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THE HISTORY OF THE COPTIC LANGUAGE
Hany N. Takla, 3/18/96

I. Definition

The Coptic Language is the name used to refer to the last stage of the written Egyptian language. ‘Coptic’ should thus more correctly be used to refer to the script rather than the language itself. Even though this script was introduced as far back as the 2nd century BC, it is usually applied to the writing of the Egyptian language from the first century AD to the present day.

II. Short History of the Egyptian Language before Coptic

The ancient Egyptians devised a writing system to record their spoken language over 60 centuries ago. The first application seems to have been the calendar. The system started by giving each word a symbol, called a hieroglyph. This convention was of course doomed because of the tremendous vocabulary it would have generated. Therefore some of these hieroglyphs came to be associated with a sound-value which, when combined together, would spell out the spoken word. These sound-values of such characters depended generally on the pronunciation of the word that it denoted in the early stage. Thus the hieroglyph for mouth, pronounced ‘ro’, became the sound ‘r’ in the new system. About 130 hieroglyphs have been identified as voiced characters. Some represented a single sound, others a two-character sound, and some a three-character sound. Many more hieroglyphs were added to represent the idea or to enhance the meaning of the word. These are commonly referred to as ideograms, and they brought the number of identified hieroglyphs to over 4,000. This script, popularly called Hieroglyphic, was both beautifully drawn as well colorfully painted. It was used for inscription on Egyptian monuments, as well as a variety of written texts on papyrus.

In parallel with the development of the Hieroglyphic script, a second script came into use. Such script was a mere simplification of the artistic, and sometimes laborious, Hieroglyphic. It was originally devised by the priests to record the records of the temples, subsequently becoming a tool of the government servants, educated by the learned priests, who used it to record the affairs of the state. Due to the priestly origin of the script, the name Hieratic was popularly affixed to it. This script used the same symbols, drawn in a simplified way. There is no indication, however, that it had as many ideograms as had the Hieroglyphic.

With the decline of the state, such a cumbersome writing method became impossible to preserve. So in the fifth century BC, a new script was devised that was both simpler to write, and which included about ten percent of the total number of hieroglyphs used previously. This new script came to be referred to as Demotic. The cursive and relatively plain appearance of its characters, in comparison to the hieroglyphic, was compensated for by its relative compactness. Many written records were preserved in that script, but it was never used for temple inscriptions.

III. Origin of Coptic among Egyptian Pagans

In 332 BC Alexander the Great invaded Egypt. His legacy was carried on by his general Ptolemeus and his successors in Egypt. That goal, simply stated, was to impose a universal culture—of course the Greek or Hellenistic one. With a culture comes its language, so it became proper for the educated classes to learn Greek for economical as well as social advantages. In its script, the Greek was far superior to the Demotic, the last surviving Egyptian writing at the time. Greek utilized only 24 characters, all pronounceable, as opposed to over 400 Egyptian symbols—of which only a small percentage represented sounds, the rest being ideograms.

This became the basis for the new Egyptian script, i.e. the Coptic. The pagan Egyptian priests, as a result of the invasion of the Greek language, found themselves at a disadvantage. The source of income as well as the power of their temples depended a great deal on the making and the sales of magical amulets. But such amulets, written in Egyptian, could not be pronounced by those who could afford to buy them. So they made use of transliteration for these amulets. This new system used the Greek characters, along with several other characters borrowed from the Demotic, to denote Egyptian sounds not available in Greek. The utility of such a system naturally led to its use in other applications such as horoscopes. The number of borrowed Demotic characters eventually was reduced. The resultant script, Coptic, was highly standardized in the tradition of the ancient Egyptians.

IV. Origin of Coptic among Christians in Egypt

Christianity in Egypt owes its legendary introduction to St Mark the Evangelist, who most likely came first to Alexandria in the early fifties of the first century AD. The legacy that he left in Egypt was a Christian community made up primarily of converted hellenized Jews. But at first this nascent Christianity remained eclipsed by the powerful Jewish community in Alexandria. After the Jewish Revolt in the first quarter of the second century AD and subsequent annihilation of the Jews in Alexandria, however, the Christians of Egypt became more visible to history. Pantanus the missionary, a renowned Christian teacher, was placed in charge of the small Christian school of Alexandria. In about 189 AD St Demetrius, the first bishop of Egyptian origin, became the bishop of Alexandria.

The dilemma faced by those responsible for directing missionary work was the uniformity of the message to be given to the Egyptians. The missionaries typically knew how to read Greek but not Demotic. The Egyptian peasants did not know how to read either, but they understood the sounds of the language written by the Demotic script, i.e. Egyptian. To insure that the Word of God, written in the Scriptures, be preached the same by the different missionaries, it had to be written in a way that the missionaries could read and the Egyptians understand when it was read aloud. Therefore the missionaries translated the Scriptures into the Egyptian tongue, but wrote them using the Greek characters they were familiar with. These attempts differed from those of the pagans, in that they did not use any Demotic character at first. The shortcomings of that system were eventually realized, and more characters, borrowed from the Demotic, were added. This brought them to the current six or seven additional characters that survived in the Sahidic and Bohairic dialects respectively.

V. Dialects

Due to the distribution of the population along the length of the Nile, many local dialects of Coptic developed. Each was characterized by the use of different vowels in pronouncing the same words, as well as some variation in the vocabulary. The pagans attempted from the start to develop a uniform written language in a neutral Dialect, the Sahidic. Because of their early start, they were successful in their efforts and nearly erased any influence that such regional dialects had in their own versions of Coptic. The Christians, on the other hand, put the benefit of the people ahead of proper language development, and maintained all these regional dialects in a written form. Eventually most of these dialects fell into disuse, as the uniform Sahidic became more dominant again.

All the dialects were to a large extent geographically-dependent, spanning the entire length of the Nile Valley. Based on the literary records, there were the Akhmimic and the Lycopolitan (Asyutic) dialects of Upper Egypt, the Middle Egyptian and the Fayoumic of Middle Egypt, and the Bohairic of the Delta. There were yet other minor dialects and subdialects to these. Meanwhile, the Sahidic dialect became from the earliest times a neutral dialect used throughout Egypt. This eventually gained literary dominance via the extensive writings of St Shenouda the Archimandrite. Nowadays Bohairic is the only other surviving dialect of Coptic. It was kept alive firstly by the strength of the monastic communities of Wadi n' Natrun, which used it extensively. Then with the move of the Patriarchate from Alexandria to Cairo in the 11th century, Bohairic, the dialect of the Cairo District, became the official dialect of the Coptic Church, replacing the Sahidic.

VI. The Golden age of Coptic:

From its Christian beginnings until the time of the Great persecution of Diocletian in the early 4th century AD, Coptic was used predominantly for translations from Greek to Egyptian. After that persecution, however, the monastic movement took root. This generated the need for the abbots of these communities to write their rules in their own language, i.e. Coptic. Also the Fathers of the Coptic Church, who usually wrote in Greek, addressed some of their works to the Egyptian monks in Coptic. So, with monastic fathers like St Anthony, St Pachomius, and St Macarius and their respective disciples writing to their monks, and Church Fathers like St Athanasius, St Theophilius, and St Cyril writing also to them in Coptic, the Golden Age of Coptic was about to begin.

It was not until St Shenouda the Archimandrite (348-466 AD) that Coptic really achieved its literary excellence. He was able to transform the language, from a mere tool for communicating instructions to the monks, into a literary language addressing monks, ecclesiastic authorities, laymen and government officials alike. Shenouda’s charisma, knowledge of Greek rhetoric and innovative mind gave him the ability to elevate the Coptic language, in content and style, to a literary height never achieved before nor equaled since.

Shenouda’s literary legacy continued to a lesser degree through the writings of his disciple St Besa in the second half of the fifth century. But such writings were mostly for the edification of the large monastic community in the White Monastery. Later in the sixth and seventh centuries other Church figures, such as Rufus of Shotep, Constantine of Asyut and Pisentius of Qift, wrote many works in Coptic.

VII. Coptic During the Early Arabic Period (7th to 10th Century AD)

By the middle of the seventh century, Egypt came under the dominance of Arab rulers, who eventually required the Copts to learn Arabic in order to have government jobs. This policy slowly eroded the number of Coptic lay readers, who were mostly from the ranks of these government workers and their families. The pressure put on such families to learn Arabic to ensure their continuing service in the government and the inheritance of such work by their offspring, made them slowly neglect educating their children in literary Coptic. Within a few hundred years, Bishop Severus of Al-Ashmunain found it necessary to write his History of the Patriarchs in Arabic rather than Coptic.

Ecclesiastically, hoever, the language continued in regular use. In fact, a great number of Hagiographic texts were composed during the early parts of this period. Coptic continued to be used in the Church, with Greek as the second language. During this period some Arabic loan-words made their way into the language as well. But there is no indication that Arabic language was ever used in the Church. There are no Coptic-Arabic manuscripts belonging to this period. Coptic was still the spoken language of the peasants and the clergy.

VIII. Coptic versus Arabic (from 11th to 14th Century AD)

As the 11th century approached, the formerly excellent relations between the rulers of Egypt and the Church were drastically changed, as Hakem-bi-Amr-Allah became the ruler. His violent mood swings took their toll on the Christians, who were periodically subjected to open persecutions, had their churches closed for up to two years at time, and saw their language prohibited from use.

During the same period, the European Crusaders were waging their wars against the Moslem rulers of the Middle East, in an effort to secure the holy places. Their presence in the area generated waves of persecutions and oppressions against the Copts. In fact, the Crusaders considered the Copts as heretics! The introduction of Arabic into the Coptic Chruch by Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turai, in the 12th century, was probably an attempt to show the Moslems that the Copts were distinct from the Crusaders. Thereafter, Christian-Arabic literature flourished, and later in the period Arabic was utilized in liturgical books and replaced Greek in bilingual texts. Arabic thus moved from a mere reference translation to actual use in the churches. Original composition in Coptic became limited to liturgical hymns and prayers, and e.g. the Martyrdom of St John of Phanidijoit, written as such to shield it from the eyes of the Moslems.

Further testimony to the gradual decline of the language as a reading tool is supplied by the many lexicographic works that were composed during the period. They were in the form of Muqadimat(grammars) and Salalem (word lists). Another sign of decline was Arabic texts circulating among the monks but written in Coptic characters, as they could no longer read the Arabic script. This eventually led to the writing of Coptic text in Arabic letters that we see nowadays in the Coptic Church.

In summary, this period saw the decline of Coptic literary use in its last stronghold, the Church. Eventually, it led to the weakening of the Church itself, which consequently diluted the language even more. The number of Christians declined, due to conversion to Islam. Coptic had represented a cultural barrier for the Copts within the Arabic/Moslem Culture; but now the increasing use of Arabic bridged that barrier, making it easier for marginal Christians to convert to Islam.

IX. Coptic Decline as a Spoken Language (to 17th Century)

After the 14th century, the Church experienced a decline both spiritually and in adherents. The dominance of the Ottoman Empire over Egypt in the early 16th century accelerated this decline. Production of Coptic Manuscripts slowed down to a trickle. This indicates that Coptic books were not used as often as formerly within the Church. Tradition still mandated that Coptic be used in Church services, but in a frankly decaying fashion. Eventually Vansleb, the French traveler, concluded upon seeing an old man speaking in Coptic that with the man's death the use of Coptic would become extinct. This may not have been strictly accurate, but it gives an indication that Arabic had replaced Coptic as the primary spoken language among the Copts themselves.

X. Revival of Coptic in the 19th Century AD

St Cyril IV, Patriarch of Alexandria in the mid-19th century, started a Church-sponsored movement to educate the clergy and the younger generation. Revival of Coptic seemed a appropriate tool for such schooling. So Coptic-language education began to be offered in the schools that he had built, alongside the other curricula that were needed to produce a better-educated generation. St Cyril did not last long on the throne of St Mark, in fact too short of time for such a great figure in Church history; his death was in part brought about by opponents of his reforms. But he had laid the ground work for such a movement to continue. In the last half-quarter of that century, the movement to revive the Coptic language intensified. The eyes of those in that movement natually turned to Greece, in an effort to establish a standardized method of pronouncing Coptic. It was felt that Greek must have preserved the original sound value of many of the characters in Coptic, because of its close association with Coptic in its early days. However, the Greek tongue had undergone some modification, due to the effect of 150 years of Turkish (Ottoman) dominance. Thus a new pronunciation system was established for Coptic, giving it an essentially non-Egyptian sound.

In spite of the above shortcomings, many dedicated persons spread the language among the masses. They printed many of the Coptic Church-service books for the first time, which had previously existed solely in manuscript form. This in turn revived the use of Coptic in the Church services themselves. Several works of grammar were produced as a result, along with a more comprehensive dictionary than was available before. The establishment of the Clerical College also aided in the propagation of the movement.

XI. Coptic in the 20th Century

Coptic continued its growth in the Church and among the ecclesiastically-educated groups that were produced in the early parts of the 20th century. The Coptic schools instituted by St Cyril IV carried on their valuable work among the Coptic community. The Clerical College also continued the tradition of the 19th century revival of Coptic. However, the Greek pronunciation system established has been a hindrance to the spread of the language among the masses. With the advent of the revolution of 1952, Arabic became even more prominent in Egypt, and eventually it had an influential effect on the new educated classes among the Copts. As members of these groups were called upon to serve the Church, they put Arabic into a newly prominent position in the ritual and sermons. Unintentionally, and in spite of the good will of such people and their love of the tradition of the Church, they introduced an element that has somewhat weakened the revival process of Coptic.

[However, the unexpected discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in the mid-20th century has revived the study of Coptic on a new world-wide basis.]