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Review of  Middle Egyptian

Reviewer: Grover M. Hudson
Book Title: Middle Egyptian
Book Author: James P. Allen
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Writing Systems
Subject Language(s): Egyptian
Issue Number: 22.502

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AUTHOR: Allen, James P.
TITLE: Middle Egyptian
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2010

Grover Hudson, Department of Linguistics and Languages, Michigan State University


Middle, or Classical, Egyptian is the language of fully developed Egyptian
hieroglyphic writing from about 4000 BP, and according to Allen (p. 1) a spoken
language for only the first five hundred of these years, after which in the
conservative 'diglossic' way of writing familiar in modern Arabic, it continued
as the language of hieroglyphic writing, until about 2000 years ago as
hieroglyphic was replaced by its Demotic, cursive, adaptation, and then by
Coptic, written in Greek letters and the direct descendant of ancient spoken
Egyptian. Coptic itself has not been spoken for now some hundreds of years.

The publisher's Linguist List announcement of this book said that it 'introduces
the reader to the writing system of ancient Egypt and the language of
hieroglyphic texts ... . The combination of grammar lessons and cultural essays
allows users to not only read hieroglyphic texts but also to understand them,
providing readers with the foundation to understand texts on monuments and to
read great works of ancient Egyptian literature in the original text'. This
second edition 'contains revised exercises and essays, providing an up-to-date
account of current research and discoveries. New illustrations enhance
discussions and examples. These additions combine with the previous edition to
create a complete grammatical description of the classical language of ancient
Egypt for specialists in linguistics and other fields.'

The above announcement must surely have been of interest to readers of Linguist
List for its promise that the book might allow users not only to read texts in
Egyptian, but to understand them! The book is perhaps the best available, and
perhaps most popular, English-language textbook in use for Middle Egyptian, if
by the small and -- one supposes -- decreasing number of students of this
classical language.

This second edition differs little in substance from the first (2000) edition,
but for students perhaps significantly by the addition in each chapter of
illustrations, almost completely absent before. These photos and drawings
inserted at the essays of each chapter account for most of the 13 pages of added
length. Another change from the first edition is the insertion after every
sentence-length utterance, in parentheses, of its published source as a standard
abbreviation of the Egyptological literature. In the first edition, these
references appeared as an appendix. (It seems -- and seems reasonable -- that
even experts like Allen are reluctant to create for publication new sentences of
Middle Egyptian.) The publisher says there are additions to the exercises, but
these are few, and there are rarely minor changes in wordings of the text, for
example (p. 7): 'the letters of our alphabet' > 'English letters', (p. 37): 'In
a few masculine nouns the last consonant is t' > 'A few masculine nouns have t
as their last consonant is' (sic), (p. 252): 'The pseudoverbal construction is
an involuntary future' > 'The pseudoverbal construction is basically an
involuntary future'. Some new publications are added in the list of references.
Omitting the words 'if you have access to the internet' and acknowledging what
is certainly in the ten years since the first edition a significant improvement
in resources for language learning, Allen has added in the last-chapter section
on 'where to go from here' many new internet resources for learning Egyptian.

The 26 chapters are from 10-28 pp. in length. The first three introduce
hieroglyphic writing and its relation to the sound system of Egyptian: despite
their picture-like nature, the glyphs mostly represent the 25 consonant phonemes
of the language, though not in anything like a one-to-one way. Chapters 4-25
consist invariably of three parts, the first two appropriate to the two goals of
the book's title: introducing the language and introducing the culture. First is
presentation and exemplification of several points of grammar, followed by a 3-4
pp. essay concerning some aspect of ancient Egyptian history, society, religion,
and literature, complemented by the newly provided illustrations probably
appreciated by students, a photograph or tracing of a hieroglyphic text relevant
to each essay. Some sample titles of the essays are 'Ancient Egyptian Society',
'Egyptian Chronology', 'The Memphite Theology', and 'Non-literary Texts'. Ending
each chapter is a single exercise typically consisting of some 25-35 phrases
and/or sentences for translation.

Unlike the typical lesson-chapters of most language textbooks, these have
neither the usual vocabulary list anticipating words appearing anew in the
translation exercise, nor, with few exceptions (e.g. the pronoun paradigm on p.
52) grammar paradigms. There are numerous 'tables', really just lists of
examples. Chapter 26 is an overview, with an essay concerning the 'Theory' of
Middle Egyptian grammar, which it seems is largely concerned with the contrast
of the morpho-syntactic theories of Gardiner 1927 and Polotsky 1944.

Appendixed are three dictionaries, in which signs are respectively accessed
according to what they depict, their general shape, and the sound of the word
they represent. A now classical adaptation from Gardiner 1927 is a 'Sign List'
of some 675 glyphs 'most often found in Middle Egyptian texts, arranged into 27
groups on the basis of what they depict' (p. 425): 'human beings, male', 'human
beings, female', 'anthropomorphic gods', 'birds', etc. This list gives the
function of each sign as phonogram (having phonetic value), determinative
(indicator of 'the general idea of a word') (p. 30), or ideogram (iconic
interpretation, e.g. a hand meaning 'hand', but often interpreted as a rebus,
phonologically, e.g. an English example: a picture of a bee read [bi] and
meaning 'be'); a pronunciation in phonetic writing (often not for
determinatives); and an English translation equivalent. The 27th group is the
residue of 32 'Unclassified' signs.

Next, most the signs of the 27 groups are reassembled into four according to
their shape: 'small', 'horizontal', 'vertical', and 'large signs and
combinations'. Third, and titled 'Dictionary', is a list of some 560
phonetically-written words in Egyptian 'alphabetic' order. Also appended are
answers to the exercises, followed by a thorough, 15-page, index.


It is difficult and probably unwise to try to evaluate this book according to
its goal as a language coursebook/textbook, because the preferences and learning
styles of language learners differ so greatly. Certainly Cambridge's claim is
questionable that the book provides 'a complete grammatical description of the
classical language of ancient Egypt for specialists in linguistics'. For this, a
linguist will probably prefer Loprieno (1999). One seeking first just to
understand the writing system will perhaps prefer to start with Davies (1987),
with its extensive and attractive exemplification.

Certainly a textbook of Egyptian cannot be judged on the usual standard for
modern language textbooks: based on a structured syllabus,
communicative/functional basis of lessons, and stimulating contextualization of
practice. Egyptian, which, even as Coptic hasn't been spoken for hundreds of
years, is not a language for communication in the usual two-way sense, as Allen
recognizes in the preface (p. ix): 'We learn Egyptian ... not as a means of
communication but as a tool for reading ... texts.' But this is still a sort of
communication: ancient Egyptians communicating to the student through the texts,
which, however and as Allen says (p. ix), 'are full of terms and concepts that
have no direct counterpart in the modern world'. Fortunately the texts are a
finite set, perhaps almost all of which have already been translated and
published. The vocabulary is finite, too; we read (p. 31) that there are some
17,000 known Egyptian words, of which fewer than five hundred are ideograms. At
the end of chapter 26, Allen says (p. 423) 'No matter how much grammar you
study, reading texts is ultimately the best way to learn Egyptian'; indeed, this
seems ultimately the only way.

The two greatest difficulties with Egyptian, it seems clear, are first the lack
of knowledge of vowels, and second, despite Middle Egyptian's being a 'written
standard', the considerable variation which must characterize a body of language
set down over some two thousand years. There was at least the continuing
tendency for phonograms to be used of contemporary as well as etymological
pronunciations, but both problems are particularly troublesome when it comes to
verbal morphology, thus (p. 299): 'We have now met all six forms of the verb
whose stem and suffix consonants are sdm.f: perfective, imperfective,
subjunctive, prospective, prospective passive, and passive', which 'often look
alike in many classes'.

As preparation for students' independent reading of texts, Allen's textbook has
proved its excellence by having become probably that most commonly assigned in
US universities, in which circumstance I know of students who love the book and
others who don't love it so much. Certainly it is not a book -- nor Egyptian a
subject -- for the typical undergraduate -- or graduate. Perhaps three sorts of
students are usually found: (i) Egyptology majors, a small but dedicated group;
(ii) those interested in Egyptian as auxiliary to another major: maybe theology,
philosophy, linguistics, and Semitic studies (Egyptian has been often thought,
if probably wrongly, closely related within Afro-Asiatic to Semitic); and (iii),
those few and ever-challenging students, met occasionally in linguistics
programs, who have an independent curiosity about (and usually an aptitude for
learning) languages, for what they can learn about other ways of encoding
thought if not other ways of thinking. The first and most of the second group
may be thought to share the goal of the textbook, to acquire independent reading
ability. In the second group most linguistics majors will have different goals,
but perhaps may be drawn by Allen's book into the Egyptological enterprise.

Interestingly revealing of the perspective of a student perhaps of the third
group, on one of the Egyptian study-group websites a learner reported it 'weird
to pick up a book (Allen's) that is supposed to teach me how to read the glyphs
and find that it directs me to reading and writing the transliterations of the
glyphs. Putting an emphasis on the transliterations inserts a 3rd level of
writing between the glyphs and our mental processes that removes us from reading
the sacred writings.'

Even reading the language may be thought, indeed, a curious or even arcane goal,
as almost all hieroglyphic writings have now been translated and retranslated,
though the considerable variability which characterizes hieroglyphic Egyptian
writing means that there is a continuing interest in new translations, and thus
interesting work for new students of the language.


Allen, James P. (2000). Middle Egyptian: an introduction to the language and
culture of hieroglyphs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, W. V. (1987). Reading the past: Egyptian hieroglyphs. Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press and British Museum.

Gardiner, A. H. (1927). Egyptian grammar, being an introduction to the study of
hieroglyphs. Oxford: Oxford University Press (3rd ed., 1957).

Loprieno, Antonio. (1995). Ancient Egyptian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Polotsky. H. J. (1944). Étude de syntaxe copte. Cairo: Société d'archéologie copte.

Grover Hudson taught phonology, historical linguistics, and Ethiopian linguistics including Amharic language at Michigan State University. He is author of a comparative dictionary of Highland East Cushitic languages, an introductory linguistics textbook, with Anbessa Teferra a recent book on Amharic, and articles on phonology, and Ethiopian descriptive and historical linguistics.

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