For one of my novels, I need to learn how Egyptian 16 year old teenagers spoke to each other on a daily basis. I did some research online but I have trouble to understand what languages peoples were speaking in Alexandria in Cleopatra's era, and more importantly: how they cursed.

Can someone give me some clues about how to get more information about this?

Please note that English is not my first language and maybe I'm not using "Curse" in the good way. What I'm looking for is words like "F**k off" or "Sh*t". Like when a kids talk to another and tell him is an idiot in a fun / friendly way.

Why do I need this? / How will it be used?

At some point in my novel, people from different eras are regrouped in one point in history and become friends. Two of those people, a 16 year old girl from Ancient Egypt and a 40 year old Viking male develop some father-daughter relationship. And I really would like to add sometimes in their dialog a few words from their original language. For example, the girl at some point is pissed off, and calls the Viking dad an "ergi". She calls him that because she know it will be really offensive to him.

What I am looking for is really something like this, or another "teasing" insults or bad words for them to call themselves.

What did I find so far?

For the Viking language, it's a little easier. Insulting and cursing is a lot more documented. And some great author wrote some interesting articles

But for Ancient Egypt "trash talk", I really can't find anything interesting. But I'm sure it's because I'm bad at searching. Some books seems to have some stuffs, and some websites too, but they feel a lot less "academic", if this make any sense.

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    Welcome to History.SE. Please document with an edit what exactly your research revealed to you. It will also help if you flesh out your character here a bit more (ethnic background, economic background) and the language your novel will be in. That is, if you write in French, wh not let your girl curse in French? – LangLangC Oct 7 at 9:18
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    I am not sure if a girl in that time at that place would curse at all. Girls don't curse even in the place and time I know best (various European countries, 20th-21th century). It is predominantly men who curse - and definitely not all of them. Some simply do not. Never. Perhaps your idea of everybody necessarily cursing in everyday life is overly influenced by your own surrounding culture? – Christian Geiselmann Oct 8 at 14:57
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    Are you just planning on peppering your text with the occasional Old Egyptian/Old Scandanavian curse words? If so, you will have to describe what they mean. At that point, why not just use a translation since all the rest of the conversations have will be translated? – Jamie Clinton Oct 8 at 20:10
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    By the age of sixteen most Egyptian girls were married and had children, she would not be a teenager as modern people think of it. – Sarriesfan Oct 9 at 11:41
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    You do know that teenagehood is a modern convention born after WW2. In previous ages, most people were sent to work as soon as they were capable so 8-10 wouldn't be unusual to work somewhere. At 16 she would have been treated as an adult. Likely married with children of her own. – DCook Oct 9 at 13:21
up vote 120 down vote accepted

Alexandria is sometimes called the New York of the ancient world. That means you might very well use almost any ancient old-world language you like, as the people were incredibly diverse.

But the History of Alexandria shows a few 'preferred choices':

Ethnic divisions The early Ptolemies were careful to maintain the distinction of its population's three largest ethnicities: Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian. (At first, Egyptians were probably the plurality of residents, while the Jewish community remained small. Slavery, a normal institution in Greece, was likely present but details about its extent and about the identity of slaves are unknown.) Alexandrian Greeks placed an emphasis on Hellenistic culture, in part to exclude and subjugate non-Greeks.
The law in Alexandria was based on Greek—especially Attic—law. There were two institutions in Alexandria devoted to the preservation and study of Greek culture, which helped to exclude non-Greeks. In literature, non-Greek texts entered the library only once they had been translated into Greek. Notably, there were few references to Egypt or native Egyptians in Alexandrian poetry; one of the few references to native Egyptians presents them as "muggers." There were ostentatious religious processions in the streets that displayed the wealth and power of the Ptolemies, but also celebrated and affirmed Greekness. These processions were used to shout Greek superiority over any non-Greeks that were watching, thereby widening the divide between cultures. From this division arose much of the later turbulence, which began to manifest itself under the rule of Ptolemy Philopater (221–204 BC). The reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon from 144–116 BC was marked by purges and civil warfare (including the expulsion of intellectuals such as Apollodorus of Athens), as well as intrigues associated with the king's wives and sons. Alexandria was also home to the largest Jewish community in the ancient world. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah and other writings), was produced there. Jews occupied two of the city's five quarters and worshipped at synagogues.

That means the most likely languages are by far not only Egyptian but also the wonderful Greek language, especially for the upper strata of society. This would also include the Jews, who were largely hellenised. But then from liturgical sources they would surely have also some curse and swear words derived from biblical Hebrew.

As for the Greek curses, swears, and insults,

you find that Aristophanes offers us plenty of Greek insults. Lots of them deal with feces, especially eating or shitting on others. Plenty deal with sex. Because Greeks compounded we have a lot of these that very directly translate into English, such as "koprophagos", "shit-eater" and "metrokoites", "mother-fucker", "kunops", "bitch (literally female dog)-face" or just "kun" or "kuna", "bitch" applied equally to men and women. The most common curse to a god is "ma Dia", "by Zeus", but you can find most gods' names in the accusative after "ma" for this like "ma Heran" or "ma Apollona".

And an even more colourful list:

ΑΝΑΣΕΙΣΙΦΑΛΛΟΣ: a promiscuous woman; one that dangles a penis [ανασεισίφαλλος = ανασείω + φαλλός]
ΒΔΕΩ: fart [βδέω = βρωμάω]
ΓΛΩΤΤΟΔΕΨΕΩ: using the tongue
ΓΥΝΑΙΚΟΠΙΠΗΣ: peeping Tom [γυναικοπίπης = γυναίκα + οπιπτεύω]
ΔΡΟΜΑΣ: prostitute that walks the street [δρομάς = δρόμος]
ΕΣΧΑΡΑ: a woman's genitalia [εσχάρα = από το ρήμα ίσχω (εμποδίζω)]
ΕΥΠΥΓΟΣ: a woman with a nice behind [εύπυγος = ευ + πυγή ]
ΚΑΣΣΩΡΙΣ: whore [κασσωρίς = από το κάσις (αδελφός, εταίρος)]
ΜΥΖΟΥΡΙΣ: a woman that sucks a penis [μύζουρις = μυζάω + ουρά (πέος)]
ΠΗΘΙΚΑΛΩΠΗΞ: a cunning man (slimy cunning) [πιθηκαλώπηξ = πίθηκος = αλώπηξ]
ΡΩΠΟΠΕΡΠΕΡΗΘΡΑΣ: a man who keeps on spewing nonsense
ΗΔΟΝΟΘΗΚΗη: a woman's genitalia
ΚΥΝΤΕΡΟΣ: someone without shame, a good for nothing person[> κύων]
ΛΕΧΡΙΟΣ: slimy [> λέχριος (λεχρίτης)]
ΛΥΔΙΑ: whore (Roman times, apparently because many high end prostitutes where from that region).
ΛΟΧΜΗ: bushy woman's genitalia [> λόχμη (θάμνος)]
ΣΠΟΔΗΡΙΛΑΥΡΑ: **** eater [σποδή (καταβροχθίζω) + λαύρα (απόπατος)]
ΧΑΛΚΙΔΙΤΙΣ: a very cheap whore, one that will do it for a copper

This would lead to many examples on the net.

The main research term to use is Aischrology:

Aiskhrología and the related verb aiskhrologéo refer to ‘shameful’ and/or ‘offensive’ language. Aischrology is a speech act which belongs to the vulgar register and causes offense by intentionally breaching norms of acceptable speech behavior. Although it is often equated with obscene language, aischrology also includes profane language.
Mark Janse: “Aischrology.” in: Georgios Giannakis (Ed): "Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics", Brill: Leiden, 2014. p76–86. (online)

The ancient researcher Pollux on the subject, mainly differentiates:

In a later entry from the Onomasticon, however, Pollux links the aischrologia wordgroup with the exercise of kakologia, loidoria, blasphêmia, etc.: here, by contrast, the dominant connotations seem to be those of socially dangerous abuse, insult, wrangling, and so forth, including the antagonisms of political invective. (Onom.8.80)
(Halliwell, p 118.)

A wonderful book on the subject would be Melissa Mohr: "Holy Sh*t. A Brief History of Swearing", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2013. It only starts in Roman times, but then Cleopatra is right at the line when Alexandria also became Roman.

If you insist on the girl being Egyptian and using that ancient language to curse, you still have plenty to choose from:

The first two recorded instances of what may be regarded as swearing come from Ancient Egypt. One of these is found on a stela, an upright stone slab with a commemorative inscription, dating back to the era of Ramses III, pharaoh between 1198 and 1166 BC.
The stela may be found in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The inscription was written for a small tribe – probably named the Shamin – living in or close to the Dakhla oasis in present-day Egypt (cf. Janssen 1968: 165–72). The inscription informs us that a certain local official named Harentbia donates a daily offering of five loaves in favour of his dead father. The offering is said to be ‘everlasting’ and promises that the official in charge of its execution will enjoy the protection of the god Amon-Re. It also describes the punishment that will be meted out to those who fail to follow the instructions: the person who fails in this respect ‘shall fall to the sword of Amon-Re’ and in addition ‘a donkey shall copulate with him, he shall copulate with a donkey, his wife shall copulate with his children’.

What makes the inscription interesting to students of swearing is the way the threat of retribution is worded. Sexual threats of the same nature involving a donkey turn up in numerous other legal documents and inscriptions from the same era. Donkey-based threats of this kind had apparently become formulaic and were used as a standardized ingredient in legal texts of the era (cf. Tyldesley 2001: 163). Amazingly, it – or something like it – is apparently still used as a standard curse in today’s Kurdish, that is more than 3000 years later than its first known appearance (cf. Demirbag-Sten 2005: 219).

Magnus Ljung: "Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study", PalgraveMacmillan: Basingstoke, 2011, p 45.

One suggestion, based on age of the protagonists, estimated timeframe Cleopatra, in Greek, and similarity to your Ergi might be along the lines of prokyon or catamite?


Sources:

Thomas Conley: "Toward a Rhetoric of Insult", University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London, 2010.

Michelle Lovric & Nikiforos Doxiadis Mardas: "How to Insult, Abuse and Insinuate in Classical Latin", Metro Books: New York, 1998.

Ineke Sluiter & Ralph M. Rosen (Eds): "KAKOS. Badness and Anti-Value in Classical Antiquity", Mnemosyne Supplements, Monographs on Greek and Roman Language and Literature, Vol 307, Brill: Leiden, Boston, 2008.

Ineke Sluiter & Ralph M. Rosen (Eds): "Free Speech in Classical Antiquity", Mnemosyne Bibliotheca Classica Batava, Brill: Leiden, Boston, 2004. (esp. chapter 6: Stephen Halliwell: "Aischrology, Shame, and Comedy", p115–144.)

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    Wonderful! Who’d have thought there would be a name for the study of obscenities! – s3raph86 Oct 7 at 22:38
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    Actually, your cultural biases are showing. Bad language generally comes in three categories: obscenity (sex), scatology (excrement and urine) and blasphemy (religious). In the modern day, obscenity and to a lesser degree scatology dominate, but that is because we are a largely secular society. A more religious society will have correspondingly more (and more varied) blasphemy. – WhatRoughBeast Oct 8 at 0:03
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    @WhatRoughBeast I think those categories also show your bias as well. There is foul language wishing people diseases and literally cursing others. Those are only examples from Dutch, so I can imagine other categories from around the world that don't fall in the categories you provided. – shadowmanwkp Oct 8 at 7:57
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    @iizno - Be careful in what you pick and how you present it. I know from a friend who writes historical fiction that it's not uncommon to be bashed for being "too modern" even though something is actually historically accurate (but just not recognized by the average person). So even if "kuna" (for example) may be a real historical curse, it's very possible for someone to think you're just putting modern curses in a historical context. – Bobson Oct 8 at 22:41
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    @shadowmanwkp To add to the "cultural bias" pile, around the world curses are also used to accuse someone of dishonor, wish them misfortune, cast aspersions on their ancestors, belittle their upbringing or social status, question their intelligence, criticise their appearance or physique, unfavourably compare them to animals, and probably many more things that I've missed. People are nothing if not creative when finding reasons to dislike each other and ways to express them. – anaximander Oct 9 at 9:24

Depending on class, you might go with the Demotic language, what in the days of Cleopatra was the language of the people. The last successor to Egyptian is Coptic, Demotic is in between, and might be the language of your teenager.

A simple google search did not find much "Demotic curse words". I'll put that in the not worthy to document column. But there is this Demotic Dictionary. Have fun!

With Coptic you might have more success, as there are still people who speak that.

You don't need to curse, just make it sound like one. If the Viking guy is 40, why not call him ⲛⲟϭ ⲛⲣⲱⲙⲉ?

As previously mentioned, teenagers wouldn't exist as they do today and the point brought up about Alexandria being a cultural nexus cannot be over-emphasised. The Donkey based insults mentioned are interesting as donkeys and asses were identified as Setian animals, which (to make a make an incredibly over-simplified comparison) is the opposer or devil character in the the Egyptian pantheon. It might be worth looking at the Greek Magical Papyri as it contains curses (in the magical sense) but would be a good way of getting into an Egyptian mindset of that Ptolemaic period? Good luck with the book!

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