The Linguist

The Linguist 59,5 - October/November 2020

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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22 The Linguist Vol/59 No/5 2020 FEATURES Why there is still so much to discover in the trilingual inscriptions of the ancient world, and how to uncover their secrets. By Rachael Mairs E gypt under the rule of the Ptolemies – a dynasty of Greek origin – was a very multilingual place. Unusually for the ancient world, we have copious surviving evidence for this multilingualism in the form of everyday documents written on papyrus (preserved because of the dry climate) and stone inscriptions (which kings and private individuals erected for any number of purposes). Carian, Egyptian, Greek and Aramaic are among the languages for which we have written evidence in Egypt during this period, which began with Alexander the Great's conquest of the country in the late fourth century BC and ended with the death of Cleopatra VII (the famous queen) in 30 BC. We have to assume that the number of languages spoken but not written was considerably larger. In the Ptolemaic period, there were two main written forms of Egyptian in use. The Egyptian written in the hieroglyphic script was, by this stage, a classical language. It used a script which very few people – mostly priests – could read or write, and the language itself was archaic. The relationship between hieroglyphic Egyptian and the language spoken and written by people at the time was akin to the relationship between Latin and French or Italian today. The other main form of written Egyptian used the demotic script, which is essentially a very cursive form of the hieroglyphic script. The language written in demotic is much closer to what people were speaking in the Ptolemaic period, but not identical. We know from later phases of Egyptian that massive Greek immigration to Egypt had brought large numbers of Greek loanwords into the language. Written demotic, however, has a tendency to keep out foreign influence and retain indigenous Egyptian terms. I have been working on the translation of Greek inscriptions from this period which have Egyptian text on them too. This is part of the Corpus of Ptolemaic Inscriptions project, which aims to produce new editions and translations with commentaries of around 650 Greek inscriptions from Egypt. 1 Some of the inscriptions are very well- known. The Decree of Memphis is an agreement between the Ptolemaic dynasty and powerful Egyptian priesthoods. In this public statement of mutual support by the Greek kings and Egyptian priests, the priests recognise the kings' benefactions to the temples, and their protection of Egypt from foreign invasion. It was set up in several copies – in Greek, demotic Egyptian and hieroglyphic Egyptian. One of these is the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum. The stone has been known to scholarship for a very long time. It played an important role in the decipherment of the hieroglyphic and demotic scripts, so you might think that there is nothing new to be said about it. I had assumed this myself until fairly recently. The kind of work that goes into preparing a Time travellers

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