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Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society

John Baines
Man
New Series, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 572-599
DOI: 10.2307/2801598
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2801598
Page Count: 28
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Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society
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Abstract

From its first occurrence around 3000 B.C., writing was integral to the self-definition of Egyptian culture, especially in terms of display where it was part of a system of pictorial representation. By 2600 continuous texts were produced and any linguistic matter could be written; new genres of text appeared in stages, literary texts in the Middle Kingdom and some additional types in the New Kingdom. Very few people were literate, all of them officials of state; schooling was limited. The main script types, hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic, have different, complementary functions. The entire system survived into late Roman times alongside the more widespread Greeck. Writing can be related to textual elaboration, to the sense of the past, magic and law, and perhaps to social change and stability but not as an overriding explanatory factor. Thus writing cannot explain the failure of radical change in Egypt or its success in Greece. The potential of writing is realised in stages over millennia.

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