Bilingual Notaries in Hellenistic Egypt. A Study of Language Use.

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


The impact of Greek-Egyptian bilingualism on language use and linguistic competence is the key issue in this dissertation. The language use in a corpus of 148 Greek notarial contracts is analyzed on phonological, morphological and syntactic levels. The texts were written by bilingual notaries (agoranomoi) in Upper Egypt in the later Hellenistic period. They present, for the most part, very good administrative Greek. On the other hand, their language contains variation and idiosyncrasies that were earlier condemned as ungrammatical and bad Greek, and were not subjected to closer analysis.

In order to reach plausible explanations for those phenomena, a thorough research into the sociohistorical and linguistic context was needed before the linguistic analysis. The general linguistic landscape, the population pattern and the status and frequency of Greek literacy in Ptolemaic Egypt in general, and in Upper Egypt in particular, are presented. Through a detailed examination of the notaries themselves (their names, families and handwriting), it became evident that there were one to three persons at the notarial office writing under the signature of one notary. Often the documents under one notary's name were written in the same hand. We get, therefore, exceptionally close to studying idiolects in written material from antiquity.

The qualitative linguistic analysis revealed that the notaries made relatively few orthographic mistakes that reflect the ongoing phonological changes and they mastered the morphological forms. The problems arose at the syntactic level, for example, with the pattern of agreement between the noun groups or a noun with its modifiers. The significant structural differences between Greek and Egyptian can be behind the innovative strategies used by some of the notaries. Moreover, certain syntactic structures were clearly transferred from the notaries first language, Egyptian. This is obvious in the relative clause structure. Transfer can be found in other structures, as well, although, we must not forget the influence of parallel Greek structures. Sometimes these can act simultaneously.

The interesting linguistic strategies and transfer features come mostly from the hand of one notary, Hermias. Some other notaries show similar patterns, for example, Hermias' cousin, Ammonios. Hermias' texts reveal that he probably spoke Greek more than his predecessors. It is possible to conclude, then, that the notaries of the later generations were more fluently bilingual; their two languages were partly integrated in their minds as an interlanguage combining elements from both languages. The earlier notaries had the two languages functionally separated and they followed the standardized contract formulae more rigidly.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationHelsinki
Print ISBNs978-952-92-8477-1
Publication statusPublished - 2011
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Fields of Science

  • 612 Languages and Literature
  • kreikan kieli
  • kaksikielisyys
  • 615 History and Archaeology
  • papyrologia
  • notaarit
  • hellenistinen aika

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