Chapter IX. Conjugation; Durative Tenses

§180. In Old Egyptian the oldest method of conjugating the verb was by means of attaching the Suffix Pronouns to the Verbal Stem. As the language developed, a new method gradually arose in which conjugation was effected by means of auxiliary verbs with suffixes attached placed before the verbal stem. By the time that Coptic had replaced the older stage of the language, the Old Conjugation with the Suffix Pronouns had almost completely disappeared. The few surviving verbs are:
§181. (1) The verb `w ‘To say’, which is frequently used with auxiliaries, also shows a form pe`e- with Nominal Subjects and pe`a= with Pronominal Subjects (this form originated from an old relative form p3dd.f, ‘That which he says’); e.g. pe`e  p.`oeis  na.u ‘The Lord says to them’, pe`a.3  na.s ‘He says to her’. Note: (e)6ne-, (e)6na= ‘To be willing’; e.g.  na.k  e6na.i ‘I shall sacrifice to thee (for) I am willing’ (Ps 53:6); also mio= ‘To be hale’, expressing thanks or greeting; e.g. mio.k ‘Hail to thee!’
§182. (2) The adjective verbs:






‘To be great’ (§183)



‘To be good’



‘To be beautiful’



‘To be numerous’



‘To be hateful’

E.g. nanou.s  na.n  e2w ‘It is good for us to remain here’ (Mt 17:4), eis.6hhte  nesw  ta.4beere ‘Behold, thou art beautiful, my daughter’ (S of S 1:15)mh  nto.k  naak  e.pen.eiwt  iakwb ‘Art thou greater than our father Jacob?’ (Jn 4:12).
§183. Note: The idiomatic use of naa- in the compound  naiat=, ‘Blest’ . This is a contracted form of naa.iat, lit. ‘Great is the eye’. It is always followed by the Suffix Pronoun, which agrees with the subject in number and person; e.g. naiat.k  simwn  bar.iwna ‘Blest art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah’ (Mt 16:17), naiat.n  anon  (m).pen.ka6 ‘Blest are we in our land’ (Budge, Misc. 433.1). When the subject is in the 3rd person singular or plural, the noun is introduced by the particle n; e.g. naiat.3  m.p.rwme ‘Blest is the man’ (Ps 1:1), naiat.ou  n.n.bal ‘Blest are the eyes’ (Lk 10:23, §94).
§184. (3) The impersonal existential verbs  oun ‘To be’ and mn ‘Not to be’  with following nominal subject; e.g. oun  ou.4hre  4hm ‘There is a young child here’ (Jn 6:9), mn  agaqos  oua  p.noute ‘There is none good except one, God’ (Mt 19:17)Note 1:  44e-  (e44e-)  ‘To be befitting’  and  m44e- (me44e-)  ‘To be unbefitting’ ; e.g. tai  gar  te  q.e  et.e44e  ero.n  e`w.k  ebol  n.dikaiosunh  nim ‘For this is the way which is befitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ (Mt 3:15), 44e  a.r.baptize  6m  p.snau  6m  p.ouoein  mn  p.moou ‘It is appropriate to be baptized in both, in the light and the water’ (Philip 81). Note 2: m.44e- seems to be confined to negating relative clauses. The  negation  of 44e- in statements and questions is effected by n ... an  (§195); e.g. n.e44e.2e  nto.k  an  ero.k  pe  ena.m.pek.4br  6m6al ‘Is it not fitting for thee, even thou, to have pity upon thy fellow-servant?’ (Mt 18:33).
§185. Conjugation by means of Auxiliaries: By means of the Auxiliaries, Coptic is able to form all the tenses needed to express affirmative verbal action in past, present and future time. There are also four auxiliaries which can express negation, but these are confined to the Perfect, the Tense of Habit, a special form of the Future, and the tense of Unfulfilled Action. The tense or complete verbal group consists of three parts:
 (1) The auxiliary
 (2) The subject (noun or pronoun) 
 (3) The verbal form

a.prwme  swtm The man heard’, a.3.swtm ‘He heard’. Exceptions to this order are I Present (§189) and I Future (§209), in which the subject stands first without any preceding auxiliary; e.g. p.rwme  swtm The man hears’, 3.swtm ‘He hears’, p.rwme  na.swtm The man will hear’, ‘He will hear’.
§186. Forms of the Auxiliaries; First and Second Tenses. The most striking feature of Coptic is its possession of two forms of the Auxiliaries, distinguished by the names ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Tenses; e.g.:


I Tense

II Tense











(a) The existence of two sets for each tense presupposes that each form possesses separate syntactical functions; for it is quite clear that II Tenses are by no means secondary or subordinate, in that they appear in main sentences, in independent statements, and in questions. By comparing Coptic translations with Greek originals, Dr H.J. Polotsky (Études de Syntaxe Copte, Cairo, 1944) has convincingly demonstrated that the use of II Tenses indicates that a special stress is to be expected on the Adverbial Extension. (But there are many examples in which II Tenses are used where no Adverbial Extension is present. It is doubtful whether all these exceptions to the general rule can be dismissed as improper uses.)The Adverbial Extension may be a real adverb (§281) or its equivalent, i.e. an adverbial phrase formed by means of a preposition followed by a noun or pronoun (§282ff); it may also include the Indirect Object or Dative introduced by n (§263); or it may be an Adverbial Clause introduced by a conjunction (§369ff), or even direct speech introduced by the particle `e (in origin an infinitive introduced by a preposition rdd ‘To say’).
(b) As in English, the normal position of emphasis is at the beginning of the sentence, except where vocal intonation indicates otherwise. In the written language, this position is of importance, since the eye is the sole guide to interpretation; e.g. ‘To you is this order given’, ‘Today I shall do this’, ‘Because you were absent, this happened to us’, ‘Come with me, said the man’, ‘Whither are you going?’, etc. Coptic, however, as a general rule preferred to keep its normal word order: auxiliary, subject, verbal form, object, indirect object or adverb
(§318); departure from the normal stress was indicated at the beginning of the sentence by means of the Second Tenses; e.g.:

II Present, stress on:

p.6r-.4ire e.`w  m-mo.s  na.k  twoung-

‘Young man, to thee I say: Arise!’ (Lk 7:14)

II Present, stress on:
Interrogative Adverb

e.k.bhk  etwn

‘Whither art thou going?’ (Z 318.a.2)

II Future, stress on:
the adverb
m-mau  m-mau  n-2i  p.rime  mn-.p.2a26  n-.n-.ob6e

 ‘There the weeping and gnashing of teeth will happen.’ (Mt 22:13)

II Perfect, stress on:
Final Clause introduced by

pai  de  thr.3  n-ta.3.4wpe  `ekas  e.3.e`w.k  ebol  n2i  penta. p.`oeis  `oo.3  6itm-  pe.profhths

 ‘It was so that that which the Lord said by the prophet might be fulfilled, that all this happened.’ (Mt 1:22)

II Habitude, stress on:
direct speech introduced by

mh  e.4a.3.`oos  an  na.u  `e  sobte

‘Prepare that which I shall eat! Is it that which he is wont to say to him?’ (Lk 17:8)

§187. Durative and Limitative Tenses: The Narrative Tenses can be divided into two main groups. In this grammar the names Durative and Limitative are adopted. Under the group Durative appear the Present, Imperfect and Circumstantial. The name Durative is applied to these tenses in that they have no reference to a definite temporal standpoint. They represent an action or state which is in the process of being achieved; that is to say, they indicate a durative process without fixed limits in time. In contrast, the Limitative Tenses indicate a fixed standpoint in time: past, future or habitually repeated (§199). Two important facts about the Durative Tenses must be noted: (1) They alone can use the Qualitative. This is understandable when the essential nature of the Qualitative is considered (§143, 145). (2) They cannot take a Direct Object, i.e. the Construct and Pronominal forms of the Infinitive cannot be used. Thus, to say ‘I am saying it’, Coptic must write 5.`w  mmo.s. The form 5.`oo.s  is impossible, though with the Limitative Tenses such a form is the normal usage; e.g. a.i.`oo.s ‘I said it’ (§328).

§188. Durative Tenses



Duration continues, ‘x is happening’


I Tense (§189)

II Tense* (§192)

Negation (§193)

1 common





n-- ... an

2 masc





 2 fem


3 masc





3 fem








Duration complete, ‘x was happening’


I Tense (§194)


Negation (§196)

1 com




(n--) ... an

2 masc



 2 fem

3 masc



3 fem






Dependent clause, ‘while/as x happens’


I Tense (§197)


Negation (§198)

1 com




e.n-- ... an

2 masc



 2 fem

3 masc



3 fem




*NB: The II Present and Circumstantial Tenses have identical forms but differing functions; see §192n, 197.
§189. I Present: As the name suggests, the principle use of this tense is to express present time in narrative; e.g. pe.pna  ni3e  et.3.oua4.3  auw  k.swtm  e.te3.smh ‘The spirit (wind) blows to the place which it wishes, and thou art hearing its sound’ (Jn 3:8), t.mnt.noute  `oor  e.6wb  nim ‘Godliness is stronger than all things’ (Wisd 10:12), tenou  tn.eime  `e  k.sooun  n.6wb  nim ‘Now we perceive that thou art understanding everything’ (Jn 16:30).
§190. When the Nominal Subject is undefined or has the Indefinite Article, it must be introduced by the Impersonal verb  oun- ( mn- in negation) (§184); e.g. oun  ou.rwme  nhu  mmo.i ‘There is a man coming after me’ (Jn 1:30), mn  sboui  `ose  e.pe3.sa6 ‘There is not (a) disciple higher than his teacher’ (Lk 6:40).
§191. Besides its use in narrative, the I Present occurs: (a) in Oaths; e.g. 3.on6  n2i  p.`oeis ‘As the Lord liveth’ (Ruth 3:13, Z 292.a.8); (b) in Questions, (i) introduced by an Interrogative; e.g. etbe.ou  te.rime ‘Why dost thou (f.) weep?’ (Z 339.a.3),  tetn.4trtwr ‘Why are you troubled?’ (Mk 5:39); and (ii) very often without an introductory Interrogative, the context alone indicating a question which would be expressed vocally by tone of voice; e.g.  mmo.i  e.6oue  nai ‘Dost thou love me more than [you love] these?’ (Jn 21:15), k.ouw4  e.nau ‘Dost thou wish to see the Christ?’ (Z 306.b.1, §341ff).
§192. II Present: Like the I Present, this tense carries the sense of present action, but with the difference that the main stress in the sentence is laid on the Adverbial Extension (§186). Accordingly, this tense is widely used in Questions where the Interrogative does not stand at the beginning of the sentence; e.g. alla  ere.pe3.ouw4  4oop  6m.p.nomos  m.p.`oeis ‘But in the law of the Lord is his desire’ (Ps 1:2), pe`a.3  na.3  e.k.bhk  etwn; pe`a.3  `e  e.i.bhk  e.5.meeue ‘He says to them: Whither are you going? He says: To instruct the brothers am I going!’ (Z 318.a.2). Note: Though in Sahidic the forms of the II Present are the same as the Circumstantial, they must not be confused, for their syntactical functions are quite distinct from one another. Bohairic distinguishes between II Present and Circumstantial thus: II Present are-, a=; Circumstantial ere-, e=.
§193. Negation of the Present: There is no special negative auxiliary; negation is effected by means of the particles  n ... an :
§193a. Negation of I Present; e.g. n.tetn-.soon  an  oude  te.unou ‘You are not knowing the day or the hour’ (Mt 25:13),  4oop  an  6rai  n.6ht.n ‘The truth is not existing in us’ (I-Jn 1:8). Note 1:  n  before p becomes m  (§10); e.g. m.pe3.bios  eine  an  nim ‘His life does not resemble that of everyone’ (Wisd 2:15). And when followed by k, 3 or s, the negative appears as  n.g  (§2n), n.3, n.s ; e.g. p.soi  de  et.6m.pek.bal  n.g.nau  ero.s  an ‘The beam which is in thine eye, thou dost not see it’ (Mt 7:3), n.3.swtm  an ‘He does not hear’. Note 2: n  is not infrequently omitted before I Present; e.g. 5.o  an  n.n.rwme ‘I am not become as the rest of men’ (Lk 18:11), nek.maqhths  de  se.nhsteue  an ‘But thy disciples, they do not fast’ (Mk 2:18).
§193b. Negation of II Present; e.g. n.ei.sops  an  de  e.k.e3it.ou  ebol  6m.p.kosmos ‘That thou mayest take them out of the world, I am not asking (of Thee)’ (Jn 17:15), nere.nai  gar  ta6e  an  n.q.n.twtn  e.tetn.meeue  ero.s ‘In the way which you are thinking, these (men) are not drunken’ (Acts 2:15).
§194. The Imperfect: Though this tense is designated ‘Imperfect’ in Coptic grammatical treatises, it must not be regarded as the equivalent of the Greek Imperfect. It might more exactly be compared to the English Historic or Graphic Present. Its function as a tense is to describe a durative action or state which is now regarded as having been completed. Thus 3.swtm  = ‘He is hearing’, but ne.3.swtm  = ‘Was (i.e., now completed) he is hearing’ = ‘He was hearing’; e.g. nere.p.mhh4e  thr.m.p.laos  4lhl ‘The whole concourse of the people were praying’ (Lk 1:10),  de  me  m.marqa ‘But Jesus was loving Martha’ (Jn 11:5), ne.u.`wrm  de  oube.pe3.eiwt ‘But they were beckoning to his father’ (Lk 1:62), ne.u.4oop  gar  6n.ou.mnt.`a`e  mn  neu.erhu ‘For they were in enmity with one another’ (Lk 23:12).
§195. Sometimes  the Existential Particle pe   appears after the verbal form; e.g. nere.ne3.eiote  de  bhk  pe  tr.rompe  e.q.ilhm ‘His parents were going every year to Jerusalem’ (Lk 2:41), ne.3.6ate  pe  n.q.n.sa3 ‘It (the river) was flowing in the manner of yesterday’ (Josh 4:18). Note: As in the case of the Present (§190), when the Nominal Subject is undefined or has the Indefinite Article, the Impersonal Verb must be used, e.g. ne.un (for ne.oun) ou.blle  pe 6moos  6atn.te.6ih ‘There was a blind man sitting by the road’ (Lk 18:35).
§196. Negation of the Imperfect: As in the Present, Negation of the Imperfect is effected by means of n ... an; e.g.  gar  an  pe  e.moo4e  6n-.5.oudaia ‘For he was not wishing to walk in Judaea’ (Jn 7:1). But as a rule the first particle n  is omitted (§12); e.g.  gar  pisteue  an  ero.3 ‘He was not understanding’ (Jn 2:9).
§197. The Circumstantial: As has been noted (§192n), in formation this tense is the same as II Present. There is also a Future Circumstantial form which is similar to the II Future (§212). It is used in dependent clauses to amplify the main sentence. Strictly speaking, the Circumstantial has no tense. In both Greek and English it would correspond to a participle or a temporal sentence introduced by ‘while’ or ‘as’; e.g. a.3.`e  nai  e.3.4lhl ‘He said this (while) praying’ (Lk 18:11), ne.i.moos  m.mhne  pe  6m  pe.rpe  e.i.5.sbw ‘I was sitting daily in the temple teaching’ (Mt 26:55). The Circumstantial clause may precede the main sentence; e.g. e.3.6moos  6n  te3.ri  a.u.ouwn4 (for a.ou.ouwn4) ei  e.6oun  4aro.3 ‘As he was sitting in his cell, a wolf came to him’ (Z 334.b.4).
§197a. The Circumstantial is used after verbs expressing cessation, sentient perception and the like, to introduce a second verb which is usually expressed in English by a participle or an infinitive; e.g. a.s.lo  e.s.4a`e  nmma.s  e.pei+.6wb ‘She ceased to speak with her about this matter’ (Ruth 1:18), a.3.nau  m.p.noute  e.3.nhu ‘He saw the Spirit of God coming down’ (Mt 3:16), a.3.6e  ero.ou  e.u.nkotk ‘He found them sleeping’ (Mt 26:40). Note: Before a Nominal Subject, the auxiliary appears in two forms, ere- or e-. As a general rule  ere-  is used in verbal sentences, e.g.  4otm ‘The doors being shut’ (Jn 20:19); and in Non-Verbal sentences with Adverbial Predicate, e.g. mp.r.`e.pai  e.laau  ere.p.6llo  6m.p.swma ‘Do not tell this to anyone while the old man is in the body (i.e. while he lives)(Z 342.a.7).   e-  is used in Non-Verbal sentences with Nominal Predicate in which the subject is either the 1st or 2nd Person Pronoun, or the 3rd Person represented by the Existential Particle pe, te or  ne; e.g. e.ang  ou.s6ime  n.samariths ‘I being a woman of Samaria’ (Jn 4:9), naiat.3  m.p.rwme  e.p.ran  m.p.`oeis  pe  te3.6elpis ‘Blessed is the man while his hope is in the name of the Lord’.
§198. Negation of Circumstantial: This follows the model of Negation of the Present, the only difference being that the verbal prefix  e-  precedes the negative particle n; e.g. a.3.ei  gar  n2i  iw6annhs  e.n.3.ouwn  an  oude  e.n.3.sw  an ‘For John came neither eating or drinking’ (Mt 11:19).