Sunday, February 1, 2009

Linguistic Support for Extra-Nubian Origin of Meroitic

There are many mysteries concerning the Meroites of the Meroitic civilization of Nubia and the Sudan. This ancient civilization lasted for hundreds of years and has left us many wonderful monuments. In addition to many grand monuments the Meroites left us a written language.

Although scholars have been able to read the letters of this ancient Kushite writing for many years up to now the full meaning of the Meroitic texts had alluded us.Today we can read the Meroitic text in their entirety using the cognate language for Meroitic: Tokharian (Winters 1984,1989, 1996a, 1996b,1996c).

Although linguist call this language Tokharian in Central Asia (Winters 1988b, 1991, 1996b).The people of Meroe, the Kushites had their own alphabet of 23 signs. This was a wonderful improvement over hieroglyphic writing which was made up of numerous ideographic and phonetic signs. Prior to the introduction of Meroitic, the Meroites used Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Francis Llewellyn Griffith, an Egyptologist was able to decipher the Meroitic script over 60 years ago. Although Griffith deciphered Meroitic, we were unable to read this writing because we did not know the cognate language.Using the comparative method I was able to discover that Tokharian is cognate to Meroitic. This led to the full decipherment of the Meroitic script. We can now read Meroitic using Tokharian ( Krause,1952 ; Windekens 1941, 1979).

Maurice Pope in THE STORY OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL DECIPHERMENT , has made it clear that before an unknown language can be deciphered you must have the right theoretical structure to base your inquiry upon (p.191).

Pope found that in the historical decipherments of ancient languages three preliminary conditions must be met:

1) confidence that a script can be deciphered;

2) location of proper names must be determined;

3) the grammatical rules of the target language/script must be found (pp.186-187).

We were able to read Meroitic because these preliminary conditions were met, and we were able to develop new hypothesis based on historical evidence to determine the cognate language of Meroitic. Conditions number one and two were met by Griffith when he deciphered the Meroitic script in 1910, and his discovery of the proper names of the Meroitic gods and individuals in Meroitic text.

Griffith also discovered the direction the Meroitic writing was written. This recognition by Griffith of the solubility of the Meroitic text was reinforced in 1978, with publication of UNESCO's The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Decipherment of the Meroitic Script. This was an important publication because it provided researchers with up-to-date information on the status of Meroitic.

Condition number three for the decipherment of Meroitic was met in 1979 when Fritz Hintze published his Beitrage zur meroitischen Grammatik . The research of F. Hintze (1979) and I. Hoffmann (1981) have made it possible for us to find the cognate language of Meroitic: Tokharian (Winters 1984 ,1989).

The work of Griffith and Hintze fulfilled all the requirements for the decipherment of the Meroitic writing.The classical literature supported the view that we might be able to find the Meroitic cognate language through a comparison of the Meroitic terms and Kushan lexical items.

To test the Kushana hypothesis we had to then:

1) find agreement between Kushana and Meroitic terms;

2) compare Central Asian and Egypto-Sudanese toponomies;

3) compare Kushana and Meroitic grammatical forms.

In recent years researchers were able to develop a grammar of Meroitic, without being able to read Meroitic. The research of Hintze (1979) and Hoffman (1981) made it possible for us to find the cognate language of Meroitic: Tokharian (Winters 1984 ,1989).

Hintze (1979) grammar of Meroitic provided the necessary material to compare Meroitic with other languages to find its cognate language. Hintze (1979) recognized three approaches to the study of Meroitic: 1) philological, 2) comparative, and 3) structural (i.e., the morphological-syntactical).

The philological methods of Hintze (1979) was informed guesses based upon context.In the comparative method the structures of two or more languages are compared to determine the relationship between languages. Hintze's (1979) discussion of the Meroitic affixes provided us with the linguistic material to compare Meroitic successfully with Tocharian.

The comparative method is used by linguist to determine the relatedness of languages, and to reconstruct earlier language states. The comparative linguist looks for patterns of correspondence, i.e., the isolation of words with common or similar meanings that have systematic consonantal agreement with little regard for location and/or type of vowel. Consonantal agreement is the regular appearance of consonants at certain locations in words having analogous meanings.

Using the comparative methods proposed by Hintze we have found that the Meroitic inscriptions are written in Tocharian, a language used as a lingua franca in Central Asia by the Kushana or Kush people. The Kushana people ruled Central Asia and India. Linguist prefer to call the Kushana language Tocharian, after the Sanskrit term for Kushana: Tu-kara.(Winters 1984, 1989, 1996a, 1996b).

There is structural, morphological and toponymic evidence which support the view that Tokharian is cognate to Meroitic(Winters 1984,1989). There are many Central Asian place names that agree with toponomies in Nubia/ Sudan. Below we list a few of these common toponomies:





Shaur ……………………………………Sarur



Khara ……………………………………….Kara-

Kupuri………………………………………….Gabur, Capur

These placenames can be compared with the maps of Central Asia and the Sudan supplied published by Dr. Vamos-Toth Bator in his Tamana studies .

My decipherment of Meroitic indicates that many terms alleged to be Meroitic by Griffith and others must be discarded. I am forced to ignore the proposed meaning for some proposed Meroitic lexical items because they do not agree with my research into Meroitic. But I accept some of the alleged Meroitic terms as being verified by my decipherment both due to their Egyptian origin, or affinity to Tokharian terms.

It must be remembered that most of the alleged Meroitic lexical items were simply guesses by the researchers. These terms become valid only when they can be read in all the Meroitic text and have consistent meaning. I found that some of these terms are homonyms, while other terms "discovered " by Griffith and others were good guesses that do not prove valid given our discovery of the cognate language of Meroitic.

There are several recognized Meroitic words (Hintze 1979).The following words correspond to Tokharian words:

Meroitic..................... Tokharian

Ø kadke / ktke # queen……………… Ø katak # master of the house

Ø ato # water ……………………………………… Ø ap

#Ø s # 'race'……………………………………………………… Ø sah # 'man'

Ø wide # youth ……………………………………………… Ø wir #

Ø qor # monarch ……………………………………………. Ø oroce # 'the grand king'

Ø parite # agent……………………………………………… Ø parwe # 'first'

Ø apote # 'envoy'………………………………………………..Ø ap # 'father'

It is obvious that apote and parite do not relate to Tokharian because these are Egyptian loan words adopted by the Meroites. But around 57% of these terms show agreement. This made it highly probable that Meroitic and Tokharian were cognate languages.

The grammar of Meroitic determined by Hintze (1979) allowed us to also make comparisons with Tocharian to test the Kushana hypothesis for reading Meroitic. This comparison of grammatical structures showed cognition between this language and Meroitic.

Hintze was sure that there were a number of Meroitic affixes including:






B.G. Trigger in his "Commentary" (Hintze 1979) mentioned several other possible Meroitic affixes including:




In addition , A. M. Abdalla in his "Commentary" (Hintze 1979)mentioned three possible verbal suffixes , including:



These alleged Meroitic grammatical elements encouraged me to seek out a language that contained these typological features as the possible cognate language for Meroitic. The Kushana language includes all of these affixes.

Researchers working on Meroitic determined several possible prefixes:





In Tokharian we find these prefixes: p(ä), the imperfect prefix and imperative, y- the Tokharian element joined to demonstratives, and yopsa ‘in between’.

There are other affixes that relate to the Meroitic suffixes including –te, the demonstrative ‘this, etc.’; -o, the suffix used to change nouns into adjectives. For example: aiśamñe ‘knowledge’, asimo ‘knowing; klyomñ ’nobility’, klyomo ‘noble’.

Other Tokharian affixes which agree with Meroitic include –te and -l. The Tokharian locative suffix is –te. The ending particle in Tokharian is –l.

The Meroitic –t, corresponds to the –t ‘you’. In Tokharian the pronouns are placed at the end of words: nas-a-m ‘I am’, träkä-s ‘he says’, träkä-t ‘you say’.

The –t element in Tokharian can also be used to represent the third person singular e.g., kälpa-t ‘he found’.The p-, element used to form the imperative in Tokharian and imperfect . This affix is used in both Tokharian A and B. For example,Tokh.A klyos "to hear, to listen"p(a)klyos "You listen"p(a)klyossu "s/he listens"Tokh. B klyausp(a)klyaus 'you listen"A. ta, tas, "to lay, to put"ptas 'you lay'B. tes, tas 'to put, to lay'ptes 'you put'.

The Tokharian -n-, has many uses in Tokharian. It can be used to form the subjuntive, e.g., yam 'to do', yaman 's/he do(es). It is also used to form the plural se 'son', pl. sewan 'sons; ri 'city', pl. rin 'cities'.The plural in Tokharian is formed by the –ñ. For example,are ‘plough’, pl. areñ ‘ploughs’ ri ‘city’ , pl. riñ ‘cities.

Recognition of analogous structural elements in relation to Kushana and Meroitic allowed us to divide the Meroitic phonemes into words. Griffith provided us with evidenec for selected Meroitic nouns.

Abdalla (Hintze 1979, 149) was sure that he detected several common verbs in Meroitic including:








yi mde.

Following this lead we searched the Kushan language to determine if it possessed any verbs that might match the proposed hypothetical verbs of Abdalla. A comparison of Kushan and Meroitic proved to be successful. We now know that he was absolutely right about his interpretation of possible Meroitic verbs.

Below is the interpretation of these Meroitic verbs:

hr , to have dignity

the , suggested posssible to move

tk , to set in motion, to investigate

w-e , to give escort

pl , to boast, to praise

m-de , measure the offering

y i m-de go make (full) measure of the offering

Recognition of these Meroitic terms as verbs gave us any more confirmation that Kushana was probably the Meroitic cognate language. This discovery of Meroitic verbs and nouns, and cognate toponomies in Central Asia and Upper-Nubia-Sudan proved that Meroitic could be read using Kushana lexical items.

The discovery that Tokharian is cognate to Meroitic has led to the full decipherment of the Meroitic script. We can now translate Meroitic using Tokharian. This allows us to obtain new information about the Meroitic civilization.

My research into Kushana or Tokharian has led me to recognize that this language was probably used as a lingua franca or trade language in Central Asia by the diverse peoples living there in an intense bilingual environment (Winters 1996a, 1996b). C. A. Winters (1991) has illustrated how the Greek and Slavic terms in Tokharian were loanwords, absorbed by Tokharian after the Greek conquest of Bactria.

This borrowing pattern was consistent with the spread of the Greek language into Bactria by a small elite group of warriors.The classical and Egyptian sources make it clear that Upper Nubia and the Sudan was inhabited by numerous tribes. The possible early use of Kushan\Tokharian as a trade language made it an ideal candidate for use by the Meroitic elites who ruled an empire that was made up of many diverse ethnic groups as the language for literate Meroites


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You can read more about my decipherment at thefollowing web site:

I have written a short dictionary of Meroiticterms that you can find at the following web site:

My most recent article discussing Meroitic history and deciphering Meroitic documents titled theMeroitic Evidence for a Blemmy Empire in theDodekaschoinos can be found at the following site:

Yellin, J. 1982. The role of Anubis in Meroitic religion. In Nubian Studies, J.M. Plumley (ed.), (Cambridge: Selwyn College), 227-234..........

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