Studying 5000-Year Old Words

This week’s interview is with Shayna Gardiner, a PhD student at the University of Toronto. She is the linguist studying ancient Egyptian. Her work brings together the work of centuries of archaeologists, historians, and Egyptologists, to look at the language these people used.

As a fair warning this interview is terminology-heavy, and it is not the easiest of subjects to follow. What Shayna is doing is not simple—not that any of the people we’ve profiled do easy work, but in order to gain a better understanding of what she does, and what she’s studying, there are terms and concepts that may not be immediately clear to people outside the field (myself included).

As Shayna mentions in the interview, everyone has a period in their childhood where they are obsessed with Ancient Egypt, and some never grow out of it. I’m one of those people. Growing up I was always fascinated, and I think my mum has a large role to play in that. She has always been keenly interested in Ancient Egypt, and when I was a kid, we would watch all the documentaries that came on TV about Ancient Egypt, and at used-book sales we would buy all the ones we could find on Ancient Egypt. I really hope this post is accessible not just to linguists, but also anyone who finds Ancient Egypt interesting, my mum included.


The Edwin Smith Papyrus showing the Hieratic writing system. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Edwin Smith Papyrus showing the Hieratic writing system. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Michael Iannozzi : So I suppose, to start, how do you study Ancient Egyptian?

Shayna Gardiner : There are lots of ways to study it; in Egyptology, the usual way is to learn about a given text – what kind of text it is, what time it was written (and what was going on in Egypt during that time period, and how you can tell the text is from that time period), and what it tells us about the society. That kind of thing.

SG : In linguistics, we can study Egyptian the same way we study any other language: we can solve language puzzles by figuring out how the structure works in terms of what kinds of sentences we can see in Egyptian, such as its word order. We can also study the specific words to a certain extent, but you come to an impasse: Egyptian writing doesn’t include vowels – it only makes use of consonants like Arabic and Hebrew – so there’s no way to really know what vowels went where for sure.

SG : Additionally, we can also study variation and language change in Egyptian – since it was written for a few thousand years, it’s possible to get texts from many different points in time and compare them to each other to learn about which aspects of Egyptian have changed over time, and in what ways they do so [Change is how the use of “thanks” has changed over decades and centuries]. Likewise, since there is such a variety of text types – Egyptians wrote fairy tales, histories, literature, medical texts, mathematical texts, and magical spells – and in different cities, we can learn about how Egyptian changed over its written history. We can study variation in Egyptian essentially the same way we would in a modern language.

MI : During what time span was it spoken?

SG : Egyptian is actually the longest continually-attested language in the world. Its written form began c. 3200BC, and it’s assumed to have been spoken for at least several thousand years before writing was invented. Egyptian goes through five different stages from its emergence in writing to its death: Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic. Coptic was spoken until the 17th/18th century AD, and even now it’s still used by the Coptic Church the way Latin is used by the Roman Catholic Church.

MI : Where does your data come from, geographically?

SG : The data for my project come from all over Egypt: in ancient times the country was divided into two parts: Upper Egypt in the south, and Lower Egypt in the north. I have text samples from both sections of the empire, which encompasses modern-day Egypt and modern-day Sudan, all along the Nile Valley. I also have texts from Nubia, which was located just south of Upper Egypt – also in modern-day Sudan – and was occasionally part of the Egyptian empire as well (though never of its own volition).

MI : How many writers do you draw from?

SG : I don’t know; most texts do not include the name of the scribe who wrote them (though some do!). Additionally, many types of text, such as letters, would be dictated to the scribe by whomever he was writing for. This means that we would not be able to make any accurate conclusions about speakers, unfortunately. Sometimes working with ancient data isn’t as straightforward as with modern languages!

MI : What kinds of written materials are there?

SG : Tons of different kinds! Egyptians wrote on a lot of things: temple and tomb walls, stone slabs, potshards, pieces of cloth, and papyrus are some of the more common writing surfaces. In terms of text types, there are letters (in varying degrees of formality), autobiographical texts, religious texts, magical texts, wisdom texts (i.e. teaching people how to behave properly in society), literature, poetry, mathematical texts, and medical texts, just to name a few.

MI : What are the most formal and informal types of texts?

SG : So generally speaking, letters are the most vernacular [casual] of the text types that I work with – those would be the least formal, but there are varying degrees of formality within them: when you’re writing to a king, you’re going to be more formal than when you’re writing to a friend or family member. Letters to the dead, then, are the least formal because you’re just writing a letter to your dead relative as if they were still alive, either just telling them about your life, or asking them to use their newfound spirit-world powers to help you out in the mortal realm.

MI : How many people in sociolinguistics study ancient Egyptian?

SG : Only me so far! But I hope that number will grow as time goes on – I think it’s very much a worthwhile pursuit.

MI : Has it been an advantage to work at a university that has an Egyptology department?

SG : Definitely. The fact that U of T has such a fantastic linguistics program is only half the reason I wanted to do my PhD here – the other half is the fact that U of T has Canada’s only Egyptology department. I’ve been taking Egyptian classes and working with the professors and students in the Egyptology department throughout my studies here, and it’s been tremendously helpful and such an enriching experience to be able to learn about ancient Egypt – it gives a much deeper understanding of the language when you also know about the culture and the history of the places it’s spoken.

MI : Now turning to you, what first got you interested in the study of Ancient Egyptian?

SG : I actually don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in Egyptology – I think every kid has that phase where they want to be a palaeontologist and/or archaeologist and/or Egyptologist. I went to museums a lot when I was little, and I was always interested in the Egypt sections. Eventually I thought, “Well maybe I can just study this!” And then I did.

MI : How important is it to work with Egyptologists for your work?

SG : It’s so important to get feedback from Egyptologists on my work because there’s already a massive amount of research that’s been done over the last two hundred years by Egyptologists, and I don’t necessarily know where to look for that information. For example, I use Egyptological theories about Egyptian to base my predictions on – I would have no hypotheses to test if I didn’t read Egyptology articles! Additionally, it’s much easier to study Egyptian if you actually know how to read and write Egyptian and have learned the language – the best way to do that is by working with and learning from Egyptologists!

MI : Could your research have been done 20 years ago? What technological advances were required?

SG : No. There is no way this research could have been conducted without the corpus that I’m using – the ROM has plenty of texts, yes, but nowhere near the 1.1 million words that the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae has [Corpus just means the “body” of writings she is using. A corpus is like a database that contains very specific information—in this case Egyptian writing that has been transcribed]. The corpus is very new; 20 years ago the internet barely existed, and a corpus like this would never have been free in the years before the internet, if it even existed at all.

MI : What do you hope the impact of your research is?

SG : I’m not going to say impact because I don’t know that it will affect the world or anything. But the importance of studying the linguistics of ancient Egyptian in general is manifold. Applying the methods used to analyze the structures of modern languages to their ancient counterparts is extremely useful for discovering relationships between modern languages, and for providing valuable insight into the evolution of language (I think, anyway!). This research also gives us greater knowledge of ancient languages, and it follows from this that we also gain a deeper understanding of material written in such languages and of the ancient people who used them. Ancient Egypt is one of very few cultures for which we can test hypotheses about language evolution over the course of thousands of years, and it will allow us to test modern linguistic theory against ancient data to discover whether language universals are universal across time.

MI : Most sociolinguists work on projects that span a decade, or maybe a century; with your work covering millennia, what are some advantages, and what are some difficulties?

SG : I’ve already spoken about the advantages, but I’ll add one more here: the change over time in what I’m studying is extremely slow, spanning 1000+ years and still not ever reaching completion. This is really important because if we looked at any given period of say, 500 years, it would look like what we are studying in Egyptian was not undergoing change. This is really important in terms of how we look at modern variables, and reminds us that what seems to be stable variation may actually be a very slow change in progress [Here she means that some things about the way we speak can appear to be unchanging; however, if you look on a long enough time span there will be changes that don’t appear over a shorter period. For example, if you were to look at the use of “hello” over the last several decades, it would appear to be very common; however, if you go back to the 19th century, it was far less common and even non-existent before the 1830s].

As for the disadvantages, well, for modern data it’s much easier to get tokens from every possible category, whereas with ancient data there will always be gaps [Tokens are examples of the thing being researched. For example, if you were studying how often people say “like”, each use of “like” would be a token. A category would be, for example, each age group, or gender, or city. So if you were looking at “like” you’d want to have tokens from many different people, and the people should be different in terms of age, gender, and city. In Shayna’s context she means it is hard with her data because the author often isn’t given, and gender, age, and city are difficult to ascertain]. Likewise we can’t necessarily be sure what exact year each text was written in, or what exact city it’s from, how old the speaker (or writer, in this case) is, or what gender they are (though it’s unlikely to be a woman). We can’t be as specific in these things as we could be with modern languages.

MI : How does the changes in cultural behaviours and beliefs get reflected in the writings you see?

SG : It’s so interesting! You can see the differences in a lot of ways: for example, in the Old Kingdom the kings were seen as very aloof and majestic and regal, but the Middle Kingdom is separated from the Old Kingdom by a civil war. The Middle Kingdom kings have realized that being aloof doesn’t really work, so the texts that talk about kingship are very different, and the king gets described as caring and interested in the lives of his people. At the end of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt is invaded and Lower Egypt is taken over by foreign rulers, so the period after that shows the newly-restored kings describing how powerful they are and how many foreign rulers they’ve conquered.

MI : Do you think this work could be done without someone being deeply interested and having an understanding of ancient Egypt as a culture?

SG : No. I mean, yes, technically, one could get the data and do the stats without understanding those things. But I honestly don’t think any linguist is as good a linguist as they can be if they don’t have at least some understanding of the culture that uses the language they’re studying.

MI : If you could go back to ancient Egypt, what is the one think you’d like to see done, or hear spoken about the most?

SG : I’d love to learn how scribes actually write! The handwriting is so beautiful but I want to see how it gets to that point, and what tools are used in the process. I would also really love to see a live performance of some of the literary works I’ve read. And nothing would beat just a nice chat with the average Egyptian.

MI : What has been your favourite part of being involved in the research?

SG : Wow, I don’t think I could pick just one thing! I really love Egyptian, so anything I can do to work on it is going to be amazing to me!

The famous Rosetta Stone that allowed for the translation and understanding of Hieroglyphics

The famous Rosetta Stone that allowed for the translation and understanding of Hieroglyphics

A sincere thank you to Shayna Gardiner for shedding light on such a fascinating research subject. I know this week hasn’t really been about a “Canadian Language”, which is two-thirds of the Museum’s title, but she’s a Canadian linguist studying something I think almost everyone has been intrigued by.


Take care eh,