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Die Prinzipien der Klassifizierung im Altagyptischen.

Die Prinzipien der Klassifizierung im Altagyptischen. By ELIESE-SOPHIA LINCKE. Gottinger Orient forschungen, vol. IV/38. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011. Pp. xiii + 159. 38 [euro] (paper).

The book under review is a partially revised and augmented version of a Magisterarbeit--M.A. thesis--submitted in September 2007 to Berlin's Humboldt University. It presents a detailed analysis of the so-called determinatives of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing as they are used in the oldest Egyptian texts, the Pyramid texts. At the end come two appendices, one an essay on sign mutilation and the other an excerpt from a final report on a research project.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Egyptian hieroglyphic writing knows that each hieroglyph in a hieroglyphic text exhibits one of three functions. Hieroglyphs function either as ideograms, as phonograms, or as determinatives.

Many hieroglyphs can exhibit more than one of these three functions and quite a few even all three. Stating that a hieroglyph is, say, an ideogram therefore in effect means the same as stating that it functions as an ideogram.

For example, when functioning as an ideogram or meaning sign, a hieroglyph depicting the outline of a dwelling can be used to write the word pr 'house'. When functioning as a phonogram or sound sign, the same hieroglyph can denote the two consonants p and r in the verb pr(y) 'leave, go out'. And when functioning as a determinative, the same hieroglyph appears at the end of a word--as all determinatives do--and marks words denoting all kinds of buildings.

It should be noted that meaning signs always indirectly also denote sound because meaning, or signifie', "signified," and sound, or significant, "signifier," are connected in a word, or signe, "sign," using Saussure's terms. By contrast, sound signs indirectly also refer to meaning only when they denote the entire sound pattern of a word.

As opposed to ideograms and phonograms, determinatives signify neither the meaning nor the sound of a word. Rather, they associate the meaning of a word in a certain way with another meaning or concept, thus adding definition to the written representation of a word. For example, the writing of all kinds of words denoting human beings will typically contain a seated person as a determinative.

All the words marked by the same determinative can be thought of as a set or class. The words belong together not just because their written forms exhibit the same determinative. It may be assumed that they exhibit the same determinative because ancient scribes perceived their meanings to be connected in some way and all associated with the concept depicted by the determinative.

Consequently, two fundamental cognitive questions pertain to determinatives and not just one, as in the case of ideograms. The shared question is as follows: Why is a given ideogram or phonogram used to write a certain word? The question pertaining mainly to determinatives is as follows: Why do two or more words exhibit the same determinative?

About two decades ago, Orly Goldwasser first turned her attention to hieroglyphic determinatives. The result is a significant body of work authored by herself, her students, and others. The relevant references can be found in the bibliography of the work under review. Goldwasser prefers to call determinatives "classifiers," as do most others working in the tradition she has founded, including the author of the present book.

One offshoot of this research tradition was a German-Israeli research project entitled "Typology and Use of Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing," based at the University of Gottingen and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, and led by Orly Goldwasser, Friedrich Junge, and Frank Kammerzell.

As part of this project, Frank Kammerzell, Henrike Simon, and Maria Isabel Toro Rueda compiled a computerized database of all the hieroglyphs, totaling more than 285,000, found in the texts of the pyramids of Unas, Teti, Pepi I, Merenre, Pepi II, and Neith.

The present book is the first large-scale effort to take advantage of this database. The focus is on determinatives. The design is to provide answers to the two questions formulated above. But the historical dimension is also addressed. The key question is: Does the usage of determinatives change over time, and how? Where better to begin a detailed answer than at the beginning, Old Egyptian?

The author has spared no effort in trying to comprehend why determinatives behave as they do in the Pyramid texts and by extension in Old Egyptian and beyond. Countless examples are adduced and studied. A rather considerable body of literature pertaining in one way or another to the science of the mind is consulted and analyzed. And all this is done in a style that is delightfully meticulous and transparent. There is much to be learned from this erudite book. It constitutes a significant advance in the study of the hieroglyphic script.

The detailed organization of the book makes up to a large degree for the lack of an index. I would recommend for future work the instant illustration of new technical terms by means of a simple and clear example.

With determinatives as with everything else one likes to think that things happen for a reason. In that respect, the ultimate cause of the use of determinatives needs to be found inside the human mind. A proper understanding of determinatives ought therefore to offer a kind of window into the mind.

Cognitively speaking, it is often not fully clear why a certain determinative is used in a certain word or why two or more words share the same determinative. This conclusion is confirmed again and again in the book at hand by the many cases in which no precise rationale for the use of a determinative could be identified. And it is not for lack of trying to find one.

On the whole, I might be less optimistic than the author about what can be achieved on the cognitive level in terms of finding explanations of why a certain determinative appears in the writing of a certain word or of why the writings of two or more words exhibit the same determinative. There are five reasons for this diminished optimism.

First, Egyptian is a dead language. No ancient Egyptian scribes are available--let alone the creator(s) of hieroglyphic writing--to provide testimony about their intentions.

Second, reality is so diverse and endowed with such a seemingly limitless set of distinct features that there is no way in which a limited set of determinatives could come anywhere close to reflecting all this diversity in any great detail. The numbers just aren't right.

Third, the scribe(s) who created the hieroglyphic script at the dawn of civilization and any scribes who came later and modified it were not necessarily people endowed with a deeper understanding of the constitution of the mind than the modern scholar. To what extent are their efforts to group concepts by means of determinatives reliable?

Fourth, hieroglyphic writing may well have been created by one person or just a couple of people. To what extent are their efforts to group concepts by means of determinatives representative of larger groups of people?

Fifth, it is not at all clear that hieroglyphic determinatives were designed to represent concept classes with great accuracy. In fact, determinatives may have been used for two additional reasons that require no such great conceptual accuracy:

First, determinatives may serve to distinguish two words otherwise written alike. In this regard, determinatives only need to be sufficiently distinctive, not comprehensively explanatory, of the class to which the meaning of a word belongs. Second, determinatives conveniently mark the ends of words in a script that does not exhibit word division. To perform this function adequately, there is no need for the determinative to represent the class appurtenance of the meaning of a word with great accuracy.

Looking back at all this, one has some reason to wonder to what degree the search for ever finer criteria to describe the function of determinatives can be pushed without losing a basis in fact.

In the book at hand, many if not most determinatives are considered members of one of three types, the first two prominently studied by Goldwasser and the third proposed by Frank Kammerzell.

First, the determinative can denote the larger class to which the meaning of a certain word belongs. For example, the writing of the word for a specific type of bird can include as determinative a bird chosen to represent all birds.

Second, the concept denoted by the determinative can relate to the meaning of the word that it determines as part to whole or whole to part, as wood does as determinative in the word for ferryboat and as jar does as determinative in the word for beer.

Third, the concept denoted by the determinative of a verb can play a semantic role in the event denoted by the verb, including agent, undergoer, instrument, location, and so on. An example would be a knife as determinative in the word for slaughter.

The book concludes with two appendices. The first is devoted to sign mutilation. Hieroglyphs depicting all kinds of living beings are presented incompletely or cut in half or the like, presumably to prevent the depicted creatures from doing harm. The use of sign mutilation on a large scale is unique to the Pyramid texts. A key facet of the phenomenon is documented in detail, namely 145 mutilated anthropomorphic signs found in Pyramid texts.

A second appendix (pp. 151-59), by Frank Kammerzell, is an excerpt from his final report of the aforementioned German-Israeli research project pertaining to hieroglyphic writing. A number of interesting observations are made on the Pyramid texts found in six pyramids. First, the classes denoted by Egyptian determinatives do not exhibit any of the "exotic" oriental classifications of the type "women, fire, and dangerous things" well studied in anthropology. Second, just ten uniliteral phonograms make up almost exactly half or 50% of all the hieroglyphs, namely b, j, t, p, r, w, m, s, k, and/; just 32 hieroglyphs, 75%; and 115, 90%. Third, 75% of all hieroglyphs occur no more than ten times; about half, no more than three times; and a good third, only once. Who ever said that hieroglyphic writing is difficult?


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Author:Depuydt, Leo
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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