Were the ancient Egyptians polite? Exploring politeness in Late Egyptian

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By: Kim Ridealgh

Were the ancient Egyptians polite? Before we understand politeness in an ancient culture, we must first understand ‘politeness’ in the modern world. This is by no means easy; politeness is fluid, changing from person to person, culture to culture. Fundamentally politeness is a key means to maintain interpersonal relationships, through behaviour and speech.

Behaviour is deeply embedded within individual cultural psyches, reinforced by the social groups. As children we are taught to say please and thank you, or to refer to our elders with special terminology to infer respect. In British society, certain behaviour is encouraged and considered polite - eating with a knife and fork, keeping your elbows off the table - standard parental ways to help children understand what is expected of them socially. 

Pyramids (Egypt Travel)

How to Behave, A Pocket Manual of Etiquette, ca. 1865 (British Library)

Polite behaviour has always been an area of fascination. The word ‘politeness’ originates in the Latin word politus meaning ‘to be polished’, but its connotations originated in the French court of the 17th Century AD, where poli described a high status, aesthetically pleasing person with polished manners. The term ‘politeness’ in English reflects behaviour expected within the Judeo-Christian world, rather than universally. In Chinese, the closest comparative word would be limao, a code of conduct that stipulates how one should conduct themselves in public.

The study of politeness phenomena still remains a difficult pursuit in any language outside of one’s own. These difficulties become more acute for the remote past. How then to assess polite behaviour in ancient Egypt? If the idea is that ‘politeness’ revolves around maintaining relationships with others, we can analyse ancient Egyptian texts that showcase an interpersonal dynamic. Of course, we are limited to, and by, ancient texts. Still, written culture in ancient Egypt developed around 3000 BCE and presents a wealth of data.

Ancient Egyptian language has no word for ‘politeness’; instead there are words such as aHa-Hmsj, meaning ‘to behave properly’. This is not uncommon; in Igbo, spoken in Nigeria, politeness is conveyed by expressions meaning good behaviour. It is not a surprise that the Ancient Egyptian word oHo-Hmsj appears a limited number of times, and only in didactic texts, designed to teach maxims and express an idealised, polished, version of society.

For example, in the Middle Kingdom text (c. 2055 BCE –1650 BCE), the Instructions of Ptahhotep, remaining silent and retaining self-control is a positive virtue when interacting face-to-face with people of varying social status.

If you come up against an aggressive adversary (in court),

One who has influence and is more excellent than you,

Lower your arms and bend your back,

For if you stand up to him, he will not give in to you.

You should disparage his belligerent speech

By not opposing him in his vehemence.

The result will be that he will be called boorish,

And your control of temper will have equalled his babble.

If you come up against an aggressive adversary,

Your equal, one who is of your own social standing,

You will prove yourself more upright than he by remaining silent,

While he speaks vengefully.

The deliberation by the judges will be somber,

But your name will be vindicated in the decision of the magistrates.

If you come up against an aggressive adversary,

A man of low standing, one who is not your equal,

Do not assail him in accordance with his lowly estate.

Leave him be, and he will confound himself.

Do not answer him in order to vent your frustration.

‘Your Etiquette is Worth Million Dollars.’ 2009 Edition (Random Wire)

Ptahhotep seated before offerings, smelling jar of perfume; 4 registers offering bearers (Amazonaws)

But didactic texts present an idealised portrayal of expected behaviour, not found in more practical communications. Good examples of this can be found in the Late Ramesside Letters, one of the largest collections of personal communications, sent between various inhabitants of the Theban west bank (modern day Luxor). The Late Ramesside Letters were written at the end of the 20th Dynasty (end of the New Kingdom), during the reign of Ramesses XI (c.1099–1069 BCE) when Thebes was facing a turbulent period of social and economic anxiety. After Ramesses XI’s death Egypt separated into two areas, Tanis in the North and Thebes in the South.

The community featured in the letters included the key administrative and scribal staff from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, which by the 20th Dynasty had become the administrative centre for Thebes and a thriving settlement, with between 1000 and 2000 inhabitants. The majority of letters were written by or sent to the necropolis scribe Dhutmose, a key administrator from a prominent scribal family. His son Butehamun, with whom he communicated frequently, was also a necropolis scribe and his father’s deputy whilst Dhutmose accompanied his superior, General Piankh, on a military campaign south into Nubia (modern North Sudan).

The format of the Late Ramesside Letters is standardised, consisting of a formal introduction, the main body of text, optional conclusion formulae, and then the address. The purpose of a letter is to communicate with a specific audience from a distance and they are thus more likely to reflect social norms and conventions in communication. 

Late Ramesside Letters (University of Chicago)

Papyrus BM 10417 from the British Museum. Late Ramesside Letter (British Museum)

The Late Ramesside Letters reflect social norms based predominantly on power. A fixed linguistic etiquette is apparent when communicating with individuals who are socially superior or subordinate to the sender of the letter. When writing to one’s subordinate a more dominant format is adopted, requiring a short or no formal introduction, and then a higher frequency of imperative requests. Yet, when a subordinate individual writes to his superior, a longer formal introduction is necessary alongside more fawning language. Communication between socially equal individuals occurred and used a mixture of superior and subordinate grammatical and structural forms.

The Late Ramesside Letters also reveal that remaining silent was not a key feature in daily communications, and perhaps not reflective of normative behaviour, where the ability to speak without constraint is expressed by those who are socially superior. This is epitomised by Dhutmose, who states to his son Butehamun: ‘I will not be silent to you concerning it’ (concerning a shipment of spears).

Keeping silent in an aggressive situation only appears once in the letters, when Hennutawj discovers she has been cheated out of grain. Whether she kept silent to demonstrate normative behaviour, or because she felt threatened, is unclear. Hennutawj is one of the few women in the corpus in a position of authority, assisting her husband collect tax in the form of grain.

It is unlikely that Hennutawj was acting as a scribe (there is only one reference to a female scribe in an Old Kingdom text), yet several women mentioned in the Late Ramesside Letters and other narrative texts appear to be literate to some degree. Literacy in ancient Egypt was extremely low, only about 1% the population, yet the settlements on the Theban west bank had a literacy rate of about 40%, so it is not unlikely that women there could read and write.

The Late Ramesside Letters writers also comment on the behaviour of others. For example, Dhutmose quotes the words spoken to him by the General Piankh:

‘[... (If you had not) come] then would I argue with you; but good [...that you found] goodness in your heart and you came’.

Here Piankh is praising Dhutmose’s behaviour in travelling south to join the general on campaign. Dhutmose fulfilled the request of his superior, something considered by Piankh to be appropriate to their ongoing social interaction, demonstrating that Dhutmose understood his superior’s expectations of him.

A second example from this letter is directed towards Dhutmose’s son Butehamun:

‘It is not good what you did’.

This comment appears in reference to Butehamun’s failure to adhere to an earlier request issued by his father, which was considered inappropriate to the specific situation. Although they were family, Dhutmose still expected to be treated as the superior individual; Butehamun’s failure to complete his superior’s request act was not normative behaviour.

The father/son relationship represents a superior and subordinate relationship, but to maintain the connection of intimacy between father and son, discussion about family and health are included in the letters between them. This can be seen in the inclusion in letters between Dhutmose and his family of such phrases as ‘How are you? How are my people? Now send to me word of your condition. May your health be good.’

Dhutmose was elderly and frail by the time he accompanied the General Piankh to Nubia and would die during the campaign, along with his superior. His letters are full of information about his health, his aches and pains, which could only be cured by beer and news from home. Almost every letter he writes to his family contains requests to write to him about their health and life at home; the letters act as a physical manifestation of the close social relations. Dhutmose criticises his son when he feels he has not received enough letters, as Butehamun highlights:

‘Now, as for your saying, “Do not be neglectful in sending word to me about your condition”. What can happen to us while you remain alive? It is you who shall send to us word about your condition’.

So were the ancient Egyptians polite? We must hesitantly answer no; our modern Judeo-Christian understanding of ‘politeness’ makes it difficult to apply to the ancient Egyptian civilisation, yet in English we lack a better word to describe their communicative phenomena. Thus we must use ‘politeness’ but recognise its limitations; ‘politeness’ in Ancient Egyptian refers to appropriate, normative, expected behaviour. In order to be ‘polite’ in ancient Egypt one must adhere to expected behaviour, dependent predominantly on the power relationship between the individuals communicating.

The Late Ramesside Letters provide a delicious example of how ancient Egyptians used language to maintain their relationships. Unlike Sir Alan Gardiner, the father of the Middle Egyptian Grammar, who dismissed the letters as ‘mundane’ and ‘trivial’, they are a wealthy resource and well deserving of study.

Kim Ridealgh is lecturer in Sociolinguistics in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia.

For Further Reading

Kádár, Dániel & Michael Haugh. 2013. Understanding politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ridealgh, K. 2016. Polite like an Egyptian? Case Studies of Politeness in the Late Ramesside Letters. Journal of Politeness Research: Language, Behaviour, Culture 12 (2): 245–266.

Simpson, William Kelly, (ed.). 2003. The literature of ancient Egypt: an anthology of stories, instruction and poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press

Watts, Richard. 2011. A socio-cognitive approach to historical politeness. Journal of Historical Pragmatics 12. 104–132.



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