It’s Not What You Say…

Subtext of Old Text Creates Context
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Feb 14, 2008

Sometimes, the meaning in papyrus comes not from what was said, but how it was said.

In a private letter from early second-century B.C. Egypt in the Duke Papyrus Archive, a borrower, Hephaestion, writes that he consulted with his wife about a proposed loan, and the terms were “not agreed to by the woman.”

“Hephaestion doesn’t name his wife,” says associate professor of classical studies and history Joshua D. Sosin. “He refers to her using a form of the noun anthropos, which means a human person, and requires the masculine article ho. But he uses the feminine article hê. A crude English analogy, although it describes the opposite, might be something like ‘Mister Mom.’

“Uses of hê anthropos in Greek literature, without exception, are pejorative, expressive of contempt or extreme pity, indicating a woman who’s a slave or has suffered some kind of awful physical ailment. It never means just ‘the woman’; it means more something like ‘that woman’ (through wrinkled nose)."

In “A Word for Woman,” an article Sosin wrote on this piece of papyrus in the journal Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, he noted the possibility that Hephaestion “is trying to salvage his putting the blame for the failed initial transaction on ‘the old lady,’ as if saying, ‘If it were up to me...’

“This is really important, because where you have a dead language and an extreme dearth of data to go on, the ability to speak with certainty as to the importance of any individual bit of data is critical," Sosin says. "We need to be able to speak about the meanings of words, in legal contexts, in formal and informal contexts."

There's often a great difference between the context of a literary document and a documentary text such as this letter. "For students, getting a handle on when you can read texts based on your training in literary documents – and when you can’t – is the critical first step. If you can’t get a handle, you can’t read, you can’t do the work."