Coptic Language History (1)

Today we will study briefly the history of the Coptic Language in Egypt. This is part one.


Coptic was the spoken language of ancient Egypt until the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT in the seventh century. It was recorded first in the hieroglyphic (sacred) script, the earliest form of Egyptian pictorial writing, and succeeded by the hieratic (priestly), which was the simplified running script, and the demotic (from “demos,” meaning people), which became the popular form of Egyptian writing.

Later, during the reign of the Ptolemaic dynasty, approximately in the third century B.C., instead of the still complicated demotic script, Egyptians began to adopt the Greek alphabet, which became distinguished as Coptic. Because the Greek alphabet could not cope with all the Egyptian sounds, it became necessary to add seven letters from the demotic script to express the full range of the Coptic language. These were, of course, the final seven letters of the new Coptic alphabet, that is, s (shai), f (fay), q (khay), h (houri), j (janja), [ (tchima), and ] (ti). It should be noted, however, that the letter q (khay) existed only in the Bohairic dialect, not in the Sahidic, and that the Akhmimic dialect used the form B to express the sound of the letter h (houri).

In the meantime, the new script was the only form that comprised the vowels unknown in the other ancient Egyptian writings. Consequently, the Coptic script expressed, for the first time, most of the sounds of the hitherto unknown vowels in the ancient Egyptian language.

The influence of the Greek vocabulary on Coptic began with Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C., when the government administration adopted Greek terminology. In the meantime, the government employees learned the Greek language, as did most classes of society in Lower Egypt. This led to the progressive incorporation of Greek words into the local demotic, ending up with the establishment of what is known as Proto-Coptic. This was mainly spoken Egyptian written in Greek characters. The Papyrus Heidelberg 414 from the third century B.C. is the oldest document known to represent this phase in the development of Coptic.

The next stage is known as Old Coptic. In Roman times, from the third to the second century B.C., we find stelae as well as mummy labels and even papyrus documents containing Egyptian demotic names written in Greek letters interspersed with demotic signs beyond the seven aforementioned letters. They were mainly the product of pagan mystic signs, symbols, and horoscopes. Since the Alexandrian population was conversant with Greek as well as with Coptic, many Greek theological terms were used in all attempts to translate the scripture into Coptic. With the spread of Christianity among the inhabitants of the Delta and Upper Egypt where people were not conversant with Greek and only knew the native tongue, it became necessary to translate the scripture into Coptic with fewer Greek influences.

We must assume that the purely Coptic version of the scripture, as well as the liturgies, must have emerged in the course of the third century A.D. Saint Antony, who was himself totally illiterate in Greek, was influenced by the Coptic Gospel dictate to sell all one’s possessions and distribute them among the poor (Mt. 19:21). A Coptic translation must have instructed the native followers of Saint Pachomius.

However, the full translation of the scripture from Greek into Coptic must have been completed only in the course of the fourth century A.D. After the Council of CHALCEDON in 451, the Copts lost their interest in Greek and concentrated on their native tongue. END

From : The Coptic Encyclopedia, Editor in Chief Aziz S. Atiya, University of Utah

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