Stability in Clausal/Phrasal Pattern Constituent Sequencing: 4000 Years of Egyptian (With Some Theoretical Reflections, also on Celtic)


Shisha-Halevy, A., 2000. Stability in Clausal/Phrasal Pattern Constituent Sequencing: 4000 Years of Egyptian (With Some Theoretical Reflections, also on Celtic). In E. Poppe, A. Shisha-Halevy, & R. Sornicola, ed. Word Order - Stability and Change over Time. Amsterdam / Philadelphia. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, pp. 71–100.


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.

Last updated on 01/17/2018