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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Before Islam:  Egypt

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Framing the Issues

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What Role Did Language Play in Ptolemaic Egypt?

Egyptian identity had, from the beginning, included use of the Egyptian language. Immigrants were expected to learn Egyptian and often took, or were given, Egyptian names. Akkadian and Aramaic had each served as a lingua franca for the Near East, the former during the New Kingdom and the latter during the Persian empire, and many Egyptians dealing with international affairs would have had to learn a foreign language. But in the Ptolemaic period, the size of the Greek-speaking population (some descendants of merchants who had been settling in the Delta for several generations, some mercenaries from the wars of Alexander the Great and their descendants) combined with the fact that Ptolemy and the other soldiers who captured Egypt were Greek-speaking led to a situation where two languages, and two cultures, existed side by side. Greek became the language of administration (the early Ptolemies gave special tax discounts to Greek schoolteachers in order to train enough people to be literate in Greek to take over administration from the Egyptian speakers), the language of the court, the language of Greek culture, and the language of Alexandria (the capital) and the Fayyum (where many Greek-speaking mercenaries and their families were given farmland as pay for their service to the state). But the Egyptian language remained the language of the vast majority of the population, the language of the temples, and the language of Egyptian culture. The language in which a contract was written determined whether it followed Egyptian law or Greek law (all residents in Egypt were also subject to royal law). 

Some Greek mercenaries-turned-settlers married Egyptian women, some Egyptian bureaucrats learned Greek to keep their upper-level administrative jobs, and a group of bilingual, bicultural individuals and families developed who had double names (a Greek one for jobs felt to be "Greek," an Egyptian one for jobs felt to be "Egyptian" and for use in the temples when serving as priests, making donations, etc.) and seemingly easily moved into and out of different groups in society. Such individuals would have had multiple self-identities, which included them in these several groups.

Supporting Links:

Baldi, Philip. “Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Word.” American Journal of Philology. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessible with subscription. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 26, 2009).

“History of Ptolemaic Egypt.” Wikipedia. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 11, 2010).

MacCoull, L. S. B. “The Bilingual Written Environment of Late Antique Egypt: Did Gender Have Anything To Do With It?” Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 11, 2010).

“Rosetta Stone, The.” British Museum. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 11, 2010).

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