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.
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 civilisations 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.
Janet H. Johnson,an Egyptologist at the universitys 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,when the land was usually dominated by foreignersfirst Persians,then Greeks and finally Romans.
Although Egyptians abandoned Demotic more than 1,500 years ago,taking up Coptic and eventually Arabic,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 and was introduced into Moorish Spain. From there adobe became a fixture in the Spanish language and architecture.
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 labour.
Demotic is a hard script to read,like shorthand to the uninitiated. The words have no vowels,only consonants. And the translation effort can have its rewards,including a new understanding of what James P. Allen,an Egyptologist at Brown University,called an X-rated Demotic story well-known to scholars.
Johnson,who specialises 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.