Language captures aspects of our social culture

Kaisa Autere has just started her PhD research in ANEE, and she is doing a sociolinguistic study on the Lahun papyri from late Middle Kingdom Egypt. Her study is a multidisciplinary work that develops a methodology for gaining new sociocultural information from ancient textual sources.

My PhD thesis (Working title: ‘Sociolinguistic Analysis in Contextualising Ancient Material – A Study on Scribal Identity in late Middle Kingdom Egypt’) studies context-related language variation in the corpus of the Lahun papyri (1850–1750 BC). The collection originates from the late Middle Kingdom settlement and temple site of el-Lahun in the Fayum in Egypt. The corpus is unique for the period in its scope and variety. 

The sources include legislative documents, accounts and various kinds of correspondence sent between the town members and officials. Most of them were in charge of delivering a work force, produce, and different kinds of revenue for the temple. Approximately half of the collection forms part of a temple archive that includes fragments of a temple journal, accounts, and an array of letters. Most of the letters were sent among the temple scribes and other officials, including the temple overseer who also had the title of a local mayor. 

Sociolinguistics studies the reasons and background factors affecting our ‘choice of words’; meaning the different aspects that affect individuals’ language use in different situations and the way language is used in a society. We all have an array of linguistic resources and varieties at our disposal, although we are rarely consciousness of them, or of the choices we make of their usage during the day. The way we modify our language in social contexts is affected by the intended function of the discourse, its participants and of our own personal background. 

When the focus is on the usage context, sociolinguists speak of different registers of language. It can roughly be used as a synonym for style, i.e. situation and context-related variation in our speech or in written communication. In my PhD thesis, I use this concept to study how the language of the letters, and of the other materials in the corpus, changed according to the situational factors, such as the addressee. Interestingly, the use of registers can also reflect the perceptions and interpretations of the author, namely the social position the author places himself in when writing the text; i.e. whether he is speaking as a patron to his subordinate, brother to his sister, or as member of temple administration to his colleague. 

The PhD project argues that this mechanism can be used to study the social reference groups of the author, thus making it possible to reveal new aspects of the underlying socio-cultural structures in the community. Surprisingly, the nature of the scribal elite and the social factors affecting their daily practices and conduct are poorly understood in the context of the ancient Near East and Egypt. My aim is to gain new information about the local social hierarchies, heterogeneity of the group and the scribal practices used, and also about the cultural connotations and significance given to the existing customs. Combined with the research on social networks and aspects of identity formation conducted in ANEE, my thesis adds to the methodological repertoire of the centre, and will give new insights into the study of ancient Near East.