Reading glyphs by the Delta

Ancient Egyptian
July 26, 1996

The earliest preserved ancient Egyptian writing dates to the late fourth millennium bc. Full syntactic forms of the Egyptian language were recorded from about 00, while Coptic, its Christian-period successor, ceased to be an everyday language around ad 1000, living on only in church liturgy. Egyptian is thus the language with the world's longest continuous attestation. This temporal spread is significant for its position as a separate branch of the Afroasiatic language family, the members of which range geographically from northwest Africa to the Semitic languages of northeast Africa and the Middle East. Egyptian offers the opportunity to analyse transformations over very long periods, in two overlapping major phases that Antonio Loprieno terms "earlier" and "later" Egyptian (roughly 3000-1300 bc and 1300 bc-ad 1000).

Egyptian has been studied since its decipherment in the 1820s, but the difficulties of its several scripts and the limited amount of linguistic information they encode have slowed progress and have tended to keep Egyptologists apart from general or historical linguists. Most Egyptologists are interested in learning the language primarily to penetrate the culture, while linguists have often seen Egyptology as arcane and backward.

Egyptian has now begun to emerge from this isolation. Loprieno's Ancient Egyptian ratifies this development, constituting the first full presentation for an audience both of linguists and of Egyptologists. It also makes accessible for the English-reading world the results of a large body of German scholarship in particular, as has become sadly necessary Loprieno's aim is to build upon current Egyptological work and to present the language in terms of linguistics, while nonetheless retaining the standard Egyptological transcription of Egyptian.

Loprieno's main focus is on "earlier Egyptian". His presentation of "later Egyptian" is essentially as a historical continuation, and I wonder whether readers without some familiarity with the language will always gain a rounded picture from the sometimes very brief sections on later developments. But within a limited compass this focusing on the earlier language is probably the best strategy. The older stages pose more problems of interpretation and evince a distinctive linguistic structure, especially on the syntactic plane.

Loprieno is a proponent of the "verbalist" reading of Egyptian which has recently gained ground, departing from the orthodoxy established in the wake of H. J. Polotsky, the dominant scholar of the previous generation. The author sites this new development in relation to analytical techniques in linguistics such as discourse analysis and pragmatics. Here, a decisive clarification comes from his threefold distinction between parataxis, hypotaxis, and subordination. This reorganisation of categories brings a newly coherent sense of the flow of language through segments larger than individual sentences.

The book presents a rich variety of examples from most stages of Egyptian, evidence of the author's wide reading and striving for comprehensive coverage. With a dead language there will always be examples a reader will interpret differently from the author, but the accuracy and penetration of Loprieno's renderings is striking.

His work is a linguistic study and not a grammar: those who wish to learn Egyptian will need several different books to match its phases. As a reader with better Egyptian than linguistics, I found the Egyptological and linguistic presentation lucid and I trust that this will also be the case for those who have no Egyptian. One thing I missed was a consolidated listing of verbal inflections, of which very large numbers are discussed.

This is an outstanding book that should help to persuade Egyptologists of the value of linguistics while making the Egyptian language fully available to linguists. Moreover, it is both well produced and reasonably priced.

John Baines is professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford.

Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction

Author - Antonio Loprieno
ISBN - 0 521 44384 9 and 44849 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £12.95
Pages - 322

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