Multilingual Military Forts in Roman Egypt

Martti Leiwo (University of Helsinki, Department of Languages)


The Roman army was actively present in the Eastern Desert of Egypt in the 2nd century CE, from Trajan to Antoninus Pius. Soldiers lived in small forts, called praesidia, along the roads from the Red Sea to Nile. Results of numerous desert surveys indicate that the Roman route system in the Eastern Desert was elaborate and sophisticated. As well as by Egyptians the roads were also used by speakers of other languages, e.g. Nabateans, Arameans, but also speakers of North Arabic and South Arabic varieties and languages of the Balkans. Soldiers, mainly auxiliares from Egypt, lived with locals, and both groups actively corresponded between the praesidia mainly in Greek writing on potsherds, ostraka. The extra-linguistic background of the letters was multicultural and, thus, multilingual. This kind of language contact could be seen also earlier, but it was not as clear as later. Living in an extremely difficult area, people had to be able to write or they had to find someboby who had – even very modest – writing skills. An important fact is that the writers used only ostraka, never papyrus, which they did not own. Conclusions: the ‘ostraka’ variety in the Eastern desert seems to differ from the ‘papyrus’ variety used in the Nile valley. This variety could be characterized as a striped cocktail, i.e. memorized phrases mixed with very shaky Greek (or, very occasionally, Latin), where elements of everyday phonetics are combined with learnt orthography and hypercorrect forms, as well as L2 induced uncertain morphology and syntax. The multilingualism of Egypt is a major factor to our understanding of the Greek spoken in Egypt. There might have been an Egyptian variety of Greek influenced by language contacts, but individual writers have a lot of variation that is not always typical of the whole. All contact induced variation is certainly not caused by Egyptian speakers, but some of it was – without any doubts. I would argue that language internal change in Greek was more rapid in regions that were multilingual.

DOI: 10.4424/lam72018-7


Plurilingualism; Multilingualism; Egypt; Greek; Latin; Soldiers

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