatization was merely an introduction to my next  investigation of the etymology of "Misr" in Ancient Egyptian, Ugaratic, Hebrew/Aramaic and Old Arabic languages.


The third step of this investigation leads us to the Old Testament where Egypt is referred to as "Mitsariym" in dual plural form of the Hebrew term "M'tsurah" (Metsoo-raw) referring to a mound, a rampart (for protection) or perhaps a fenced city, (M'tsowr has also the sense of a limit). Moreover, the Old Testament gives an odd source for Egypt's etymology from the term: "Matsur/ Metsar" which means: trouble distress and pain! (see plate below). 

False etymology attributed to Biblical scholars 


Our first clue lies in Ancient Egyptian language where the terms "MTCHR"  referred to a "walled district of a town". (Note: the allophone _TCH_ is an equivalent for the Arabic emphatic letter sad). 

The second clue comes from the archaeological site of Ras Shamrah which is situated a few kilometers east of the Mediterranean coast of Syria and constitutes the remains of the ancient city of Ugarit. There, many Clay tablets found written in Ugaritic provided the first evidence of the use of the term _MiSR_. Within the mythology of the Ancient Near East, the Ugaritic deities are said to dwell in encampments .. these "encampments" are referred to as territories or strongholds. Hence, the deities were said to possess their own dwelling and their own territory which they called [msr). 

Source: Ugaritic Letters 49KTU 1.3:V.7ff. Note that the encampment in this passage is [mSr). J.C. de Moor, Contributions to the Ugaritic Lexicon (1979)

What is of interest to our investigation, is that the Ugaritic language, as a member of the Semitic languages, has a unique and remarkable script which is purely alphabetic. It is in correspondence with the Arabic system, apart from the fact that it usually runs from left to right. So, even if this is a gross anachronism, we may write an unvowelized Arabic text using the Ugaritic script without losing any expressive power, such is the close affinity between these two languages. 


Our final clue is from the Old Arabic and Classical Arabic where originally _MSR_ meant a limit, or boundary between two lands. It also referred to a city or a town. (see plate  below) 


Conclusion: As we review our clues from the different cultures discussed above we can conclude that there is an agreement as to the original meaning referring to a territory or a city. The term appear to have a Semitic origin in the Old Canaanite/ Ugaritic language. The concordance in meanings, as well as the exact spelling which survived unchanged into Arabic attest to unbroken continuity. While in the case of the Hebrew/Aramaic term apparently equally survived though its etymology was obviously confused in the same manner as in the case of "CHARASH". 

Semitic Linguists, aware of this deficiency in the Hebrew/Aramaic languages, have always referred to Classical Arabic to explain the various Semitic roots and their etymologies. 


 © Ishinan 1996, 2003, 2007



The Egyptian Chronicles is a cooperative effort by a group of Egyptian authors pooling together their talents for the sake of Egypt's Future.  Articles contained in these pages are the personal views and/or work of the authors, who bear the sole responsibility of the content of their work. This Monthly Electronic Magazine is a non-profit, commercial free zone and is answerable to no one.

The April 2007 ISSUE

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