Writing Materials and Different Languages

What if there were no papyrus?

Egyptians used a number of different writing materials besides papyrus. Depending on their location and the purpose of the text to be written, they would choose a different writing surface. For example, papyrus would be scarce far from the Nile but potsherds (broken pieces of pottery) would be more readily available. Not all writing materials last equally well, but this also depends on where they were used and thus discarded. In humid conditions such as the Nile Delta, almost no writing materials have survived. The dry sands of other parts of Egypt, on the other hand, have preserved large numbers of papyri and numerous other writing materials: potsherds (Greek ostraca, singular ostracon), wooden tablets, waxed tablets, and even an occasional camel bone.

image of tax receipt, written on a potsherd Tax Receipt. Written on a potsherd. O. Mich. Winter (SB XIV 11498). Greek/Demotic. – Unknown provenance, Egypt. – 101/100 B.C.E.

This receipt acknowledges that Psenaies has paid his yearly fees, which gave him the right to run a ferry across the Nile and transport wine across the river.

image of writing exercises, written on a wooden tablet Writing exercises. Written on a wooden tablet. P. Mich. inv. 763 (A.E.R. Boak, CP 16, 1921, 189-191). Greek. – Unknown provenance, Egypt. – 4th century C.E. or later

This is a wooden tablet with writing exercises. On one side, the student wrote each of the seven Greek vowels together with the consonants in their alphabetic order. He formed syllables by placing the same consonant before and after the vowel (as in English BAB, BEB, BIB, BOB, BYB). On the other side, he wrote the Greek alphabet in regular and reverse order, then paired the letters from the beginning and end of the alphabet (as in English AZ BY CX, etc.).

What languages did people speak and write?

Residents of Egypt (including Egyptians, Nubians, Jews, Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Syrians, etc.) spoke and wrote a variety of different languages, all of which are represented on surviving papyri and other writing materials. Many people in administrative circles were bilingual, using both a domestic language and one used by the central government, such as Greek or Latin. Depending on the time period, place, and context in which the language was used, different languages were more prominent than others. In temples, Egyptian was always the language that most people would speak. In administration and government, Egyptian was replaced by Aramaic, then Greek, and later on Latin and Arabic.

The following three languages are most commonly found on the papyri and other writing materials from Greek and Roman Egypt:

Egyptian  By the time of the Greeks and Romans, Egyptians used three different scripts to write down their language, Egyptian. The oldest form of writing is known as Hieroglyphs. In the Greek and Roman period, Hieroglyphs were used mainly on temples and monuments. The second form of writing was Hieratic. This is a cursive form of the Hieroglyphs, and was used mainly for literary texts. The third form, Demotic, was an even more cursive script, which people used for day-to-day documents such as contracts and letters. In the first centuries of the Christian Era Egyptians also experimented with writing their language in Greek letters (with the addition of six signs from Demotic for sounds Greek did not have). This eventually became the language known as Coptic.

Greek  The use of Greek as the administrative language of Egypt arose in the third century B.C.E. The new Ptolemaic rulers gave tax breaks to teachers of Greek and gradually required all people active in government administration to know and write that language. The Greek used in this period is known as Koine (common) Greek, and is also the Greek in which the New Testament was written. Because the handwriting of Greek evolved over the centuries, papyrologists today are able to date papyri using the changing characteristics of the handwriting, which is more precise than a possible carbon-dating.

Latin  When the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C.E., they introduced their language, Latin, into the administration of Egypt, but it did not replace Greek in the day-to-day administration of the country. The use of Latin was restricted to the highest levels of the Roman provincial administration in Alexandria and to the army. Due to humid conditions in the Nile Delta, few papyri have survived from Alexandria.

Besides these languages documents in a number of other languages such as Arabic, Aramaic, and Palmyrene have also been discovered in Egypt.

image of magical text Magical text. P. Mich. inv. 1444 (unpublished). Demotic. – Provenance unknown, Egypt. – Roman period.

An incantation, written in Demotic (late Egyptian script). It invokes a spirit of the dead and the jackal-headed god Anubis, who is noted in the text and depicted at the bottom shooting the victim with a bow and arrow. Given the mutilated condition of the text, many details remain in doubt.

image of medical receipes and magic spells
image of medical receipes and magic spells
Medical recipes (front) and Magic spells (back). P. Mich. inv. 3590 (unpublished). Coptic. – Unknown provenance, Egypt. – 4th/.5th cent. C.E.

This papyrus is from the Christian era: note the big cross on the left of the first line on the front. It contains medical recipes for snake bites on one side, and a magical spell to prevent snake bites on the other.

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