L. Depuydt. Fundamentals of Egyptian Grammar -- Volume I: Elements. Frog Publishing, 1999.

Review by Mark-Jan Nederhof (DFKI)

This book is one of several grammars of Middle Egyptian that have appeared in the last few years. For students it therefore becomes increasingly difficult to decide which one(s) to purchase and study from. To make this choice a little easier, I below give my opinion on the new grammar by Depuydt.

Target group

There is some confusion for whom the book was primarily intended, and basically what the book represents. The author himself doesn't provide an unequivocal answer. On the very first page he writes: ``This book is not only a textbook, but also [...]'', whereas on p. lxxix he writes ``this work adopts the style of a textbook rather than being one. Its primary purpose is not to be a textbook''. On the same page, the author also states that ``This is not a reference grammar''.

If we look at the organization of the book, then certain aspects seem to suggest the use as a textbook, such as the basic exercises, and the fairly simple and superficial treatment of grammatical constructions (more about the level of detail below). Other aspects however, such as the long and deep discussions in the Preface and in Appendix VI, which go far into the realm of the philosophy of language, have no place in a textbook. Also, students should not be bothered by proposals to reform linguistic terminology (p. 329) unless the author is prepared to use the alternative terminology in his book. These sections therefore seem to address the community of (professional) Egyptologists, and possibly linguists in general.

Because of this confusion, I try as much as possible to give my judgement on the grammar without having a specific target group in mind.


I have found very few typos. It seems that in this sense, the book was written with a lot of care.

One typo on p. 269: ``of my'' should be ``of me'' or ``of mine''.


If one is willing to follow the thoughts of the author (this proviso is further discussed below under the header ``Structure''), the text is mostly not too difficult to understand. The exercises are very easy, and the key is provided in an appendix.

One irritating aspect this book shares with some other Egyptian grammars is that the conventions for transliteration are very vague and not adhered to consistently. For example, on p. 79 the word for city, spelled by the ideogram O49 (village, crossroads) and the loaf of bread for t, is transliterated as n(jw)t. The justification in the footnote seems to be that jw is never represented in the hieroglyphs (rarely n is written next to t); we also find n(jw)ty on that page spelled by two occurrences of O49 without phonograms. But on pp. 107 and 511 we unexpectedly find njwty and njwt, respectively, without brackets.

Also confusing is the transliteration xt for ``things'' on p. 87. It is not explained why the determinative of plurality in the hieroglyphic spelling is not reflected in w in the transliteration. This entry is given under the header ``non-countables'', but since in English ``thing'' is not an non-countable, this does not really explain much. To the exasperation of the unsuspecting reader, the occurrence with determinative of plurality in Exercise 36 of Lesson 11 (pp. 118 and 590) is then not only transliterated without w but also translated into the singular, as ``thing''. However, few or perhaps none of the Egyptian grammars that I know show enough respect to the reader to explain this issue in any detail.

It is also not clear what hyphens in transliterations signify; cf. n mrwt.k (p. 152) versus n-mrwt.k (p. 154), and n.j jm pr versus n.j-jm, both on p. 279. In the latter case the author in fact mentions explicitly that ``n.j jm [...] is often transcribed [i.e. transliterated] with a hyphen'', but a good excuse for being inconsistent in one and the same publication is not given.

Also puzzling is the text on p. 351 that states that the weak root consonant y is transliterated as jj, j, or y, depending on the hieroglyphic spelling. Until then, the reader was made to believe that transliterations are in fact meant to represent consonants from the spoken language, but here it seems that transliterations are (partly) meant to represent orthographic aspects of the hieroglyphic spelling. Any such dependency of transliteration on hieroglyphic spelling is certainly not within the bounds of the note on p. 23.

To be clear, my criticism is foremost not on the transliteration itself, but on the lack of explicit explanation and justification of the conventions of transliteration, and on the lack of consistency.


There is a lot of structure in the book, actually much too much, so much that it makes it close to impossible to read the book comfortably or try to find any information in it that one may be looking for. First, there are chapters, and these are divided into numbered sections; there may be around 700 sections, some of which are barely two lines long. Chapters are also divided into lessons, but lessons are numbered independently from chapters and sections. Some other unnamed entities divide the text in yet alternative ways, and are numbered independently from sections and lessons.

To give a typical example: Chapter 5 discusses ``dimensions'' (more about this concept below), the 3rd of which covers Lessons 26 thru 27, or §§ 5.74 thru 5.163. This material is further subdivided into the entities A 1 thru A 26 and B, some of which are divided even further; e.g. ``A 24 a (i)'', which is part of ``A 24 a'', which is part of ``A 24'', concurs with §§ 5.146 thru 5.147, which is part of Lesson 27. This is enough to confuse any mortal.

Let me remark here that I am not a stereotypical scholar from the humanities who panics when he is confronted with structure, numbers, or a few formulae. I am a computer scientist by training and profession, and happen to love structure, numbers, and formal and precise notation, provided they are used in a correct way.

One piece of objectionable structure is the set of 8 ``dimensions'' that the author introduces to explain the verbal system. This turns out to be merely a misuse of mathematical terminology, and little more is meant by the word ``dimension'' than that it is one kind of property that the verbal system of Egyptian has. One would have expected here that properties of verbs were at least separated from properties of verb forms, but unfortunately, the ``sound pattern classes'' and the ``concept classes'' of the roots of verbs are, as Dimensions 1 and 2, thrown in together with everything else, such as ``voice'' (Dimension 6) and ``time'' (Dimension 7).

Particularly absurd is the treatment of the Third Dimension, which classifies grammatical constructions based on inflection. Imagine a biologist who classifies animals not primarily based on whether they are, say, mammals, reptiles or insects, or on their habitats, but on some purely superficial property, such as their color. Thus, some kind of bird from East Asia could be classified as being closely related to some kind of fish from the Atlantic Ocean, just because they happen to be almost the same shade of green. This would not make any sense. Similarly, it is beyond me why anyone would want to classify grammatical constructions based on inflection, encoded as long series of numbers, if this means that very related constructions such as stp.kw, encoded as (single inflection), and jw.j stp.kw, encoded as (single inflection + single inflection), are classified as very distinct, whereas completely unrelated constructions such as wnn Hr stp and tm.ty.fy stp are classified as direct neighbours, encoded as and, both under the header ``declension + absence of inflection'' (p. 412). This way of classifying grammatical constructions is no help at all if the objective is to allow the reader to develop for himself some understanding of the underlying structure of the language.

To make my point, I chose an arbitrary verb form, the sDm.ty.fy form, and tried to gather all information on this form that the book contains. It took me a while before I could even find the first mention of it. The book does not contain an index where one can simply look up ``sDm.ty.fy'', so I had to brows through a lot of sections before it became clear that this form is not just called ``sDm.ty.fy form'', but for ``ease'' of reference is classified as ``declension by third person suffix pronouns'', encoded as on p. 411. The form itself is discussed in less than one and a half pages (pp. 384-385), which contain the bare essentials of this form, such that it contains an infix t(y) and that it is used with three suffix pronouns. I further found a little isolated example, without explanation on p. 374, and the special use with tm (encoded as, and explained in two lines on p. 402), but that seems to be all information on this form that the book has to offer. Nowhere is it mentioned that this form uses the geminated stem for 2ae-gem. verbs, nowhere is the range of meanings discussed that occurrences of this form can have. (Perhaps, to find this out, one should also buy Volume II of the grammar when that appears, bah!) I also haven't been able to find any mention in the book of the related construction without suffix pronoun: Dd.ty, ``what should be spoken'' (cf. Allen's grammar, p. 326).

Realization in printed form

My first complaint is the ratio between ink and paper. A page is 21.5 cm high, but excluding the headers and footers, only about 12.3 cm of that contains actual text. So if you buy this book, you'll be buying lots of blank paper. This is one of the explanations why the book does not really cover the material very thoroughly, despite its 900 pages or so. Furthermore, the font of the running text is fairly big, but the hieroglyphs are even bigger. To provide for a combination of the two, running text is made double-spaced where it contains hieroglyphs, but apparently this is still not enough: in some cases one needs to look carefully to be able to decide that a glyph belongs to one line rather than to an adjacent line.

There are small, recurrent problems with the hieroglyphic font. Note e.g. how the left-most horizontal lines in the hieroglyphic spelling of Ppj on p. 201 are thinner than the other lines; we often find the same problem with the ``folded cloth'' (p. 757); sometimes a whole piece of hieroglyphic text is printed much thinner than elsewhere (e.g. xpr on p. 303, and the ``house'' glyph on p. 231, line -3, which is barely legible); the eyes of birds are often missing (e.g. pp. 350, 492, 531, 595). I am not in a position to determine whether the used software (Glyph 3.3 and WinGlyph 1.1) was inadequate or whether the author made inadequate use of this software.

In transliterations, a raised letter C and the number 3 are used for ayin and aleph. Surely, modern typography should allow a more elegant solution!

Particularly ugly is ``shaded text'' as e.g. on p. 217, which looks like the printing ink was smudged. Next to shading, some words are singly or doubly underlined. Occasionally we also find boldface. The objective of the author was perhaps to be able to emphasize text in several distinct ways, but instead of this making anything clearer, it instead makes the text look chaotic (consider e.g. p. 182). It may however also be that there is no deliberate choice behind the use of different typographic conventions, as is probably true in the case of the round and square brackets on p. 302, line -1.

The paper does not seem to be of very high quality. In my copy, some pages were apparently wrinkled before being printed.


I cannot find any use for this book. The beginning student will bog down in its number and structure mania before even catching a glimpse of what Egyptian is about. For the advanced student the grammar contains nothing he didn't already know from a previous grammar, and very likely it contains less, despite the high number of pages and the high price (twice as expensive for example as the excellent grammar by Allen). The discussions in the Preface and in Appendix VI are likely to be overlooked by the audience of professional Egyptologists they seem to be addressing, and would perhaps have found a more suitable place in a journal publication.

The most striking aspect of this book is that it contains a lot of structure, but undue structure, structure that dictates that the verbal system has 8 dimensions rather than 7 or 9, of which inflection is the 3rd rather than the 2nd or 4th, in which the sDm.ty.fy form is encoded as rather than any other list of numbers, structure that is only present in the imagination of the author but that bears no relevance to the language of Middle Egyptian itself.