This Egyptian jar is inscribed with a gardening agreement in Demotic script. (Photography by Jason Smith)

Text messages

The OI’s Demotic Dictionary illuminates life and language in ancient Egypt.

Demotic—a late stage dialect of the ancient Egyptian language—was once used for everything from tax bills and marriage contracts to religious and magical texts. But today, most texts written in Demotic remain unstudied, even after they’re discovered. Egyptologists tend to leave them aside because the language is difficult to read and not well understood. “Of the thousands of Demotic texts in museums and libraries, only a fraction have been published, much less than half,” says Brian Muhs, an associate professor of Egyptology at the University’s Oriental Institute. “No one knows what these texts contain.”

This may soon change.

After 37 years, the Oriental Institute’s Demotic Dictionary is nearly complete. All that remains is to proofread and cross-check the letter S, and then all 24 letters, totaling 4,700 pages, will be available online.

The project began in 1975 when Janet Johnson, PhD’72, then an OI graduate student, proposed to supplement a Demotic glossary, Demotisches Glossar, published in 1954 by Danish Egyptologist Wolja Erichsen. Relying in part on his own lexicographical knowledge as a publisher of Demotic writings, Erichsen gathered glossaries from individual texts into a single reference volume. The OI’s Demotic Dictionary is based on texts from museums and collections around the world that scholars published between 1955 and 1979. It took nearly four times as long to complete as Johnson expected.

Dictionary entries include photographs of each word in its original context, black-and-white line drawings, the evolving iterations, references to the Glossar, and phrases demonstrating each word’s use. “Because Demotic is very cursive, the handwriting is an important part of the writing of the word,” says Johnson, the Morton D. Hull distinguished service professor in Egyptology.

Oriental Institute scholars also produced the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, completed in 2011 after a 90-year effort, and the Chicago Hittite Dictionary, which began in 1975 and may not be finished for another 30-odd years.

The eventual next step for their Demotic cousin will be a migration to a searchable online database from its current home in a series of PDF files. “That’s the pie in the sky that will hopefully get taken care of eventually,” Johnson said.

An abbreviated script, Demotic dates from approximately 650 BC to 450 AD. “Each scribe had his own handwriting and some are less legible than others,” says Egyptologist François Gaudard, PhD’05, a research associate for the Demotic Dictionary. “In some cases, depending on the scribe and the time period, writings of the same word can look very different.” Gaudard began working on the dictionary in 1996 as a graduate student. The script is “in itself beautiful,” he says, noting the exquisite examples of calligraphy on papyri. But what makes it beautiful is also what scholars find so confounding.
Demotic evolved from hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphs. Removed from the original hieroglyphs, it is a kind of quick, flowing shorthand.

The name “Demotic” was bestowed by the Greeks, because it was a language of the “demos,” the people. Unlike hieroglyphs, reserved mostly for formal and religious inscriptions, Demotic was used for everyday documents: administrative texts, private correspondence, tax receipts, and legal matters. The dictionary will help scholars piece together previously unknown intimate details of Egyptian life.

Demotic also illuminates Egypt’s political context at a time when the country was partly independent and partly ruled by Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Demotic materials have importance not just for Egyptologists but also for scholars of the ancient Near East as a whole. “The history of this period has to be constructed from these different documents, languages, scripts, and viewpoints,” says Muhs. Demotic “provides a unique perspective on how the Egyptians responded to foreign settlers and rulers: sometimes rejecting them, sometimes copying them, and sometimes ignoring them.”

Since 2004 alone, the dictionary’s PDF files have been downloaded 120,000 times worldwide. By providing a resource for Egyptologists to support their translations, the dictionary may help encourage a new generation of scholars to try their hand at publishing Demotic texts—just as Erichsen’s Glossar did after it was published in the 1950s.