I recently received a copy of Bentley Layton‘s fairly new Coptic in 20 Lessons, a teaching grammar for Sahidic Coptic. Browsing through the first few chapters, I was reminded there of the Coptic word ⲣ̄ⲣⲟ (rro or erro) meaning ‘king’ or ’emperor’. It’s an odd word, but its origin becomes clearer when the Coptic definite article is appended, ⲡ-ⲣ̄ⲣⲟ (perro), ‘the king’. The word is taken from the Ancient Egyptian ‘Pharaoh‘. In spite of the fact that Coptic is the direct descendent of the Ancient Egyptian language, the initial ‘p’ of the word became mistaken for the definite article at some point in the word’s history, and Copts began to take the ‘p’ out of ‘Pharaoh’.
The Ancient Greeks, writing about the southern superpower, wrote the word as φαραώ pharaō, and the Hebrew Bible renders the name of the oppressor as פַּרְעֹה (parʿōh). Our Modern English spelling and pronunciation is a bit of both the Greek and the Hebrew. The Greeks seem to have used the letter phi to represent the initial sound of the word while that letter was still used as an aspirated stop /pʰ/, before it became a fricative /f/, and so they contributed that sound change. The Hebrew spelling with the final ‘h’, which simply signal a final long vowel in Hebrew consonantal orthography, came into English spelling during the Reformation, when the Bible was being translated from the best available manuscripts in the original languages. This replaced the latinate spelling formerly used in English, ‘Pharao’ or ‘Pharaon’. The odd digraph ‘ao’ in the second syllable comes from the Greek too. We pronounce it as if the ‘a’ is not really there, which really confuses us when trying to spell. Well, the ‘a’ doesn’t seem to have been really there in the first place. It seems that the Greeks used the ‘ao’ spelling for an Egyptian sound that was a pharyngeal or glottal consonant that Greek doesn’t have followed by an ‘o’. Hebrew, being an Afroasiatic language like Egyptian, didn’t have a problem with this. I wonder whether the Coptic spelling with a double rho is actually meant to represent an ‘r’ sound followed by such an awkward consonant (in the same way that ⲙⲁⲁⲩ ma’u, ‘mother’, is spelt with a doubled vowel to stand for a vowel plus a glottal stop).