Dictionary Translates Language of the Everyday Ancient Egyptian

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After almost four decades, scholars at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have finally finished their magnum opus: a dictionary of demotic Egyptian, the script used by commoners in ancient Egypt.

The elaborate hieroglyphs that adorn the tombs of the pharaohs were much too complicated to be suitable for everyday writing, so a more practical cursive script was developed alongside them. This eventually evolved into demotic Egyptian, used by everyday people to do things like record stories, write love letters, and draft contracts.

According to James Allen, an Egyptologist from Brown University, “there are more unpublished documents in Demotic than any other phase of ancient Egypt.” Now, it should be much easier for scholars to translate those documents. The final entries to the dictionary, which is free to use online, were published last month. It is expected to be released in book format in the future, for use in research libraries.

Gil Stein, the Oriental Institute’s director, told the New York Times that

“It’s really huge what a dictionary does for understanding an ancient society. 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.”

Other scholars agree. Prof. Friedhelm Hoffmann of the Institute for Egyptology at the University of Munich told Phys.org:

“I myself have been using the Chicago Demotic Dictionary since the first letters were published, not only for looking up words and but also finding their meaning.”

The dictionary has simplified the translation of things like marriage annuities, which show how Egyptian husbands were obliged to provide for their wives, as well as financial records like tax receipts, which were kept on broken pieces of pottery. It may also have assisted in the translation of this “cult fiction” story, which describes the hedonistic and sometimes salacious religious rites practiced by acolytes of the Egyptian goddess Mut.

It also highlights how Demotic Egyptian has lived on through the years in some surprising places. For example, the word “adobe” is derived from Demotic, as is the word “ebony.” According to the New York Times, the name “Susan” is actually Demotic in origin, too. It means “water-lily.”

Image via Wikipedia: This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DemoticScriptsRosettaStoneReplica.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.