Kmt, Kemet ‘Egypt’ : its etymology

The etymology of Kmt ‘Egypt’

One of the native names for Ancient Egypt was Kmt. This is the one that survived into Coptic as kemə and xemi. The etymology of this word is generally understood as meaning « (the) Black (One) ».

Kmt: ‘The Black One’

This is the translation provided by the Wörterbuch of Erman and Grapow (Wb. V. 126). Several facts have led researchers to translate this word as « (the) Black (One) ». The first of these is the existence of an Egyptian word km meaning ‘(to be) black’ and a feminine suffix -t, both of which can be combined to form an adjective meaning ‘black’ or, secondarily, a noun derived from this adjective via conversion, that is, without adding an additional affix.

The case of French

In French, for example, ‘<blanc>’ is an adjective to which a feminine suffix ‘<-he>’ is added to give the feminine adjective <blanche>. Through a process of conversion, <white> becomes a noun, <Blanche>, which may refer to a « White » woman. The problem is that unlike the adjective <blanc> in French, km has a lot of homonyms in Egyptian. This is due in part to the fact that the earliest stages of Pharaonic Egyptian did not transcribe vowels. If the situation was the same in French as it was in Egyptian, the adjective <blanc> ‘white’  would be written <bl>, like ‘blue’ <bleu>, ‘ball’ <balle>,  ‘wheat’ <blé>, etc. In Egyptian, the word kmt « Egypt », could a priori have originally meant « the Black one », but could also have meant « the complete », from the root k-m « to be complete » or even have had a lost etymology. The etymology of the word Germany dates back to the ancient people called the Germani, whose etymology, for example, is not known.

Kmt : Black soil or Black people?

The etymology of Kmt as meaning « black » is acknowledged  by the great majority of Egyptologists who define it either as a reference to the black color of the Nile silt or to the skin color of the ancient Egyptians. This latter meaning is mainly acknowledged by Egyptologists and other researchers of Black African descent.

Pfouma (1993): Kmt = ‘nation’

Among the latter, however, a divergent hypothesis has been suggested. According to it, the etymology of Kmt, ‘Egypt’ has nothing to do with the color black. For example, according to Pfouma (1993: 14), the meaning of Kmt is not that of ‘(the) Black (One) ’, but that of’ national territory ’. This hypothesis is based on several arguments. The first one deals with Coptic data.

Pfouma’s first argument : Coptic

Coptic is the last stage of the Ancient Egyptian language. In the Sahidic dialect of Coptic, the name of Egypt is /kemə/, while in the Bohairic dialect it is /xemi/. At first glance, the Coptic seems to suggest that kmt has nothing to do with darkness. One of the forms for « being black » is indeed kmɔm / xmɔm and is different to the word for Egypt, as far as the vowels and number of consonants are concerned as pointed out by Pfouma (1993).

Coptic verbal morphology

A reader unfamiliar with Coptic grammar may assume that one is dealing with two completely different words, such as French <bleu> ‘blue’ and <bouboule> ‘fatty’ (bl vs bbl) which have neither the same number of consonants, nor the same vowels.

Unfortunately,  Pfouma seems unaware that Egyptian and Coptic have a verbal morphology largely based on a high degree of apophony. These languages ​​have a verbal morphology consisting of a root made up of a consonant sequence providing lexical information and a template, a mold made of a fixed number of consonants and a particular vowel sequence providing grammatical information.

One root can be associated with different templates  giving it different grammatical functions. For example, the root /k-m/ in Coptic is associated with darkness. The CCɔC template associates this root and others with the infinitive. Thus, when associated with this template, the root km becomes kmom /kmɔm/ ‘become black’ (x-m becomes, xmɔm in Bohairic; the root h-m associated with ‘heat’, when associated with the template CCɔC is realized as /hmɔm/ ‘get hot’).

This is what Pfouma seems to have understood in a later work (Pfouma 2000: 50). Should we to conclude that kemə / xemi and their ancestor Kmt ‘Egypt’ had nothing to do with the color black? The answer is no. Coptic, although descended from Pharaonic Egyptian, differs from it in several ways. And in this case, the adjectives derived from / k-m / to be black ’in Coptic are obviously derived from words belonging to other grammatical categories of the Late Hieroglyphic Egyptian language. We know this for several reasons. First of all, the hieroglyphic feminine marker of nouns and adjectives -t has historically been lost, leaving its absence to regularly match with the final vowel /e/ in Coptic Sahidic and /i/ in Bohairic. We can see it with the examples in (1):

Gloss Pharaonic Egyptian Sahidic Coptic Bohairic Coptic
‘Evil’ bjn.t /βɔɔnə/ /βɔni/
‘number’ jp.t /epə/ /epi/
‘Isis’ 3s.t /esə/


If kame / xame  came from a word only combining km with -t, one would expect their final vowel to be ə / i, which it is not the case.

The evidence of pre-Coptic Egyptian

We are more likely to be in the presence of a word from another grammatical category derived from the root / k-m /. If the hypothesis of kmt deriving from an adjective was true, one could expect a * kem/ *xem form as a masculine adjective and *kemə/*xemi as a feminine adjective which we do not have.

However, we find the Greek transcription Άρπχη̃μις of the Egyptian theonym Ḥr p3 kmHorus the Black’ or ‘black’ km is transcribed by /xēm/, which confirms the existence of an adjective *kem/*xem in pre-Coptic.

Vycichl (1984: 81), who noted this fact, reports that this vocalization, which did not survive for the root /k-m/, survived for other Pharaonic adjectives in Coptic.

This is the case with the name of wʽb, a type of Ancient Egyptian priests whose name was derived from the adjective wʽb ‘pure’ and which in Coptic gave /weeb/ in Saidic and /web/ in Bohairic.

Another argument confirming this fact comes from the testimony of the Latin-speaking Greek writer Plutarch, who lived during the first two centuries of the Christian era.

In chapter 33 of his work Isis and Osiris, Plutarch explains in these terms the meaning of the name of the country of the ancient Egyptians in the language of the latter.

“In addition, we name Egypt, because its lands are black among all, like the black of the eye, Khemia.  »

In this sentence, Plutarch teaches us that the name of Egypt was Khemia, which strongly resembles the Bohairic form of the term, which as we have seen is /xemi/. We also learn from this text that in Plutarch’s time, Ancient Egyptians considered that the name of their country, /xemi/ was linked to the black colour, more precisely the colour of the earth in this country, described as the blackest among all.

Interestingly, this connection was also made, according to the author, through the relation between the name of Egypt and the black of the eye, that is to say the pupil. Why this reference to this ‘black’ reality rather than to another? Because there was, in hieroglyphic Egyptian, a word kmt derived from the root km « black » meaning ‘the pupil’.

Like the name of Egypt, because it was derived from the root k-m ‘black’, it could only have been a nominalized adjective. Plutarch and his Egyptian informants’ reference to the black eye rather than hair or some other black reality was motivated by the fact that the two terms were perfect homophones, which one might have expected since they both were nominalized feminine gender adjectives.

We therefore have an additional argument for the vocalization of adjectives formed from km ‘black’ with a /e/ in pre-Coptic and therefore the formation of the name of Egypt through this process.

Pfouma’s argument relating to the different vocalization of the name of Egypt and of the verbs and adjectives associated with the color black in Coptic does not hold since an identical vocalization is attested for another feminine noun derived from an adjective in Pharaonic Egyptian.

The evidence of Sub-Saharan African languages

Pfouma’s second argument deals with sub-Saharan African languages. As reported by this author (1993: 15), there are a number of words which resemble kmt in form and whose meaning is similar to that of territory ’, but have no relation to the color black.

Coptic: kämi « Egypt »

Basa: kaam « farm »
Doai: kaam « farm »
Esitako: ekaam « id. »
Ngodzin: kam « id. »
Runda: kumadin « id. »

Coptic: kämi « Egypt »
Balue: kom « country, region »
Okam: ekoma « city »
Ndzem: köm « countryside »
Bateteka (sic): komwa « country, region »
Bakweri: kumi « country »
Zulu: -khumbi « nation »
Pende: guma « country, region »
Dewoi: gumo « village, town »
Caga: gumi « countryside »
Lingala: -gumba « city »
Galla (sic): gomdji « land which grow warm and healthy cultivated »

There are several issues with this argument. First of all, Pfouma only provides one with a list of words that resemble each other in form and meaning. The comparative method was not used there. The latter aims at comparing related languages, establishing phonetic matches and reconstructing the hypothetical ancestor language of all these languages.

In the case of the words listed above etymologically meaning « land » or « territory » as suggested by Pfouma, the comparative method would allow one to predict the related Egyptian form after establishing regular sound correspondences between the words of the listed languages.

It is impossible to know if that is the case for Kmt since Pfouma did not do this work. Even if this were the case, it could not be excluded that this hypothetical original meaning of ‘territory’ did not coexist with a root km meaning ‘black’ and that the choice of Kmt as the name of Egypt does not was not motivated by this homonymy between the two forms.

Km = ‘kind of land »?

A third argument used by Pfouma deals with the existence, in Egyptian, of the toponym km wr, which was used to name Athribis. According to Pfouma (1993: 14), this term cannot be translated as ‘The Great Black One’, any more than Kmt, the name of a locality in the Delta, could be translated as ‘The Black One”, unless one assumes that Ancient Egyptians imagined their country’s territory as a human being”, this hypothesis being strongly rejected by the author.

According to Pfouma, “The etymological meaning of km in Km-wr is ‘cadastral land’ or ‘land property’: Km-wr must mean something like ‘rural domain’ or ‘agricultural land’ or ‘fattening meadow’ ( *wr ‘forage’, Cf. Dogon: belu “forage, pasture”) ”.

The author asserts that km in Km-wr and km in kmt are not linked to the color black but both refer to the notion of cadastral land, the -t of kmt translating the concept of ‘territorial collectivity’ or ‘city’.
Pfouma’s fourth argument deals with the phrase t3 n Kmt. The first degree of translation results in ‘the land of ‘Egypt » or ‘the country of Egypt’, in the same way that the country of England can be translated as ‘the country of ‘England’.

A second degree of translation taking into account the etymology of the name of the country, results in ‘the land of the Black ‘in the same way that the country of England would translate as’ the land of the Angles’.

A third degree of translation taking into account the omitted referent qualified by ‘black’ and omitted in the expression t3 n Kmt would either result in the ‘land of the black earth’ if we consider that the name originally qualified as ‘black’ was ‘land’, just as the country of England should be translated as ‘the land of the land of the people called Angles’. This translation of t3 n Kmt by « the earth of the black earth » is described by Pfouma as « absurd ». This, he says, is an argument showing that Kmt cannot mean « black earth ». We personally do not see how an etymology of Kmt as referring to the color of the ground is invalidated by the expression t3 n Kmt as shown by the example of the country of England.

Mboli (2010): kmt = a collectivity of territories traversed by water

Another author opposing the translation of Kmt by ‘(the) Black (one) ’is Mboli (2010). This author states (Mboli 2010: 172, translated from French):

« However, no Egyptian document, over 3000 years of history, ever refers to any link between kmt » Egypt « and km » black « . This absence is all the more curious as the ancient Egyptians used to make links between entities and notions which were pronounced in the same way (example: men (rmṯ), conceived as the tears of the God Râ) « .

This assertion is contradicted by a passage from a text inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Edfu, as noted by Oréal (1998: 561):
ḏr nty Km.t ḏd r jr.t Wsjr. ḏfḏ.s pw.

« Because » Black « (Egypt) is said of the eye of Osiris; it is his pupil. »(Edfou, ed. E. Chassinat, t. 6, Cairo, 1931, p. 200, 86)
This is a replica of the Greek quote from Plutarch. “In addition, we name Egypt, because its lands are black among all, like the black of the eye, Khemia. » A direct link was therefore made between the Egyptian pharaonic scribes about the black (of the eye) and the name of Egypt.

The name of Athribis

Another argument proposed by Mboli (2010: 173) deals with a number of toponyms:
Km.t: Athribis, name of Lower Egypt
Km.ii.t: Ka Kam district
Km wr: city of the name of Athribis
Km wr: Fayoum sanctuary
Km wr: canal in the nomes of Thebes and Coptos
Km wr: region of lakes (Bitter Lakes), located east of the Nile Delta

In the first place, the author does not consider the possibility that the km mentioned here are (nominalized) adjectives referring to the color black, but not qualifying the same reality as Kmt « Egypt ». However, this is what seems to suggest the gender difference between km in most of the toponyms cited by Mboli and which suggests that they do not qualify the same reality, a fortiori if they are not nouns derived from other grammatical categories as he suggests.
Instead, the author assumes that these terms km are one and the same word meaning a ‘territory crossed by water’ and that the -t of Kmt ‘Egypt’ and that of Kmt ‘Athribis, nome of Lower Egypt ‘are the mark of the collective, Egypt and the name constituting several territories.

This hypothesis is consistent, but not very convincing. Why not have taken into account the possibility that for toponyms other than Kmt ‘Egypt’, km black ’refers to something other than the color of the silt of the Nile? For example, Km wr, region of lakes (Bitter Lakes), located east of the Nile Delta ’appears in a hymn to Osiris from the Pyramid Texts. It is determined there by the sign of the wall, which for example led Allen (2005) to translate it as Large (wall) black ’.

As the Vernus (1978) inventory has shown, the k3 km reading is unlikely, having been confirmed by only one questionable example. Likewise, the word km in Athribis’ name is regularly written with the determinative of the bull, which suggests that this is a reference to a black bull, the heraldic animal of the city and its nome. This cannot be, at least in most cases, a k3 km ‘black bull’ reading, since the sign representing a bull follows the sign for ‘black’ in all or almost all cases where the two signs coexist in the designations of Athribis.

To the question asked by Mboli, « Why does the name Athribis have the same name as the whole country? » », referring to a spelling effectively similar to that of kmt ‘Egypt’, we will answer that there are many similar spelling of the name of Athribis and his nome to which is added the determinative of the bull which once again shows that although phonetically similar at one point in their history, the name of Egypt and that of the city and name of Athribis are quite different.

As Vernus (1978) further recalled, there was originally no difference between the name of the capital of the nome and the name of the nome’s territory, with the exception, originally, of the bulwark and / or the sign characterizing the second. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, in the same context, the spellings of the type km wr and kmt alternate in Egyptian. The reason proposed by a long tradition of Egyptologists is that by this time the final r of kmwr has weakened into a j before phonetically disappearing and seeing a weakening of w into a vowel. The loss of the feminine and the collective -t at the same time led to confusion between the writing of Athribis’s name, whether it was km-wr, km, kmt or kmt wrt.

Likewise, the Kmt spelling for ‘Athribis’ is not confirmed by Hannig’s dictionary (1995), which is more recent than Ermann and Grapow’s Wörterbuch. Gardiner (1914: 3), Fecht (1960: 13,14), Grandet (1994, II: 194) and others have explained how Km wr, Kmt wrt, Km and Kmt were all variations of the same name of the nome of Athribis.

One can however wonder if this meaning of the name of Egypt in use several millennia after the first attestations of kmt « Egypt » actually accounts for its etymology. Another link can be found in the regular association of km, black, on one side, with dšr ‘red ’ on the other; of kmt ‘Egypt’ on one side, and on dšrt ‘desert’ on the other.

The fact that Ancient Egyptian literature regularly opposes km, ‘black’, to dšr, ‘red’; that the former is associated with Osiris and the Egyptians and that the second is associated with Seth and foreigners; that the name of Egypt is formed on a root homonymous to km « black », that the name of the desert is formed on a root homonymous to that of dšr « red »; that Osiris is associated with Egypt and Seth with the desert; that the testimony of the contemporary languages ​​of Pharaonic Egyptian and Coptic shows that the vocalization of the name of Egypt was what one would expect from a nominalized adjective derived from the root /km/ ‘black’ shows that ‘ there is no serious reason to question the etymology of Kmt ‘Egypt’ as ‘the Black one’.

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