The Old Egyptian Verb. Functions in Text
Third-party funded project
Project title The Old Egyptian Verb. Functions in Text
Principal Investigator(s) Stauder, Andréas
Project Members Paksi, Julianna Kitti
Organisation / Research unit Departement Altertumswissenschaften / Ägyptologie (Bickel)
Project start 01.10.2012
Probable end 30.09.2015
Status Completed

The project consists in a description and analysis of the functions of the Old Egyptian verb. Old Egyptian, the language of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2150 BCE), is the earliest stage of Egyptian-Coptic (ca. 3200 BCE - 1300 CE) in which continuous texts were committed to writing, allowing for full-scale linguistic analysis. The preserved corpus includes internally diverse bodies of texts such as royal ritual and funerary compositions (‘Pyramid Texts’), non-royal inscriptions (e.g., ‘funerary self-presentations’), documentary genres (such as letters, decrees, legal documents), captions to pictorial scenes (‘Reden und Rufe’), and personal names. Old Egyptian presently remains the least well understood stage of the language despite its importance as the vehicle of major early textual ‘genres’ and productions, several of which would enter the stream of tradition exercising a lasting influence for the millennia to come.

Past research on the Old Egyptian verb has largely been devoted to reconstructing the inventory of its inflectional categories. Functional aspects on the other hand have mostly been addressed within the broader frame of Earlier Egyptian, i.e. of Old and Middle Egyptian combined (ca. 2700-1300 BCE), generally with an emphasis on Middle Egyptian. In addition, the study of the Earlier Egyptian verb itself has been defined by successive interpretive models, often privileging one functional dimension (e.g., syntax, information structure, aspect) to the detriment of other ones also involved. This has hampered an integrated analysis, while major gaps have remained in the detailed functional description of individual forms and constructions. Issues relating to the very nature of the textual evidence at hand–of particular consequence in the third millennium BCE–have been largely overlooked.


The project addresses the functions of Old Egyptian verb specifically and by including all types of written evidence available. The concentration on one period in time is compounded by a full exploitation of the internal diversity of the corpus capitalizing on the diverse genres, registers, and discourse-situations documented.

The study focuses on those issues that remain least understood and for which the extant written corpus permits significant progress. These include: (i) the anterior paradigm (with fully asserted events); (ii) aspectual-temporal profiles of various forms and patterns; (iii) alternations of forms with low-transitivity events in the anterior domain; (iv) the functions of the long stem (mrr-); (v) the functions of the discourse-auxiliary iw; (vi) constructions downgrading the information status of events; (vii) specific temporalities in the ritual and funerary spheres, from which the bulk of the preserved written evidence derives.

The last point, which has relevant to most of the other issues as well, is of central interpretive importance: in the Old Kingdom the written performance of language was subject to severely restrictive conditions, far remote from any ‘ordinary’ linguistic interaction, and in large part over-determined by the specific high-cultural contexts in which language was committed to writing. The study of the linguistic determinations of written ‘genres’, their specific temporalities, and their stylistic and indexical dimensions are therefore integral to appreciating the linguistic phenomenology of the Old Kingdom written corpus. One broader horizon of the project thereby also lies with the very nature of what is conventionally referred to as ‘Old Egyptian’, of its considerable internal variation, and of its contrast with earlier Middle Egyptian, which is only partly accounted for in diachronic terms.

Financed by Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)

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