It always pleases me to see another large dictionary project come to completion. Last year it was the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, publishing its final volume after ninety years, and now after a comparatively shorter forty years the final publications of the Chicago Demotic Dictionary have been completed. 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. The New York Times had a nice article yesterday on the completion:
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.”
Although Egyptians abandoned Demotic more than 1,500 years ago, taking up Coptic and eventually Arabic, Dr. Johnson said the dictionary showed that the old language was not entirely dead. It lives on in words like “adobe,” which came from “tby,” the Demotic for brick. The term passed into Arabic (with the definite article “al” in front of the noun) and was introduced into Moorish Spain. From there adobe became a fixture in the Spanish language and architecture. […]
The bit about the progression of languages is simplified, as Demotic wasn’t exactly abandoned in favor of Coptic, but rather there were cultural changes involving the uptake of Christianity and the Greek script for writing the same language. But in the latter case there actually was a real case of language shift, where Coptic was supplanted by Arabic, an different language from the native Egyptian, after the introduction of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries.
As a historical linguist, I particularly liked an infographic in article showing the evolution of a couple of Egyptian words ‘ebony’ and ‘brick’ before being borrowed into Greek and Egyptian Arabic (then Spanish) respectively.
The infographic itself is fairly easy to miss on the article page because it’s only a detail of a thumbnail of the entire thing.
Janet H. Johnson, the Demoticist mentioned in the article, has published a primer of Demotic that is available on the Oriental Institute website, just like the dictionary. It’s the only teaching grammar of demotic that I know of in any language, and if I remember correctly, assumes some knowledge of Coptic and/or Middle/Late Egyptian. But nonetheless, if there are any aspiring amateur demoticists out there who have been inspired by the completion of this dictionary, it’s definitely a good place to start.
UPDATE: The completion of the dictionary was also featured on Al Jazeera today (in a lightly sensationalized manner) with an interview with Janet Johnson. It’s not everyday you get to see an Egyptologist in the news.*
*Who isn’t Zahi Hawass.