Determination-Signalling Environment in Old and Middle Egyptian: Work-Notes and Reflections


Shisha-Halevy, A., 2007. Determination-Signalling Environment in Old and Middle Egyptian: Work-Notes and Reflections. In Studies in Semitic and General Linguistics in Honor of Gideon Goldenberg (Alter Orient und Altes Testament vol. 334). Münster. Münster: Ugarit Verlag, pp. 223–254.


Barring the Nominal Sentence, Egyptian grammatical study of the heroic age, from Old Egyptian to Middle Egyptian, from K. Sethe to H. J. Polotsky, was mainly concerned with the verbal system and verb syntax. What has been stated about nominal syntax beyond the very basics would not exceed, all grammarians told, a few pages of print and very little individual variation based on real original research. One cannot help feeling this is due to the absence of “orthodox” affixed articles, as if these are anchoring points for syntactical observation of the noun. (Terminologically, of course, “articulum”, Greek ἄρθρον, means a metaphoric “linking joint” — Gelenk — revealing no less than a realization of its prime environmental role). And yet, the absence of bona-fide definite and indefinite articles in written Old and Middle Egyptian, somewhat like the absence of graphemic notation of vowels, which, in H. J. Polotsky’s conception of verbal category, sets us free from la superstition de la forme (De Boer) and encourages us to resort to the structural definition of linguistic identity, this “deprivation” too must be taken as a blessing in disguise: it forces our attention off the noun — temptingly “adequately” translatable in isolation into a European-style language — onto its environment, where much signalling information regarding (non-)specificity and (non-)particularity is to be found. The difficulty of seeing clearly in the matter of noun determination stems inter alia from looking for a “copy” correlation with what we have grown used to feel as Indo-European (or rather European) articles; but also from the generally implicitly accepted dichotomy of grammar and lexicon, a dichotomy more leaking than most other linguistic models; and especially from our being so to speak mesmerized by the article(s), which impairs our peripheral vision (yet another metaphor) and obscures our view of co-signals of determination. Here, incidentally, the trap of ethnocentricity is particularly ready for the unwary, the more so since it is, by easy terminological transference, the article — where present — that is conceived of as “definite” or “indefinite”, and not the noun and its environment. Moreover, in ignoring environmental determination, the typological significance of a definite article (and as a matter of fact, the article is but marginal in the overall phenomenon) can easily be exaggerated.

The commonly — indeed conventionally — erroneous synchronic view of article function can also flaw a satisfactory resolution of article-less states. For instance, the proportion of (macro)syntactic — anaphorical or cataphorical — and exophorical or intrinsic functioning of the articles may vary dramatically between narrative, dialogic, expositive, legal or ritual textemes. Finally, the continuity fallacy, of chronologically successive written phases seen as real succession in linguistic diachrony, distorts our view of article evolution.

Last updated on 01/18/2018