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Correspondence and Dialogue: Pragmatic Factors in Late Ramesside Letter-Writing.

By DEBORAH SWEENEY. Agypten und Altes Testament, vol. 49. Wiesbaden: HARRASSOWITZ VERLAG, 2001. Pp. v + 327. DM 158 (paper).

Although it might take considerable time and effort to reconstruct how conversational ancient Egyptian sounded at any given period, considerable progress has been made in analyzing the grammatical and syntactical structure of Egyptian dialogue. In her volume Dr. Sweeney provides an exhaustive treatment of the interchange between writer/speaker and addressee in late New Kingdom letters, contemporary judicial documents, and the Report of Wenamun. In letters the immediacy of the interaction is, of course, compromised by the fact that there exists a time lag between utterance and response, whereas in the judicial papyri and Wenamun the recorded exchanges reflect greater immediacy. Nonetheless, a degree of skepticism is in order, since in recording the depositions of thieves responding to the authorities' questions, some son of editing was inevitable, if only because of the absence of tape recorders or short-hand stenographers.

For her organizational framework, Sweeney makes use of sociolinguistics, whose principles derive mainly from research into spoken dialogue. Some studies have examined aspects of correspondence, though one might query just bow broadly researched such investigations into letter-writing have been. Sociolinguistics appears to be undergoing constant refinement, and Sweeney usually makes it clear which principles she follows as she covers such topics as requests, questions and replies, information, complaints, and courtesy in a series of lengthy chapters.

While sociolinguistics has surely influenced Sweeney's overall thinking about letter-writing, it is not always apparent how the Egyptian evidence relates to the sociolinguistic preconditions and variables enunciated at the beginning of most of the chapters, or to what extent such principles refine the interpretation of the many passages that are cited. Sociolinguistics, it seems, has served more as a means of organizing the material rather than as a significant tool for perfecting translations. Sweeney's translations rest largely upon the application of sound philological principles of grammar and syntax. In the reviewer's opinion, this is where the strength of this study lies, not in any methodical application of sociolinguistic principles. As one reads through this volume, copiously supplied with footnotes, it is only rarely that a footnote provides sociolinguistic support. More frequently, footnotes are of the sort that a philologist would provide. These are extremely valuable and admirably up-to-date, even covering such issues as the sequence of Herihor and Piankh and their postulated wives--demonstration of Sweeney's regard for matters of history and her mastery of the field of Egyptology, revealed also in the book's extensive bibliography.

A major concern throughout Sweeney's study is the relative social status of writer and addressee and the tactics employed by individuals in communicating with persons who mayor may not be equals. In this respect it might have been useful, at least for the non-Egyptologist, to have discussed the basis for determining relative social status. According to the author (p. 46 n. 7) the necropolis scribe Dhutmose and his like-titled son Butehamun would be categorized as equals, but in view of the fact that many of the late Ramesside letters are both administrative and personal in nature, a question arises as to the relative status of the two: perhaps administratively equal but socially unequal in a father-son relationship. On p. 246 Sweeney speaks of Butehamun as being "a dutiful son," which would indicate inequality, us would the fact that Dhutmose was after all the senior holder of the same office.

Throughout the book one finds that the same passages have been introduced at various points in the discussion, so that there is a certain amount of redundancy. Occasionally these quotations are cross-referenced in the text, but more frequently not. Fortunately, at the end of the volume there is a complete listing of all citations, which can assist the reader in making the necessary connections.

What do these letters tell us about the Ramesside correspondent? Sweeney (p. 19 n. 130) informs us that very few draft letters show signs of correction or redrafting, making it likely that the writer composed his text mentally before he began writing. Thus Egyptian letters display less of the emotions than one might have expected, for letter-writing was guided pragmatically by strategy. The fact that there are no examples of the misfiring of requests due to misunderstanding or the misunderstanding of questions (p. 64 n. 134) indicates a fairly high degree of precision in Egyptian letter-writing, it is quite evident that there was considerable emphasis upon social status. Subordinates rarely make requests of superiors, and when they do they are often circumspectly, not baldly stated. Polite requests often have a high degree of elaboration and are highly status-linked. In discussing the tactics for making requests, Sweeney (p. 100) suggests that Egyptian, like Japanese, was hearer-based, it being incumbent upon the hearer to sort out the meaning. This trait may be related to the wisdom texts" emphasis on the art of listening. There exist almost no letters of apology, which would involve loss of face in a society where relationships involved a high degree of reciprocity. Similarly, praise is rarely given, and simple thank-you notes do not exist. In making complaints, subordinates might beat around the bush and display considerable deference to a person like the vizier, but conversely letters of complaint to employees or inferiors are understated without scolding. These are the sorts of conclusions one finds in Sweeney's volume, but one wonders whether they could not have been more simply reached inductively without all the sociolinguistic elaboration.

As one who has dealt with letters from ancient Egypt, I found this volume highly rewarding for the many reinterpretations of difficult passages but must confess to being somewhat perplexed regarding the application of sociolinguistics. The sociolinguistic discussions that encompass the core of the research seem methodologically loosely connected to the presentation of the Egyptian evidence, but perhaps the sociolinguist will see more clearly how the ancient Egyptian examples illustrate and support current sociolinguistic theory.


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Author:Wente, Edward F.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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