Chapter II. Syllables and Words

§17. In theory every syllable in a word must begin with a consonant; e.g. bwl, son, kba, etc. But many words violate this rule by beginning with a vowel; e.g. wp, erhu, o`, etc. This apparent contradiction can be explained by reference to the hieroglyphic forms, which show that originally they commenced with a weak consonant, usually the glottal stop or Ayin (§6); thus wp  is derived from ip, erhu  from iryw, w`  from d3, wtp  from 3tp.
§18. Two kinds of syllables exist: the open and the closed syllable. Open syllables end in a vowel, closed syllables in a consonant. The general rule may be stated: An open syllable demands a long vowel, e.g. sw, ph; a closed syllable demands a short vowel, e.g. no2, ran. But there are many exceptions to this rule. For example, a long vowel can stand in a closed syllable when it is accented (§19); e.g. 3.bwl ‘He loosens’. And there are numerous examples of short vowels standing in open syllables; e.g. pe ‘Heaven’, 6o ‘Face’, etc. These exceptions can be explained by reference to the hieroglyphic forms, which reveal endings lost by the Coptic period, and also weak consonants which even though written in the old script had long ceased to be pronounced. Thus pe originated from old pt vocalized *pet. 6o is the final form of a word which once contained the weak consonant r (hr, vocalized *hor ® ho [h's dotted]).
§19. Accent or Tone. One syllable in a word or compound-word bears the accent or tone-stress. This syllable is called the Tone Syllable, and its vowel the Formative Vowel. The Tone Syllable is always the last or the last but one in the word; e.g. 3.bwl ‘He loosens’, tone on the last syllable; 3.swtm ‘He hears’, tone on the last but one. Note: Where two vowels stand together, for the purpose of the tone they are reckoned as one vowel; e.g. 6ww.k pronounced hó-ok: ‘Thou also’.
§20. The tone does not remain on the same syllable: when, for example, the word is augmented by the addition of a suffix, the tone moves further towards the end of the word; the original tone syllable, having lost the accent, becomes unstressed and its vowel shortens; e.g. ‘I will loose’, ‘I will loose you’, solsl ‘To comfort’ slswl.k ‘To comfort thee’. Note: As a general rule, in monosyllabic words augmented by another syllable the tone does not shift; e.g. eiwt ‘Father’ plural eiote, pe ‘Heaven’ plural phue. However, a few plurals show exceptions to this rule; e.g. son ‘Brother’ plural snhu, 6wb ‘Thing’ plural 6bhue.
§21. When two or more words are placed closely together to form a compound noun or group, the tone falls on the last word only and the Formative Vowel of the preceding word or words shortens; e.g. 6ou.mise ‘Birthday’ (from 6oou ‘Day’ and mise ‘To give birth to’), pei.rwme ‘This man’ (from pai ‘This’ and rwme ‘Man’), skrkr.p.kot ‘To revolve the wheel’ (from skorkr ‘To roll’ and p.kot ‘The wheel’).
§22. Vocalic changes caused by moving of tone. The loss of tone, as has been noted (§20, 21), meant that long vowels shortened; but if the vowel was already short, it either remains unaltered or disappears altogether; e.g. 6wtb ‘To kill’, 6etb.p.rwme ‘To kill the man’; a3 ‘Flesh’, a3.rir ‘Swine's flesh’; rwme ‘Man’, rm.rakote ‘Man of Alexandria, Alexandrian’; 4wp ‘To receive, 4wp.6mot To give thanks (lit. To receive grace). The last two examples illustrate the tendency for a vowel to disappear completely. This is a feature of the Sahidic dialect, and is most commonly found when the syllable ends in b, l, m, n, r, less commonly when it ends in s, 4, 3, or 6.
§23. The unbroken succession of consonants in Coptic MSS makes word division a matter of extreme difficulty. What is to be made of such a group as ntntmntenot, in which only one vowel is clearly discernable? How is such a succession of consonants to be divided into syllables? Fortunately the writers of Sahidic MSS were aware of this difficulty, and invented a simple method to aid the reader: the Superlinear Stroke, or Syllable Marker (in this version, outside of the tables, replaced by underlining). By placing a stroke over (herein: under) the letters thus b, l, m, n  and p, and less frequently k, s, 4, 3 and 6, the correct division into syllables is indicated. Thus in good MSS, ntntmnteiwt would appear as ntntmnteiwt, indicating the syllabic division Though the stroke is not a vowel sign, and must not be thought of as similar to the Hebrew Vocal Shewa, it is to be noted that this syllable marker in fact appears over those consonants which can function as sonants. This sonant characteristic of some consonants is observable in modern spoken English; e.g. tunnel’, but pronounced tun-l’, patten’ pronounced pa-tn’, or Tottenham(a place name) pronounced locally as ‘tót-num’. The last two examples might be written in Coptic letters, patn and totnm. (Cf. the tl ending common in Mexican Nahuatl; e.g. chocolatl ‘Chocolate’ and coyotl ‘Coyote’.) For convenience in reading Coptic aloud, the student may use a short e’ sound before consonants bearing the syllable marker, so long as he fully understands that this is not in itself a vowel sign. Thus  an ‘We do not know’ may be read en-ten-so-wen an, and bwk  ng.r.6wb ‘Go and work’ as bok neg-er-hob.
§24. Nouns ending in -e which have lost the tone through being closely joined to another word, lose this final vowel; e.g. rm.n.khme ‘Black-man, Egyptian’: from rwme ‘Man’ and n.khme ‘Of black’, 4r.n.ouwt ‘Only son’ from 4hre ‘Son’ and n.ouwt ‘Of one’.
§25. Three Forms or Vowel Structures exist: Absolute, Construct, and Pronominal. They extend to almost all parts of speech, but it is in the verb that they play the most important role. It must be noted that not all the three forms are necessarily found in all words. Only a few nouns have a Pronominal Form (§38). Some of the verbs have only the Absolute Form; e.g. 6mom To be hot’. Further, the three forms are always different from one another; e.g. sw6e ‘To weave’ Absolute Form, whereas sa6t is the Construct Form and the Pronominal Form.
§26. The Absolute Form is the Full Form and is phonetically independent of any other word, i.e. it is separated in pronunciation from the words which follow it. This form always bears the tone; e.g. rwme ‘Man’, bwl ‘To loose’, swtm ‘To hear’. Note: In Crum's Coptic Dictionary words are given in the Absolute Form, but it should be noted that the order of words is determined according to their consonantal structure; e.g. terpose, trir, trre, twrt, tortr, etc.
§27. The Construct Form is used when a word is closely united with a following word. In this case the word in the Construct loses the tone, which passes to its complement. The loss of the tone results in an abridged form exhibiting the vowels in a shortened form (§21, 22); e.g. rm.5me ‘Townsmen’ (from rwme and 5me ‘Town’), 6etb.p.son ‘To kill the brother’ (from 6wtb ‘To kill’ and p.son ‘The brother’). Note: Greek verbs and other foreign loan verbs, as well as late verbs, have no Construct Form. Likewise, they have no Pronominal Form.
§28. The Pronominal Form is that used with the Personal Suffixes, and in contrast to the Construct it bears the tone; e.g. kot.3 ‘To build it’ but Construct ket.p.hi ‘To build the house’, 6otb.3 ‘To kill him’ but Construct 6etb.p.son ‘To kill the brother’. In certain verbal classes (§166, 168-69), the effect of the addition of the suffixes is to draw the tone further to the end of the word; e.g. solsl ‘To console’ but slswl.3 ‘To console him’, moste ‘To hate’ but mestw.k ‘To hate thee’. Note: An abridged form of the Pronominal Form appears in the case of the Possessive Article (§50) which takes the suffixes, as well as in the case of the Auxiliaries of the Verb which also take the suffixes. These forms do not bear the tone, which passes to the thing possessed or the action performed, e.g., pek.4a`e ‘Thy word’, a.3.swtm ‘He heard’.
§29. As has been noted (§22), in MSS no division is observed between words. The following short extract is taken from Zoega Catalogus (hereafter Z; Plate V, transcribed p. 338):


Transcribed in printed books thus:

pe`e-p6l-lo  na3  `e  twoung-  ng-pwt  ng-ta6o3  auw  n-teunou  a3ou`ai+  a3twoun-  a3ta6e-pe3 eiwt  auw  n-tei+6e  aubwk  epeuhi+  eura4e

The old man said to him: Rise up and run and meet him. And immediately he was whole, he rose up, he met his father, and in this way they went to their house rejoicing.

§30. In printed texts an arbitrary division of the original is made, in which the auxiliary and the verbal form are joined together and the direct object added by means of a hyphen; e.g. auw  a.3.6etb-p.rwme ‘And he killed the man’. Note: In Crum's Coptic Dictionary and in most Grammars, the hyphen is used to show at a glance the forms of verbs and prepositions which occur before a noun or pronoun; thus the Construct form of a verb or preposition before another noun is printed with a single hyphen; e.g. r-, pe`e-, e-, n-, etc. When the form is that used with Pronoun Suffixes (the Pronominal Form), a double hyphen is used; e.g. aa=, pe`a=, ero=, m-mo=, etc.
§31. The Long Superlinear Stroke is not to be confused with the syllable marker; it often occurs in MSS at the end of a line over the last letter and represents a final n; e.g. auw nsw.i  a  = auw kaa.nsw.i an ‘And I will not forsake thee’ (Josh 1:5; §396).
§32. Abbreviations of certain Greek titles and nouns are very frequent, e.g.:













(Note also sros for stauros ‘cross’, and  s5  for both stauros and stauroun To crucify’.)
§33. Greek words were spelled phonetically, so it can be difficult to recognize the originals; e.g.:












pelekuV (an interesting example of metathesis)











§34. Punctuation. In the MSS there is no spacing between words. The only punctuation used was the single stop (·) to divide sentences. The double stop (:) was employed at the end of paragraphs. In printed texts Greek punctuation is usually employed. In the present Internet version (2007), dots have been added between word elements to facilitate parsing.