Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Daniel L. Selden, Hieroglyphic Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Literature of the Middle Kingdom. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2013. Pp. xxiv, 400. ISBN 9780520275461. $39.95.

Reviewed by Nikolaos Lazaridis, California State University, Sacramento (lazaridis.nikolaos@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

(This book was withdrawn by the press after this review was published.)

Daniel Selden, Professor of Literature at UC Santa Cruz, has produced a new and thorough introduction to Middle Egyptian, the version of Egyptian hieroglyphic language that was popular from Dynasty 9 of the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2135 BC) until Dynasty 18 of the New Kingdom (ca. 1300 BC).1 This introductory book is mainly intended to serve as a textbook for both a traditional university course, such as the one that is being offered by the author at Santa Cruz, and for self-study (p. xvii).

The book is divided into three parts, titled "Grammar", "Reading", and "Further Resources". Part One, which consists of a detailed presentation of most of the Middle Egyptian grammatical rules, is preceded by a short preface, a map of Ancient Egypt, a list of the periods of Egyptian History, and a list of abbreviations.

Part One consists of 18 lessons, which are introduced by a long section (pp. 3-34) that situates Middle Egyptian in the context of the Afroasiatic family of languages and of linguistic developments in Pharaonic and post-Pharaonic Egypt. In this section the author also discusses a number of general features of Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as the scripts' use and arrangement of signs, in addition to modern conventions pertaining to the reading and interpretation of the hieroglyphic script.

Part One's 18 lessons constitute the largest portion of this book (pp. 35-256). They all follow a well-structured format that smoothly guides the student's exploration of Egyptian grammar. Each lesson consists of: (a) two or more sections discussing grammatical rules; (b) a list with transliteration and English translation of vocabulary that appears in the lessons' examples and exercises, and which is almost always thematically organized; (c) exercises with short Egyptian phrases or complete sentences that need to be transliterated and translated, as well as simple English phrases or complete sentences that need to be translated into Middle Egyptian, written both in hieroglyphs and transliteration; and (d) a list of further readings that are relevant to the vocabulary's theme. This format follows the successful formula of most of the other Middle Egyptian textbooks. The thematic organization of each lesson's vocabulary is a useful pedagogical tool, since it helps the student understand and memorize more easily the Egyptian words. However, since each lesson's further readings touch upon a specific aspect of Egyptian culture, it would have been useful to include a short general discussion of that aspect, as is done in J. Allen's Middle Egyptian (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

The grammatical rules presented in these 18 lessons are explained in most cases clearly, with minimal use of difficult jargon.2 Most often the author uses the traditional Egyptological terminology, but in some cases he opts for terms that are more widely used in linguistics (for instance, the term "radical" that partially replaces the more traditional but less effective term "consonant" on pp. 108-9). The most innovative feature of this book is the author's occasional comparison of Middle Egyptian to other ancient and modern languages; see, for example, some interesting comparisons to Ancient Greek on p. 46 or to Hebrew on p. 71.3

Another equally important innovative trait of this book is the fact that it combines lessons on grammar and vocabulary with a full reading of a Middle Kingdom literary work, the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor.4 The hieroglyphic text of this work is presented in Part Two (pp. 262-96). There the author has separated the text's sentences, numbered its lines, and provided a very useful, almost line-by-line grammatical commentary, all features that will certainly be of great help to the student who is expected to transliterate and translate the hieroglyphic text. This complete work of Egyptian literature constitutes a remarkable opportunity for the student reader to be fully exposed to the workings of Egyptian language, as the transcribed narrative illustrates best how an Egyptian author could make meaningful use of most of the grammatical rules presented in the 18 lessons.

A minor drawback of this original combination of lessons on grammar with the reading of an ancient literary work is the fact that several Middle Egyptian grammatical rules are not included in the 18 lessons but instead are treated separately in the section "Supplementary Grammar" of Part Three (pp. 299-310). Some of these rules, like those pertaining to Egyptian particles, are rather important, and one may wonder whether pedagogically the fact that they are briefly presented, without any relevant exercises and only in an appendix, will discourage the student from paying enough attention to them.

Part Three also includes useful tables of biconsonantal and triconsonantal signs, a somewhat unusual list of basic prepositions, a table of verbal forms, a glossary from Egyptian to English and vice versa, an annotated sign list, and finally an index to the sign list following the traditional format of A. Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar (3rd edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1957). Part Three ends with a general index (pp. 388-400).

Overall, Daniel Selden's new introduction to Middle Egyptian is a detailed, clear presentation of Middle Kingdom hieroglyphs' grammatical rules and writing conventions that can serve as an excellent textbook for a university course, as well as an effective language course for self-study. Its main contributions to the genre of Egyptological grammar books are its original insights into Egyptian grammar through the lens of comparative linguistics; and its innovative text-integrative methodology, which gives the student the opportunity to examine the use of grammar in one of the most famous works of Egyptian literature.


1.   The book's title may be misleading, since the author does not actually discuss the general features of Middle Kingdom literature.
2.   A few terms are left undefined and thus potentially confusing for the student (for example, the linguistic terms "bound morpheme" on p. 37 and "tropological" on p. 78).
3.   Such references to multiple languages may intimidate many, and in some cases the methodology of comparative linguistics is overused. Thus, for instance, the excursus on the multiple ways of reading Hebrew texts on pp. 174-5 seems somewhat out of place.
4.   It is unfortunate that the text of the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor is not better integrated into the examples and exercises that are included in the 18 lessons – as is done, for instance, on p. 175. For a good example of full grammar-text integration, see J. Johnson, Thus wrote 'Onchesheshonqi. 3rd edition. SAOC 45. Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2000.

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