Nice news for enthusiasts of ancient languages: the final entries have been added to The Demotic Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (CDD). Furthermore, to quote Memiyawanzi: “Best of all, as it is the case with all publications of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the dictionary is freely available to use online from their website.” (Don’t miss the infographic reproduced by Memiyawanzi showing the evolution of the Egyptian words that gave us ebony and adobe.) John Noble Wilford has a pretty good write-up at the NY Times:

Demotic was one of the three scripts inscribed on the Rosetta stone, along with Greek and hieroglyphs, enabling European scholars to decipher the royal language in the early 19th century and thus read the top-down version of a great civilization’s long history. Now, scholars at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago have completed almost 40 years of research and published online the final entries of a 2,000-page dictionary that more than doubles the thousands of known Demotic words. Egyptologists expect that the dictionary’s definitions and examples of how words were used in ancient texts will expedite translations of Demotic documents, more of which are unpublished than any other stage of early Egyptian writing.

A workshop for specialists in Demotic research was held at the university last month as the dictionary section for the letter S, the last of 25 chapters to be finished, is being posted on the Oriental Institute’s Web site, where the dictionary is available free. Eventually a printed edition will be produced, mainly for research libraries, the university said.

Janet H. Johnson, an Egyptologist at the university’s Oriental Institute who has devoted much of her career to editing the Chicago Demotic Dictionary, called it “an indispensable tool for reconstructing the social, political and cultural life of ancient Egypt during a fascinating period,” when the land was usually dominated by foreigners — first Persians, then Greeks and finally Romans. “It’s really huge what a dictionary does for understanding an ancient society,” said Gil Stein, director of the institute. “This will lead to mastering texts from the Egyptians themselves, not their rulers, at a time the country was becoming absorbed increasingly into the Greco-Roman world.”

Unfortunately, Wilford goes on to make the silly statement that “Egyptians abandoned Demotic more than 1,500 years ago, taking up Coptic and eventually Arabic,” which is like saying the English abandoned Old English to take up Middle English—Coptic is just a later form of the language represented by Demotic (the term technically refers to the script, though it is convenient to use it for the language as well). But all newspaper reporting on language must contain at least one inaccuracy, or they wouldn’t let it go to print. [John Cowan says “I take that to mean that Egyptians abandoned Demotic script, replacing it with Coptic script and then (with a change of language) Arabic script,” which is generous and may well be true. If so, my apologies, JNW!] Anyway, check out the website, and if you’re truly interested you’ll want to tackle Johnson’s Thus Wrote ‘Onchsheshonqy – An Introductory Grammar of Demotic, also freely available online (pdf); all praise to the internet and the Oriental Institute. (Thanks, Eric!)


  1. I take that to mean that Egyptians abandoned Demotic script, replacing it with Coptic script and then (with a change of language) Arabic script. I do agree that the article is systematically vague on the language/script distinction, but so are Egyptologists, who use Demotic and Coptic indifferently for both language stage and script, and as far as I can tell actually demarcate the language stages by the script.

  2. Al-tūbe becomes attūbe through elision.
    (It’s called regressive assimilation, not elision; and if one feels compelled to use macrons, one could go a step further and use ṭ for the emphatic consonant instead of t: aṭ-ṭūb.)

  3. I take that to mean that Egyptians abandoned Demotic script, replacing it with Coptic script and then (with a change of language) Arabic script.
    Ah, you may be right, and I may be exhibiting an ungenerous knee-jerk tendency to assume the worst of journalists. I’ll add a qualifier to the post.

  4. As far as I understand, there’s a serious break between Middle and Late Egyptian stages of the language, but the distinction between Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic, is as much a progression of scripts (Hieratic, Demotic, Coptic) as it is of actual linear language evolution, although the emphasis on the script makes for good arbitrary labels to describe the various language stages.
    That said, Egyptologists are well known to make use of ridiculously arbitrary labels. Take labels like ‘First Intermediate Period’, ‘Second Intermediate Period’, ‘Third Intermediate Period’, etc. (Of course, every historical period is intermediate to two others…)

  5. John Cowan says

    Take labels like ‘First Intermediate Period’, ‘Second Intermediate Period’, ‘Third Intermediate Period’, etc.

    I too laughed, but these actually do make some sense, being the periods of fun, fantasy, chaos, and confusion between the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the Middle and New Kingdoms (including the Hyksos), and the New Kingdom and the Late Period (which last mostly has foreign dynasties and ends with the beginning of the Ptolemies).

  6. Because of the time and setting where I first learned the word, and some resemblance, I’d always believed adobe, like coyote and elote, was a Nahuatl derivative.

    In retrospect, it makes sense that Europeans had stumbled across mudbricks before they stumbled on the Americas, but I’d never given it that much thought.

  7. John Cowan says

    Well, anglophones knew mules for a very long time (the word is of OE age and was a Latin borrowing later reinforced by an Anglonormand one) before they started caling them, in some contexts, burros.

  8. ktschwarz says

    I think you meant to say asses, not mules; burros are donkeys. “Ass” is also of OE age and also from Latin, but via some convoluted route through Celtic.

    Latin mūlus and asinus are both probably of non-Indo-European origin. AHD provides details on asinus: “of pre-Roman Mediterranean origin; akin to Armenian ēs, Greek onos, and Hieroglyphic Luwian -asna- in tarkasna-, ass, all probably ultimately from an ancient Near Eastern source akin to Sumerian anše, ass, and perhaps Akkadian atānu, she-ass.”

  9. My father owns a cuneiform tablet which was, when he bought it about half a century ago, documented as the oldest known written reference to donkeys. I don’t recall what the word used on the tablet (a purchase receipt) was though.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Did the tax authorities accept the deduction?

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