"Dictionary Translates Ancient Egypt Life"
John Noble Wilford
September 17th, 2012
The New York Times
Ancient Egyptians did not speak to posterity only through hieroglyphs. Those elaborate pictographs were the elite script for recording the lives and triumphs of pharaohs in their tombs and on the monumental stones along the Nile. But almost from the beginning, people in everyday life spoke a different language and wrote a different script, a simpler one that evolved from the earliest hieroglyphs.
These were the words of love and family, the law and commerce, private letters and texts on science, religion and literature. For at least 1,000 years, roughly from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500, both the language and the distinctive cursive script were known as Demotic Egyptian, a name given it by the Greeks to mean the tongue of the demos, or the common people.
Demotic was one of the three scripts inscribed on the Rosetta stone, along with Greek and hieroglyphs, enabling European scholars to decipher the royal language in the early 19th century and thus read the top-down version of a great civilization’s long history.
Now, scholars at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago have completed almost 40 years of research and published online the final entries of a 2,000-page dictionary that more than doubles the thousands of known Demotic words. Egyptologists expect that the dictionary’s definitions and examples of how words were used in ancient texts will expedite translations of Demotic documents, more of which are unpublished than any other stage of early Egyptian writing.
A workshop for specialists in Demotic research was held at the university last month as the dictionary section for the letter S, the last of 25 chapters to be finished, is being posted on the Oriental Institute’s Web site, where the dictionary is available free. Eventually a printed edition will be produced, mainly for research libraries, the university said.
Janet H. Johnson, an Egyptologist at the university’s Oriental Institute who has devoted much of her career to editing the Chicago Demotic Dictionary, called it “an indispensable tool for reconstructing the social, political and cultural life of ancient Egypt during a fascinating period,” when the land was usually dominated by foreigners — first Persians, then Greeks and finally Romans.
“It’s really huge what a dictionary does for understanding an ancient society,” said Gil Stein, director of the institute. “This will lead to mastering texts from the Egyptians themselves, not their rulers, at a time the country was becoming absorbed increasingly into the Greco-Roman world.”
Although Egyptians abandoned Demotic more than 1,500 years ago, taking up Coptic and eventually Arabic, Dr. Johnson said the dictionary showed that the old language was not entirely dead. It lives on in words like “adobe,” which came from “tby,” the Demotic for brick. The term passed into Arabic (with the definite article “al” in front of the noun) and was introduced into Moorish Spain. From there adobe became a fixture in the Spanish language and architecture.
Ebony, the name of the dark wood that was traded down the Nile from Nubia, present-day Sudan, also has Demotic origins. The word for a man from Nubia passed through Demotic by way of Hebrew and Greek as the name Phineas, reminding Dr. Johnson of Phineas Fogg in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” The Demotic word meaning water lily, Susan, reached Europe through the Hebrew bible.
For the Oriental Institute, this is the culmination of a second long-running dictionary project in little more than a year. The final installment of the 21-volume dictionary of the language of ancient Mesopotamia and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects was completed last year after 90 years of scholarly labor.
The Demotic dictionary, begun in 1975, supplements and updates a more modest glossary of Demotic words published in German in 1954 by Wolja Erichsen, a Danish scholar.
The new Demotic-English work includes new words not in that glossary, as well as new uses of previously known words and more extensive examples of compound words, idiomatic expressions, place names, reference to deities and words borrowed from other languages. Completed chapters have been posted online from time to time in recent years.
“What the Chicago Demotic Dictionary does is what the Oxford English Dictionary does,” said James P. Allen, an Egyptologist at Brown University. “It gives many samples of what words mean and the range and nuances of their meanings.”
Dr. Allen said the Demotic dictionary had already served as a major research source in writing his history of the Egyptian language, to be published next year by Cambridge University Press. “I could not have done what I did without the dictionary,” he said. “Or at least not as well.”
Demotic is a hard script to read, he said, like shorthand to the uninitiated. The words have no vowels, only consonants. The difference between Demotic and early Egyptian in the age of the great pyramids (2613-2494 B.C.) is greater than between the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf and modern English. But by computer-processed reproductions of the cursive script in photographs and facsimiles, the dictionary shows the way people wrote the language.
The translation effort can have its rewards, including a new understanding of what Dr. Allen called an X-rated Demotic story well known to scholars. The hero in the story goes into a cave to steal a magic book. A mummy there warns it will bring him disaster. Soon he is entranced by a woman who invites him to her house for sex, but she keeps putting off the consummation with endless demands and frustrating conditions.
On the subject of sex, Demotic scholars said the lusty Cleopatra, the last of the pharaohs and presumably the only one fluent in the common speech, probably spoke only Greek in her boudoir. That was the language of the ruling class for several centuries.
Dr. Johnson, who specializes in research on the somewhat more equal role of women in Egyptian society, said Demotic contracts on papyrus scrolls detailed a husband’s acknowledgment of the money his wife brought into the marriage and the promise to provide her with a set amount of food and money for clothing each year of their marriage. Other documents showed that women could own property and had the right to divorce their husbands.
Another Chicago researcher, Brian Muhs, noted that many Demotic documents dealt with taxes, the government often leasing their collection to the highest bidder, who was required to pay the amount of the bid regardless of how much tax was collected. Individuals seemed to keep their tax receipts for years, along with other financial records, sometimes written on pottery shards.
Since the Chicago Demotic Dictionary should lead to the publication of more texts and more new words, Friedhelm Hoffmann, an Egyptologist at the University of Munich, said that may prompt a need for updated editions — something on the order of CDD 2.0.