Greek Language


Between Greeks and Egyptians, contacts of essentially commercial nature are attested for the Mycenaean period (c. 1580-1100 B.C.) and the ninth-eighth century B.C. Unambiguous evidence for Greek presence in Egypt is available from the seventh century B.C. on.

Psammetichos I (664-610 B.C.) gave the Ionian and Carian mercenaries (the “bronze men” of Herodotus II.152, 3ff.), who had helped him come into power, settlements in the Eastern Delta (Stratopeda). He entrusted them with teaching the Greek language to Egyptian children. Herodotus considers those who informed him about Egyptian traditions to be the descendants of their pupils (II.154). The Greek mercenaries took part in the Nubian expedition of Psammetichos II (593 B.C.) as members of a separate contingent (alloglossoi, the foreign speakers) led by Potasimto (see, e.g., R. Meiggs and D. Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. [Oxford, 1969], no. 7).

Shortly before 570 B.C., when they numbered about 30,000, they were defeated by the native soldiers under the command of Amasis. Subsequent measures of Amasis improved the relations between Greeks and Egyptians. The Greek mercenaries were withdrawn from the Stratopeda and stationed at Memphis, where they would soon mix with the native population. Naucratis, founded by Greek— mainly Milesian—merchants about 650 B.C., was destined to become the only Greek trading point in Egypt. The polis consequently grew as a center of Greek civilization.

By the time Herodotus visited Egypt (c. 449/430 B.C.), the Greeks had established a series of focal points for trade along the Nile (e.g., Neapolis in the Akhmim area, a kind of early prototype of the Hellenistic politeuma). Herodotus acquired his information about Egypt from Greek inhabitants as well as from lower priests at Memphis and, to a lesser extent, at Sais and Heliopolis, who must therefore have been able to speak Greek. Among educated Egyptians, the Greek language had aroused some interest very early. A striking proof is offered by demotic literary productions such as the Petubastis Romance, an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad to an Egyptian milieu, of which the extant versions date from the Hellenistic and Roman period but whose oldest components go back to the seventh century B.C.

Before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., Greek had certainly been used among native traders and administrators, especially professional scribes. On the other hand, parts of the Greek population, like the mercenaries at Memphis (Karomemphites, Hellenomemphites), were already thoroughly Egyptianized. Marriages between Greek soldiers and Egyptian women promoted the process of cultural and linguistic assimilation. Still, Egyptian society on the whole remained unaffected by the Greek presence, for natives as well as foreigners kept their ancestral identities.

After the Macedonian conquest, the country was overlaid with a dominating Greek-speaking elite, which gradually assimilated with its surroundings. The Greek language that spread throughout the Hellenistic world is designated as Koine. Its basic component, the Attic dialect, was enriched with (mainly lexical) Ionic and a few elements (Eolic influences were extremely rare). In Egypt, Koine Greek remained the language of the administration for more than 1,000 years.

One has to distinguish between literary and colloquial Koine. The former—the Koine of the literary texts and of the official documents redacted at the higher echelons of bureaucracy— remained more or less faithful to classical models. The colloquial or popular Koine, however—used for internal official, administrative, and private matters—was essentially practical, and thus adaptable to the changing political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and technical realities. The continuous development of this form of Greek in Egypt is abundantly testified, especially by some 40,000 pieces of papyrological evidence (papyri, ostraca, mummy labels, etc.).

The orthographic variants occurring in these documents mark the evolution of phonology toward Modern Greek (e.g., itacism). The careless spelling, grammar, and syntax (particularly obvious in ostraca) reflect the linguistic habits of the lower classes, whereas mistakes like the confusion between lambda and rho inform us about the way Greek was pronounced by Egyptians. In the subsequent paragraphs, the evidence will be considered from the following points of view: (1) diachronically—when and how did the Greek language spread in Egypt? (2) linguistically—the influence of Greek on Egyptian (demotic and Coptic); the influence of Egyptian and other languages spoken in Egypt on the Greek used there.

The Spread of the Greek Language in Egypt

During the Ptolemaic period, Greek remained the appanage of the ruling class, whereas the majority of the population spoke (and wrote) Egyptian. With the exception of Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemies were unacquainted with the Egyptian language. When, for practical reasons, decrees had to be published in hieroglyphic and/or demotic versions as well as in Greek, a translation was drawn up by members of the native priesthood. Since Greek—and Greek only—was the language of the king’s entourage and the higher official positions as a whole, those members of the native (military and sacerdotal) aristocracy who wished to rise into the ruling class had to learn Greek. Thus, the first move toward bilingualism was achieved by educated Egyptians (e.g., the priest Manetho, who wrote a history of Egypt in Greek).

From the second century B.C., on, the higher bureaucratic echelons became increasingly permeable to the native population. After about 150 B.C., Egyptians infiltrated even the Mouseion at Alexandria, the stronghold of Greek scholarship founded by Ptolemy I.

Among the Greeks and Macedonians who lived in Egypt, the lower social classes tended to adapt themselves to their surroundings. The process of assimilation started in those areas where the first Ptolemies had given plots of land in tenure to members of the Greek/Macedonian army and civil officials (e.g., the Fayyum area). As these domains and the neighboring—sometimes recently founded—villages (e.g., Philadelphia) attracted Greek and Egyptian workmen and inhabitants, they formed a new, mixed population class. Egyptianized Greeks were eager to adopt the native deities, often identifying them with their own gods and calling their children after them, but they rarely renounced their own language.

Hellenized Egyptians, on the other hand, remained faithful to their religious roots while learning Greek (see, e.g., the numerous bilingual, demotic-Greek contracts) and reading Greek literature (see, e.g., the Egyptian mythological texts composed at Idfu in the second century B.C., which display Homeric influence).

As far as language is concerned, the Jewish population in Egypt Hellenized even more readily. Under Persian rule they had written their documents in Aramaic (see, e.g., B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony [Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968]). From the Ptolemaic period, when a great number of them settled in Egypt, the Jews generally used Greek and took Greek names (see Corpus papyrorum judaicarum, ed. V. A. Tcherikover and A. Fuks, 3 vols. [Cambridge, Mass., 1957-1964]). It was on behalf of these Jewish circles, particularly those at Alexandria, that the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint) was composed (under Ptolemy II, according to the legend in the Letter of Aristeas; but see, e.g., E. Van ‘t Dack, “La Date de la lettre d’Aristée,” in Antidorum W. Peremans sexagenario ab alumnis oblatum, pp. 263-78, Studia Hellenistic 16 [Louvain, 1968]).

The politics of the Roman emperors in Egypt intentionally emphasized the distinction between the Egyptian and the Greek/Jewish inhabitants, for instance, by granting the latter fiscal privileges and curtailing the political and economic power of the native priesthood.

Though part of an empire of which the official language was Latin, Egypt—as the eastern provinces in general—continued to handle its official affairs in Greek, the more so since most of the prefects originated from the Hellenized East. The ratio of Latin to Greek papyrological documents from Egypt is less than 1 to 100.

During the first three centuries of Roman rule, the use of Latin in Egypt was confined to correspondence between Roman magistrates or individuals, the army, the court—as far as ius civile was concerned—and edicts or decrees of the central government—when dealing with the categories mentioned above. Greek, moreover, preserved its supremacy as the language of the educated. Alexandria, with the Mouseion, remained the unrivaled center of Hellenistic culture, but the capitals such as Oxyrhynchus gradually developed their own institutions for Greek education and the tradition of Greek (and, to a much lesser extent, Latin) literature. In educated milieus of the second century, Attic literature (lyrics and tragedies) once more aroused interest and, accordingly, “archaic” terminology revived in the Greek language they used.

Paradoxically, the Roman conquest of Egypt reinforced the rapprochement between the Egyptian- and the Greek-speaking populations, both groups being henceforth treated as subjects of a foreign ruler. The popularity of double names such as “Dionysios [Greek] also known as Petosiris [Egyptian]” marks the increasing hellenization of the native inhabitants of the capitals, especially of the educated and official strata. Demotic-Greek bilingualism was more than ever current among members of the middle class (see, e.g., J. Quaegebeur, “Mummy-Labels: An Orientation,” in Textes grecs, démotiques et bilingues, ed. E. Boswinkel and P. W. Pestman, pp. 244-47, Papyrologica Lugduno- Batava 19 [Leiden, 1978]).

The interaction between Greek and Egyptian is particularly revealed by the fact that Egyptian writing adopted Greek characters, thus resulting in Coptic. After an unsuccessful attempt to use the Greek alphabet for Egyptian (mainly magical) texts about A.D. 100 (Old Coptic), Coptic proper was developed in the course of the second century. Though Christianity had gained its first converts in Egypt among the Greek-speaking inhabitants (e.g., the Jews at Alexandria), Coptic—first employed for translation of the Holy Scriptures from the Greek—became the chosen medium for the Christianization of the native population of the chora from the end of the second century.

The third century and the reign of DIOCLETIAN, introducing the Byzantine period in Egypt, witnessed fundamental linguistic transformations. The spread of Christianity and socioeconomic changes, such as the agricultural crisis in the first half of the fourth century, brought about semantic evolutions in Greek language. Thus, for example, anachoresis used for withdrawal (in order to evade tax payment) acquired the particular meaning “withdrawal from the world” (in order to devote one’s life to God)—thence the designation anachoretes for monks; and geouchos (landowner) acquired the specifically social connotation “possessor” about 340-350.

Literacy (the ability to read and write Greek) gradually receded with the impoverishment of the middle classes, caused above all by the Roman liturgic system. The decline had set in at the end of the second century, as shown by, for instance, the case of Petaus, who learned to write Greek after having been nominated as village scribe of Ptolemais Hormou about 185 (see Das Archiv des Petaus, ed. U. Hagedorn, D. Hagedorn, L. C. Youtie, and H. C. Youtie, Papyrologica Colonensia 4 [ and Opladen, 1969]).

Diocletian’s attempts to latinize the administration had little influence on official practice in Egypt. Latinisms intruded into the Greek vocabulary but did not necessarily supplant the existing Greek equivalents, and Greek writing increasingly followed a Latin course. Still, these phenomena prove that the Greek language kept its vitality. There even was a revival of some classical Greek literary words (e.g., he threpsamene, the nourishing [soil]) and Ptolemaic terminology (e.g., programma, prostagma instead of the Roman term diatagma for ordinance, edict). As an expression of the Byzantine mentality, petitions of private persons to officials assumed a tone of pronounced submissiveness and a flowery wordiness.

The latter may be considered evidence for the writers’ extensive knowledge of Greek vocabulary, but it also indicates a kind of inflation and devaluation of the Greek words (see, e.g., the frequent use of superlatives and the long lists of honorary titles in the addresses). The grammar of Koine Greek was simplified more than ever before (e.g., the disappearance of irregular tenses and of the dative case).

Though Greek remained the official language until well into the Arab period, it was gradually supplanted by Coptic in administrative, private, and—above all—religious affairs of the chora. The expansion of Egyptian monasticism, organized by PACHOMIUS (d. 346), the first known author of original Coptic works, played a major part in the diffusion of the Coptic language and the denigration of Hellenistic culture (e.g., SHENUTE, abbot of Dayr al-Abyad [c. 385-451], who used the term Hellen as a synonym for pagan: J. Barnes, “Shenute as a Historical Source,” in Actes du Xe Congrès international de papyrologie, Varsovie-Cracovie, 3-9 septembre 1961, pp. 151-59 [Warsaw, 1964]).

Yet, the study of Greek language and literature prospered in Egypt until the end of the fifth century. Many scholars of the fourth-fifth century were recruited from Greek-speaking enclaves in the metropolises and surrounding villages of Upper Egypt. These groups organized the last counterattack of Hellenistic (i.e., pagan) culture, comprising Greek and Egyptian elements (see, e.g., the Greek treatise on the interpretation of hieroglyphs [Hieroglyphika] by HORAPOLLON of Phenebytis [end of the fifth century]), against the Coptic (Christian) trend. The members of this Greek/Hellenized intelligentsia traveled widely in the Byzantine empire, temporarily gaining influence at the imperial court (e.g., PAMPREPIUS OF PANOPOLIS, who supported the revolt of Illous against Emperor Zeno in 484). But this flare-up of the Greek language in Egypt was confined to a minority; in ordinary social milieus, the knowledge of Greek had gradually faded. Many lower officials were said to be agrammatoi (illiterates, in Greek). From the age of Justinian on, more and more official documents had to be published in Coptic as well as in Greek, in order to be understood by the population.

The exception proves the rule: the papyrological archive of DIOSCORUS OF APHRODITO shows a contemporary of Emperor Justinian writing Coptic as well as Greek documents. This bilingual notary, who owned copies of Greek literary texts, is the last inhabitant of the chora known so far who composed—however poorly—Greek poems.

The ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT (641) caused no sudden change in the use of Greek as the official language (see, e.g., the archive of Qurrah ibn-Shark [698-722]). But, as Coptic had introduced the decay of Greek in Egypt, so Arabic completed the process. With the Abbasids in the tenth century, Arabic became the predominant language in government administration (the last Arabic-Greek papyrus dates from 996).

Mutual Influences of Greek and Other Languages in Egypt (332 B.C.-A.D. 641)

Since Greek was the language of the rulers, government officials, and magistrates, it naturally exercised more influence on the native language than vice versa. Nevertheless, there are some mainly lexical foreign contributions to the development of Greek Koine in Egypt. Among these the latest, Latin, was the most important.

Greek Influence on the Egyptian (Demotic, Coptic) Language

Demotic writing (current in the seventh century B.C.- third century A.D.; latest attestation, A.D. 452) always remained quite resistant to Greek influence. The Greek-speaking administration under the Ptolemies inevitably caused the intrusion of technical Greek terms into the professional language of demotic scribes (e.g., official titles and legal terms). In the private sphere, however, Greek loanwords were rare and generally referred to habits, animals, and objects that were known to the Egyptians only through Greek import or literature. On the other hand, Greek commercial terminology had probably entered into spoken demotic from the seventh century B.C. on. The change of gender of some demotic words presumably occurred under Greek influence. Apart from demotic versions (translations) of Greek decrees, there is no evidence for stylistic influence.

Coptic—using Greek characters and first used for translations of the Bible from the Greek—was perfectly suited to adopt Greek words. The latter constituted about one-fifth of the standard Coptic vocabulary and were related to all spheres of life. It may be assumed that many of them were already used in everyday conversation before written Coptic emerged with the spread of Christianity. The naturalization of Greek words did not exclude the use of their Coptic equivalents, as attested, for instance, in the Psalms and—mainly— Bohairic translations of the scriptures with their marked preference for native words. Greek influence led to minor syntactical changes but did not affect the basic features of Egyptian/Coptic grammar.

Foreign Influences on Greek in Egypt

Prior to the Macedonian conquest of Egypt, the Greek language had adopted a few Oriental words, most of which belonged to the agricultural and commercial sphere. Some and Persian loanwords probably entered the Greek language through the intermediary of demotic.

During the Greco-Roman period, the number of Egyptian loanwords naturally increased (e.g., weights and measures, topographical and personal names—which were either transcribed or translated—and months). Except for the latter category, most loanwords were naturalized by taking a Greek ending and following Greek declension. Greek writing, moreover, adopted some symbols that were current in demotic documents.

On the whole, Egyptian influence on Greek was very limited. Yet, the Greeks took over Egyptian literary taste. The Greek romance owed its origin at least partly to Egypt: the Dream of Nectanebo, the first piece of prose fiction in Greek (second century B.C.) was translated from demotic. Another popular genre in Egyptian literature, the prophecies, also inspired Greek writers in Greco-Roman times—see, e.g., the Potter’s Oracle, composed in demotic between the fourth and the end of the second century B.C., and known from Greek extant versions of the second-third century A.D.; there is a strong presumption that the thirteenth book of the Oracula sibyllina (between 241 and 265) was written by a contemporary author (Jew or Christian?) at Alexandria (W. Scott, “The Last Sibylline Oracle of Alexandria,” Classical Quarterly 9 [1915]:144).

Latin had a greater impact on the Greek language in Egypt. About one-fourth of the Latin terms attested in Greek papyri made their first appearance at the end of the third/beginning of the fourth century. They were particularly numerous in military vocabulary, but also embraced the spheres of administration, fiscal matters, law, agriculture, and textile manufacture. The adoption of Latin words followed several patterns: (1) transcription; (2) translation; (3) metaphorical use. When transcribed, the Latin words generally underwent phonetic and morphological transformations in order to adapt to Greek declensions and conjugations. Others were used as part of new bilingual composites. Through Greek and Coptic, some Latin words intruded into the Arab vocabulary (e.g., castrum, kastron, qasr; cf. the toponyms Qasr Qarun [i.e., Dionysias]; Luxor [Arabic al-Uqsur, the camps]).

To a lesser extent, Latin influenced Greek morphology (e.g., the increasing popularity of the suffixes -tor and -arios). Syntactical influence was practically nonexistent. Latin literature played a minor role in Egypt (about 100 extant Latin literary papyri).


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