Demotic Dictionary unveils culture of ancient Egypt

Four-decade project deepens knowledge of ancient life and links to modern languages

Janet Johnson’s interest in Egypt has been a lifelong fascination.

“My father was interested in ancient Egypt, so I just read all the books he brought home from the library,” says Johnson, the Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor at the Oriental Institute. 

She says as a seventh-grader, after reading a history textbook written by Oriental Institute founder James Henry Breasted, “I already knew I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I was lucky enough to have a guidance counselor in high school who had spent a summer in Chicago and knew of the O.I. and the program, and he suggested it would be a good place for me—and he was right,” she said.

The Oriental Institute was where Johnson as a graduate student first studied Demotic, a language used widely in Egypt from about 500 B.C. to about 500 A.D. In addition to unraveling the puzzle of a language no longer spoken, she became interested in documents that dealt with women and illuminated an area of study that had not received much attention.

“I realized how hugely rich was the volume of material written in the language,” says Johnson, AB’67, PhD’72. “You had legal documents, contracts, religious documents, scientific material, and stories and other kinds of literature.”

So in 1975, three years after finishing her dissertation on Egyptian grammar and joining the Oriental Institute faculty, Johnson began work on the Chicago Demotic Dictionary, a project that sought to document the vocabulary of the ancient Egyptian language. “We didn’t think it would take very long—10 years maximum,” Johnson recalls. 

But Johnson’s work on the Chicago Demotic Dictionary would take nearly 40 years to complete, and she remained editor until she and other scholars on the project reached that goal in September 2012. Their work adds to the Oriental Institute’s legacy of ancient language projects, including the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, which was completed recently after a 90-year effort, and the ongoing Chicago Hittite Dictionary.

The Demotic Dictionary records thousands of words chronicling the everyday lives of people in ancient Egypt—including what taxes they paid, what they expected in a marriage, and how much work they had to do for the government.

"The Chicago Demotic Dictionary is reaching completion at the perfect time to have an enormous impact on our understanding of Egyptian civilization in the final few centuries, when it still flourished as a vibrant and unique culture,” says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute.

Following the story of everyday people  

The Demotic language bears a name given it by the Greeks to denote it was the tongue of the demos, or common people. It was used in Egypt when the land was occupied and usually dominated by foreigners, including Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

Demotic was one of the three scripts on the Rosetta Stone, which also contained the same text in Egyptian hieroglyphs and in Greek. In addition to being used on stone carvings, the script was left behind on papyrus and broken bits of pottery.

“Before Demotic, Egyptians developed a script form of hieroglyphs called hieratic; Demotic evolved from that. Because it was cursive, it was much easier and faster to use than were the elaborate pictures of the hieroglyphs,” says Johnson.

The language lives on today in words such as adobe, which came from the Egyptian word for brick; ebony, the dark wood traded down the Nile from Nubia (present-day Sudan); and the name Susan, which is indirectly related to the Demotic word for water lily.        

“The last four decades have seen a real explosion of Demotic studies, with more scholars focusing on this material, and great leaps in our understanding of this late version of the Egyptian language,” says Stein. 

A strong group of scholars

Europe had been the center of gravity for studying Demotic before work began on the Demotic Dictionary. A steady stream of students interested in the language has come to Chicago to work on the dictionary, and a dozen students who were employees of the project now serve on the faculties of U.S. and European universities.

“The University of Chicago is pretty much Demotic central,” said James Allen, PhD’81, the Wilbour Professor of Egyptology at Brown University. “Besides the Demotic Dictionary, the University also has some of the world’s top experts on Demotic on its faculty.”

A strong cadre of research associates continue with work on the dictionary, including François Gaudard, PhD’05, who has been working on the project for 17 years, first as a graduate student and then as a researcher after he completed his PhD. “He is the very heart and strength of the dictionary,” Johnson says.

Brian Muhs, associate professor in the Oriental Institute, has worked on tax records written in Demotic, both official government tax records and tax receipts issued to taxpayers. 

Gaudard, Muhs, and Johnson organized a Demotic roundtable last August that brought scholars from around the world to discuss the next phases of the dictionary in a world of digital scholarship.

Joining the group via Skype was Prof. Friedhelm Hoffmann of the Institute for Egyptology at the University of Munich, who said: “The Demotic texts play a crucial role in providing the necessary insights into the time when the classical world of Greece and Rome had close contacts to the Egyptian culture.

“I myself have been using the Chicago Demotic Dictionary since the first letters were published, not only for looking up words but also finding their meaning,” Hoffmann said.

“One of the glories of the Oriental Institute and of the University itself is the ability and willingness to commit to long-term research projects, such as dictionaries, where there is a deep research need for basic reference tools to assist scholars as they edit and study ancient texts,” Johnson says.