Languages and scripts
Among the languages and scripts represented by papyri from Egypt and
occasionally from elsewhere are the following (in rough chronological order).
- Ancient Egyptian written in hieroglyphs:
- There are no papyri with hieroglyphs in the Duke papyrus collection.
Hieroglyphs were used to embellish a variety of religious texts on papyrus,
such as the Book of the Dead. Their main use, however, was in inscriptions on
stone. It was in use for about three millenia until the end of the fourth
- Ancient Egyptian written in a formal script used for papyri, so-called
- Hieratic was developed from the Hieroglyphs for writing on papyrus. Initially
both documentary and literary texts were written in Hieratic. Later its use was
restricted to literary, i.e. mostly religious, texts. It is last heard of in the third century AD.
- Ancient Egyptian written in a less formal script, so-called Abnormal
- Abnormal Hieratic was developed specifically for documentary texts while
Hieratic was increasingly restricted to literary texts. It was in use until the sixth century BC.
- Ancient Egyptian written in a cursive script used for papyri, so-called
- Demotic is a cursive script derived from Hieratic. It was used for documents
and occasionally for literature for about nine centuries until it was replaced
by Coptic in the third century AD.
- Ancient Egyptian written with mainly Greek characters, so-called Coptic
- Coptic was invented in the third century AD to replace Hieratic and Demotic. It
was written with the letters of the Greek alphabet plus a few letters
representing sounds peculiar to Egyptian. It was very convenient, because at
the time a large number of Greek words were adopted by the Egyptian language.
The Duke papyrus collection holds a large number of sometimes quite important
Coptic texts. They range in date from the fourth to the tenth century A.D. and
can be anyhting from private letters to liturgical texts.
- There are no Aramaic papyri in the Duke papyrus collection. Aramaic was used in
Egypt mainly by the military installed by the Persians in 525 BC. It was also
used by some of the veterans, who settled in Egypt in the fifth century BC.
Among them we find a Jewish settlement on the island of Elephantine in the
south of Egypt. Outside Egypt Aramaic papyri have been found in the Judean
Desert, the so-called Dead Sea scrolls.
- Greek was used in Egypt after the conquest by Alexander the Great in 331 BC
until about AD 750. The majority of the texts from this period are in Greek. It
was not only the language of the administration, but also that of businessmen
and schools. The Duke papyrus collection holds a large number of Greek texts
ranging in date from the early third century BC to the eight century AD. Among
them we find works of literature, sometimes hitherto unknown, magical texts and
all kinds of documentary texts, such as private letters, contracts, tax
accounts, receipts and petitions.
- Latin was used in Egypt mainly by the military installed by the Romans in 30
BC. It was also used by some of the veterans, who settled in Egyptian villages
in the first two centuries AD.
- There are no Hebrew papyri in the Duke papyrus collection. Hebrew was used in
Egypt mainly in late antiquity, from the fifth century AD onwards. The Jewish
population of Egypt was almost annihilated by the Romans in the early second
century AD and only recuperated once the Roman empire turned Christian. Outside
Egypt Hebrew papyri have been found in the Judean Desert, the so-called Dead
- There are no Pahlavi papyri in the Duke papyrus collection. Pahlavi was used
during the Persian or Sasanid occupation of Egypt in the early seventh century
- There are no Syriac papyri in the Duke papyrus collection. Syriac was used in
Egypt in late antiquity by immigrants from Syria, mainly Christian monks.
- Arabic was introduced in Egypt by the Arab conquest in AD 640. It was initially
used for administrative purposes only, but soon replaced Greek and Coptic in
everyday use. The introduction of paper by the Arabs put an end to the use of
papyrus, which is not heard of after about AD 1000.
- Picture (no text)
- Sometimes a papyrus has no text on it, but just a drawing. It may be a
professional drawing by an artist, a pattern for a weaver or just a doodle.
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Last updated by Peter van Minnen and Suzanne Corr on 5/10/95