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Temps et aspect en egyptien.

Temps et aspect en egyptien: Une approche semantique. BY JEAN WINAND. Probleme der Agyptologie, vol. 25. Leiden: BRILL, 2006. Pp. xi + 485. [euro] 175.

This book studies questions of aspect as a property of verb forms in ancient Egyptian, more specifically in the first three of the five stages traditionally distinguished in the history of the language, namely Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, and Late Egyptian (2500-1000 B.C.E.). I began reading the book in the awareness that someone whose opinion in linguistic matters I greatly value once told me to read as little about aspect as possible when analyzing Egyptian. This warning in fact resonates in the book's first pages. It is acknowledged more than once that the treatment of aspect in linguistic writings resembles a cacophony. The book begins by quoting C. Vet (Temps, aspect et adverbes de temps en francais contemporain [Geneva: Droz, 1980], 46), who writes, "Absent all formal characteristics on which an analysis could be based, aspect and Aktionsart have become the most intangible notions of traditional grammar" (my translation). When so many observers say so much that is contradictory about little or no empirical evidence, questions arise. Surely, at least some opinions must be right and others wrong. Or can such widely disparate views possibly be joined in a higher harmony? Are a few rare views perhaps even plainly invented, mere figments of the imagination?

The book's author is acutely aware of the challenge he is facing. Nevertheless, he feels duty-bound to engage the linguistic debate about aspect head-on, partly lest Egyptology wither away in isolation. And he does so with great diligence. Much hard work went into the writing of this book. Nor is there any reason to doubt the author's skills and competence in matters of Egyptian grammar and Egyptological and general linguistics. Just looking at this carefully formulated, finely crafted, and hefty tome, one wonders what could possibly be wrong with such deep commitment. From looking at the bibliography, it seems difficult to imagine that anything ever written about aspect has been left out. Yet, the author stresses that there is much more (p. 10). Surveying and absorbing everything would have been impossible. The author therefore focuses mainly on those writings that have helped him the most in forming his own notion of "temporality," that is, the properties that verb forms exhibit to refer to the passage of time.

Even so, while much effort is undertaken to incorporate the views of others into the book's argument, the work does to some degree exhibit the encyclopedic approach described in a "frank statement" (offenes Wort) addressed by the great F. X. Kugler, the decipherer of much of Babylonian astronomy, to readers of his monumental Von Moses bis Paulus (Munster: Aschendorff, 1922, xiv). The prominence of this approach in the work at hand can probably be explained by the fact that an earlier manifestation of the book served in 2001 as a "these d'aggregation de l'enseignement superieur" for the University of Liege. The citing of past work offers a tool for objectively measuring and quantifying an effort, even if part of the effort may be irrelevant to the problem that is being treated. Unable to improve on Kugler's portrayal of the approach in question and deeming it worthy of being resurrected, I cite it in full. It is a concern that one does not find voiced often enough.
 Nach der herkommlichen Praxis pflegt man vor dem Antritt einer
 Untersuchung sich uber alles. was auf dem betreffenden Gebiete
 jemals erspaht und verbucht worden ist, genau zu unterrichten. Das
 ist ja auch zweifellos der sicherste Weg, nichts von Bedeutung zu
 ubersehen und sich die Muhe zu ersparen, bereits Bekanntes nochmals
 zu entdecken. Allein ganz abgesehen davon, daB dieses Verfahren nur
 dem moglich ist, der uber eine reiche Literatur verfugt, erscheint
 es doch sehr zweifelhaft, ob es sich wirklich als recht
 fruchtbringend erweist. Nach meiner Erfahrung sind die Nachteile
 dieser Methode sehr viel groBer als ihr Nutzen, wenigstens fur den,
 dessen kombinatorische Veranlagung seine Aufnahmefahigkeit
 entschieden uberwiegt. Muhsam arbeitet man sich nicht selten durch
 weitschweifige Exkurse oder durch ein Labyrinth von Vorausset-zungen
 und MutmaBungen ohne erheblichen Gewinn hindurch. Doch der Verlust
 an Kraft und Zeit ist noch das geringere Ubel. Weit schadlicher, ja
 gerade verhangnisvoll ist die EinbuBe and selbstandiger,
 vorurteilsfreier Wurdigung der vorliegenden Fragen--von einer
 unabhangigen Fragestellung ganz zu schweigen. UnbewuBt gerat man in
 den Bannkreis von herrschenden Meinungen, deren innere Schwache uns
 um so leichter entgeht, je bestimmter und geistreicher sie
 vorgetragen werden. Wir werden ... reichlich Gelegenheit haben,
 auf Erscheinungen dieser Art hinzuweisen.

The author of the book at hand demonstrates initiative and originality by developing a theory about aspect that is different from all other theories of aspect, just as all theories of aspect ultimately differ from one another. I should like to have seen even more step-by-step reasoning, starting from first principles. Instead I see a line of development penetrated sideways and propelled at many crucial junctures by theoretical insights adopted from others. These insights are as a rule supported by various sorts and degrees of explicit praise, some of it lavish, making it seem at times like a fortunate circumstance that everything supporting the book's argument is that good.

What is aspect in relation to the Egyptian language? I do not claim to know, and from the author's account it almost seems as if no one really does. In fact, I have difficulty finding a clear definition of aspect anywhere in the book, in a sentence that begins something like "Aspect in Egyptian is ..." However, according to the definition prominently displayed on the cover, it appears that aspect is not a something but a relation between somethings. The author writes (my translation): "The expression of aspect is envisioned as a dialectic process calling in (faisant intervenir) the tenses of the conjugation, the actionality of the process, the semantic role of the participants, as well as diverse lexical means."

The present theory of aspect is explicitly styled as different from other theories of aspect by taking "a semantic approach," as announced in the book's title. The semantic approach appears to have much to do with the fact that the meaning of the verb plays a role in how aspect functions. In other words, aspect is believed to play out differently with different verbs, depending on the individual meaning of the verb and the specific roles certain entities play in the verbal action.

Language is a system of communication consisting of sound and meaning. Certain sounds transmit certain meanings. For example, the production of the sound house automatically triggers in the minds of speakers of English the picture of a certain building. More abstractly, -ed as part of the sound worked triggers the sense that the instance of working in question happened before the time of speaking. This mechanism involving sound and meaning seems to account for the totality of language. One would expect to find nothing less than the same mechanism involving sound and meaning at work in the case of aspect. And in fact that is exactly the case with aspect in Russian. By contrast, I have difficulty imagining what an element x could be like about which one can state, "The expression of x is envisioned as a dialectic process calling in [certain linguistic categories]."

Russian is a language regarding whose verbal system no one has ever doubted that aspect is its most significant feature. Hardly any factor has energized the search for aspect in all kinds of languages more than the fact that it so clearly exists and so clearly dominates in Russian, where the sounds pertaining to verbal aspect can be exactly identified and listed with precision. And so can the meanings that they convey. There are two aspects, perfective and imperfective. Often, presence of a morpheme denotes the perfective aspect and absence of that same sound the imperfective aspect. For example, the imperfective aspect of "write" is expressed by pisat' and the perfective aspect is expressed by napisat'. The relation between the two aspects is therefore such that the perfective aspect has something that the imperfective aspect does not have. Or, the imperfective aspect is unmarked and the perfective aspect is marked. As P. Arant defines it (Russian for Reading [Columbus: Slavica Publishers, 1981], 55), the perfective aspect "indicates that the action is completed, or will reach or has reached an end, whereas the imperfective aspect conveys no such notion."

Aspect is called vid in Russian, a word deriving from the same root as Latin videre "see" and therefore related to "vision" in English. And indeed, the difference between the two aspects has everything to do with how one looks at the verbal event taking place. Appropriately, the word "aspect" itself derives from Latin aspicere "look at." In choosing either aspect, the Russian speaker must decide whether to "look at" the action as completed or not. One and the same event may be described in two ways, depending on how one looks at it. The ways in which aspect marks events secondarily as past, present, or future cannot be detailed here.

A somewhat related distinction in Russian is that between unidirectional and multidirectional verbs of motion. Consider the verb meaning "to fly." If unidirectional letet' describes flying to Moscow, the trip ends in Moscow. By contrast, the use of multidirectional letat' implies that the journey is round-trip. The distinction between unidirectional and multidirectional occurs inside the imperfective aspect. Both have the same form in the perfective aspect, in this case poletet', which describes flying as a completed action.

A second factor fueling the assumption that there is aspect or the like in languages other than Russian is negative. Not everything a verb expresses in reference to the passage of time seems to relate to tense. Understanding tense is easy enough. The main distinctions of tense are present, past, and future. What happens before the time of speaking is expressed by the past tense; at the time of speaking, by the present tense; and after the time of speaking, by the future tense.

In Egyptian, there are at least four empirical distinctions that cannot be directly associated with tense and therefore have led many to assume that there is such a thing as aspect in Egyptian. However, it seems to me that the first two distinctions do relate to tense and that the other two express something that is not tense but also not aspect. The four distinctions may be illustrated by generic verb forms:
(1) jw.j stp.j "I Choose" vs. jw.j hr stp "I am choosing"

(2) 'h'.n stp.n.j "Then I Chose" vs. wn.j hr stp "I was

(3) jw stp.n.j "I have chosen" vs. 'h'.n stp.n.j "Then I chose"

(4) jw.j jj.kwj "I have come" vs. jw.j m jwt "I am coming"

Distinctions (1) and (2) have often been interpreted as marking aspect. In this respect, jw.j/wn.j hr stp "I am/was choosing" is typically thought to denote something like duration. That would be the durative aspect. The action is looked at in its extension over time. By contrast, the other member of the pair then denotes an action as either a single point (as in 'h'.n stp.n.j "Then I chose") or as repetitive points (as in jw.j stp.j "I choose"). That would be the punctual aspect. However, "durative" and "punctual" are fairly abstract as concepts. To avoid getting lost in abstractions, it seems advisable that reasoning about the representation of the dimension of time in verb forms be performed in a closer correlation with empirical form.

For example, etymologically, jw.j hr stp "I am choosing" is a localizing construction. It involves using expressions referring to the dimension of space in order to refer to the dimension of time. Its literal meaning is "I am on choosing." Incidentally, English "I am choosing" has the same etymology, deriving from "I am on choosing" in early English. Being "on" the action is contrasted with being "toward" the action as expressed by the future tense jw.j r stp "I will choose" (literally, "I am toward choosing"). The purpose of this pair is to contrast what is happening now with what is going to happen. What one is on is now, the present. What one is directed toward is yet to come, the future.

In taking the verb forms at face value, the distinction is simple and parsimonious enough. What more is there to say? What would the introduction of abstract concepts such as duration add to the description? It cannot be entirely excluded that a verb form might convey certain notions of the abstract kind. But how can one ever be sure, or prove, that the empirical forms do indeed convey certain postulated concepts? For example, one might suggest that we experience the passing of time, that is, duration, more directly in the present moment of time. By that reasoning, the nuance of durativity is merely a side-effect of any verb form that refers to an event that is happening right now. It is a big step, however, from making such reasonable reflections of a general kind to proving their relevance.

Remarks on each of the four distinctions listed above are as follows.

(1) The first distinction can be incorporated into the theory of tense if one accepts the existence of a so-called aorist denoting absence of tense. Absence of tense is expressed by the simple present in English. For example, "he eats at home" means that he always does, regardless of past, present, or future. In that sense, it might be called a zero-tense, zero being a significant absence. The concept of zero-tense makes it possible to describe distinction (1) between the aorist jw.j stp.j "I choose" and the present jw.j hr stp "I am choosing" as a contrast of tense.

(2) The second distinction between 'h'.n stp.n.j "then I chose" and wn.j hr stp "I was choosing" has also played a role in supporting the assumption that all is not tense in the Middle Egyptian verbal system. The distinction involves the preterit converter wn. Both verb forms are past tense. Surely, something other than tense must distinguish the two. However, the preterit converter too can be incorporated into a model in which tense dominates if one accepts that combinations of two tenses are possible. Accordingly, the preterit converter wn shifts a past, present, or future tense into the past. Suppose that I describe an actual event happening in front of my eyes in the real present with the statement "He is eating." Suppose that, tomorrow, I want to describe the exact same event and convey the exact same information. I would need to state that, (1), the event was very much present tense to me yesterday, but also that, (2), I am a day older and the event is therefore now in the past. This can be achieved by converting "He is eating" into "He was eating," changing "is" into "was" while retaining everything else. "He was eating" is then a present in the past: there was a time yesterday, that is, in the past, when the event described as "He is eating" was very much present tense to me. The empirical form wn.j hr stp "He was choosing" transparently expresses this combination of two tenses: the element wn is past and the element hr stp "is choosing" is present.

(3) A third distinction is between jw stp.n.j "I have chosen" and 'h'.n stp.n.j "then I chose." Both verb forms are past tense. Surely, something other than tense must differentiate the two. The choice seems to depend on whether I am discussing something from the vantage point of the present moment in time or whether I allow my mind to wander to the distant world of stories and fairy tales. The choice does not seem to be imposed by how I "look at" the event. Consequently, the distinction cannot be assigned to what is normally understood by aspect. Much has been written about the distinction between what H. Weinrich has called besprochene Welt "discussed world" and erzahlte Welt "narrated world." There is indeed much to be said for the notion that we speak very differently when we discuss something and when we tell a story. The details of this distinction exceed the scope of the present argument.

(4) Few distinctions are as dominant in the Egyptian and Coptic verbal system as the one illustrated by the pair jw.j jj.kwj "I have come" and jw.j m jwt "I am coming." Both events can describe something that happens right in front of my eyes in the present tense. If both events occur in the present moment, then the distinction must pertain to something other than tense. The distinction is, in fact, between state and process. The difference between state and process is hardly sophisticated. It is transparently given in reality as we perceive it, language being after all some kind of a map of the world around us. Consider sitting as a posture of the human body. I can see someone sitting down in front of my eyes. That is a process; something is going on. Or I can see someone seated. That is a state; nothing is happening; all is at rest. The same can be seen to apply to coming as a movement. I can see someone coming. That is a process. Or I can see someone sitting in a chair having come. That is a state; all is at rest.

The contrast between state and process accounts for a dominant distinction in the Egyptian verbal system that does not involve tense. It differentiates the stative form from all other verb forms. The stative does not denote a state but both a state and a process, more precisely a state resulting from an implied process. Accordingly, a literal translation of the stative in jw.j is "I have sat down (a process) and hence am now seated (a resulting state)." All verb forms except the stative denote just a process. Both state and process can occur in the past, the present, or the future.

In sum, it appears that it is not necessary to assume the existence of aspect to account for the four distinctions discussed above.

A third factor contributing to the popularity of aspect in discussions of Egyptian grammar involves the history of its study. The assumption of aspect in Egyptian goes back to the very beginning. Aspect distinctions tend to be binary; tense distinctions, ternary. In early studies of Egyptian grammar, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the morphology of the Old and Middle Egyptian verb seemed to point to a dominant binary opposition. The assumption that this distinction denotes aspect therefore came easily. A binary distinction cannot easily accommodate the ternary differentiation between past, present, and future. Aspect became quite dominant in the description of the Egyptian verbal system, because it was adopted in A. H. Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar (1927; 3rd ed. Oxford, 1957). The two aspects are there called "imperfective" and "perfective." Yet, just a couple of years before the first edition of Gardiner's grammar appeared in 1927, B. Gunn added considerable articulation to a distinct Old and Middle Egyptian future tense in his Studies in Egyptian Syntax (Paris: Geuthner, 1924). Ever since, it has been much easier for anyone who accepts that tense is the dominant characteristic of the Old and Middle Egyptian verbal system to assign almost every verb form to a certain tense.

Still, on the surface there seem to be traces of an evolution in which a dominant binary contrast was replaced by a dominant ternary contrast. Consider the past, present, and future participles jr "who has done," jrr "who does," and jr.ty.fy "who will do." In contrast with the present and past tenses, the future tense is formed differently, exhibiting the affix ty. In the cleft sentence, the future is expressed by the suffix conjugation and the past and present by participles, as follows: jnk jr st "it is I who have done it"; jnk jrr st "it is I who does it"; jnk jr.j st "it is I who will do it."

Once again, language consists of sound and meaning. Sounds convey meaning. Sound and meaning are important in different ways. Meaning is what language is all about. But sound--or writing as its substitute--is all that is directly verifiable empirically. It is the empirical foundation of the study of language. In that respect, aspect in Russian is as empirical and as transparent as linguistic phenomena come. Unambiguous observable sound signals are the conveyers of either the perfective aspect or the imperfective aspect. And even if the distinction between an event that is completed and an event that is not completed is subtle and one needs to be fluent in Russian to apply it properly, the contrast is sufficiently distinct to leave no doubt about its existence and its identity. In other words, aspect in Russian is firmly rooted in observed fact. Its empirical foundations are rock-solid.

How does aspect in Russian compare with what is called aspect in Egyptian in the book at hand? The contrast with aspect in Russian could not be sharper. In presenting a model for the treatment of aspect in Egyptian, Winand looks all over for facts on which to base his theory and frankly confesses that there are none. However, without hesitation, he believes that the solution is to "invert the order of priorities" (p. 14)--namely, instead of facts first and theory second, put theory first and facts second, or as the author describes it, "accorder a la morpho-syntaxe le rang qui lui revient, celui d'instrument de la semantique."

The result of this modus operandi is that the book could hardly be more theoretical. And it is openly so. Formalisms describing types of aspect such as "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]" (p. 264) abound. Hence, on countless occasions, we are asked to believe something for the sole reason that the author tells us it is so. For this reader at least, there is a strong resistance to these implied requests. Does this resistance perhaps derive from an irrational fear that, if I can be asked to accept so much without questioning and without evidence, someone might one day knock on my door and tell me how to rearrange the furniture in my home? But I like the arrangement as it is! I use this metaphor to suggest the energy that I felt being sapped while I was struggling page after page, and from polished statement to polished statement, all the while hearing a tiny nagging voice--perhaps the same that caused G. Boole (Studies in Logic and Probability [London: Watts. 1952], 226) to state irreverently about Immanuel Kant's systematic table of categories that they are "the appearance of scientific order without the reality." It is somewhat stressful to leave a statement behind without being fully satisfied, knowing that what follows is nonetheless based on it. In fact, it is not that the statements are even necessarily wrong. Winand's book is replete with accurate and properly nuanced statements about empirical facts of Egyptian grammar and the grammar of many other languages. The question is whether the observed facts have anything to do with aspect in Egyptian.

It is true that deductive thought is not based in fact, either. But deductive thought is limited to mathematics and mathematical logic, which reason independently from factual reality while starting from certain general and unprovable observations, or axioms, about reality. Aspect, if it exists in Egyptian as it does in Russian, must be an empirical phenomenon. Empirical phenomena are studied by means of the inductive method, which consists in subjecting empirical data to repeated observation in order to derive general laws. Like the laws of nature, these laws are always only probable, however closely some of them may approach virtual certainty. I do not see how one can begin, as Winand does, with a theory that is completely independent from any fact of the Egyptian language, even if that theory is inspired by what is known about aspect in other languages.

In terms of minor observations, it should be noted that the present book has been carefully edited. Among rare blemishes, I spotted the following (references are to page and line): (7, note 4, 5) "Davies 2004" is not in the bibliography; (16, 29) for "perfectiev" and "imperfectiev" (Dutch for "perfective" and "imperfective") read "perfectief and "imperfectief"; (18, 9) for "Cerny" read "Cerny"; (19, note 17, 4) for "Literature" read "Literatur"; (20, 25) for "Sprachwissenschatf" read "Sprachwissenschaft"; (46, note 27, 2) for "untersuchungen" read "Untersuchungen"; (49, 4) for "kataba" read "kataba" (third verbal stem of Arabic); (141, note 125, I) for "rutpure" read "rupture"; (147, 7) for "je mange" read "nous mangeons" (as a translation of nakul); (376, note 11,6) for "unfloding" read "unfolding"; (445, entry Dik 1985) for "Tall-" read "Taal-"; (448, entry Green 1979) for "Liverpool (" read "Liverpool."; (461-62) the entries Winand 1991 and 1996c need to be touched up; (462, entry Winand 1996c) for "in Lingua Aegyptia" read "dans LingAeg." (as elsewhere); (462) entries Winand 2000b and 2001b are described as "in press" (sous presse), suggesting perhaps that the present book was in press for a while.

At 460, 34, 461, 41, 461, 45, and 462, 8, one finds the following unusual references to page numbers of articles; "191-10," "189-15," "293-13," and "293-29," apparently for "191-210," "189-215," "293-313," and "293-329." As a stylistic convention, digits in runs of page numbers are traditionally omitted only to eliminate repetition of the same digit. But in the present work, a digit one higher than the digit in the same position in the first number is omitted in the second number, although 81-12 is avoided as an equivalent of 81-112 at 441, 30. One might object to this peculiar method of abbreviation on two grounds. First is inconsistency, in that a single convention has two different significations. In a run such as "229-93," in which 29 is smaller than the following 93, it signifies omission of the same number. In a run such as "293-29," in which 93 is larger than the following 29, it signifies omission of the number that is one higher. A more important objection derives from the very raison d'etre of style and stylistic conventions. Especially in scholarly and scientific works, style exists to prevent the formal presentation of a text from detracting attention from the contents of the text, lest the reader be distracted. In the present case, what readers may retain as an impression long after perusing the bibliography is that someone was trying too hard to be clever.

In terms of the bibliography on aspect in Egyptian, one may now add Winand's "A Semantic Approach to the Egyptian Language: The Case of Time and Aspect, Towards a New Paradigm," Lingua Aegyptia 14 (2006): 451-72. Among items not cited, I would also recommend H. J. Polotsky's "'Perfekt' und Imperfekt": von Sethe zu Gardiner," in Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim (Jerusalem, 1990), 2: 768-72 (now reprinted in Polotsky, Scripta Posteriora on Egyptian and Coptic [Gottingen, 2007]), which has interesting observations on how aspect first entered the study of Egyptian, including the roles played by aspect in Russian and Turkish.

In conclusion, the author's eminent skill and competence in matters of Egyptian grammar are beyond question. His database is impressive, consisting of more than eight hundred examples. No effort has been spared to uncover anything that can be said about aspect in Egyptian; all stops have been pulled out to find something relating to aspect, though there may be nothing at all. I personally have not seen anything. The author's erudite disquisitions document how far Egyptian grammar has advanced in recent decades--but also how it might conceivably still be argued that, by reading as little as possible about aspect in analyzing Egyptian, one will probably not have missed much.


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Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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