Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.39

Marja Vierros, Bilingual Notaries in Hellenistic Egypt: A Study of Greek as a Second Language. Collectanea hellenistica, 5.   Brussels:  Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten​, 2012.  Pp. 291.  ISBN 9789065691033.  €19.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sofía​ Torallas Tovar, CSIC, Madrid; Univ. of Chicago (

Table of Contents

The study of languages in contact is a relatively recent development which has based its progress mainly on field work performed with actual speakers of living languages. This field of linguistics has provided an invaluable theoretical frame to apply to the languages of the ancient world or corpus languages for which the absence of live speakers leaves the researcher only with the written sources. Egypt – especially Graeco-Roman Egypt – provides the perfect laboratory to experiment on language contact in antiquity, not only because it was a multilingual society with specific sociolinguistic characteristics which can be described and thus allow a more accurate evaluation of the sources, but also because it is virtually the only place in the Mediterranean where an enormous amount of documents written on papyrus have been preserved thanks to the climatic circumstances. Multilingualism in the papyri started to receive attention in the 1950s, 1 although it was later, starting in the 1980s when when more extensive work was undertaken, especially by Peremans and Remondon. Initial results on linguistic aspects of this situation of contact needed to be narrowed down, for the bulk of documents belonged to too wide a geographical and temporal span. Working on specific archives, where the speakers can be better defined (as bilingual speakers, native Egyptians, monolingual Greeks, etc.) introduces a better organisation into the field. As Katelijn Vandorpe comments, in her essay “Archives and Dossiers,” (in R.S. Bagnall, The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, Oxford University Press, 2009: 216), “Where unrelated texts are like instant snapshots, archives present a coherent film of a person, a family, or a community and may span several months, years or decades.” And I may add that the archives provide a more complete and defined picture of the linguistic situation within these families or communities.

This type of linguistic analysis, based on small corpora belonging to an archive or even to only one scribe, has proven very useful, and much more productive than the analysis of individual documents, since these are often devoid of basic data on the scribe or the linguistic environment where they were produced. Linguistic studies have been carried out on the Narmouthis archive,2 the Zenon archive,3 the Kleon the architect archive,4 and the Pathyris archives in the book reviewed here. These surveys provide a much firmer corpus and linguistic and social background for the documents, and hence for the resulting linguistic analysis. For this reason, M. Vierros’ book is a very welcome piece of research in this field.

The book is structured in 8 chapters. The first two are an excellent introduction, touching necessarily on aspects that I have already mentioned above. The first chapter describes the corpus, the archives of Pathyris and how the corpus has been structured, and the type of linguistic and sociolinguistic analysis performed by Vierros on this corpus. The definition of the speaker standing behind the texts analysed is carefully performed, as is the definition of concepts fundamental to the study of this corpus, which are taken from the general field of linguistics.

The second chapter reviews the general linguistic situation in Hellenistic Egypt, contemporary to the production of the archives belonging to the corpus. It is a complete survey of the secondary literature in the last sixty years on bilingualism in Egypt, as well as a careful description of the specific situation. The third chapter fine-tunes the linguistic landscape by delimiting it to the Pathyrite area, explaining the evidence we have in seven archives, from which the ethnic and linguistic composition can be more or less clearly traced.

I find chapter 4 especially interesting. “Notaries at work” is truly the closest to police investigation one can get in search for the actual author of the texts of the corpus. After establishing in the previous chapter the composition of the population of the Pathyrite area in order to distinguish their language use, in chapter 4 Vierros tackles the type of document in question, the agoranomic contract, in every detail possible, in an effort to establish the criteria needed to define the individual’s language use. The format and page setup, the contract formulae, signatures and registration as reliable criteria (4.1), are followed by a short “prosopography” of the agoranomoi of Pathyris and the offices (4.2), and by a hypothesis on the way these offices operated, the relationship between the agoranomos proper and his scribe or scribes, and who might be behind the contract production and therefore responsible for the linguistic production. This analysis must go through the identification of hands and formulaic variants, which, being notary-specific, are crucial to classifying the evidence. Finally 4.4 analyses the Egyptian background of the scribes.

After these four indispensable chapters, which introduce the context both sociolinguistically and linguistically, chapter 5 starts an accurate linguistic analysis of the corpus with the focus on phonological matters. All the factors which might lead to spelling variants in a corpus of papyri are taken into account. Not only the internal evolution of Greek pronunciation, but also the influence of L1 (mother language), the opposing effect of learned orthography, and the interference of morphological confusion, are taken into account in explaining hundreds of examples of deviant spellings surveyed from the corpus and interpreted as to how they represent an actual linguistic use. This balance between the learned orthography, the phonetic spelling and the interference of morphology is especially well studied in the very useful and enlightening section on the iota adscriptum (5.4). The correct or hypercorrect use of an unpronounced element is analysed thoroughly in formulaic uses (specific clauses, where the repetition in the daily practice of a scribe is an important factor), in personal names and in free text.

Chapter 6 is dedicated to morphological uses. Digging into the mind of the Egyptian speaker, Vierros does not leave the explanation simply as deviant spelling or mistake due to imperfect knowledge of Greek grammar, but looks into the logic of Egyptian syntactic constructions to explain the use of the cases. While the scribes of the Pathyris corpus knew their declensions, the interference of Egyptian and the phenomenon of the “first marked element” followed by unmarked elements –typical of Egyptian– may explain the use of correct cases in the first element of lists, followed by the nominative (as “unmarked”). Other phenomena, mainly regarding the use of cases, are also studied in this chapter.

One of the highly relevant chapters in this monograph is the syntactic analysis (ch. 7). While there are some works on phonetic aspects and morphological use in the papyri,5 the attention placed on the syntax has been less intense. The gem of this chapter is the interpretation of the relative clauses (7.1), which, in Vierros’ words, “are the best candidates for showing the impact of language contact”. The use of these clauses is studied following the main contract formulas which contain them and analysed according to the deviations from the common Greek use, and explained by comparison with the Egyptian relative clause formation. The study focuses also in the performance of each scribe in this respect, perhaps providing a sort of gradation in their proficiency and mastering of the Greek language. The linguistic analysis of the individual scribes leads Vierros to some preliminary conclusions regarding the level of bilingualism of each particular scribe (p. 175.) While I do not know if I can agree completely, she is indeed prudent about these conclusions and only expresses them tentatively, while observing appropriate caveats. Though the analyses are based on scribe-specific features, huge obstacles remain: the gap between oral and written language, the learned formulas and orthography, and the difficulty of determining who is the writer of the document (the notary or a secretary).

Closing the book, the appendices include a document and editorial concordance, a genealogy of the agoranomoi (the protagonists of this study), and an explanation of the agoranomic contract with samples, bibliography and an index.

There are a few typos and anacoluthic constructions, some distractions, such as forgetting the glosses to examples, which I will not list here, but these in no way detract from the quality of this book. I was a bit puzzled by the bibliographical references, which are sometimes cited by the author and year, sometimes by the author and first words of the title. This is rather informal, but not terribly confusing.

This book is a brilliant piece of work, of great significance in the field. As Vierros herself states, the Greek of the papyri contains “idiosyncrasies that were earlier condemned as ungrammatical and bad Greek and therefore were not subjected to closer analysis” (p. 225). She has given a second chance to these juicy samples of the Greek language and has proven how productive her “closer analysis” has been. It fills a gap, produces a major advancement and will be a stepping-stone for future enterprises towards understanding the Greek of the papyri and linguistic contact in antiquity in the Mediterranean. It also provides a methodology for tackling the linguistic interpretation of corpus languages in contact. I look forward to reading more intelligent and enlightening linguistic work by Marja Vierros.


1.   S.G. Kapsomenos, “Das Griechische in Ägypten,” Museum Helveticum, 10 (3/4) (1953) 248-263.
2.   Roger S. Bagnall, “Reflections on the Greek of the Narmouthis Ostraka,” in M. Capasso and P. Davoli (eds.), New Archaeological and Papyrological Researches on the Fayyum, Galatina, 2007, p. 13-21. S. Donadoni, “II greco di un sacerdote di Narmuthis,” Acme 8 (1955), 73-83. E. Bresciani - R. Pintaudi, “Textes démotico-grecs et gréco-démotiques des ostraca de Medinet Madi: un problème de bilinguisme”, S.P. Vleeming (ed.), Aspects of Demotic Lexicography, Leuven, 1987, pp. 123-26. I.C. Rutherford, “Bilingualism in Roman Egypt? Exploring the Archive of Phatres of Narmuthis,” T.V. Evans and D. Obbink (eds), The Language of the Papyri, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 198-207.
3.   T.V. Evans, “Identifying the Language of the Individual in the Zenon Archive,” in T.V. Evans and D. Obbink (eds.), The Language of the Papyri, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 51–70.
4.   W. Clarysse, “Linguistic Diversity in the Archive of the engineers Kleon and Theodoros”, in T.V. Evans and D. Obbink (eds.), The Language of the Papyri, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 35-50.
5.   From E. Mayser, Grammatik der griechischen Papyri aus der Ptolemäerzeit mit Einschluss der gleichzeitigen Ostraka und der in Ägypten verfassten Inschriften, Berlin, 1923, to F. T. Gignac, A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, Milan, 1976, and then G. Horrocks, Greek: a History of the Language and its Speakers, Malden-Chichester, 1997, among others.

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