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What Does It Mean to be a Multilingual Archeologist?

On the joys and challenges of studying multilingualism in the ancient world.

Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.

Rachel Mairs, an Associate Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Reading, UK, studies multilingualism in the ancient world and is a prolific multilingual herself – in several languages, some of which we consider ‘dead’. She has very kindly accepted to answer our questions.

When did you begin your language learning journey?

Growing up in a monolingual environment, before the internet, languages offered an opportunity to see a wider world and I feel very lucky to have gone through the education system when I did. My school in Belfast had compulsory Latin and French from the age of 11. From 12, we could take up a third language – I chose Classical Greek. At age 16, I started with my first non-Indo-European language, Japanese. I was also fascinated by relationships between languages and language change (why does French have cheval from Latin caballus, not equus?).

What about in college?

At university, I chose Egyptology and studied Old, Middle and Late Egyptian and Coptic. My main Coptic textbook was in German, so I had to work on that. I also used a Demotic Egyptian textbook in Dutch. I liked how my teachers assumed that learning another modern language to help with an ancient one was natural and that somehow I would pick it up. I wasn’t given the option to find it intimidating.

Other languages I studied include Sanskrit, Akkadian, Old Nubian, and Aramaic. I couldn’t do serious research in them, but I could follow an academic discussion of these languages. Plus, having certain languages (in particular Latin or Sanskrit) means that you get a fair comprehension of others as a ‘freebie’ – Spanish and Prākrit for example – but I can’t use them actively. At home, I have a bookshelf full of grammars of languages that I’ll never get very far with (Hittite, Classical Nahuatl, Chinese), but love dipping into.

Do you have a favorite language?

Arabic has a special place in my heart. I’ve been trying to learn it more-or-less seriously for a very long time, mostly through independent study. I took evening classes in London for a year and an intensive Saturday course in New York for another year but because of the wide differences between Arabic dialects, and the fact that I’ve worked and traveled in several places in the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Syria), I didn’t progress with colloquial Arabic for a very long time. Eventually, I decided to concentrate on Egyptian for professional and geopolitical reasons, using books and recordings, practicing a lot on visits to Egypt, and trying the patience of Egyptian friends. A few years ago I was very proud to be made fun of in Morocco for ‘talking like an Egyptian’.

What are your favorite learning strategies?

I’m a very visual learner: I need to see things written down. I’m also good at memorizing grammatical tables and vocabulary, although I’ve found that I’ve lost my ability to do this as easily as I’ve got older. When I was in my teens, vocabulary and patterns seemed to just magically fix themselves in my brain; I have to work a lot harder now.

On the other hand, Arabic has made me train my ear to better deal with the phonology, and looking at Arabic phrasebooks and textbooks from the 19th century has given me a new appreciation of how essential it is in learning modern languages to develop independence from books. You can’t teach someone how to pronounce ‘ayn by describing it!

When I’m in an Arabic-speaking country, I’m always processing street signs, overhearing conversations, plus I watch Egyptian TV and films with subtitles. Kinaesthetic methods can work well too: if you write out verb forms over and over again, you’ll remember them. Back before everything went online, looking words up in a dictionary helped me remember them: by the time I’d had to do this two or three times, I remembered the word.

What are some linguistic joys and challenges of your professional work?

My work is on the Hellenistic period in Bactria, in present-day Central Asia, and there are very few Greek inscriptions or documents from that context – four of them were actually published for the first time while I was writing my PhD. Some inscriptions are so clear that you just read them and you can get a feeling of really knowing someone’s personality from an inscription. My favorite is a Greek inscription from Kandahar, in Afghanistan, made by a man who uses really over-the-top erudite literary vocabulary. You get a sense of how much he values his literary education and how keen he is to make sure everyone knows how clever he is.

With fragmentary inscriptions, or ones where the language is obscure or difficult, you need a solid knowledge of the structure of the language and of similar texts. If a text belongs to a particular genre, you know exactly what kinds of things it’s going to say, so reconstructing a full text is straightforward. In other cases, scholars can argue for years about the correct reading of a text. Sometimes, especially if the stone is badly damaged, you’ll never know.

Another linguistic challenge is the fact that most of the scholarship on the archaeology of Central Asia is in French and Russian, so I had to revisit my school French and gain a reading knowledge of Russian. I don’t speak either well (my French is a lot better than my Russian), but I can read archaeological publications. I still find reading German slow work, although I’m in Germany at the moment, and found that my multilingual domains extend to having a whole conversation about marzipan in German!

What, if anything, can we learn from the past?

I don’t like the idea of learning from the past. We can’t, for example, say that the British in India were just like the Greeks in Asia (although this was a common comparison in the 19th and much of the 20th century) but there is one lesson I think the ancient world has for the present, especially for the English-speaking world. I like to tell my classes that there may always have been important languages of international communication (English, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Arabic), but the majority of people, in all times and places, have always been multilingual.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.


Mairs, Rachel (2016). From Khartoum to Jerusalem: The Dragoman Solomon Negima and his Clients, 1885-1933. London: Bloomsbury.

Mairs, Rachel (2014). The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language and Identity in Greek Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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