Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

Writing in Egypt: Demotic

Demotic derives from the Greek word 'demotikos' (popular); the Greek word is first used by Herodotus to describe the cursive writing system of the Egyptians in his day (5th century BC). The Egyptian term is sX n Sat (letter or document writing). It is attested from the middle of the seventh century BC to the middle of the fifth century AD. It was developed in the north of Egypt and was used throughout the country after the conquest of Upper Egypt under Psamtek I. The oldest demotic papyrus dates to the 21st year of Psamtek I and is from el-Hiba. Like hieratic it was always written from right to left. Demotic developed from cursive Third Intermediate Period hieratic. The language of demotic represents the Egyptian language between 'Late Egyptian' and Coptic. The phonetic inventory of demotic differs only slightly from earlier times. Some differences: d was not distinguished from t; l is clearly distinguished from r.

Demotic script has a strongly cursive character and is no longer bound to the hieroglyphic script as closely as hieratic is, although the underlying principles of the writing system are the same. During the seventh-fifth centuries, it seems that only the administration was using demotic. The first literary demotic texts are from the fourth century BC, though most literary texts in the script date to the early Roman Period (a time when Greek was the main administrative language). There are few administrative demotic texts from the Roman Period other than tax receipts: evidently the Roman authorities did not accept demotic for administrative writing in matters of state.

The development of demotic can divided into three main stages:

Late Period - Late Dynastic Period clear connection of the signs to hieratic; signs are still written separately
Ptolemaic Period Script is smaller. It is possible to distinguish local 'scribal schools'.
Roman Period writing with the Greek reed instead of Egyptian brush: spidery script

Examples of Demotic writing

(click on the images for a larger picture, or, marked yellow, further examples)

UC 34425 UC 54877

Demotic texts translated on Digital Egypt for Universities

tax receipt | name list | account | literary compositions from Rifeh

Further reading:

Johnson 2001 (general summary on demotic, with further bibliography)


Copyright © 2002 University College London. All rights reserved.