The term and its diffusion. The converb, in its vaguest and least critical, also least specific resolution - cf. the notorious conceptual muddle involving -ing forms and constructions in English - is used as meaning “adverbial verb form”, or “verbal adverb”; see the subtitle of Haspelmath and König (eds.) 1995.; mostly and for long it has been known as “gerund”. Definitions reveal the underlying blurredness: Haspelmath (1995:3ff.): “Non-finite verb-form whole main function is to mark adverbial subordination”; Nedjalkov’s (in Nedialkov 1995) is more sophisticated: “a verb-form which depends syntactically on another verb-form but is not its syntactic actant, that is does not realize its semantic valences”: this is surely unsatisfactory, for the converb is arguably actantial in cases like “start walking”. Probably the worst is the definition in Himmelmann and Schultze-Berndt (eds.), 2005:60 “we use the term converb for ‘participles’ which are used primarily as adjuncts”. As Grønbech 1979:35 says of Turkic postpositions and gerundial forms, the converbs are “fluid and hard to hold on to”, which, for a “cross-linguistically valid category” (the title of Haspelmath and König (eds.) 1995, in which see Haspelmath’s and König’s own contributions), is not an ideal condition.
Published in: Chronique d’Egypte, 84, pp. 136–152.
This work of Jean Winand’s aims at providing an account of Tense and Aspect (or rather Aspect and Tense) systems in Egyptian: this (notwithstanding the focus on Old and Middle Egyptian, with Late Egyptian rather thinly treated, and Demotic and Coptic virtually absent) is a staggeringly ambitious undertaking. It implies a confidence in our comprehension of Egyptian, synchronic and diachronic, which this reviewer must admire, but cannot share. And yet, it is almost a blessing that the Later Egyptian systems are only lightly touched upon, for this renders the in-depth treatment of OE and ME virtually monographic, which would be hardly feasible for the whole of Egyptian history — all the more so, since the joints or seams between “successive” phases are fictive and indeed fallacious. On the other hand, one would wish for an extended application of the author’s hypotheses to LE (and Demotic), for the cryptic nature of the earlier phases of Egyptian renders any judgement made regarding their imponderables both subjective and irrefutable. It is easy to pass speculation on O/ME as descriptive statement, which would never do in the more “transparent” later phases. Be that as it may, the reader gets occasionally the eerie, unsettling feeling that it is a transcendental, panchronic (or panoramic) Egyptian that is here under typological scrutiny. (I cannot see, for instance, the soundness of a combined statement [p. 197] on the Stative and sḏm.n.f forms on the basis of Sinuhe and the Late Ramesside Letters).
Uploading this article to the Internet Archive is done with the author’s permission and by his request.
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.
The linguistic study of Egyptian, fully deciphered only about 150 years ago, is a young discipline: modern Egyptian linguistics, dating more or less from the work of Hans-Jakob Polotsky, is much younger still: no more than about half a century old. Coptic, the final stage of Egyptian, dead as a spoken language at some point after the XIIIth century AD, had been scientifically known in the West from around the XVIIth century. It is a curious and somehow sobering thought that Champollion le Jeune probably got the brainwave and forward push to the final decipherment of the hieroglyphic script by a wholly and deeply erroneous idea about diachronic word order correspondence. He believed (or took for granted) that Coptic f-sôtm “he is hearing” (roughly, “he + hear”) was the inversion of a ‘pan-Egyptian’ sdm.f (“hear-he”), which, he thought, had the same tense form, but which - we now know - is in fact a cluster of homographs, drastically differing, formally and functionally, in tense form and syntactical status from one phase of Egyptian to another and within one and the same phase. The idea was wholly misguided, yet the confidence it gave him, and his conviction that Coptic and Egyptian were two phases of the same language were not unjustified, and led him to eventual success. Today we have a reasonably good synchronic resolution - and, paradoxically, a sometimes seemingly sharper diachronic resolution - of nearly four millennia of uninterrupted evolution of a language (or rather an ensemble of dialects and language varieties), made visible to us in the written documentation of five or six distinct broad linguistic systems (in the sense of la langue as well as norme and usage). Roughly, with some arbitrariness and considerable overlapping, Old Egyptian (“OE”, 2800-2200 BC), Middle Egyptian (“ME”, 2200-1500 BC), Late Egyptian (or Neo-Egyptian) (“LE”, 1500-700 BC); Demotic, from the VIIth-VIIIth century BC to the Vth century AD, and finally Coptic, ‘Christian Egyptian’, written in customized graphemic systems based on the Greek graphemes and several Egyptian ones, from the IVth century AD on, until its death as a spoken language: Arabic entered Egypt in the VIIth century AD, but Coptic probably lingered on until the XVIIth century. (Incidentally, Coptic is formally differentiated as ‘Egypto-Coptic’ in the current International Linguistic Bibliography. Roughly since the Fifties, Coptic Studies have moved away from Egyptology, a separation unfortunate for both Egyptology and Coptic studies, which has all but wiped out Coptic linguistics as a discipline). Most phases, as we conveniently and simplistically delimit them (ignoring here the relationships, complicated in Egyptian, between language phase and script phase, as well as the religious-political implications of traditional archaizing use of earlier phases) have considerable overlapping or ‘mutual leaking’ with preceding ones, as well as transitory stages, and of course numerous diasystems of registers and other linguistic varieties which become clearer as detailed description progresses. Some phases extend up to a thousand years, which makes the need for a finer sub-periodization obvious (Junge 1985). Generally speaking, we witness the uninterrupted evolution of a language on one and the same terrain, in its first attestation cradled in a Neolithic culture, before the end of its life-span a para-classical language, part of a pious and totally Christian civilization: very little secular literature is attested in Coptic.
A review article of Éric Doret, The Narrative Verbal System of Old and Middle Egyptian.
The importance of the narrative parole to descriptive grammar is (esp. in a written or dead language) greater than that of dialogue, because of the heavier contribution of pragmatic factors and circumstances in the latter case; that is, in narrative these are “segmented” and cotextually given and the “environmental” factor is therefore much more considerably textual. This makes the book under review so important as a comprehensive component study of Egyptian grammar in general and an account of the Old and Middle Egyptian verb in particular. […]
The book before us [Callender’s Studies in the Nominal Sentence in Egyptian and Coptic] is not a reworking of the author’s 1970 University of Chicago dissertation — and this is a disappointment, for here one misses much important information on the Nominal Sentence (NS) which was provided in the dissertation, such as predicate constituency (Chap. I), predicate determination (II) and apposition (V). Yet the present monograph merits more attention than might seem called for at first glance; more, indeed, than is warranted by its contribution to our understanding of the grammatical phenomena discussed. For this is the first time that a method-conscious linguist treats this issue comprehensively, in a way representative of a major methodological trend of present-day Egyptology: the generative-transformational method. […]