The Demotic script was referred to by the Egyptians as sš/sẖnšꜥ.t, "document writing," which the second-century scholar Clement of Alexandria called ἐπιστολογραφική, "letter-writing," while early Western scholars, notably Thomas Young, formerly referred to it as "Enchorial Egyptian." The script was used for more than a thousand years, and during that time a number of developmental stages occurred. It is written and read from right to left, while earlier hieroglyphs could be written from top to bottom, left to right, or right to left. Parts of the Demotic Greek Magical Papyri were written with a cypher script.
Middle Demotic (c. 400–30 BC) is the stage of writing used during the Ptolemaic Kingdom. From the 4th century BC onwards, Demotic held a higher status, as may be seen from its increasing use for literary and religious texts. By the end of the 3rd century BC, Koine Greek was more important, as it was the administrative language of the country; Demotic contracts lost most of their legal force unless there was a note in Greek of being registered with the authorities.
Contract in Demotic writing, with signature of a witness on the verso. Papyrus, Ptolemaic era.
Late (Roman) Demotic
From the beginning of Roman rule of Egypt, Demotic was progressively less used in public life. There are, however, a number of literary texts written in Late Demotic (c. 30 BC – 452 AD), especially from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, though the quantity of all Demotic texts decreased rapidly towards the end of the second century. In contrast to the way Latin eliminated languages in the western part of the Empire, Greek did not replace Demotic entirely. After that, Demotic was only used for a few ostraca, subscriptions to Greek texts, mummy labels, and graffiti. The last dated example of the Demotic script is a graffito on the walls of the temple of Isis at Philae, dated to December 12, 452. The text simply reads "Petise, son of Petosiris"; who Petise was is unknown.
Uniliteral signs and transliteration
Like its hieroglyphic predecessor script, Demotic possessed a set of "uniliteral" or "alphabetical" signs that could be used to represent individual phonemes. These are the most common signs in Demotic, making up between one third and one half of all signs in any given text; foreign words are also almost exclusively written with these signs. Later (Roman Period) texts used these signs even more frequently.
The table below gives a list of such uniliteral signs along with their conventional transcription, their hieroglyphic origin, the Coptic letters derived from them, and notes on usage.
Demotic is a development of the Late Egyptian language and shares much with the later Coptic phase of the Egyptian language. In the earlier stages of Demotic, such as those texts written in the Early Demotic script, it probably represented the spoken idiom of the time. But, as it was increasingly used for only literary and religious purposes, the written language diverged more and more from the spoken form, leading to significant diglossia between the Late Demotic texts and the spoken language of the time, similar to the use of classical Middle Egyptian during the Ptolemaic Period.
The most important source of information about Demotic phonology is Coptic. The consonant inventory of Demotic can be reconstructed on the basis of evidence from the Coptic dialects. Demotic orthography is relatively opaque. The Demotic “alphabetical” signs are mostly inherited from the hieroglyphic script, and due to historical sound changes they do not always map neatly onto Demotic phonemes. However, the Demotic script does feature certain orthographic innovations, such as the use of the sign h̭ for /ç/, which allow it to represent sounds that were not present in earlier forms of Egyptian.
The following table presents the consonants of Demotic Egyptian. The reconstructed value of a phoneme is given in IPA transcription, followed by a transliteration of the corresponding Demotic “alphabetical” sign(s) in angle brackets ⟨ ⟩.
The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. It is inscribed with three scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic, and the Greek alphabet. There are 32 lines of Demotic, which is the middle of the three scripts on the stone. The Demotic was deciphered before the hieroglyphs, starting with the efforts of Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy. Scholars were eventually able to translate the hieroglyphs by comparing them with the Greek words, which could be readily translated, and fortifying that process by applying knowledge of Coptic (the Coptic language being descended from earlier forms of Egyptian represented in hieroglyphic writing). Egyptologists, linguists and papyrologists who specialize in the study of the Demotic stage of Egyptian script are known as Demotists.
^Haywood, John (2000). Historical atlas of the classical world, 500 BC–AD 600. Barnes & Noble Books. p. 28. ISBN978-0-7607-1973-2. However, Greek did not take over as completely as Latin did in the west and there remained large communities of Demotic...and Aramaic speakers
^Cruz-Uribe, Eugene (2018). "The Last Demotic Inscription". In Donker van Heel, Koenraad; Hoogendijk, Francisca A. J.; Marin, Cary J. (eds.). Hieratic, Demotic, and Greek Studies and Text Editions: Of Making Many Books There Is No End. Festschrift in Honour of Sven P. Vleeming. Leiden. pp. 6–8. ISBN978-9-0043-4571-3.
^ abClarysse, Willy (1994) Demotic for Papyrologists: A First Acquaintance, pages 96–98.
^ abJohnson, Janet H. (1986). Thus Wrote ꜥOnchsheshonqy: An Introductory Grammar of Demotic. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, No. 45. Chicago: The Oriental Institute. pp. 2–4.
^Quack (2017). "How the Coptic Script Came About". Greek Influence on Egyptian-Coptic: Contact-Induced Change in an Ancient African Language. Widmaier Verlag. p. 75. It has normally been claimed that it derives from the form of the infinitive ti in Demotic, but the actual forms do not fit well; and furthermore it is a point of some concern that this sign never turns up in any ‘Old Coptic’ text (where we always have ⲧⲓ for this sound sequence). For this reason the proposal by Kasser that it is actually a ligature of t and i seems to me quite convincing.
^Allen, James P. (2020). Ancient Egyptian Phonology. Cambridge University Press. p. 26. doi:10.1017/9781108751827. ISBN9781108751827. S2CID216256704. Most of the Demotic consonants have straightforward correspondents in Coptic and can therefore be presumed to have had the same values they do in Coptic.
^Allen, James P. (2020). Ancient Egyptian Phonology. Cambridge University Press. pp. 74–75. doi:10.1017/9781108751827. ISBN9781108751827. S2CID216256704. The primary phonemic distinctions between the consonants in all stages of Egyptian are two, aspiration and palatalization...Aspiration remains a primary distinction throughout the history of the language.