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Women and Language in the Ramesside Period

Dr. Deborah Sweeney

In this project, I have tried to draw some general conclusions about how women and men used language in Ancient Egypt. The project focusses on linguistic strategies - how, when and why people choose different verb forms and sentence patterns from the options available to them in order to convey information, make requests, ask questions, complain and so on.

Languages change as time passes, and ancient Egyptian is no exception. In principle, in order to have a reasonably consistent data base, I have limited myself to the Ramesside period (1295-1069 BCE) From this period, a number of texts featuring women have remained: letters sent by women, stories with female protagonists, love poems written in the female first person, legal texts mentioning women as plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses and so on.

Women during the Ramesside period enjoyed a certain degree of independence and liberty. They could hold, administer and bequeath property and litigate in court in their own right, without needing the permission of a male guardian. On the other hand, relatively few women at this period held bureaucratic or priestly posts in their own right, and their exercise of property rights might well have been limited by family pressures or lack of personal influence.

However, it is important to realise that although women seldom held bureaucratic posts, they were by no means barred from the public sphere. Bureaucrats' wives might help their husbands at work or stand in for them in their absence; women, particularly elite women, were very active as singers and dancers in the cult of popular gods and goddesses; women sold items in the market and poorer women often worked for wages outside their homes as servants or weavers. In the tomb-builders' village of Deir el-Medina, the room associated with women's cultic and symbolic activities opened on to the street and women may have worked there during the day or entertained friends there (Meskell 1998: 238-239).

Without being essentialist, I think we can certainly consider male and female as significant categories in ancient Egyptian
experience, although the Egyptians may not necessarily have constructed them in the same way as we do (e.g. Meskell 1999: 95-106).

Obviously, generalisations have their limitations, but they are useful tools so long as we keep in mind that they only represent averages, or tendencies. Many of my conclusions, in fact, will be very modest, restricted to one particular genre of text or type of text production - how men wrote letters at a given period, for instance, and how these missives compare with letters sent by women living at that time.

In real life, people would have related to one another not simply in terms of gender but simultaneously in terms of status, occupation, skill and personality (cf. Meskell 1996: 10; 1999: 2). We also need to take into account the type of text (stories, poetry, legal texts, letters...), its intended audience, and how formally or informally it is phrased. Yet communication is more than the sum of all these factors, since human beings also make choices amongst the linguistic options available to them in an effort to communicate in the most appropriate way in any given situation.

Previous Research

Some pioneering work has already been done on language and gender in Ancient Egyptian. Orly Goldwasser has discussed gender and linguistic register in mourners' laments (Goldwasser 1999), Barbara Lesko has studied female rhetorical strategies in law courts (Lesko 1997) and the female voice in Ramesside love poems (Lesko 1986), and I have investigated letters sent to or by women (Sweeney 1993; 1998), a topic which has since also been addressed by Barbara Lesko (1999). This work forms part of a broader trend
of research on women and gender in ancient Egypt during the last two decades. The URLs listed below contain a large amount of useful bibliography on this topic.

Methodological issues

Various problems have emerged whilst working with this material. Firstly, most of the written texts in ancient Egypt were produced by men. It was relatively rare for women to know how to read and write. Women are relatively under-represented in the source material. For instance, we have no written tradition for Egyptian midwives to parallel the medical papyri written by and for male doctors. As in many other societies, midwives passed on their knowledge by word of mouth, from expert to apprentice, and their wisdom is lost to us.

Secondly, texts such as legal texts are in fact written summaries of spoken discourse. It is likely that the repetitions and hesitations of spoken utterances were weeded out when the written record was compiled, and it is uncertain how accurately the written record represents spoken utterances.

Furthermore, it is not clear whether men reproduced women's patterns of speech accurately; the utterances attributed to them may represent men's perceptions of how women spoke (Robins 1989: 106; 1993: 176).

In addition, people tend to adapt their speech to make it more appropriate to the context, or to an addressee who is in a position of superiority (Ariel and Giora 1998: 60-61). For example, we might imagine that a woman speaking in court might adopt her speech patterns to what she felt would
be appropriate for that context (which would be a male context and probably more accommodating to male types of speech). Therefore, if a woman speaking in court speaks very like a man, is it because she is deliberately adapting her speech to the context, or because the scribe summarised her speech in that way?

Another problem is that much of the research on gender and language is based on the modern West (and largely on white middle-class American women). It is difficult to know how far the basic presuppositions of these models are relevant for ancient Egypt.

For instance, it is not clear how much women were expected, as they often are in the modern West, to demonstrate thoughtfulness to others in their conversational behaviour (Holmes 1993) - for example, to take responsibility for keeping a conversation going (Fischman 1983: 98-100). Wisdom texts, for the consumption of the elite and scribal classes, constantly present tactful, thoughtful, considerate behaviour as a desideratum not only for aspiring young men but for successful officials in their prime. However, since women seldom held bureaucratic posts in their own right during the New Kingdom, it is not clear to what extent the norms of the wisdom texts were held to apply to them.

It is also important to reflect that women's speech might not necessarily simply demonstrate the effects of inequality. It may also show the efforts of determined individuals attempting to fight or subvert that inequality (Cameron 1992: 24). At any given point, gender, status, age, wealth, skill, knowledge, personality or just having the upper hand in that particular situation, or the better end of a bargain may intersect with each other to tip the balance of inequality in a different direction.

Initial results

So far, I have been investigating gender and language in the Ramesside period in legal texts, funerary laments and selected literary texts. In theory, both women and men in ancient Egypt could present their case in court, be heard as witnesses or be accused of crimes. However, having the right to speak in public does not mean that it was always easy to do so. Gay Robins comments that cases initiated by women were relatively rare (Robins 1993: 141). The women who went to court were usually relatively well-to-do members of their communities, and they appeared mostly in inheritance suits.

In legal texts, I have found that women and men used similar rhetorical devices to persuade their hearers. Both tended to use parallel constructions, repetition, pathos and contrasting constructions. Many of these rhetorical devices are particularly associated with inheritance cases, in which women appeared more frequently than in many other types of litigation.

In investigating laments at funerals, I have substantiated the conclusions of Erich L?ddeckens, who showed that the professional mourner expressed conventional hopes for the afterlife. By contrast, the dead man's wives and daughters expressed longing, loss and doubts about the afterlife, which verged on the heretical in the context of an Egyptian tomb chapel, where all the representations in word and picture are
orientated to helping the dead person enter the afterworld and live there happily forever (Lüddeckens 1943: 183).

It seems to me that the female mourners fall in the middle of this continuum, expressing both conventional hope and some subversive doubt. Male relatives utter short cries of woe, "My mother, don't leave me!" but have no parallel to the wives' longer laments. (An exception here is the beautiful elegy of the scribe Butehamun to his wife Akhtoy. In a forthcoming article, I hope to show how it fits into this tradition of mourning).

I have also followed the work of my colleague Orly Goldwasser, who showed that women mourning at funerals often use a more colloquial register that may be associated with the subversive content of their utterances (Goldwasser 1999: 326). Actually, I have found that the women also use a certain amount of the more formal classical Egyptian. This more prestigious register of the language was used mostly for religious and monumental texts. It seems that the women did not use the colloquial register for lack of a more elegant way to express themselves, but at times they deliberately turned away from the traditional expressions of grief to express themselves in language more closely associated with their daily lives.

I am also working on a study of the story "The Contendings of Horus and Seth" a humorous rendering of the myth of how the god Horus, the rightful heir to the throne of Egypt, regained his throne from the usurper Seth, his uncle. In this case, their conflict is played out as an interminable courtroom drama.

Interestingly enough, the villainous Seth and his supporter, the chief god Pre-Harakhte, use disruptive tactics often associated with men in other cultures - yelling, demonstrations of anger, threats, oppressive silence and so on - whereas the female characters tend not to use them - and on the rare occasions that they do, they are ignored or belittled. For instance, when Isis, exasperated by the court's continual shilly-shallying, suggests taking the case elsewhere, the other gods ask her why she is angry and fob her off with vague promises that everything will be all right. Similarly, when the goddess Neith threatens to bring the heavens crashing down if the gods do not follow her advice, the gods do not do as she says.

It is important to note, however, that by attributing this intimidating behaviour to negative characters, the author communicates his disapproval of it. Gods such as Thoth, the patron of wisdom and justice, are never shown behaving in this way, in keeping with the well-established tradition in Egyptian wisdom texts of injunctions to avoid this type of behaviour.

This research (no. 797/98) was supported by the Israel Science Foundation. Many thanks to Yifat Peleg for her useful comments on a draft version of this text and to Adi Keinan for making the illustrations.


Ariel, Mira and Giora, Rachel 1998. A self versus other point of view in language: redefining femininity and masculinity. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 129: 59-86.

Cameron, Deborah 1992. 'Not gender difference but the difference gender makes' - explanation in research on sex and language. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 94: 13-26.

Fischman, Pamela M. 1983. Interaction: the work women do. In: B. Thorne, C. Kramarae and N. Henley (eds.), Language, Gender and Society, Boston.

Goldwasser, Orly 1999. 'Low' and 'high' dialects in Ramesside Egyptian. In: S. Grunert and I. Hafemann (eds.), Textcorpus und Wörterbuch. Leiden/Boston/Cologne: 321-326.

Holmes, Janet 1993. New Zealand women are good to talk to: an analysis of politeness strategies in interaction. Language in Society 20: 91-117.

Lesko, Barbara S. 1986. True art in Ancient Egypt. In: L.H. Lesko (ed.), Egyptological Studies in Honor of Richard A. Parker. Hanover, N.H.: 85-97.

Lesko, Barbara S. 1997. The rhetoric of women in Pharaonic Egypt. In: M. M. Wertheimer (ed.), Listening to Their Voices: The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women. Columbia: 89-111.

Lesko, Barbara S. 1999. "Listening" to the ancient Egyptian woman: letters, testimonials and other expressions of self. In: E. Teeter and J. A. Larson (eds.), Gold of Praise: Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honor of Edward F. Wente. (SAOC 58). Chicago: 247-254.

Lüddeckens, Erich 1943. Untersuchungen über religiösen Gehalt, Sprache und Form der ägyptischen Totenklagen. MDAIK 11.

Meskell, Lynn 1996. The somatization of archaeology: institutions, discourses, corporeality. Norwegian Archaeological Review 29/110: 1-16.

Meskell, Lynn 1998. An archaeology of social relations in an Egyptian village. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 5: 209-243.

Meskell, Lynn 1999. Archaeologies of Social Life: Age, Sex, Class et cetera in Ancient Egypt. London.

Robins, Gay 1989. Some images of women in New Kingdom art and literature. In: Barbara S. Lesko (ed.), Women's Earliest Records from Ancient Egypt and Western Asia. (Brown Judaic Studies, 166). Atlanta, Georgia: 105-116.

Robins, Gay 1993. Women in Ancient Egypt. London.

Sweeney, Deborah 1993. Women's correspondence from Deir el-Medineh. VI Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia: Atti, II. Turin: 523-529.

Sweeney, Deborah 1998. Women and language in the Ramesside period, or, why women don't say please. In: C. J. Eyre (ed.), Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Cambridge, 3-9 September 1995. (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 82). Leuven: 1109-1117.

Other web-sites with information about women and gender in Ancient Egypt

¤ Diotima - Materials for the Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World

¤ Course Bibliography by Janet H. Johnson of the Oriental Institute in Chicago

¤ Bibliographies of acquisitions of the Oriental Institute discussing women and gender in Ancient Egypt,
   compiled by Terry Wilfong

¤ Lecture by William A. Ward: "The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women: Their Status in Public Life."

and translations of documents accompanying the lecture:

¤ Online version of the exhibition "Women and Gender in Ancient Egypt" mounted at the Kelsey Museum in
   1997, curated by Terry G.Wilfong

¤ Exhibition "Reflections of Women in Ancient Egypt," by the Egypt Centre Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in
   Swansea, compiled by C.A. Graves-Brown

¤ Academic discussion group about women in the ancient Mediterranean world, including Egypt

Home pages of scholars who have written on women and gender in Ancient Egypt

Janet Johnson

Barbara Lesko

Lynn Meskell

Gay Robins

Terry Wilfong

   Gilman Building 225 | Tel: 03-6409417 | Fax: 03-6407237