BMCR 2000.08.14

Ancient Egyptian, A linguistic introduction

, Ancient Egyptian, A linguistic introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xv + 322. $19.95 (pb).

Ancient Egyptian occupies a unique position in the history of the world’s languages. As a separate branch of the Afroasiatic family, Egyptian, from Old Egyptian down to Coptic, has a recorded history of more than 4,000 years, making it one of the longest continuously documented languages in the world. For linguists, then, Egyptian offers invaluable data. Yet the instruction of Egyptian has until recently been limited in the U.S. to a handful of institutions offering course in Egyptology. In the last few years this has begun to change. What has changed this more than anything else is the appearance of several general and excellent new introductions to Egyptian, particularly the classical stage of the language known as Middle Egyptian. These new grammars have demonstrated, among other things, that the study of Egyptian has advanced considerably in recent years. One only has to turn to the third edition of Alan Gardiner’s classic Egyptian Grammar (Oxford, 1957), a volume many readers of this journal will be familiar with, and compare it to recent work to see the considerable advances. These introductory grammars have as their audience those interested in a thorough introduction to one phase of the Egyptian language and usually have as a practical aim the training of Egyptologists. Linguists and other scholars wishing an overview of the diachronic development of Egyptian and its relationship to other languages within Afroasiatic have not been well served. Loprieno’s book is therefore most welcome and will serve as an excellent, state-of-the-field account of Ancient Egyptian. As a general linguistic and diachronic account, it bridges the gap between specialist grammars and linguists and others who want an overview of Egyptian. I can think of no better general introduction to the current state of Egyptian linguistics than Loprieno’s excellent study.

The book is divided into seven chapters and a brief epilogue. The chapters cover the following subjects: the Language of Ancient Egypt, Egyptian graphemics, Egyptian phonology, Elements of Historical Morphology, Nominal Syntax, Adverbial and Pseudo-Verbal Syntax, and Verbal Syntax. Each chapter concludes with suggestions for further reading. A very useful Bibliography and several indices conclude the book. Loprieno states two principal aims. The first of these is “to provide the linguistic audience with an introduction to the historical grammar of Ancient Egyptian.” The second aim is to serve “Egyptologists interested in linguistic issues”, by “offering a global presentation of the language from a structural as well as historical point of view.” Both of these aims are accomplished in this superb survey of Egyptian.

Chapter one provides the reader with a sound orientation to Egyptian and its long-term development. The history of the language is divided into two stages by Loprieno, a division that is followed by most scholars. The two stages, earlier Egyptian (Old and Middle Egyptian, 3000-1300 BCE) and later Egyptian (Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic), are distinguished by a shift in nominal and verbal syntax, from synthetic to analytic forms, and from a VSO sentence pattern to an SVO pattern. The chapter is concluded by a very brief but valuable history of the study of Egyptian from the ground-breaking work of the Berlin school in the early twentieth century to the pivotal work of Hans Jacob Polotsky in the 1960’s and 1970’s who developed what has become known as the “standard theory” (p. 9) the main feature of which is the idea that verbal phrases could become “topicalized” (pp. 192-96). This theory revolutionized the study of Egyptian and has until recently occupied a central place in Egyptian grammar.

The Hieroglyphic writing system is the subject of the second chapter. A good discussion of the basic principles behind Hieroglyphic writing (pp. 12-18) is followed by a detailed examination of the historical phases of this system. Loprieno divides the graphic system into six historic phases, roughly following the broad historical periodization which has become standard in Egyptology. These phases are the Archaic system, which followed the political unification of Egypt around 3000 BCE, the Old Kingdom, during which time the bureaucratic state emerged with a concomitant expansion of the administrative system; the classical stage, associated with a new state (the Middle Kingdom) that was formed after the political fragmentation caused by what is labelled with the meaningless term “First Intermediate Period”; the Ramesside phase of the later New Kingdom, which is marked by a reorganization in the principles of spatial arrangement of Hieroglyphs and a fuller orthography intended to reflect the phonetic changes; the Demotic phase, a major rupture in the Egyptian language, which used a cursive form of Hieroglyphic writing originally from the Delta; and finally, the Ptolemaic/Roman phase, during which time the inventory of Hieroglyphic signs expanded considerably.

In chapters three to seven, Loprieno provides a very detailed diachronic analysis of the phonology, morphology and syntax of Egyptian. Chapter three begins Loprieno’s march through Egyptian with a discussion of Egyptian phonology. Here the use of comparative evidence from Afroasiatic languages, and Coptic, is essential because the hieroglyphic system did not indicate vowels. Chapter four treats historical morphology, nouns, pronouns, prepositions and verbal forms. The analysis of the complexities of the Egyptian verbal forms, tense, aspect, mood and voice, is particularly good and important.

Chapter five surveys nominal syntax, which includes nominal and adjectival sentences. Sentences patterns here range from the simplistic bipartite predicate plus subject pattern, rm t pw“it/he is a man”, to the tripartite pattern and more complicated “thetic” statements, in which a noun clause becomes embedded as a predicate of a higher order nominal sentence, and cleft sentences. The last part of the chapter is devoted to negative patterns and the evolution of these sentence patterns in Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic. Chapter six treats adverbial and pseudoverbal syntax, another large and important category of sentence patterns in Egyptian. As in the nominal sentence, these patterns exhibit a wide variety of subject types, from bare nouns to participles. A good discussion of the “standard theory” one of the most hotly contested areas of Egyptian grammar, in which an initial verb form is followed by an adverbial phrase which functions as a predicate in a sentence in which the subject is the transformed (“nominalized” or “topicalized”) verbal phrase. Loprieno (pp. 148-9) stresses the limits of this theory. “It seems appropriate,” Loprieno urges, “to stick to a verbalistic approach to Egyptian syntax and to treat patterns with verbal predicate as verbal sentences” (p. 149). Also important in this chapter is the author’s discussion of the subordinating conjunctions which convert an Egyptian sentence into an adverbial clause. Initial and non-initial clauses and the role played by particles, especially jw and mk (pp. 166-68), the negation of adverbial sentences and a treatment of adverbial sentences in later Egyptian conclude the chapter.

Chapter seven is the longest chapter in the book and the most important. The subject, verbal syntax, pulls together many of the elements in the previous chapters. Herein, the so-called “standard theory” comes in for detailed treatment and revision. Loprieno again argues, as others recently have (espoused, for example, in the popular book by Mark Collier and Bill Manley, How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs, California 1998), that more “verbalistic accounts” of Egyptian syntax are preferable. One of the most remarkable features of Egyptian verbal phrases, and something that markedly contrasts with European languages as Loprieno rightly stresses, is their functional versatility. This versatility of the Egyptian verb is laid out in great detail in this chapter, beginning with the independent verbal sentence, and continuing through object and relative clauses. His discussion of such famous passages as Sinuhe B 26-34 on pp. 195-96 is masterful.

These chapters form an impressive sweep through the language and demonstrate very clearly the close relationship of Egyptian to other Afroasiatic languages. I have hardly given justice to the richness of these chapters. The stress on diachronic development and its synthesis of the last twenty years of scholarship in particular will make the book an important reference for specialist scholars. Yet while it is concerned with the details of morphology and syntax, Loprieno’s study is a very accessible book and one that deserves to be widely read and consulted by Egyptologists and linguists (the core audience) as well as by those who would like a good overview of Egyptian, a language that can no longer be treated in academic isolation. The book will be particularly useful for those who teach later stages of the Egyptian language (Demotic and Coptic) to students who have not done prior work in Egyptian. Frequently in such cases one has to defer questions, especially of morphology or phonology, or ignore them altogether. Now one has a handy reference to give students an overview of the historical grammar of any topic. Those who have had some training or are at the beginning stages of learning Egyptian will find the index of passages very helpful. Ancient Egyptian is a thorough and reliable guide to Egyptian and provides an excellent summary of the state of Egyptian linguistics. Those who would like to study Egyptian should begin with one of the good new teaching grammars, but once a basic grounding has been established, this book should be consulted. It has been written by a master and it will surely become a standard reference on the Egyptian language. For Egyptologists, the appeal of Loprieno’s work is that it asks the specialists to become more aware of linguistic structure and thereby to a fuller understanding of “Egypt as a cultural entity” (p. 239). Its appeal to linguists is the general presentation and linguistic treatment of the language. This study may open up the study of Egyptian to a whole new audience and, it is hoped, place Egyptian in its rightful place as one of the world’s most important languages.