The Coptic Language

Coptic is the last phase of the evolution of the Ancient Egyptians' language . With the coming of the Greeks and the introduction and spread of Christianity in Egypt , Demotic (which was an earlier phase of the Ancient Egyptian Alphabets and a much less pictographic form than Hieroglyphic and Hieratic , but still too complex and inaccessible for the growing needs of daily life) was found inadequate for the reproduction and rendering of the Christian Scriptures .
Thus , Egyptian scholars and scribes started a new system of transliterating purely Egyptian texts in Greek alphabet , instead of the syllabic script . But they soon realized that this alphabet could not cope with all the native sounds , and thus they solved the problem by means of adopting the last seven additional letters of the Coptic alphabet from their own original Demotic script .
The Coptic language may therefore be defined as the late Egyptian vernacular inscribed or transliterated in the Greek alphabet to which was added seven additional characters from Demotic .
It is very difficult to fix a precise date for the emergence of this new system . It must have been a rather long and gradual process before its final systematization . By way of illustration of this phenomenon , it may be interesting to note that the first known Egyptian document to be transliterated into Greek characters was written a century and a half before Christ . Though we cannot generalize on the basis of such isolated instances as this one , it can be regarded as indicative of later practices .
In the course of the later half of the second century AD , and with the steady progress of Christianity in Egypt , it may be assumed that Coptic was invariably used alongside Demotic and the latter was destined to replace the former altogether .
It is interesting to note that the Coptic language reflected the old Egyptian local dialects . Consequently , we can distinguish in Coptic the following main dialects: Bohairic (or Lower Egyptian) , Saidic (or Upper Egyptian) , Faiyumic and Akhmimic . The dialect used in the present-day church liturgies is the Bohairic .
It is possible that by the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries , most of the books of the Bible had been rendered into Coptic . The oldest Biblical codex hitherto discovered contains on papyrus extensive portions of the Epistoes of St . Paul in Coptic , estimated to have been written around 200 AD . In fact , immense treasures have been found in Coptic written between the second and the fifth centuries , essentially though not exclusively Biblical and religious in character .
Coptic survived the shock of the Arab Conquest of Egypt in the seventh century , and necessarily continued to be the official language in state affairs and book-keeping by the native functionaries and the Arab rulers . In 706 AC , the Umayyad Viceroy Abdullah Ibn Abd El-Malik issued the decree of substituting Arabic for Coptic in all state affairs . Though his injunction could not be carried out in practice , it proved to be an incentive for the native scribe to learn the language of the conqueror and this resulted in the appearance of many bilingual documents in subsequent centuries . In those times of changing Arab Dynasties , Coptic persisted as a spoken and liturgical language until approximately the thirteenth century , with the emergence of native scholars who composed Coptic grammars in Arabic as well as Arabic-Coptic dictionaries to help in the preservation of that tongue .
Is Coptic altogether defunct?
This is a debatable question . Apart from the use of Coptic in church services , we are told that there are isolated villages in Upper Egypt with "family tradition about the pronunciation of Coptic" . On the other hand , it would be an error to describe Coptic as a living language . What is certain is that Coptic has left its mark on the spoken Arabic of Egypt in two ways: firstly , in the residue of a vocabulary that is peculiar to Egyptian Arabic , and secondly , in the nature of the grammar of the vernacular which the early bilingual Copts carried with them .
Currently , the Sunday School Movement (SSM) , under Church sponsorship , has been active in reintroducing classes in Coptic , in order to familiarize the Coptic youth with liturgical terminology and all manner of rituals derived from Coptic .


Fragment of wall relief with scenes of an expedition to punt and King Parahu (middle), on display at the  the Egyptian Museum



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