BMCR 2023.01.18

Script switching in Roman Egypt

, Script switching in Roman Egypt: case studies in script conventions, domains, shift, and obsolescence from hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, and Old Coptic manuscripts. Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, 46. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp xviii, 397. ISBN 9783110767247.



In the centuries that followed the Roman conquest of Egypt, the Egyptian language underwent considerable changes, in terms of its scripts as well as its domains of use. By the end of the third century, both the traditional scripts (hieroglyphs, hieratic) and common script of the time (demotic) had either disappeared or were on the brink of disappearing, with a new script (what would become Coptic) appearing in their stead. The current volume examines what was involved in this process, through focus on four case studies.

Script Switching in Roman Egypt, the published version of Love’s 2019 doctoral thesis, is a study in two parts. The first four chapters introduce the volume’s case studies, the Egyptian priesthood, the scripts in question, and the frameworks for study. The next four chapters focus on each case study, namely the material from Oxyrhynchus, Tebtunis, Soknopaiou Nesos, and Narmouthis (respectively Pemje, Totoun, Timoui, and Narmoute in Egyptian). A final, ninth, chapter collects the main observations and conclusions. Throughout, Love challenges previous statements regarding script shift during this period, warning against making generalisations based on snapshots in the process rather than conclusions resulting from a comprehensive study of the available sources, which this study aims to provide.

Chapter 1 introduces the four sites and their priestly communities, providing brief overviews of their excavation history and the evidence for temples and their priesthood. Focussing on the priesthood allows a contextualised analysis of language use and script shift, and particular attention is given to two points: the priestly population (as well as the question of depopulation within the area) and education within priest communities. Regarding education, the key sources are presented, and important points are addressed, including the difference between literacy and training and whether it was necessary for priests to be literate. Love rightly notes that not all priests needed to be literate, and there was a spectrum of literacy across different domains. These discussions of population and education together lay the foundations for a central concept, namely the intergenerational transmission of education in Egyptian literacy and textual culture, which the contraction of the priestly population directly—and negatively—impacted.

As languages do not exist in a vacuum, chapter 2 examines priests as part of language and speech communities. Highlighting the complex nature of actual language use, Love emphasises that individuals can have concurrent membership in more than one community and not all priests would be part of the same community of practice, with different requirements for different roles. This complexity is further demonstrated by the nature of Egyptian writing systems in the Roman period. The hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts were all used and existed in a hierarchical relationship, resulting in digraphia and even trigraphia. This chapter stresses two factors that impacted the use of the Egyptian language and its scripts: the contraction of its domains of use, and increasing regionalisation that resulted in the pluralisation of script and orthographic conventions. It is not simply a case of looking at the Egyptian scripts as representing different stages of the language. Instead, it is necessary to consider the impact of socio-political factors at a regional level that impacted domains of language use, which in turn led to the divergence of both language and script use across the country. As the volume’s second half demonstrates, it is not possible to look for a single policy of language use that is applicable to Egypt as a whole.

The next two chapters introduce frameworks from other disciplines, including sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, to examine the processes and stages involved in language death, as well as the study of scripts and spellings. The heterogenous nature of the situation—both within the priesthood and across different sites—is once again emphasised. As well as considering the processes involved in script death, Love also raises the socio-cultural impact of these changes, principally the inability to engage with the textual culture of one’s ancestors and hence this aspect of their heritage. However, when commenting on the situation of Coptic after the Arab conquest (p. 83), Love falls victim to the same broad generalisations that he chastises in studies regarding demotic and Old Coptic, and is dismissive of modern Copts as language rememberers (p. 95).[1]

Moving to scripts, Love employs the terms endographic to refer to Egyptian scripts and exographic to refer to external / introduced scripts (in this case, Greek). Two hybrid scripts are also used: Old Coptic (Egyptian transcribed into Greek with some additional signs) and what Love terms Bigraphic Coptic, in which words written in the Greek script are integrated within the demotic script, a practice only found at Narmouthis. It remains to be seen if this term will be adopted by the scholarly community, as ‘Coptic’ is indelibly associated with its alphabetic script. While these scripts are used to visually represent the language, the real focus of Love’s study is spelling, and especially the concept of ‘orthographic depth’, that is, how easy a word is to pronounce based on its spelling, with shallow orthographies being easier to pronounce based on the written form. Love’s primary interest is how the various scripts dealt with the orthographic depth of obsolete and rare words (primarily in hieratic ritual texts), as well as contemporary ones, and how phonetic value is elucidated by reducing orthographic depth. This resulted in unconventional orthographies in demotic, as well as in the use of alphabetic scripts. The second part of the volume examines how the four communities in question tackled this issue, aiming to identify the rationale behind glossing practices.

The four sites have different surviving datasets that show diverse practices. As Narmouthis’ corpus is the most different of the four (regarding script use and the predominance of ostraca rather than papyri), it will be discussed separately below. For the other three sites, each chapter follows the same pattern: the relevant manuscripts are identified, including those that have received full editions and those that have been published in a more preliminary manner (the resulting observations may thus be modified in the future), and analysed. Attention is given to how many and what words are glossed, what script they are glossed in, the use of innovative spellings, and the use of punctuation. Multiple tables in each chapter present this data. While the resulting observations are too numerous to do justice to here, some key points can be noted, which highlight the regional diversity exhibited. Oxyrhynchus has the most diverse use of Old Coptic glossing, including comprehensive supralinear glossing both with and without punctuation (red and black points and spacia that help parse the text and aid decipherment). At Tebtunis, there is the greatest effort to maintain the use of hieratic. While comprehensive glossing (mainly in demotic) was not necessary here, its use is indicative of the slowing of the intergenerational transmission of literacy. The relevant corpus at Soknopaiou Nesos is almost exclusively demotic, with Old Coptic used in the technical, not ritual, domain. The shift from hieratic resulted in demotic becoming more complicated, with an unparalleled number of innovative spellings. Overall, at each of the three sites, Old Coptic glosses function as a supplement (not a substitute) to demotic and hieratic, to reduce orthographic depth. Glosses are primarily employed to increase decipherment (being predominantly phonetic rather than semantic glosses), and hence are for the benefit of readers and recitation. The primary conclusion drawn from this data is that the glosses are indicative of the slowing of the intergenerational transmission of literacy in the second half of the second century CE.

Practices at Narmouthis are quite different. The relatively small number of ostraca with Old Coptic glosses are discussed first, with Love suggesting that they are not exercises but notes for a priestly scribe. Without a body of papyri, it is not possible to state whether the same practice would also occur in literary manuscripts. If it did, the practice at Narmouthis would be more like that at Oxyrhynchus than the other two Fayumic sites. ‘Bigraphic Coptic’ ostraca are then examined. Love describes this script as the most efficient use of the priests’ bilingual and biliterate education and skills, although there is no discussion of whether the “cumbersome” (p. 321) nature of the script impacted its efficiency. As these texts are so different from any other known corpus, they facilitate a discussion of borrowing and code-switching, particularly concerning how the high number of one-off (or ‘nonce’) borrowings are to be understood. However, in this respect, the short list of nonce-borrowings (p. 328), which includes lexemes stated as not being attested in Coptic, is not accurate. For example, ⲉⲝⲁⲅⲓⲛ, from ἐξάγειν (ἐξάγω), is attested in at least one 7th/8th century Coptic letter, O.Medin.HabuCopt 153. The unique nature of these borrowings is therefore brought into question and requires further consideration.[2] Significantly, this script presents a site-specific response to language contact and the needs of its community. Importantly, Love stresses that while the script was evidently short-lived, this is not to say that it was not fit for purpose. Its own disappearance coincides with that of the priesthood itself and is indicative of the broader socio-cultural impact of external factors on the region.

One of the main goals of this study was to introduce novel frameworks to Egyptology, while also providing Egyptian material for the use of those working in other disciplines. The former goal is largely achieved, but it is more questionable how much utility this volume will have to non-specialists, as it is not very sympathetic to readers without a strong understanding of the scripts in question. For example, not all hieratic and demotic examples are transliterated, and some in-text facsimiles are so small as to be almost unreadable (e.g., glosses of demotic text on p. 124). More importantly, there are no images of any papyri in the volume—the actual scripts in question are absent, which is particularly unfortunate given the centrality of ‘script’ to the study. While papyrologists of the Roman period may be familiar with some of the texts, or be able to visualise what the scripts in question look like, this will not be the case for all readers, who will be left wondering how demotic and hieratic differ (hieratic, as per disciplinary convention, is transcribed into hieroglyphs, further removing the actual script from the study), how punctuation is placed around the text, the relationship of the various scripts on the manuscript, etc. Instead, script becomes an abstract concept, reduced to spellings, and the study is philological rather than papyrological, without consideration for the mechanics of writing and what impact this may have had.

Despite these issues, Script Switching in Roman Egypt demonstrates the importance of the close study of multiple corpora in understanding the complex processes involved in language and script change. In so doing, Love challenges—often combatively—previous interpretations on the subject. His study represents a significant contribution to a still dominant Hellenocentric approach to Roman Egypt, especially in terms of the textual culture from this period. Despite the study’s highly technical and dense nature, which will limit its readership (it is not for a casual reader), it is an important counterpart to recent publications on the development of Coptic. In particular, it fills a lacuna in Jean-Luc Fournet’s, The Rise of Coptic, which glosses over the development of the language and script before the third century CE, reducing Old Coptic to a mere footnote.[3] Coptic did not suddenly appear following the introduction of Christianity, but was the result of “centuries of a superordinate language contact situation between Egyptian and Greek” (p. 317) and the strategies that different communities developed to tackle this situation. There is a lot of data to digest here, but the approach and resulting observations present a better and more nuanced understanding of the diverse factors impacting language use in priestly communities in Roman Egypt.



[1] At ‘Coptic Culture: Past, Present, and Future’ (Stevenage, UK, 2008), Father Pigol Bassili discussed the ‘Coptic Language in the Daily Life of Contemporary Copts’, that is, outside the church, emphasising its importance to the community (the paper was not published in the resulting proceedings). While there may no longer be native Coptic speakers, the role of modern Copts as both language rememberers and ‘neo-literates’, a term that Love applies only to Egyptian philologists (p. 92), should not be dismissed so readily.

[2] While Love refers to the online DDGLC (Database and Dictionary of Greek Loanwords in Coptic), other lexical works have not been consulted. For example, ἐξάγω is included in Hans Förster, Wörterbuch der griechischen Wörter in den koptischen dokumentarischen Texten (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002), 266.

[3] Jean-Luc Fournet, The Rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 6 n.7.