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Title108. 108. Sentence Pattern and Verb Form Egyptian Grammar since Polotsky.pdfSentence Pattern and Verb Form Egyptian Grammar Since Polotsky
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Page 1


H.J. Polotsky’s discovery, now more than half a century old, that all
stages of Egyptian exhibit verb forms serving in clauses equivalent in
function to “that”-clauses found in the construction “It is … that …” —
as in “It is to the specialist we must look if the papyri are to be utilized
to the full” and “It was not the externals only of the volume of which
the University was proud”1 — has served over the decades as a catalyst
for an overhaul of much of Egyptian and Coptic syntax.2

The aim of this brief paper is, first (I), to define, as narrowly as pos-
sible, the Archimedean point of Polotsky’s contribution to Egyptian
grammar; second (II), to show how a key observation made in 1936 on
the basis of a handful of examples already exhibited the most funda-
mental property of his overall contribution, namely the firm linkage of
two basic components that had previously stood side by side or been
related in maladroit ways: sentence patterns and verb forms; and third
(III), to make a distinction between a special theory and a general theory
in his writings on the structure of Egyptian.



But at the outset, it may be useful to review an important distinction
between Old and Middle Egyptian, on the one hand, and Late Egyptian,
Demotic, and Coptic, on the other, as regards the function of the above-
mentioned verb forms.

In Old and Middle Egyptian, these verb forms appear in most posi-
tions in which a substantive or substantival phrase may be found. But by
Late Egyptian, their functional scope had shrunk considerably and they
were henceforth used as a rule only in sentences in which a certain ele-

1 For these examples, see POLOTSKY, Études de syntaxe copte, Cairo, 1944, p. 60-61.
Polotsky’s writings up to the mid sixties have been conveniently gathered in his Collected
Papers, Jerusalem, 1971. For the Études, see p. 102-207.

2 For H.J. Polotsky (1905-1991) the scholar, see Orientalia, 61 (1992), p. 208-13
(A. SHISHA-HALEVY); Rassegna di Studi Etiopici, 34 (1992), p. 115-25 (S. HOPKINS); Sesto
Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia: Atti, 1992, p. XXXIII-XXXIV (M. LICHTHEIM);
Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 120 (1992), p. III-V (J. OSING). See also
E. ULLENDORFF (ed.), Hans Jacob Polotsky: Ausgewählte Briefe, Äthiopistische Forschungen
34, Stuttgart, 1992 (cf. Journal of Semitic Studies, 38 [1993], p. 327-30 [P.J.L FRANKL]);
The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, vol. 6, Oxford, 1994, p. 3226 (A. SHIVTIEL).

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ment receives emphasis of the isolating kind by being presented as dis-
tinct from and at the exclusion of other elements.

A singular characteristic of Egyptian is that it typically uses different
constructions depending on whether the emphasized element is adverbial,
that is, refers to a circumstance (see “to the specialist” cited above), or
nominal, that is, refers to an entity (see “the externals only of the volume”
cited above). This difference is foreign to English and other European lan-
guages as well as to Semitic. It is ultimately just one aspect of a larger
phenomenon that is perhaps the most typical characteristic of Egyptian,
namely that “someone’s being somewhere” is expressed by a different
sentence pattern, namely the adverbial sentence, than “someone’s being
someone or something,” which is denoted by the nominal sentence.

The reduction in functional scope from Middle to Late Egyptian men-
tioned above may be illustrated by two lists presented below.3 In List 1,
pertaining to Old and Middle Egyptian, thirteen different positions in
which the verb forms in question can occur are illustrated by examples.
All thirteen positions are substantival in the sense that substantives or
substantival phrases can elsewhere be found in them. It seems therefore
legitimate to call the Old and Middle Egyptian verb forms substantival,
as they now often are.

But by Late Egyptian, as illustrated by List 2, the descendants of the
Old and Middle Egyptian substantival verb forms have disappeared from
all but two of these positions, namely Nos. 5 and 12.4


3 Additional members have been proposed for both lists, some controversial, but the
members listed here, which include all those established with certainty, should suffice to
portray the conspicuous shift from Middle Egyptian to Late Egyptian.

4 This creates a problem of terminology. At the transition from Middle to Late Egypt-
ian, substantival verb forms lost the versatility of assuming just about any position in
which a substantive can also be found. It would therefore be confusing to call the Late
Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic descendants of substantival verb forms also substantival,
as this obscures an essential difference in scope of function. It has even been doubted
whether the Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic forms are at all still substantival, but this
problem cannot be dealt with in this brief note.

Which alternative terms are there? For Late Egyptian, there is only one: “emphatic.”
No other has ever been proposed, or might be, it seems, any time soon. This term suffers
from the disadvantage of having been created as part of an earlier, erroneous, view
regarding the function of the verb forms in question. It was meant to describe that the
action or event expressed by the verb forms in question is uttered with emphasis, that is,
with insistence and intensity. But when this theory became obsolete, the term “emphatic”
was retained and its spurious origin is usually commemorated by placing it between quo-
tation marks. Now, Late Egyptian “emphatic” verb forms do, quite by coincidence,
involve emphasis, but emphasis of a different kind than that for which the term was cre-
ated. This circumstance may help explain the durability of the term “emphatic.” In fact,
it is tempting, and even seems opportune, simply to redefine “emphatic” as shorthand for
“functioning in sentences in which a certain element is emphasized, that is, presented as
distinct from and at the exclusion of other elements,” and simply delete the quotation

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All usages are illustrated by distinctive writings with gemination in
the present/aorist tense, except Nos. 12 and 13, which only allow future
substantival verb forms, of which examples with distinctive writings
exhibiting the ending w are presented.5


A. Substantival Sentence

Bimembral with pw

1. mhh jb.f pw “It means that his heart is forgetful.”

Trimembral with pw

2. jsst pw h.k Ì r Ì .t “What does it mean that you fall on the field?”

3. Ì dd.k n.k s-t “When you sail northward, respect is paid to
you.” Literally: “That you sail north is (means) that respect is paid
to you.”

B. Adjectival Sentence

4. qsn mss.s “Her bearing was painful.” Literally: “That she bears
(was) difficult.”


marks. The term is used without quotation marks, for example, in J. WINAND, Études de
néo-égyptien, 1: La morphologie verbale, Aegyptiaca Leodiensia, Liège, 1992, p. 259-87.

Coptic grammar too is affected by the problem that no term has ever been proposed to
replace the traditional designation “Second Tenses,” which these verb forms have borne
since before their meaning was identified. Even the term “emphatic verb forms,” espe-
cially as redefined above, would be preferable to “Second Tenses.” As for Demotic, the
choice is between “emphatic,” as in Late Egyptian, and “Second Tenses,” as in Coptic.
“Second Tenses” is used, for example, in J.H. JOHNSON, The Demotic Verbal System,
Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 38, Chicago, 1976, p. 99-126.

In conclusion, whatever the term that will find favor may be, it would be opportune to
give the related verb forms in Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic the same name.

5 The sources of the thirteen examples are as follows: 1. pEbers, 102,15; 2. A.
ERMAN, Reden, Rufe und Lieder auf Gräberbildern des Alten Reiches, APAW 1918,
Berlin, 1919, p. 58 (cited by POLOTSKY, Orientalia, 38 [1969], p. 470); 3. É. NAVILLE,
The Temple of Deir el Bahri, 6 vols., London, [1895]-1908, Plate 114; 4. pWestcar, 9,22;
5. Eloquent Peasant, B1,267; 6. Kmjjt, § VIII; 7. Hammamat, 113,10; 8. pWestcar, 7,21;
9. pEbers, 97,13; 10. Sinuhe, B263; 11. CT, IV 42e; 12. PT, 822b; 13. pEbers, 65,5.

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C. Adverbial Sentence

5. sqdd t Ìft w∂.k “It is according to your command that the land sails.”
Literally: “That the land sails is according to your command.”


A. “Subject”

6. jw mr rmm.s †w “She bitterly weeps for you.” Literally: “(The fact)
that she weeps for you is bitter.”

B. Direct Object

7. jw grt w∂.n Ìm.f prr(.j) r Ìst tn “His Majesty ordered that I go to
this desert.”


A. Indirect Genitive, Following n “of”

8. spssw n dd nsw “fine things which the king gives.” Literally: “fine
things of (pertaining to) that-the-king-gives.”

B. Direct Genitive

9. hrw “the day (on which) he is born.” Literally: “the day
of that-he-is-born.”


A. Object of Prepositions

10. jrr Ìm.k m mrr.f “May Your Majesty do as he likes.” Literally:
“… according to that-he-likes.”

B. Title of a Text

11. jrr s Ìprw “Undergoing Transformations.” Literally: “(About the
Fact) That a Man Undergoes Transformations.”

C. Basic Component of the Cleft Sentences (Future Only!)

12. stt ssmw.s †n “It is she who will lead you.” Literally: “(It is) she
that will lead you.”


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D. Following jr “if”6 (Future Only!)

13. jr Ìmw.s “If it is dry …” Literally: “As for the fact that it will be


5. .jr.j ∂d.f n snd “It is out of fear that I said it.”

12. Ìr ntk .jr.k Cn-smjj n †ty Ìr.w “It is you that will report about
them to the vizier.”


(I) During the summer of 1936 in Jerusalem, Polotsky set himself
to reading the wellknown Late Egyptian Story of Horus and Seth in an
attempt to discover the difference between the verb form jw.f Ìr s∂m
and .jr.f s∂m.8 The observation of certain verb forms in this text led
to a seminal insight on which he would build much of his later con-
tributions to our understanding of Egyptian grammar. The outline of
what would later be published in the Études de syntaxe copte (1944)
was conceived “in a matter of one or two days.” After Late Egyptian,
Coptic first came to mind, only then Classical Egyptian, thus Polot-
sky. Three intriguing questions arise regarding this brief communica-

(1) What might attract one to the difference between jw.f Ìr s∂m and
.jr.f s∂m in 1936?

(2) What was the discovery’s Archimedean point, the handful of pas-
sages whose comparison provided the crucial insight?

(3) Why did Late Egyptian provide the clue rather than Coptic? Clas-
sical Egyptian, with its synthetic character, is more difficult to penetrate
than either Late Egyptian or Coptic.


6 Literally: “as for (the fact that).”
7 The sources of the two examples are pMayer, A 6,17 and LRL, 70,14-15.
8 Polotsky, personal communication, Jerusalem, 25 November 1989. The Story had

been published twice by A.H. GARDINER in The Library of A. Chester Beatty, London,
1931 and in Late-Egyptian Stories, Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca 1, Brussels, 1932. Gardiner’s
premonition that the story “belongs linguistically and intrinsically to the most important
texts we possess” (LES, p. V) was proven right a few years later.

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(1) In the early part of this century, the evolution of the verbal system
from Late Egyptian through Demotic to Coptic was still imperfectly
known. One problematic area was the historical relationships between
Coptic conjugation bases consisting of a single vowel such as av- and
ev- and conjugation bases in Late Egyptian and Demotic such as jw.f and
.jr.f (also written r.jr.f and jw.jr.f). The matter is of some complexity
and cannot be reviewed in detail here. But, for example, anyone searching
for the etymology of the so common Coptic past verb form avswtM “he
heard, he has heard” would be intrigued that Late Egyptian jw.f Ìr s∂m
and .jr.f s∂m are both past in meaning, though the latter form not exclu-
sively so. The study of the behavior of these two past verb forms, what-
ever its outcome, must have seemed a worthwhile endeavor. It is now
known that jw.f Ìr s∂m, which cannot head a sentence, disappeared after
Late Egyptian, and that past .jr.f s∂m only survives with certainty in
the Faiyumic dialect of Coptic as aavswtM, also written avswtM,
whereas Coptic past avswtM derives from neither of these Late Egypt-
ian verb forms, but rather from the periphrastic verb form jr.f s∂m,
which became common in late Demotic, gradually replacing past s∂m.f.

(2) “In order to show that contrasts, alternations, in short, all kinds of
syntactic relationships, are real and not invented by grammarians, they
should be documented by examples in which the related features occur
alongside one another in actual context.”9 The pivotal passages from the
Story of Horus and Seth are in all probability not found in the celebrated
Études de syntaxe copte (1944), but rather in an article that appeared
four years earlier in the Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte.10

The following five examples are quoted there. The first three feature the
verb forms jw.f Ìr s∂m and .jr.f s∂m mentioned above. The fact that all
five resemble one another in containing the interrogative pronoun jÌ
must have encouraged the search for the specific difference.

(a) .jr.k djt ∂ …Ì…r……j…Ì…“Why did you let her cross?” (7,12-13).
(b) .jr.k qndt …Ì…r……j…Ì…“Why are you angry?” (8,5).

(c) jw.k ∂d n.s j…Ì…“What did you tell her?” (7,8). Past jw.f (Ìr) s∂m.
(d) twtn dj Ì Ìr jrt j…Ì…m-rC “What are you doing, sitting here

like this?” (8,3). Present sw Ìr s∂m.


9 POLOTSKY, “A Note on the Sequential Verb-form in Ramesside Egyptian and in Biblical
Hebrew,” Pharaonic Egypt, the Bible, and Christianity, Jerusalem, 1985, p. 157-61, at p. 158.

10 “Une règle concernant l’emploi des formes verbales dans la phrase interrogative en
néo-égyptien,” ASAE 40 (1944), p. 241-45 (Collected Papers, p. 33-37).

Page 7

(e) j…w….• (r) djt n.j j…Ì…“What will you give me?” (5,12). Future jw.f
(r) s� m.

It is the comparison of examples such as (a) .jr.k djt �  …Ì…r……j…Ì…and
(c) jw.k � d n.s j…Ì…, perhaps even these very ones, occurring in close
vicinity, that must have inspired the conclusion that the emphatic verb
form is used when the interrogative pronoun is part of an adverbial
phrase. This is confirmed by the other three examples. Thus the link
between the adverbial sentence pattern, on the one hand, and the
emphatic verb forms, on the other hand, was established as well as the
mechanism by which the two concepts interlock.11 Most everything else
important, including the substantival nature of the Old and Middle
Egyptian verb forms, follows logically from this.12

(3) The contrast between absence and presence of an emphatic verb
form illustrated by the two examples .jr.k djt �  …Ì…r……j…Ì…“Why have
you let her cross?” and jw.k � d n.s j…Ì…“What have you told her?” in
Late Egyptian is no longer fully observed in all Coptic dialects. In
Sahidic, for example, Second Tenses are used also when the interroga-
tive pronoun is not part of an adverbial phrase. Examples in which it
functions as direct object are as follows.


11 As Polotsky notes (ASAE, 40 [1940], p. 241 n. 1 [Collected Papers, p. 33 n. 1];
Études, p. 54-56 [Collected Papers, p. 158-60]), F. Praetorius and to some extent L. Stern
were the first to identify the Coptic past Second Perfect as a relative verb form of the
“abstract” kind used in a cleft sentence construction. But this insight had very limited
potential as long as the crucial link between the Second Tenses and the so quintessentially
Egyptian structure of the adverbial sentence was not made. Praetorius, for example, pos-
tulated an omitted copula pe, thus linking the construction in which Second Tenses appear
with the nominal sentence.

12 It may be noted that the crucial observation was syntactic in nature. As regards the
meaning or signified of the construction, the omnipresent Aristotelian categories of sub-
ject and predicate were employed to conclude that emphasis involves a shift from status
as subject to status as predicate or “vedette.” I believe, however, as I have stated else-
where, that the matter can be described satisfactorily without having recourse to concepts
such as subject and predicate. Instead, the construction in which emphatic verb forms and
substantival verb forms appear has, it seems to me, a form and meaning just as the word
with the form “horse” has the meaning “large, solid-hoofed, herbivorous mammal …”

As to the form of the construction, the adverbial sentence pattern makes it possible to
single out an adverbial element syntactically as a distinct component of a sentence. As
regards meaning, this setting apart is produced with the aim of presenting that adverbial
element “as distinct from and at the exclusion of other elements.” This peculiar kind of
isolating contrast — S. Groll has referred to it as the “polemic mood” — is the signified
or meaning of the emphatic construction.

Anything beyond this simple attaching of a meaning to an empirical signal seems to
me speculation about the nature of thought, a topic whose ultimate question is: Why do
we say what we say and not rather something else? This question seems fundamental and
worthwhile, but it is difficult and may unnecessarily burden the description of emphatic
and substantival verb forms.

Page 8

pdikaios NtavR ou “What has the just man done?” (Psalms 10,3).
ekouej ou nMman “What do you want from us?” (Matthew 8,29).

This fact makes it possible to understand why the key observation
regarding the link between the Second Tenses or emphatic verb forms,
on the one hand, and the adverbial sentence, on the other hand, was
made in a Late Egyptian text rather than in a Coptic one, even though
Coptic was better known at the time. Indeed, the very link had been
loosened to some degree by the time of Coptic.

It also follows that Polotsky’s observation on the obligatory use of the
Second Tenses with interrogative pronouns in the Göttinger Gelehrte
Anzeigen of 1934,13 reporting an observation by L. Stern,14 was isolated
and did not involve understanding of the function of the Second Tenses,
as confirmed by Polotsky himself (see n. 8).

In this respect, it is significant that, in none of the Coptic examples
explicitly cited in GGA 1934, the interrogative pronoun is part of an
adverbial phrase. Such examples would not enable one to make the
essential link between the use of the Second Tenses and the adverbial
sentence pattern, because they illustrate how this link had loosened to a
certain degree by the time of Coptic.15

Even if the observation in GGA 1934 set the stage for focusing on
sentences with interrogative pronouns, it only shows that such a frequent
phenomenon as the Second Tenses would not escape the attention and
the reflection of the perceptive grammarian.

As distinct from GGA 1934, the communications in Comptes rendus
du Groupe linguistique d’études chamito-sémitiques, 3 (1937), p. 1-3
(Collected Papers, p. 99-101) and in ASAE, 40 (1940), p. 241-45 (Col-
lected Papers, p. 33-37) do anticipate the Études of 1944.16

(II) By itself, relating the presence of Ìr to the presence of .jr in
.jr.k djt ∂ …Ì…r……j…Ì…and relating the absence of the former to the
absence of the latter in jw.k ∂d n.s j…Ì…seems a rather small scale obser-
vation, but it involved no less than relating in an utterly novel way two
main structural features of the language to one another, verb forms and


13 GGA, 196 (1934), p. 58-67 (review of W. TILL, Koptische Dialektgrammatik,
Munich, 1931), at p. 63-64 (Collected Papers, p. 363-72, at p. 368-69).

14 Koptische Grammatik, Leipzig, 1880, p. 213, 216, 220.
15 Likewise, Psalms 10,3 and Matthew 8,29, cited above, in which the emphasized

element is also not adverbial, are taken from paragraphs in Stern’s Koptische Grammatik
(see n. 14) that are given as references in GGA 1934.

16 See also SHISHA-HALEVY, Coptic Grammatical Categories, Analecta Orientalia 53,
Rome, 1986, p. 62; W. SCHENKEL, Einführung in die altägyptische Sprachwissenschaft,
Darmstadt, 1990, p. 146.

Page 9

sentence patterns, which up to that point were unconnected and seemingly
incompatible, as mass and speed once were. Previously, the inability to
link verb forms and sentence patterns had culminated in the monstrous
concept of the “verbal nominal sentence.”

Much of Polotsky’s later work in Egyptian grammar revolved around
the link between verb forms and sentence patterns and ultimately led to
the statement at the beginning of his Grundlagen that two properties
mainly shape the structure of Egyptian and Coptic, (1) the existence of
different sentence patterns, and (2) the ability of each sentence pattern to
function as a substantive, an adjective, or an adverb through various
grammatical means, including substantival, adjectival, and adverbial
verb forms.17

(III) Hardly anyone today would doubt that the Second Tenses (Cop-
tic, Demotic), emphatic verb forms (Demotic, Late Egyptian), and sub-
stantival verb forms (Old and Middle Egyptian) are used in construc-
tions in which certain elements are presented as distinct from and at the
exclusion of other elements, and that moreover, the Old and Middle
Egyptian verb forms are able to appear in most substantival slots, and
only there. These observations have a certain empirical immediacy and
practical applicability, and they can collectively be described as the spe-
cial theory in Polotsky’s writings on Egyptian grammar.

But the grand scheme that Polotsky developed over the years, which
involves a more general theory and is sometimes referred to as the Stan-
dard Theory, has been the subject of some debate.18 In recent years, crit-
icism has focused on the adverbial category.

It is true that there is a measure of intuition involved in the postula-
tion of the adverbial category. But as L. Wittgenstein noted in his Trac-
tatus logico-philosophicus, language is an image or model of reality as
we think or perceive it. The human condition of beholding fixed items
such as entities (“car”), which have properties attached to them
(“blue”), and are found in certain circumstances (“in the street”), seems
reflected in language in that much of linguistic structure clusters around
the substantival, adjectival, and adverbial categories.

Unlike properties, circumstances typically change (from “in the
street” to “in the garage,” while the car remains blue). To express
change, language exhibits verbs. A. Meillet referred to the verb as a


17 Grundlagen des koptischen Satzbaus, American Studies in Papyrology 27 and 29,
Decatur, Georgia, 1987/90, vol. 1, p. 1.

18 For the elaboration of this scheme, see, in addition to the Grundlagen, “Les trans-
positions du verbe en égyptien classique,” Israel Oriental Studies, 6 (1976), p. 1-50.

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