Sylvie Denoix Director
CNRS, UMR 8167, équipe « Islam médiéval », Paris
Researcher, Arabic Language

Korshi Dosoo Researcher, lexical database design, webmaster.
LABEX Resmed, Paris 
Researcher, Coptic language

Les mots de la maix/Terminology of peace

Director: Sylvie Denoix

Host: CNRS

Website created by Claire Carpentier

Webmaster: Korshi Dosoo

English-language version: Korshi Dosoo

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ill reunion 17 09 2014

Università di Napoli « l’Orientale »,

Palazzo DuMesnil, via Chiatamone 61/62

17 September 2014

Session 1: L'Egypte et le Proche Orient Ancien

Claire Somaglino : Égypte.

Noemi Borrelli et Simonetta Graziani : “As pure water from the well”. Words and metaphors of peace between Sumer and Akkad

Alfredo Criscuolo: Ugarit

Giancarlo Lacerenza: Bible hébraïque

Session 2: Transversal

Sylvie Denoix (coordinateur) Deux racines présentes dans plusieurs langues SLM/ŠLM et ṢLḤ/SLH

Isabelle Augé: littérature arménienne

Mariya Romanova : littérature arménienne

Session 3: Le Monde islamique

Sylvie Denoix : littérature arabe

Michele Bernardini : Paix littéraire et Paix politique dans le monde timouride-safavide et ottoman. Un regard à l'historiographie.

Session 4: Inde ancienne et moderne

Florinda De Simini : littérature sanskrite

Stefania Cavaliere : littérature hindi

Antonia Soriente : Indonésie

18 September 2014

Proposition for the publication of a volume of research on peace in the Middle East

Future projects: dictionary, anthology etc.

Preparation of a future meeting

End of workshop

ill reunion 13 11 2013

Universita de Napoli ‘L’Orientale’

CNRS – UMR 8167,  Laboratory “Islam médiéval”

Institut français d’archéologie orientale au Caire

Thursday 14 November

Session 1 : Égypte et Extrême-Orient ancien

Claire Somaglino (UMR 8167, laboratoire « Monde pharaonique ») : Lexique et conception de la paix dans l’Égypte pharaonique.

Stefania Cavaliere (Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”) : Theory and practice of peace. A few glimpses of the evolution of the concept in classical Hindi texts 

Antonia Soriente (Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”) : Les mots de la paix dans les textes malay-indonésiens

Florinda De Simini (Università di Napoli “L’Orientale” / Universität Hamburg) : Peace in Sanskrit religious Literature

Noemi Borrelli, Simonetta Graziani, (Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”) : Présentation d’un projet d’équipe : Lexique et conception de la paix en Mésopotamie ancienne

Session 2 : Persans, Turcs et Mongols

Denise Aigle (Ephe, UMR 8167, laboratoire Islam médiéval), Marie-Dominique Even, Thomas Thanase : Présentation d’un projet d’équipe : La notion de paix et ses expressions linguistique et culturelle dans les textes en arabe, latin, persan, et mongol, chez les Mongols médiévaux

Michele Bernardini (Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”) : Du Shâhnâme aux Munsheât, les mots de la paix entre littérature épique persane et protocole ottoman

Session 3 : Europe et Proche-Orient, période médiévale

Radu G. Paun (Centre d'études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-Européen - CNRS-EHESS, Paris) : Présentation d’un projet d’équipe

Isabelle Augé & Mariya Romanova  : Présentation d’un projet d’équipe : Lexique et conception de la paix dans le monde arménien

Présentation d’un projet d’équipe : Lexique et conception de la paix dans les textes coptes, syriaques, copto-arabes et arabes des Xe Xe s.

Friday 15 November

Development of the three projected outputs (dir. S. Denoix) :

  • Collection of articles on transversal topics (dir. Denise Aigle) 

  • Work examining how the concept of peace is treated in the foundational texts of different religions (dir. Michele Bernardini).

Collaborative development of:

  • an open list of the terms which will be dealt with in the dictionary; the openness of this list will allow it to develop as the work progresses;

  • thematic chapters of the two books;

  • a program of research for the coming years : conference to be held in Naples in 2014.

In this collective work, we propose to demonstrate our method, taking terms from the lexical field of peace in different historical texts.

This international research program in historical lexicography aims to explore the lexical field of peace in several eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures of antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Peace may perhaps be understood as harmony between nations, as good relations between the inhabitants of a town or country, or even as peace with oneself, a state of interior well-being, a state attained through spiritual effort. But these definitions may not be shared cross-culturally, and peace may have other referents in other cultures.

For instance, in Arabic, in the Medieval period, there are few words to express peaceful relationships with the other. On the other hands, notions such as the cessation of war, treaties, and reconciliation offer a very rich vocabulary.

Thus, we are not working on a single word, but on a lexical field, that of peaceful relationships with the other or, ultimately, with oneself.

This historical lexicography will be carried out on texts written in Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Nabataean, the South Arabian Epigraphic languages, Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Coptic, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Latin, Greek, in the languages of Hittite AnatoliaMongolian, Armenian, Hindi, Malay, Sanskrit, and Chinese.

The researchers in our team will examine texts written on different supports (tablets, inscriptions, papyri, parchments, papers, and so on), in many literary genres (official documents, private correspondence, literary or religious texts), taking into account co-text (the textual context which will allow us to determine the referent), and in their historical and social contexts. This will enable us to take into account, over the longue durée, referents and conceptions communicated by the terminology of the lexical field of peace in different epistemes.

This work will produce multiple outcomes, including a database and dictionary of terms and their referents, and published volumes giving examples of the methodology at work. This project is intended to result in several outputs.

Recent Articles

Article by Noemi Borrelli, University of Naples "L'Orientale"

Language family and linguistic characteristics

Sumerian (eme-gi7 “the native tongue”) is a language isolate, for which no satisfactory relationship to other known languages has yet been found. It is considered an agglutinative language with a split-ergative construction and a predominance of monosyllabic words (Jagersma 2010).


The first evidence for the cuneiform writing dates back to the end of the 4th millennium BCE. This script has a logo-syllabic structure: a mixed system of logograms (word signs) and phonograms (sound signs), the latter attested only at a second stage.

Cuneiform signs, which in Sumerian and Akkadian usually have a syllabic value, have a multivalent use: a single sign can have both a logographic and a phonographic reading. A semantic association evidently led the writing development, causing as a straightforward consequence the phenomenon of polysemy, one of the basic principles of the cuneiform script. A logogram could acquire new logographic value not only through meaning association but also through sound similarities.

Accordingly, different signs can share the same phonetic value.

It occurs that certain signs can also work as semantic classifiers or, less frequently and introduced much later, as phonetic complements. These classifiers, which were not actually read, are otherwise known in Assyriology as determinatives.

Due to, and in spite of, its cumbersome and yet flexible system, the cuneiform writing was used along more than three millennia and in a geographical horizon that spanned from ancient Iran to the Levantine area, from Egypt to Anatolia. Many languages adopted the cuneiform system regardless their nature, their grammar or their linguistic relationships. Sumerian and Akkadian, Elamite and Old-Persian, Hurrite and Hittite, Ugaritic and Eblaite had as a common ground the cuneiform script.

Chronological and geographical extent

The first evidence of the Sumerian language has been dated to the 3100 BCE, soon after the first cuneiform pictograms appeared. Even though the language structure behind these pictograms cannot be identified because of the lack of grammatical morphemes (function words), it is very likely to identify it with Sumerian itself (Michalowski 1996).

Cuneiform writing, and therefore the Sumerian and Akkadian language, persisted in the scribal and cultic milieu until the Seleucid period, a time when Aramaic had long replaced Akkadian as spoken and written language and Greek was required as administrative tool. Indeed, the last batch of cuneiform tablets, called Graeco-Babyloniaca, were produced in Babylon between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. The Graeco-Babyloniaca recorded ritual and religious compositions written in Akkadian and Sumerian on the obverse with a transliteration in Greek characters on the reverse (Westenholz 2007; Geller 1997).

Evolution of language, idiomatic differences

The evolution of the Sumerian language roughly follows this classification:

  • Archaic Sumerian: 3100-2600 BCE
  • Old / “Classic” Sumerian: 2600-2300 BCE
  • Neo-Sumerian: 2300-2000 BCE
  • Late Sumerian: 2000-1700 BCE
  • Post Sumerian: 1700-100 BCE/100 CE

In the second half of the 3rd millennium two dialects can be distinguished: a Northern Sumerian and a Southern Sumerian, which differed from each other for such rules as vowel harmony or passive construction. Moreover, a further “dialect” has been identified as Emesal, “fine tongue”, used only in literary and cultic contexts from the Old-Babylonian period onward. Sumerian was dead as a spoken language already in the 19th century. From this moment onward, it was only used as a written language and it was exclusively transmitted in cultic and scribal contexts and provided with Akkadian translations. Especially in later texts, several errors, due to the misunderstanding of the Sumerian language, can be noted in both grammar and writing.

Symbolic value and vectors of cultural influences

The cuneiform script was the first and foremost responsible for the surviving of Sumerian, since the Mesopotamian culture was primarily a conservative one. The relentless attempt, which the scribes perpetrated along several centuries, saved Sumerian from oblivion and encapsulated it in an unceasing copying of the existing texts. The same interpretation of the Sumerian language much owes to Akkadian: it is from the latter that the former was reconstructed.

However, the relationship between Sumerian and Akkadian was an active one. As far as textual evidence allows to guess, since the 3rd millennium Sumerian and Akkadian came in contact and created a sort of mutual symbiosis of both culture and language. The bilingual context, born from this interaction, led to phenomena such as borrowings and convergence in the lexical, morphological, syntactical and phonological fields, on both sides.

Being passed through scribal schools and in such fundamental works as the literary compositions, Sumerian deeply rooted in the Akkadian culture. Thanks to this syncretism, the cultural influence that Akkadian exercised centuries later over the surrounding areas necessarily conveyed the Sumerian legacy.

On these premises, every analysis carried out on Sumerian should inevitably imply cross-references to Akkadian.

Useful corpus to the study of peace lexicon and Work tools

Work tools

  • Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary
  • J.A. Halloran, Sumerian Lexicon: A Dictionary Guide to the Ancient Sumerian Language, Los Angeles, Logogram Publishing, 2006.
  • Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter, 1928-.

Historical Sources

  • Literary Texts (narrative, royal inscriptions, myths, hymns, laments)
  • Epistolary
  • Technical Texts (omens, rituals, incantations, exorcisms)

It is worth noting that not all the textual categories mentioned above can provide the same amount or typology of data, neither they offer a homogenous continuum in their distribution.

A preliminary distinction between a political concept of peace and a more “spiritual” one can be appraised in the different corpora, especially when a comparison between the Akkadian and the Sumerian realm is carried out. The next step will consider how these nuances in the meaning of peace are reflected in the lexicon.


  • Cooper J., 1996. “Sumerian and Akkadian” in P.T. Daniels-W. Bright (eds), The World’s Writing Systems, New York-Oxford, Oxford University Press: 37-56
  • Fales M.F., 2008. “On Pax Assyriaca in the Eighth–Seventh Centuries BCE and Its Implications,” in R. Cohen, R. Westbrook (eds), Isaiah’s Vision of Peace in Biblical and Modern International Relations, New York, Palgrave Macmillan: 17-35.
  • — 2010. Guerre et paix en Assyrie: Religion et impérialisme. Les Conférences de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, Cerf.
  • Geller M., 1997. “The Last Wedge” in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie, vol. 87 issue 1, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter: 43-95.
  • Jagersma B., 2010. A Descriptive Grammar of Sumerian. Leiden. [With a comprehensive discussion about previous grammars].
  • Liverani M., 1994. Guerra e diplomazia nell'Antico Oriente, 1600-1100 a.C., Roma-Bari, Laterza.
  • Michalowski P., 2004. "Sumerian", in Roger Woodward (ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 19-59.
  • Michalowski P., 1996. “Origin” in P.T. Daniels-W. Bright (eds), The World’s Writing Systems, New York-Oxford, Oxford University Press: 33-36.
  • Neumann H. et al. (Hrsg.), 2014. Krieg und Frieden im Alten Vorderasien. 52e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale. International Congress of Assyriology and Near eastern Archaelogy (Münster, 17.–21. Juli 2006). Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 401, Münster, Ugarit-Verlag.
  • Oded B., 1992. War, Peace and Empire: Justifications for War in Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Wiesbaden, Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.
  • Perani M. (ed.), 2005. Guerra santa, guerra e pace dal Vicino Oriente antico alle tradizioni ebraica, cristiana e islamica: Atti del convegno internazionale, Ravenna 11 maggio-Bertinoro 12-13 maggio, 2004, Firenze, Giuntina.
  • Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter, 1928-.
  • Vidal J. (ed.), 2010. Studies on War in the Ancient Near East. Collected Essays on Military History, Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 372, Münster, Ugarit-Verlag
  • Westenholz A., 2007. “The Graeco-Babyloniaca Once Again.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie, vol. 97, issue 2, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter: 262-313.

To cite this article

Noemi Borrelli, "Sumerian", Les mots de la paix/Terminology of peace [on-line]. Uploaded 23/2/2016, accessed 02/12/2022

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 ( 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 (, and similar plans are under-way with the presently Middle Egyptian and Demotic-focused Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae ( 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