Diglossia in Ptolemaic Egypt

Prof. Tonio Sebastian Richter

Dr. Ralph Birk

The evolution of Ancient Egyptian covers a time frame of four millennia (~ 3000 BCE – 1300 CE). As one of the longest attested languages known it constitutes an outstanding example for the study of linguistic change in a diachronic perspective. During this time span, different subsequent and overlapping chronolects can be linguistically identified, reflecting the constant alteration of the Egyptian language over time:

Old Egyptian (~ 600 yrs.), Middle Egyptian (~ 1000 yrs.), Late Egyptian (~ 700 yrs.), Demotic (~ 1000 yrs.) and Coptic (~ 1000 yrs.).

Égyptien de Tradition exhibits the longest life span with approximately 1500 yrs., ranging from ~ 1100 BCE to ~ 400 CE. This chronolect coexisted with Late Egyptian, Demotic and even early Coptic rendering it a particularly interesting case of diglossia. Texts belonging to this variety emulate classical Middle Egyptian, while being strongly influenced by contemporaneous chronolects, such as Late Egyptian and Demotic. Texts of Égyptien de Tradition incorporate linguistic features by a) filtering contemporaneous features, b) perpetuating the use of anachronistic classic forms in a mostly monumental context and/or c) reviving expressions that belong to historical linguistic strata of the past that are out of use.


In scholarly debate, the presence or lack of these anachronisms was used as a vantage point to identify and separate old texts from new ones, building on the assumption that a productive use of Égyptien de tradition was by no means possible for example in the 3rd century BCE. The linguistic evaluation of these textual varieties has, in turn, severe consequences for how we conceptualize the philological capacities and practices of Ancient Egyptians of the Late and Ptolemaic Periods.


Given the diachronic heterogeneousness of Égyptien de tradition’s grammatical properties, this Chronoi project aims at developping a linguistic annotation that will, in turn, enable us to detect clusters and trends of Égyptien de tradition, enhancing our understanding of linguistic registers and scribal text production in the Ptolemaic Period. At its core, the project analyzes the Ptolemaic Synodal Decrees in comparison with central texts of this chronolect. The project collaborates with the Akademienvorhaben “Strukturen und Transformationen des Wortschatzes der Ägyptischen Sprache. Text- und Wissenskultur im Alten Ägypten“ at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the Humanities.

The Memphis Decree (Ptolemy V, 196 BCE), known as the Rosetta stone © The Trustees of the British Museum