Article by Korshi Dosoo, Labex Resmed

Language family and linguistic characteristics

‘Coptic’ (t-mnt-rm-n-kēme, ‘Egyptian’, literally ‘the abstract category associated with the people of Egypt’) is the name used for the latest stage of the Egyptian language. Egyptian is part of the Afroasiatic (formerly Hamito-Semitic) language phylum, alongside the Chadic, Semitic, Cushitic, and Berber language families; the Omotic language family is often, but not uncontroversially, also included. Egyptian is considered the sole member of its own language family, with its relationship to the other members of its phylum disputed, as it displays similarities to several other families (Loprieno 1995).

Egyptian is usually divided into two major stages, Earlier Egyptian (consisting of Old and Middle Egyptian) and Later Egyptian (consisting of Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic). Later Egyptian is characterised by its greater analytic tendencies, as opposed to the more synthetic morphology of Earlier Egyptian, although Coptic marks a return to a more synthetic morphology, making Egyptian the best known example of the hypothetical synthesis-analysis-synthesis cycle, or anasynthesis, hypothesised as a universal language phenomenon (Haspelmath 2014).

Coptic is also distinguished from older forms of Egyptian by the high proportion of loanwords from Greek; c.5000 lemmata according to one estimate (Grossman 2014), or perhaps 40% of the total vocabulary (Kasser 1991). The number of Greek loanwords in individual texts may vary wildly, from perhaps 4% or less at the lower range, to as high as 71% in some exceptional texts, with 20% or so being the norm (Kasser 1991). Borrowed words belong to almost all grammatical categories – substantives, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, prepositions, and discourse particles. Occasionally these words may be integrated into Coptic morphology, for example Greek epistolē (“letter”) pluralised in Coptic as epistolooue, and para (“beside, more than, contrary to”) adapted to the pre-pronominal form pararo- (Grossman 2014). The reason for the extensive borrowing is due no doubt to the presence of Greek as the language of government and administration in Egypt during the Ptolemaic, Roman and early Islamic periods, and, more importantly, its status as the vehicle for important new concepts – in particular those of Christianity, through the Greek ‘Old Testament’ (Septuagint) and New Testament – and secondarily those of Greek philosophy (including Hermeticism), Manichaeism, and so on.

A much smaller number of loanwords from Arabic, perhaps 400 or so lemmata, are present in Coptic texts from the ninth century onwards; the bulk of these are restricted to technical (medical, arithmetical, metrological), alchemical, and magical texts, which may have been influenced by or translated from Arabic originals. A smaller body of legal and administrative terminology from Arabic is found in late documentary texts, as well a few words relating to everyday goods (vessels and cloth), these latter probably referring to particular luxury items (Vycichl 1991; Richter 2006, 2009). Arabic loanwords are almost entirely absent from literary texts, with only one known clear exception, the thirteenth century Martyrdom of John of Phanijoit (Krueger 2015).

Writing System

While older forms of Egyptian are written in the various forms of the native scripts – Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic and Abnormal Hieratic – Coptic is written in a modified form of the Greek alphabet. Although a few Coptic texts restrict themselves to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, most use a number of letters drawn from Demotic, but adapted to resemble Greek letters. Sahidic uses six (shai ϣ; fai ϥ; hori ϩ; djanja ϫ; kjima ϭ; ti ϯ), while additional letters are used in both Bohairic (barred-hori ⳉ) and Akhmimic (khai ϧ); further letters are used in a few texts from the early period of Coptic, the first to fourth centuries CE. In addition, a number of diacritics are found in Coptic, of which the most important are the supralinear stroke ( ̅), probably used to indicate either a schwa preceding the letter or an autosyllabic consonant, and the djinkim (⳿), used in Bohairic and Mesokemic to indicate autosyllabic consonants and vowels. The standard Coptic alphabet therefore has 30 or 31 letters, but since the number of phonemes in the language is smaller than this (22 for Sahidic; Layton 2000) several letters represent monograms (ⲑ = /t/+/h/) or alternants of the same phoneme (ⲕ, ⲅ = /k/).

The pronunciation of Greek letters in Coptic, and to a greater extent the spelling of Greek words in Coptic texts, often diverges from Classical Greek. Some of these changes are due to changes internal to Greek, and in some cases more precisely to the peculiarities of the Greek koinē spoken in Egypt, while others are due to the interaction of the phonological systems of Greek and Egyptian – for example, the presence of contrast between voiced and unvoiced consonants in Greek but the absence of the same phenomenon in Egyptian (Horrocks 1997; Torallas Tovar 2010).

Also of interest here is a single known example of a Coptic text written in Arabic script, containing hymns in honour of the Virgin Mary. The manuscript has not been dated, but is presumably rather late (Galtier 1906).

Chronological and Geographical Extent

Coptic is attested as a written language all down the Nile Valley, from Nubia to the Delta, as well as in the Fayum and Western Oases; it presumably existed as a spoken language within a similar range.

Chronologically, a precise beginning for Coptic is difficult to locate. From a grammatical point of view, many of the constructions characteristic of Coptic are also found in late Demotic texts. If defined by its use of the Greek alphabet, the earliest texts representing Egyptian transliterated into Greek are found in the third century BCE. The clearest beginning for Coptic is to be found in the so-called ‘Old Coptic’ texts, a dozen or so examples of Egyptian written in Greek letters supplemented by a range of Demotic letters, some of which evolved into the later standard Coptic graphemes. These texts display a heterogeneous range of dialectic features, but their content places them within the sphere of traditional Egyptian cults: these texts include mummy labels, glosses to hieratic and demotic texts, and astrological and magical manuscripts, with examples of such texts known from the first to fourth centuries CE. Texts written in the standardised Coptic dialects, generally associated with Christianity, are attested from c.300 CE, with the earliest texts being translations of the Septuagint. An example of a text which is transitional between these two groups – ‘pagan’ Old Coptic and ‘Christian’ standard Coptic – may be found in P. Bodmer VI, an early parchment codex containing part of the Book of Proverbs, but displaying a rich range of characters comparable to the Old Coptic texts. In its earliest history, Coptic existed alongside Neo-Middle Egyptian written in hieroglyphs (last attested in the fourth century), and Demotic (last attested in the fifth century).

While it was never the dominant administrative language of Egypt, Coptic continued as a spoken and written language throughout the Roman and early Byzantine periods. Despite the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 CE, the sixth to eighth centuries represent a very productive period for literary and documentary texts. Significantly, the ninth century saw Sahidic, previously the predominant literary dialect, displaced by Bohairic, the dialect of the Delta. The latest significant literary texts in Coptic were written in the early fourteenth century CE. The Bohairic dialect remains to this day the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church, but Coptic is generally considered a ‘dead language’. Its demise as a spoken language is difficult to date, with the most pessimistic estimates putting it as early as c.1100 CE (Zakrzewska 2014), and the most optimistic seeing it surviving in isolated parts of Upper Egypt into the seventeenth century, or even later (Peust 1999); a few modern ethnic Copts consider themselves fluent in the language, and there are ongoing efforts at language revival.

Symbolic value

Ewa Zakrzewska (2014) identifies three major symbolic periods of the Egyptian language in its Coptic phase. Its original importance derived from its status as an alternative literary language to Greek, in particular in the monastic milieu which loomed large in Egypt’s religious landscape. After the Arab conquest it developed a new symbolic value as the language of the Coptic Orthodox liturgy, a “language of the heavens”. From the late sixteenth century onwards, the ‘rediscovery’ of Coptic by European scholars gave it further significance, as the “original language of the pharaohs”, whose study led to the decipherment of the earlier stages of the Egyptian language. More recently, Coptic’s status as the “language of the pharaohs” has become important within Pharaonism, an Egyptian nationalist ideology which locates Egyptian, or more narrowly, Coptic, identity, in the Pharaonic past.

Today, the Coptic language is associated with the miaphysite Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the group of churches which rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) that Jesus possessed two natures, one human, the other divine, in favour of the view that the incarnate Jesus had a single nature at once divine and human (Awad & Moawad 1991). But the common idea of a clear dichotomy between Coptic-using Miaphysites and Greek-using Chalcedonians is probably too simplistic, as are the comparable, and equally common, native Egyptian Copts/Greeks, rural/urban, peasant/elite dichotomies. The decisive link between the Coptic language and the Coptic Church seems to date to around the period of the Arab conquest, when Greek disappeared as a spoken language (although the Coptic Church retains some Greek sections in its liturgy up to the present day). Papyrological and literary evidence attests to the existence of rural Greek-using communities in the Egyptian chora, and Egyptian/Coptic-speaking communities in the cities, to say nothing of the probably large number of bilingual individuals, both elite and non-elite. The evidence likewise suggests that the decision to using Greek or Coptic in any particular situation was a more complex one than simply that of immediate ethnic or religious identity or social status (Wipszycka 1992).

Text Corpus for the study of Peace

At present Coptic lacks comprehensive searchable online corpora comparable to those which exist for Greek, Latin, or the older forms of Egyptian. Nonetheless, non-comprehensive lists of attestations of individual words can be found in the major dictionaries, most importantly that of Crum (1939), with its complements by Kasser (1964), for Egyptian-origin words, and that of Förster (2002) for Greek loanwords. Collected editions of the Sahidic and Bohairic New Testaments are available, with concordances, as well as much of the Shenutean corpus. The creation of online corpora is the subject of several ongoing projects: Coptic Scriptorium (http://copticscriptorium.org/) is a collaborative project containing richly annotated literary, patristic and Biblical texts, while Coptic documentary texts are gradually being added to the predominantly Greek Papyrological Navigator (http://papyri.info/), and similar plans are under-way with the presently Middle Egyptian and Demotic-focused Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae (http://aaew.bbaw.de/tla/). The most important source of Coptic texts, however, remains the large and ever-growing number of papyrological editions and collections of Coptic texts.

Evolution of the Language and Idiomatic Variation

An important peculiarity of Coptic is the presence of a large number of distinctive dialects. The most important of these are Sahidic (regularly abbreviated as S), Akhmimic (A), and Lycopolitan (L or A2, also known as Sub-Akhmimic), the ‘southern dialects’, and Bohairic (B), Fayumic (F), and Mesokemic (M, also known as Middle Egyptian), the ‘northern dialects’; alongside these major groupings are more than a dozen minor dialects, generally variants or non-standard versions of the major dialects. While it has been suggested that the dialects may simply represent different written standards, variation in vocabulary and morpho-syntax alongside orthography suggest that at least some of the apparent differences represent real dialectal variation. The dialects are generally associated with particular geographical areas within Egypt, with the possible exception of Sahidic, which may represent a vehicular dialect, a somewhat artificial standard language with both northern and southern features used for communication across dialectal boundaries (Funk 1988). The dialectal variation in Coptic probably existed in earlier forms of Egyptian, though it is generally hidden by the writing system; the lambdacism (interchange of l and r) characteristic of the Egyptian of the Fayum, which is apparent in many Demotic texts from that region, represents an exception to this. Nonetheless, comments in earlier literary texts about the difficulties that Egyptians from different parts of the country encountered in speaking to each other are suggestive of the pre-history of the dialects.

Diachronic change in Coptic remains a topic to be studied in depth. Most obviously, there are visible changes in vocabulary, orthography, and pronunciation; grammatical change remains difficult to clearly describe (but see Grossman 2010). In terms of vocabulary, we can note the increased amount of Greek between Old and standard Coptic, the changing treatment of Greek loanwords, and the later adoption of Arabic vocabulary and sometimes phraseology. In terms of orthography we can note the increasingly irregular treatment of Greek words in later texts. In terms of pronunciation, there are suggestions of pronunciation shifts over the period of Coptic as a productive written language, but the clearest change is the pronunciation reform of the Coptic Pope Cyril IV (1854-1861), one of a number of educational reforms undertaken by that patriarch, in which the liturgical pronunciation of Bohairic was altered to conform to the pronunciation of Modern Greek.

Vectors of Cultural Influence and Text Types

A wide, though idiosyncratic, range of texts survive in Coptic. The fact that first Greek, and later Arabic, were the predominant administrative and literary languages in Egypt means that Coptic has relatively few purely political or literary texts, but the Egyptian climate has preserved an almost unparalleled number of documentary texts. Clear markers of the pre-Christian, ‘Pharaonic’ Egyptian culture – references to the traditional deities, priests and kings – are generally absent in Coptic texts, although notable exceptions exist in Old Coptic texts, and some magical material. Continuity with pre-Christian Egyptian traditions often lies in less explicit cultural practices relating to the lives of the individual, family, and agricultural community – traditions surrounding childbirth, menstruation, healing, and the Nile flood, for example, which are attested indirectly in textual evidence. Continuity with the Greek and Roman cultural traditions are expressed not only in the literary and philosophical material which is found in early texts, but to a greater extent in the legal texts which display a mixture of Greek, Roman/Byzantine, and native Egyptian legal traditions.

Despite the association of the Coptic language with the Coptic Orthodox Church, a number of important texts from other religious traditions are also attested among surviving documents. Alongside the productions of the traditional polytheistic religious tradition in Old Coptic, religious literature and documentary texts attest to Manichaean communities at both Medinet Madi and Kellis, and the existence of the non-orthodox Christian traditions usually classified as ‘gnostic’ are represented by the Nag Hammadi library, as well as the Bruce, Askew, Tchacos, and Berlin Codices. While much of this material is Judaeo-Christian in inspiration, a small amount represents Greek philosophy (for example the extract from Plato’s Republic in Nag Hammadi codex VI), including the Graeco-Egyptian Hermetica (for example, a section from the Asclepius, in the same codex). Most, if not all, of this material, was translated from Greek, or Syriac, in the case of the Manichaean texts.

The books of the Bible, also translated from Greek, are among the earliest works attested in Coptic. The entire Old and New Testaments, including several apocryphal books, survive in Sahidic, and projects are currently under-way to produce comprehensive editions of these texts (Richter 2009-; Behlmer et al 2015). A Bohairic Bible, though lacking some Old Testament books, also exists, standardised in the ninth century, and Biblical material exists in all of the major dialects. Alongside the Bible, several translations of Apostolic and Patristic works are known in Coptic, as well as native patristic texts, with the most important early authors being the monastic founders Pachomius, the father of cenobitic monasticism, and Shenoute, the archimandrite of the White Monastery and the Coptic language’s most prolific author. Other religious works include homiletic literature, literary epistles, ecclesiastical histories, martyrologies and hagiographies, and liturgical texts, including liturgical poetry. Coptic also preserves two non-religious literary romances, a fragmentary version of the Alexander Romance, and the Cambyses Romance.

Also noteworthy are a number of important ‘pre-scientific’ texts: medical, alchemical, arithmetical, and philological works; important for comparative lexicographical studies are the scalae, dictionaries of Coptic, Arabic, and sometimes Greek, written between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. A significant number of magical texts survive, both formularies giving instructions for rituals, and documentary texts attesting to applied practices, alongside oracular requests made at the shrines of saints, and sortition oracles.

The last major category, documentary texts, provides an important glimpse into the lives and concerns of individual women and men outside the elites usually most visible in written sources. These include letters, school texts, and legal texts, this latter including sale, loan and business contracts, wills, receipts, and tax documents. In addition to these texts, usually written on papyrus, parchment, and ostraca, we find funerary inscriptions, usually on stelae, and graffiti.

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To cite this article

Korshi Dosoo, "Coptic", Les mots de la paix/Terminology of peace [on-line]. Uploaded 23/02/2016, accessed