A new Chicago Manual — Demotic Egyptian Style!

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Photo from Louvre Museum, by way of Wikimedia Commons (see “Demotic” Wikipedia page for link)

Chicago Manual of Style, move over! The New York Times brought news yesterday of a new dictionary that’s just been published. Why would the Times carry a story about a new dictionary? Well, this one is different from your everyday Merriam-Webster’s, and it isn’t quite like your school French-English or English-Spanish dictionary. This is a dictonary of Demotic Egyptian.

That’s the language that was spoken (and written, when they were literate) by everyday Egyptians while their royal masters were carving monuments in hieroglyphics. Here’s a description from the Times article, Dictionary Translates Ancient Egyptian Life:

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.

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has published the Demotic Dictionary online. If you know the script–go for it!

I had forgotten that Demotic was one of the three scripts on the Rosetta Stone. So that means that when archaeologists and scholars got insight into what the hieroglyphs meant, comparingi them to the Greek on the stone, they also got a lot of insight into Demotic script as well.

One thing that always thrills me is discovering how certain modern words or place names have really, really ancient roots. The Times article describes some of our modern words that have been discovered to have ancient Egyptian roots.

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.

I always love hearing about these linguistic connections from the ancient past to the present, but a great thing about Demotic is that the words were used in actual everyday life. So this will tell us a great deal about how ordinary Egyptians, not connected to the royal court, lived each day. For example, an interesting thing shown in documents in Demotic script is a surprising equality between men and women:

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.

I’m very excited about this, even though I can’t read a word of Demotic. Ancient language! Being deciphered and understood! Very cool.


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