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  • Written Greek but Drawn Egyptian: Script changes in a bilingual dream papyrus

    Stephen Kidd

    Chapter from the book: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R. 2013. Writing as Material Practice: Substance, surface and medium.

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    This chapter explores the conceptual background behind shifting from writing Greek to Demotic in a 3rd century BCE Greco- Egyptian bilingual letter. In this letter, a man writes to his friend about a recent dream. He is writing in Greek, but in order to describe his dream accurately, he says, he must write the dream itself in Egyptian. He writes in Greek, “it seemed like a good idea to tell you about the dream, so that you may know the way which the gods know you. I have written below in Egyptian, so that you may accurately understand”. After saying his Greek farewell he begins writing in a Demotic hand: “I saw myself in a dream in the following way: I am standing at the doorway of the sanctuary. A priest is sitting there, and many people are standing beside him. The priest spoke to the people who were standing there…”. 

    What is the reason for this code- shift? Could it be that the letter-writer’s Greek was not proficient enough to describe the dream? As was noted long ago, this cannot be the case, since one would then expect that the letter-writer would not have written his addressee a Greek letter in the first place. Although one might suggest linguistic or cultural reasons for the code-shift, I look to the scripts themselves and how they were written for clues. I argue that the two scripts (not just the two languages) inform the letter-writer’s decision to choose and elevate Demotic as the proper vehicle for recounting his dream. The argument is made in three parts: first, there is an examination of the different ways that these two languages were physically written; second, a description of the process of writing an alphabetic (Greek) versus a logographic (Demotic) script; and third, a conjecture of the subjective experience of the alphabetic- logographic shift through comparative evidence (English and Chinese).

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    How to cite this chapter
    Kidd, S. 2013. Written Greek but Drawn Egyptian: Script changes in a bilingual dream papyrus. In: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R (eds.), Writing as Material Practice. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bai.l

    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Published on Dec. 18, 2013


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