BMCR 2011.03.08

The Multilingual Experience in Egypt, from the Ptolemies to the Abbasids

, The Multilingual Experience in Egypt, from the Ptolemies to the Abbasids. Farnham/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. x, 240. ISBN 9780754665366. $114.95.


The study of ancient multilingualism has been gathering momentum in the last decade or two, to the point where the debate has started to move away from mainly (or even exclusively) discussing Latin and Greek, to explore less well known corners of the ancient world and their languages. This volume is (surprisingly, considering the wealth of material available) among the first to present a collection of articles on multilingualism in ancient Egypt with a chronological span from the third century BC to the eighth century AD. The contributions are tied together by their authors’ thorough knowledge of the evidence, and its cutting-edge interpretations, generally using all the modern theory available to them. However, despite the authors almost unanimously decrying the lack of cooperation between scholars of the different languages used in Egypt – broadly, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Demotic and Arabic in this book – the volume is not always as clear as it could be to those without prior knowledge of the material. Nevertheless, there is a great deal here for both the expert and the interested general reader to get their teeth into.

The volume is divided into three main sections (oddly, this is not made clear by the table of contents, but is explained on the blurb). Firstly, in a preliminary section, Papaconstantinou offers a general overview and introduction to the volume, and Sofía Torallas Tovar gives a survey of the entire period in chapter 1. Part 1, entitled “Evidence for a Multilingual Society: Documents and Archives”, comprises chapters 2 to 4, all of which outline and discuss different periods of the documentation. The articles of part 2, “Case Studies in Language Use in a Multilingual Society”, deal more closely with individual situations or archives. I suspect that the general reader, and even some historians, will find Part 1 of most interest, since the articles of Part 2 are by nature more technical, more reliant on close readings of the linguistic material, and narrower in scope. In fact, it is part one that conforms more closely to Papconstantinou’s aim to be “broadly socio-historical”, rather than linguistic, since the reliance on linguistic theory, and the knowledge of the languages concerned, are more pronounced in Part 2. However, this should not discourage anyone from tackling the detail of the case studies if interested, since in both parts the writing is lucid and the material is explained very clearly.

The aim, as Papaconstantinou puts it in her introduction, is to go beyond past works’ tendency to look simply at the linguistic results of contact, such as loanwords, and instead to try to reveal the historical situation behind the documents. In her introduction, she outlines the chronological framework within which all the chapters place themselves, and then demarcates and describes some of the thematic and methodological strands that run through the work. These are a mixture of linguistic (interference, group use of language, public language), social (separation between Greek and Egyptian cultural spheres, bilingual scribes, education, gender) and documentary issues (bilingual archives), explained in general without jargon or overly technical language.

Chapter 1, by Sofía Torallas Tovar, is a survey of Greek/Egyptian contact from the seventh century BC to the arrival of Arabic, with the focus on Graeco-Roman Egypt to late antiquity. This is without doubt very useful to anyone approaching this area for the first time, whatever their background. It is also clear that Torallas Tovar knows the scholarship inside out: anyone interested in the languages of Egypt, or in the recent debate on ancient bilingualism in general, would do well to start here. However, I found her definition of bilingualism somewhat limiting, dividing bilinguals into five categories, which then did not seem to fit her examples well – I would refer readers instead to the discussion by Adams in his 2003 monograph Bilingualism and the Latin Language (BMCR 2004.02.19), p.3f. I was also surprised to see that the concept of “domain” was not mentioned, particularly given that language in Egypt often seems to be associated with one sphere, such as religion or administration (for further information, again see Adams, p.595f, in his discussion of language use in Egypt).

In chapter 2, Willy Clarysse outlines the features of of the main Greek/Demotic bilingual archives, and quantifies the different kinds of documents in each language in a series of helpful graphs and tables. This chapter includes an impressive range of material, particularly because of the author’s definition of “archive”, which is wider than that of some of the other contributors. Many of these archives are sadly unpublished, or only published in part; all too often their Demotic and Greek halves are held in different institutions and are difficult to study together. For this reason, Clarysse puts a particular emphasis on “museum archaeology” – tracing ownership records back to try to discover the original archaeological context in which the documents were found – which is not usually discussed as such a key part of palaeography as a discipline.

Chapter 3 is based on two papers given by Sarah Clackson, edited by Arietta Papaconstantinou for this volume. As well as analysing the most common interference phenomena (unlike many, Clackson examines Greek influence on Coptic as well as Coptic influence on Greek), this chapter takes us through some of the main archives, highlighting the diachronic changes in both languages. The author also brings out some recurring themes in the material, such as the use of Greek in public and Coptic in private, which seem to occur across several centuries.

Chapter 4, by Petra M. Sijpesteijn, deals with trilingual Arabic/Coptic/Greek archives from the period after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century AD. This article in particular would be of interest not just to sociolinguists, but to anyone interested in early Islamic administration and law, since the author includes a thorough introduction to the documents’ context before dealing with them in detail (anyone interested in Arabic administration might also be interested in the more specific introduction to the Qurra archive in Chapter 8, see below).

The first of the more detailed case studies is Chapter 5, Jacco Dieleman on filiation in Demotic magical texts. For those unfamiliar with magical texts, I would recommend reading a work which introduces the genre more generally, such as Faraone and Obbink (edd.) Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (BMCR 1991.02.04.08), since Dieleman uses technical terms such as voces magicae without providing their definitions. However, no background in Egyptian is required to follow this chapter – the author makes the methods of filiation in Demotic and their contexts extremely clear. He deals impressively with not only borrowing of Greek words and formulae, but also graphic borrowing of Greek special characters (such as the character used as an abbreviation for deinos) into Demotic. Both linguists and papyrologists will find this contribution very interesting. One minor quibble – at one point, the author abbreviates mother and father as M and F, which is somewhat unclear because he is also talking about the gender of the child as male or female – but otherwise the material is presented unambiguously.

While Chapter 6 is called “Early Coptic Epistolography”, it actually deals quite closely with epistolary formulae in Coptic, mainly opening formulae, and their antecedents in Demotic and Greek. This is an interesting study of Coptic as a personal, rather than religious, language, and he makes persuasive inferences from the development of formulae about the use of Coptic for secular purposes generally in the third to fourth centuries.

Rather shorter than the other contributions, Chapter 7 discusses the manuscripts of the Theban region, in particular those of the “monastère d’Épiphane”, at modern Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. In particular, Anne Boud’hors thinks that the use of Greek at this site can reveal the use of Greek and Coptic in religious foundations more generally, with Greek as an “honorific” language, as she puts it, in the liturgical texts found at the site.

Chapter 8, by Tonio Sebastian Richter, deals with the Qurra archive, from eighth-century Aphrodito, which – unusually – is trilingual in Arabic, Greek and Coptic. The vast majority of the documents are administrative, and the author gives a clear introduction to Arabic administration in Egypt. He reaches an interesting conclusion – that Greek was still used as a lingua franca throughout the eighth century, rightly highlighting the important point that societal trilingualism does not necessitate individual trilingualism. In this case, Coptic- and Arabic-speaking populations seem to have been sufficiently Hellenized to use Greek to communicate with each other, despite the language’s disappearance from private documents, rather than needing to create a great deal of Coptic/Arabic bilingualism. Anyone interested in working on this archive will find some very helpful items here – the author includes not just lists of the documents by language and type, but also a list of the current editions by language.

In Chapter 9, Jennifer Cromwell deals with graphic bilingualism, looking specifically at the writing of Aristophanes son of Johannes, who was the scribe of 27 legal documents from a corpus of documents from 8th-century Jeme, a village on the Theban west bank. Cromwell cleverly highlights the impact of the context of the document on palaeography – not only does the style of writing change with the language used, but also with the context and purpose of the document. However, she is also right to separate this issue from bilingualism per se, this being a matter of scribal education and practice. This chapter’s helpful use of pictures clearly illustrates the difference between Aristophanes’ “Greek” hand and his “Coptic” hand, making it a good introduction to Greek and Coptic palaeography.

As I hope is clear from my comments so far, the contributions to this volume are generally well explained and well argued, and should appeal to a range of readers. However, my main concern with this book is the lack of transliteration. Greek and Coptic are rarely transliterated, and sometimes not even translated; Demotic and hieroglyphics are usually transliterated, but not in every case. Even though almost every contributor individually expresses regret that Greek, Egyptian and Arabic documents from the same archives are regularly kept in different departments and are worked on by different scholars, their own practice in this book does not aid communication between disciplines. A reader without some knowledge of either the Greek or Coptic alphabet may struggle to follow many of the points made, which is a real shame. That said, neither Arabic nor Egyptian is required to appreciate this volume.

In general, the book has been produced to a high standard; I did not notice any obvious errors. However, I found the graph on p.59 very difficult to read, owing to the near identity of two of the colours used. My only other quibble would be that a map, or several maps, marking the main cities and regions discussed in the volume would have been much appreciated – some places, unsurprisingly, have different names in each language used, or different names at different periods, and several times I had to look up the places referred to elsewhere in order to follow the argument.

Overall, I believe that philologists, papyrologists, historians and archaeologists, among others, will find something of interest to them in this varied and exciting volume, which makes the most of the wealth of material from multilingual Egypt. I do not think that this volume will become obsolete as more material is published and excavated, since its approach provides a framework for any future work in this field, and indeed may provide a springboard for many other scholars’ work.