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New Dictionary Will Try to Breathe Life Into a Dead Language

The University of Chicago seeks to promote the study of demotic, used in everyday life in ancient Egypt, unlike the famous hieroglyphs, the script of kings.


CHICAGO — On Jan. 29, 2 B.C., a man named Teos tracked down a Thebian boat captain named PN and paid him to ferry his father's mummified body across the Nile. Then, despite his presumed grief, Teos had the presence of mind to get a receipt.

Scrawled on a shard of clay, the acknowledgment of payment was written not in hieroglyphs, the famous script of ancient Egyptian kings, but in demotic, the little-studied, maddeningly cursive script of everyday life from the 7th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.

"PN, the ferryman of Thebes . . . is the one who says to Teos son of Imouthis: You have paid me for the fare of Imouthis your father. . . . "

Two hundred years after French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone--which unlocked the secrets of both Egyptian scripts--hieroglyphs are so popular that fraternity boys have them tattooed on their biceps. Demotic, meanwhile, remains little known--with thousands upon thousands of texts sitting untranslated in museum basements.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 2, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 4 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Ancient script--An Aug. 31 story about the Chicago Demotic Dictionary incorrectly stated that a passage from an ancient Egyptian text called "The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq" seems to indicate early antagonism between Egyptians and Jews. In fact, the line is interpreted as a slight against merchants, not against any ethnic group.

Egyptologists at the University of Chicago hope to promote the study of the difficult script, however, with the publication of the world's first dictionary of the demotic language.

150 Pages Alone Are Devoted to the Letter S

Decades in the creation and finally nearing completion, the Chicago Demotic Dictionary runs to 1,400 pages--more than 150 pages on the letter S alone. It contains everything from antecedents for a symbol to decedents to arguments by scholars who disagree on the symbol's meaning.

A computer version of the dictionary boasts hundreds of scans of actual script, each of which can be magnified, turned upside down, its contrast altered for closer study.

Editor Janet Johnson, of the university's famed Oriental Institute, first pitched the idea as a new professor and has toiled over the dense tome for nearly 30 years.

But if every single serious demotic scholar in the world buys a copy, that will be no more than a few dozen.

"It's not going to be a best-seller," the 55-year-old Johnson conceded, unfurling a text written in the obscure, dead language to which she's dedicated much of her life. "The man on the street is not going to buy it. But I do hope the man on the street will get to read an author who has made use of this dictionary and of demotic--perhaps even in a popular book. Having this dictionary hopefully will make the script less scary for other scholars."

Demotic always has been the squirrelly, ligatured stepchild of hieroglyphs.

The temples of the kings were lined with hieroglyphs while the offices of Egyptian lawyers were, it seems, lined with divorce documents in demotic. Hieroglyphic pictographs often are highly stylized and astoundingly precise. Demotic looks like inscrutably sloppy shorthand.

The Rosetta Stone, a decree honoring King Ptolemy V Epiphanes and inscribed in hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek, provided the basic key to both Egyptian languages--with scholars translating the scripts by comparing them to the Greek. But when the translation of the stone was completed in 1822, the world viewed the breakthrough primarily as the solving of the romantic mystery of the hieroglyphs.

"Demotic has always been a very closed sub-specialty within Egyptology, with probably no more than 35 people worldwide who publish regularly," said University of Chicago Egyptologist Robert Ritner, a consultant on the dictionary. "As a result, you have centuries worth of Egyptian history and documentation that are not well-understood."

Hieroglyphs, often carved into stone, begat hieratic, a form of similarly pictographic handwriting that is almost always found inked onto papyri. Hieratic, in turn, begat demotic, which is both written and etched and contains none of the pictographic qualities of its predecessors.

Hieroglyphs were used primarily to document religious and political life, while demotic approximated the spoken language of people and was employed for less highfalutin tasks--like taking inventory at a temple southwest of what is now Cairo.

"Eleven sheets," notes the scintillating list Johnson and colleagues now are translating. "Eleven blankets, 20 bells, six stone altars, one copper altar . . . one copper lamp, two copper Bes statues."

When a woman named Talames hired a man named Peftumont to work as her gardener, she laid down the law in demotic--from his hours (the job involved evening work) to his basket-weaving duties to a novel way for her to tell if he was eating her beloved grapes.

"And I am to ask you for your dung three times daily; and I am to probe it with a [stalk] of [flax]."

Early Antagonism Between Egyptians, Jews Noted

In addition to clues about daily life, untranslated demotic texts also likely harbor insight into the earliest interactions between Egyptians and other cultures, including Romans, Greeks and Jews.

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