by Dr. Boulos Ayad Ayad
Department of Anthropology
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO
September 2001
original document may be found at

The Origin of the Coptic Language

Semitic or Hemitic: The ancient Egyptian language, which was the origin of the Coptic language, was one of the groups of languages scholars have classified as Hemito- Semitic.1 This classification includes as well ancient Egyptian, Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic. The philologists who agree with this classification discovered that the ancient Egyptian language consisted of two elements: Semitic and Hemitic, or Indian-European. Other scholars believe that the language tended to be of the Semitic group because there was a great similarity between the Semitic and ancient Egyptian languages. At this time, there is no definite answer as to which group is related.2

The Ancient Egyptian Literature: The ancient Egyptian language has its own grammar and literature. Many thousands of distinct texts were left on their pyramids, temples, tombs, obelisks, statues, ostraca, stela, papyri, sarcophagi, coffins, vessels, and different objects. Theses texts can be classified as follow: funeral, military, political, daily life, stories, morals, principles, and instructions, hymns, religious and ritual, and historical.

Stages of the Ancient Egyptian Language: Ancient Egyptian evolved in various stages. It was used from Dynasties I-VIII or from 3180 to 2240 B.C. The writing/inscriptions included the pyramid texts, official documents, formal funerary formulae, tomb inscriptions, and some biographical texts. This stage continued with little modification to the second stage, considered the Middle Egyptian, from Dynasties IX-XI or 2240-1990 B.C. Middle Egyptian was “later contaminated with popular elements. In the later form it survived for some monumental and literary purposes right down to Greco-Roman times, while the earlier form was retained as the religious language.”3 Late Egyptian, from Dynasties XVIII-XXIV (1573 to 715 B.C.), included business documents, letters, stories, literary compositions, and official monuments related to Dynasty XIX and later. In addition to few texts, “wherein the vernacular shows itself unmixed with the ‘classical’ idiom of Middle Egypt,” different non-Egyptian vocabulary appeared in this Late Egyptian stage.4

The Ancient Egyptian Writing: The ancient Egyptian writing began to be abandoned following the fourth and fifth century A.D. but it was used side by side with the Coptic language until the fifth century A.D. The Byzantine occupation of Egypt in the fourth century A.D. and the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century A.D., followed by the widespread use of Arabic, caused the ancient Egyptian language (in Hieroglyphics, Hieratic, and Demotic) to be totally forgotten, along with its scripts.

After many centuries, writers, scholars, and amateurs began the attempt to find an explanation for the Hieroglyphic writing and to decipher the ancient Egyptian language. One of these pioneers was the Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher, of the 17th Century. In the 15th Century and after Horapollo tried to interpret the Hieroglyphic symbols, others copied the Hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Egyptian monuments, such as P. Lucas, R. Pococke, C. Niebuhr and other visitors to Egypt such as F.L. Norden. Through the 18th Century, few scholars succeeded Father Kircher. Among those were: A. Gordon, N. Freret, P.A.L. D’Origny, J.D. Marsham, C. de Gebelin, J.H. Schumacher, J.G. Koch, T.Ch. Tychsen and P.E. Jablonski. Also, few scholars in the 18th Century could identify the meaning of the oval as J.J. Barthélemy, de Guignes and F. Zoega.

Towards the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 envaded Egypt. Pierre Françoise-Xavier Bouchard, an engineer and one of Napoleon’s officers, was engaged in cleaning the ruined Fort Rashid. In 1799 he discovered the Rosetta Stone, a slab made of basalt, which measures 3 feet 9 inches long by 2 feet 4 ½ inches wide by 11 inches thick. A copy of the inscriptions of the stone was sent by Bonaparte to Paris but the Rosetta Stone itself became the property of the British and was later housed in the British Museum in 1802. The slab was inscribed in 196 B.C. in Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek, during the time of Ptolemy V Epiphanies.

Sylvestre de Sacy in 1802 could read some of the names mentioned on the slab but he failed to recognize an alphabet. De Sacy was followed by J.D. Akerbald, who read the inscriptions unsuccessfully but identified a few words in addition to the names written in Demotic and their equivalent in Greek.

Others showed their interest in deciphering the lab but they failed to read it until Thomas Young, who studied the inscriptions on the slab and finally “was able to compile a Greek-Demotic vocabulary containing eighty-six groups, most of them correct.” “…This effort, however, was based largely on guesswork.”

The last scholar who deciphered the Ancient Egyptian language and its symbols successfully was Jean François Champollion, who recognized “that the Hieroglyphics were neither exclusively phonetic, nor wholly symbolic, but a combination of the two.” According to this he was able to read many of the names of the kings and queens of Egypt and he wrote a book about Egyptian grammar and an Egyptian dictionary. After the death of Champollion in 1832, other scholars continued the study of the Ancient Egyptian language and made a lot of progress, among those were: Lespsius, Ludwig Stern, Adolph Erman, K. Sethe, W. Speigelberg, H. Thompson, H. Grapow, H.K. Brugsch, L. Griffith, E. Revillout and S. de Buck.5

As a result of such decipherment, we know that the ancient Egyptian language was written with different syllables and began with pictures borrowed from nature, such as drawings of human beings (men, women, and children), animals, plants, houses and palaces, water, hills, the sun, moon, and sky, wind, and ships. All of these signs number about 721 syllables. Every sign was first written as a picture of one of the syllables in its complete form, which is called a pictograph or “ideogram, or pictures for whole words; phonograms, or pictures for syllables; alphabetic signs, or pictures for individual letters.”6

In many words, written with syllabic signs, the last letter of the syllable is written out. This letter is called the phonetic complement. It is not to be pronounced separately, but it is used in order that the reader may know how the syllable should end.7

Moreover, the ancient Egyptian writing had what we call determinatives, which usually attached to the end of the word and were silent. To some extent, these gave the meaning or the general idea of the word as well as a picture. When one reads a text, there are no spaces between the words as the texts were written as one sentence with syllables or alphabetic signs, but those who can read the ancient Egyptian language know the end of each word from the determinatives. Some words express abstract ideas; in these cases, they used the picture of a roll of papyrus. Thus, determinatives are useful in knowing the meaning of some words but in other instances, they indicate just a general idea. Still other words have no determinatives and their meaning is known through practice in reading Hieroglyphics.8

The Different Writing: The ancient Egyptians considered their language sacred, taught to them by the God Thoth. For this reason, the language lasted about 4,000 years with some changes from one period to the next. Even the number of signs remained the same through the history of ancient Egypt, and the syllables and signs of Hieroglyphics remained likewise the same. Before Dynasty XI until Dynastic XXV, they used abbreviated writing, which is called Hieratic. After this period, Hieratic became abnormal Hieratic; it was then abbreviated and become more cursive, which scholars consider the Demotic writing.9 When the Greeks saw the Hieroglyphic writing form, they gave it the name “hiergrammata,” which was derived from “hieros” (“holy”) and “glyphein” (“to carve”). “Grammata” means “letters”; thus, the entire meaning was “sacred carved letters.”10

Hieroglyphic: The Egyptians began to use their hieroglyphics writing during Dynasty I (about 3200 B.C.) — or probably not long before the First Dynasty — until August 24, 394 A.D.

Hieroglyphics has its own system of writing, being written from left to right, right to left, or from top to bottom. This system agrees with the “Boustrophedon” theory11 that, when a bull ploughed the land, he started from left to right or from the right to left and went from one row to the next from the top to the bottom. When the ancient Egyptian noticed this, he used the same method in his writing. This system was adopted by other nations as well.

On the walls of various monuments can be seen ancient Egyptian inscriptions without any spaces, punctuation, or special signs. Moreover, ancient Egyptians never wrote in separate sentences.

Hieratic: Before the Middle Kingdom the Egyptians abbreviated their syllables and the Greeks gave it the name of “hieratikos,” meaning “sacred or priestly.”12 It is now know as Hieratic, “Because in the Greco-Roman age it was the usual script employed by the priests . . .And in the latest period, as already said, Hieratic was generally employed by the priests when writing religious texts on papyrus.”13

The direction of the hieratic writing was from right to left but during the Middle Kingdom, Hieratic was often written in vertical columns. Gradually, it also came to be written horizontally.

Hieratic was used for writing on papyrus and on wooden sarcophagi. Thus, it was employed for the purposes of administration, legal documents, religious and magical texts, private and official letters, instructions and educational morals, stories and literature, accounts, inventories, lists, and scientific books.

Many of the hieratic texts found in the desert on stelae and rocks, considered graffiti writing, were left by travelers or those working the mines and quarries. Writing Hieratic on stone became widespread among the Egyptians, especially toward the end of the New Kingdom and Dynasty XXII, which was established by Libyan mercenaries.14

Around the eighth century B.C., Hieratic became a more cursive script, called “abnormal Hieratic,” after which Demotic writing appeared.15

Demotic: The third script used by the ancient Egyptians was Demotic, which was named from the Greek word “demotikos,” meaning “common.”16 Its use began about 715 B.C. and continued until around 470 to 476 A.D., from Dynasty XXV to late Roman times.17 We have many papyri written in Demotic script, including different forms of legal documents dealing with marriage, divorce, buy, selling, slavery, and inheritance, administrative documents, stories, literature, texts of wisdom, prophesies, and magical and funeral texts.

In the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language, the Demotic became group writing, meaning that one word was written in four or five syllables and the scholars transliterated them into one or two letters. Thus, the language became complicated and, with the presence of the Greeks in the ancient Middle East, their language became widespread during the Ptolemaic period. The Ptolemy employed the Greek language in administration and soon it became the official language of the rulers. During this period, the Egyptians were using Demotic as their native language with Greek being the official language. At the same time, many Greek words found their way into Demotic writings. And “none of these styles of writing (Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Coptic) utterly banished the others, but each as it arose restricted the domain of its progenitor. In the Greco-Roman period all these were in use contemporaneously.”18

The Ancient Egyptian Language
and Its Two Systems

The ancient Egyptian language had two systems: written and spoken.

The Written Language: The Hieroglyphics, Hieratic, and Demotic are considered written language because they were written with consonants and semi-consonants and did not include any kind of nunnation, which is contrary to Hebrew and Arabic. Both of these latter two languages contain nunnation, symbols that should be located above and below the letters. Such symbols represent the vowels and could assist in reading Hebrew and Arabic texts correctly although most of their alphabets are considered consonants. The ancient Egyptians did not invent such nunnation. Thus, the pronunciation of the ancient Egyptian language disappeared gradually after the Byzantine Empire. But during the Roman Empire in the third century A.D., the Egyptians started to write their language with the 24 Greek letters in addition to 7 letters from Demotic. They wrote using these 31 letters, ignoring the approximately 720 symbols employed by their ancestors. By doing this, they preserved the pronunciation of their language and giving us Coptic.

The Spoken Language System: Some scholars hold that the ancient Egyptians had another language in addition to the written form. Father Shenouda Maher summarized the opinion of Chain concerning the popular national language of ancient Egypt, . . . in which he emphasizes that the Egyptian and Coptic languages have been together simultaneously since olden times. Chain has presented a copious and detailed study and has indicated that the Egyptian language is not a spoken language is so far as it is basically derived from Coptic, assuming that Coptic is the origin, and that the Egyptian language was used by the priests and the scribes in their written work only.

This means that the Egyptian language is the language of the Egyptian who spoke in Coptic and who used this language for scriptural purposes only. This Egyptian language was only known to scribes and totally unknown to the public.19

The two systems could be explained by assuming all Egyptian since very ancient times spoke one language, but this language took a different form when used in writing. The oral language was colloquial and used by the common people. Although the spoken language developed over time, it was not written during the rule of the pharaohs. As noted earlier, it was finally written in the third century A. D., utilizing the 31 letters from Greek and Demotic. Utilizing all of these letters allowed for the correct pronunciation of the written language, primarily because the ancient Egyptian did not include vowels.20

In any case, the Coptic language “is, at base, a dialect of Ancient Egyptian; many of the nouns and verbs found in the Hieroglyphic texts remain unchanged in Coptic, and a large number of others can, by making proper allowance for phonetic decay and dialectic differences, be identified without difficulty.”21

The Coptic Language
Its Script, Dialects, and Literature

The importance of Coptic philologically is due to its being the only form of Egyptian in which the vowels are regularly written . . .. The vocabulary is very different from that of the older period and includes many Greek loan-words . . ..

The word order is more Greek than Egyptian . . . at all events it is extensively influenced by Greek biblical literature. The first entative efforts to transcribe the old Egyptian language into Greek letters belong to the second century A.D., and are of a pagan character (horoscopes, magical texts, and the like).22

Attempts toward Proto-Coptic: It is difficult to accept that the Egyptian language “is basically derived from Coptic, assuming that Coptic is the origin.”23 More usually, Coptic is considered a continuation of the ancient Egyptian language but written in with the Greek and Demotic alphabets in the third century A.D. There were some attempts to write the ancient Egyptian language using the Greek Alphabet before this time.

One of the oldest attempts to write verbal Egyptian (Proto-Coptic) with Greek script is the Heidelberg Papyrus no. 414 which goes back to the middle of the third century B.C. It contains a list of Coptic terms written with Greek script and a Greek-Coptic glossary, which is written by a Greek . . .. text, however, is a collection of Inscriptions at Abidos (Abydos) (the western side of Balyana), which is dated to the second century.24

Old Coptic: Father Shenouda continues his study concerning the development of the pronunciation system of the ancient Egyptian vocabulary, noting that “during the Roman period . . . an increasing number of Greek characters mixed with words derived from Demotic, most particularly in the cases where the accurate pronunciation of certain Egyptian terms is mostly needed.”25

As an example, Father Shenouda writes about the Munich Papyrus, the Egyptian Pagan Papyri dated from the second Century A.D., the London and Leiden Magical Papyrus dated in the third century A. D., and other magical papyri dated in the first three centuries A.D. Why are all these papyri written in Greek scripts with Demotic characters? Father Shenouda answers,

Writing in Greek script with Demotic characters is a safeguard in these magical papyri against mispronunciation of certain terms related to magic and the devils . . .. It becomes evident then that the above papyri which are known as Old Coptic and to which we refer in the Coptic dictionaries with this sign O evolved out of necessity among pagan groups before the appearance of Christianity in Egypt.26

The Dialects of the Coptic Language: The Coptic language was divided into different dialects according to the regions of Egypt and the length of the Nile Valley. Egyptians lived in varied places — around the marshes, close to the banks of the Nile, in oases, in cities, while many worked in agriculture and dwelt in villages. For this reason, we can trace the dialects in Egypt from the earliest time of the ancient Egyptian language until it appeared clearly and was written in the Greco-Roman era. From studying the early manuscripts and inscriptions onward, philologists have divided the Coptic language into Boheiric, and the Upper Egyptian dialects of Sahidic, Faiyumic, and Akhmimic, as well as secondary dialects that follow.27

Boheiric Dialect: This is the dialect of Lower Egypt. Some scholars gave it this name thinking it belonged to the language of the area neighboring the Mediterranean. However, it probably belonged to the province of Bohira in Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt lies in the northern part of the country and the North in Egypt refers to Bahri. The Boheiric dialect was previously and wrongly called the Memphatic dialect. It is believed that Boheiric was the first dialect used in the style of writing upon which agreement was reached in the city of Alexandria. In general, Boheiric is the only dialect whose writing form was to some extent borrowed from the Demotic. It appears that the pronunciation in the other dialects had no relation to the Demotic nor did those creating the other dialects use Boheiric spelling as a beginning point. Unfortunately, the original pronunciation of the Boheiric dialect is not known exactly as all the papyri having linguistic importance have disappeared. In the eleventh century A.D., after the seat of the Pope was moved from Alexandria to Cairo, the Bohairic dialect became the literary language for all of Egypt and is still used, to some extent, in Coptic liturgy.28

The Boheiric dialect was employed in Alexandria and its districts, the Nile Delta, and the Valley of Natrun. The books of the Coptic Church today are written in the Bohairic dialect, with the sole exception of one hymn. Another manuscript, entitled “The History of How the Miaroun Is Made,” was written mostly in Boheiric although some parts are in the Sahidic dialect.29

Upper Egyptian Dialects (Sahidic, Faiyumic, and Akhmimic): (1) Sahidic refers to Upper Egypt or the “high land,” for the Nile runs from Upper to Lower Egypt. “Upper” refers to the south of Egypt and in Arabic has the name “Sahid,” from which the Sahidic dialect appeared. This dialect belongs to area around ancient Thebes and thereafter was employed for the literature of Upper Egypt. From the point of view of Worell, “the dialect [was] established after the Boheiric dialect and it seems that it was borrowed from one of the dialects which was used as a spoken dialect in the northern part of the Nile Valley from Memphis until Asyut.”30

(2) Faiyumic was employed in Faiyum and incorrectly called Bashmouria.

(3) Akhmimic was used in the city of Akhmim until it weakened and gave way to the Sahidic.31

These are the main dialects and from them appeared some secondary dialects, including the following.

(a) The Memphitic was used as a spoken language in Memphis and replaced the Boheiric dialect. (b) The secondary Akhmimic or the Asyutic was used from Oxyrhynchus (El Behnisa) to Asyut and was descended from the Akhmimic. (c) The dialect of Bashmur was borrowed from the Boheiric. According to Worell, the native writers of Egypt mentioned this dialect in their books. It was probably an Egyptian dialect spoken by the Greeks who lived in the eastern part of the Nile Delta and was written in Greek letters. (d) The Oasis dialect was a mixed dialect from the Faiyumic and Sahidic according to the Coptic text discovered by Ahmed Fakhry in 1951.32

The Coptic Literature: The Copts used their language with its dialects in their literature, religious texts, the Bible, letters, stories, receipts, the Books of the Coptic Church, legal documents, histories of their church, and general among the Coptic population. In addition to their writing in Coptic, they translated different books from Greek into Coptic and from Coptic into Arabic or from Coptic into Greek, Syriac, and Latin. The most important translation was that of the Bible from Greek into Coptic. This was an easy task for the Egyptian as many of the time as well as some scholars of ours were familiar with the two languages: Greek and Coptic. Even though the work was time consuming, the religious zeal of the translators prodded them to an accurate translation. It appears that the entire Bible was translated into the two dialects of Boheiric and Sahidic.33

Coptic literature was divided into two categories: Greek influenced and non-Greek influenced. The first category was influenced by the Greek culture and was widespread in Alexandria; a city established by Alexander the Great. Most of its inhabitants were Greek with the Hellenistic culture widely known, which compelled many fathers of the church to write in Greek. For a time, their writings were translated into Coptic for the benefit of Copts in different parts of Egypt. The second category was pure Coptic literature such as that which appeared in the writings of St. Anthony, St. Pachomius, and others who knew no language other than Coptic. Moreover, Saint Shenoute knew the Greek language but did not use it in his writings or preaching, preferring Coptic in its Sahidic dialect, which was employed by the Coptic Church during its periods of greatest activity.34

Also relevant to the second category are the many elements of ancient Egyptian civilization inherited by the Copts, especially in the fields of science such as medicine, anatomy, chemistry, pharmacy, architecture, and engineering as well as mathematics and astronomy. Various Coptic documents available to us have revealed such branches of study from the Greco-Roman times until the Arab conquest.35

Along with scientific topics, the Copts also wrote the history of the church and the history of the Patriarchs of Alexandria. The most famous writers included: John of Nikiu (second half of the seventh century A.D.); Sawirus Ibn al-Muqaffa (second half of the tenth and early eleventh century); Bishop Mikhail of Tanis, who was contemporaneous with Sawirus the Patriarch and who wrote the history of the Patriarchs (especially from Khael the Third, 880-907 A.D., until Senouthios, 1032-1046 A.D.); and Bishop Yusab of Fowa (from the thirteenth century A.D.)36

(2) The Synexarium is the book that includes the biographies of the fathers and the saints of the church and their deeds. In addition to the Synexarium, some other volumes on Coptic saints exist, including those of Palladius, Athanasius, Jerome, and John Cassian. The Synexarium is still in the Coptic Church on specific occasions, especially during the Mass, and usually is read by one of the priests of the church.

(3) In “The History of the Councils,” the Copts wrote about local and international assemblies.37

(4) Several books and documents have been discovered that were written by the Copts on general history, such as that by John of Nikiu concerning the history of the world from the creation until the Arab conquest.38

Moreover, the Copts worked in different braches of literature, both religious and general, in addition to their translation activities. An example is the translation of the Bible from Greek into Coptic started in the second century A. D. This translation was very accurate because the translations were familiar with both languages. As mentioned earlier, between the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the entire Bible was translated into two Coptic dialects, Boheiric and Saidic, and some portions were translated into Akhmimic and Faiyumic dialects. At the same time, many “patristic” texts were handed down in their writings. In addition, the biographies of the saints were important in strengthening the faith of the people. For this reason, thousands of books were written about these saints, monks, martyrs, and some of the bishops and patriarchs. The Coptic literature is rich in its novels and stories, which scholars have divided into two categories: native and religious. Little remains of the native literature, but the deeds and documents that have survived were letters and contracts that give us an idea concerning the everyday life in Coptic Egypt. Other writings referred to the monks and the activities inside the monasteries.39

The Copts did not use poems in the non-religious sense. Any poetry they wrote belonged to the hymns of the angles, Saint Mary, prophets, saints, and martyrs; thus, they names the poems “alhan,” meaning “hymns.” They also used poems form in some stories and in prayers borrowed from the Bible, especially from the Book of Psalms or the New Testament. They were employed in praising the Lord. Many of the church fathers wrote articles on theology and were famous for their writings that defended their faith. Many others wrote about monks, their life, their conduct, and about how to be isolated in the desert to worship God. They also wrote about the laws of the monks, which should be followed in order to be certain of inheriting the eternal kingdom.40

The Copts took the custom of wailing from the ancient Egyptian, which is clear from the hundreds of funeral stelae discovered in various parts of Egypt.41

Coptic magic was widespread among both pagans and Christians. This was not a new phenomenon in Coptic Egypt but goes back to ancient Egyptians when magicians practiced; this practice continues to the present time. The belief in magic came about as a result of the limited knowledge of the common people concerning the natural occurrences in everyday life, which they believe were caused by evil or good spirits. Accordingly, the populace thought it had to practice magic to discourage the evil spirits and encourage the good ones. Thus, the study of magic is of utmost importance in supplying us with information on cultural anthropology when we study the problems of humans in different societies. Scholars noted from their study of Coptic magic that many Eastern and Western nations have borrowed spells from the Coptic tradition.42 In addition, Flinders Petrie has published 270 spells well known to the ancient Egyptians in his book Amulets, where he mentioned, “the Egyptian Magic is the foundation for all kinds of magic in the earth.”43

The Role of the Coptic Church: “The confirmation of the Coptic Alphabet as well-know to-day, in addition to the spelling of words and laying the foundation of stylistic and grammatical regulations, are mostly the work of the Christian church in Egypt.”44

The Greek language was utilized in Alexandria in a missionary role between the Greek and the Copts.45 As Christianity was adopted by many of the Egyptians (Coptic Christianity), their language was used throughout Lower and Upper Egypt; however, Greek did not spread widely among the Egyptians except in Alexandria.46

As a result of Christian missionary activity, the translation of the Four Gospels took place before 270 A.D., but all “the translation of the Scriptures which started in the third century A.D. was completed in full in the fourth century.”47

The Annunciation tidings and the Psalms, however, are probably the first Scriptures that were the subject of the translation from Greek. This was followed by the translation of the rest of the Holy Scriptures and other church books into Coptic up until the Council of Chalcedony in 451 A.D. After which the Copts lost interest in the translation from Greek.48

The Authors and Their Work
in the Coptic Language

In addition to that mentioned earlier, it would be useful to cite here those who started to use the Coptic language in their literature between the second and fourth centuries, including the following saints: Antony, Hieracas (the scribe of Leontopolis), Pachomius, Theodorus of Tabennese, and Horsiesos.49

Even the texts of the Nag Hammadi Library do not have any dates, but a good number of scholars believe that these texts, which were translated from Greek into Coptic, were from the main period “ranging at least from the beginning to the end of the fourth century C.E.”50

St. Shenoute, one of the greatest writers in Coptic literature in the fifth century, “knew theology and was interested in many subtle questions of ethics and physics, which he treated in a manner characteristic of his times. His influence on Coptic literature is due not only to his vast production but also to the work of translation that he fostered and supervised, as it seems, in his monastery.”51

Most of those who worked in Coptic literature during the fourth and fifth centures were translators. They translated from Greek into Coptic many “hagiographical works.” Some of the names of these translators included “Athanasius I, Basil the Great, Cyril I of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ephraem Syrus, Epiphanies of Salamis, Jerome the Presbyter, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius, Proclus of Constantinople, Severian of Gabala, Severus of Antioch, Theodosius I, Theophilus of Alexandria. In addition to the topics noted earlier, “There are also the Apocrypha . . . the Agophthegmata Patrum, and the Canonical literature, which are treated in their particular articles.”

Because of the severe conflict between the Coptic Church and that of Byzantium as well as others, “This is probably the moment when Greek began to be perceived as the language of the oppressors and the patristic Greek (“’international’) culture was looked upon with suspicion as the vehicle of false dogmas and misleading historical information.”52

In the sixth century, we read of the following books written in Coptic, one by Eusebius about the history of the church (in two parts) and others by Macarius of Tkow about his Panegyric.

The same mixture of history and legend is to be found in many other texts Recounting the lives of such figures as Severus of Antioch, the famous monk John of Lycopolis, and Dioscorus . . .. Of a more polemic character were the “Plerophories,” a series of little stories by John of Mayuma to prove the thesis of anti-Chalcedonians.53

In this century, we also read about the Council of Nicea, the Didascalia and the Acts of Ephesus, which concentrated on Victor of Tabennese, the monk.

In the sixth century as well, the Coptic literature included the Nicean Council and other texts, including the lives of great monks, their history, legends, and miracles. Among these monks were Abraham of Farshut, Matthew the Poor, and Moses of Balyana.

In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, we have different documents written in Coptic by St. Damian, the patriarch of Alexandria, St. Pistentius, bishop of Coptos (Qift), St. Athanasius, the martyr, Claudius, and the martyr George. John of Shmun wrote a panegyries about St. Mark the Evangelist and another about . Anthony. Bishop John of Parallos in the northern Delta wrote “against the apocryphal and heretical books”; Rufus of Shotep “wrote the last preserved example of exegetical activity before the Arab invasion of 642.” The Patriarch Benjamin I left a “homily on the miracle of Cana” and a “short passage of the panegyrie of Shenoute.” Patriarch Agathon wrote a homily and “composed a panegyric of Benjamin.” Of the patriarch John III, St. Menas of Pshati, bishop of Nikiou, Zacharias Bishop of Sakha, and the patriarch Mark III, some wrote a panegyric of saints and others composed theological treatises or described some of the lives of the patriarchs or wrote Coptic homilies. Because of their usage of the Coptic language, they demonstrated that one should “appreciate . . . the ability of all these men to write and speak a Coptic language that is perfectly capable of expressing any concept desired.”54

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Coptic writings were concentrating on propagandist, to strengthen the faith of the people in their church and for those outside the church “to affirm the existence, antiquity, and orthodoxy of the doctrine of the Coptic church.”55

The ninth to the eleventh centuries was a period of decline for the Coptic language and literature because of the spread of the Arabic language.

Therefore, the historian should first recognize in this final stage of Coptic literature the last activity of Coptic writers — an activity of redaction, choice, and systematization, not creation. Then, by means of these late texts, the historian may trace stratifications to recover the older stages of literature. For, if it is true that the Coptic writing is consistent in quality and subject matter, being almost exclusively religious, its products are in fact diverse in character, content, and style.56

The Decline of the Coptic Language

The Coptic language is the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language but is written in the Greek alphabet plus seven Demotic letters.57 The Copts or the Christian Egyptians employed it as their spoken and written language in their daily lives as well as in their churches for several centuries before the Arab conquest. After the invasion of the Arabs in 642 A.D., Arabic gradually began to replace the Coptic language, especially in 705/706 A. D. when the “Umayyad Viceroy ‘Abd-Allah Ibn ‘Abd-al-Malik issued the hazardous and untimely decree substituting Arabic for Coptic in all state Affairs.”58 Thus, the native scribe had to learn Arabic, which is attested by the number of bilingual documents written in different centuries.

The decline in the use of Coptic was also linked to the widespread acceptance of Islam, with many Christians adopting the new religion in order to work as officials in the Islamic government. Evidence of the decline of Coptic can be seen in a text from the tenth century urging the preservation of the Coptic language. From this we can deduce that Arabic had begun to replace Coptic in most parts of the Nile Valley in this century.

The grip of the Coptic language grew weaker even though it continued to be used as a spoken and liturgical language until about the thirteenth century A.D. until the thirteenth century, when Arabic became the written and spoken language and Copts began to write their theological books in Arabic. However, in Upper Egypt, Coptic was still in use until the seventeenth century. When the language began to fade, Copts wrote it in Arabic letters, some manuscripts of which we have indicating this usage.59

The Arab writer Al-Maqrisi, who lived in the fifteenth century, mentioned that the monks in some monasteries were still using the Coptic language and most of the wives and children of Christians living in Upper Egypt used Coptic in their daily speech. In addition, Maspero stated that the inhabitants of Upper Egypt were speaking and writing the Coptic language until the early years of the sixteenth century A.D. By the eighteenth century, the Coptic language was considered dead even though it is still employed in the many prayers and liturgies of the Coptic Church to this day and some of its vocabulary has been mixed into the Arabic in the modern, common spoken Arabic of Egypt.60


1 W. Lu, “Semitic Languages,” Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 20, p. 314.
2 E.A. Wallis Budge, The Mummy (New York: Causeway Books, 1974), pp. 3-7; George Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 144; R. Engelbach, editor, Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, 2d edition (Cairo: Ministry of Culture and National Orientation, Antiquities Department of Egypt, 1961), pp. 303-304; Stephen Quirke and Jeffrey Spencer, editors, The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992), pp. 118-123.
3 Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3d edition (Oxford: Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, 1976), p. 5.
4 Ibid.
5 P.E. Cleator, Lost Languages (New York: Mentor Books, 1962), pp. 34-59; Stephen Quirke and Carol Andrews, editors, The Rosetta Stone (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), pp. 3-5; Georges Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, p. 248.
6 Samuel A.B. Mercer, An Egyptian Grammar (New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1978), p. 3.
7 Ibid. p. 8.
8 Ibid. pp. 10-13.
9 George Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, pp. 121, 125.
10 P.E. Cleator, Lost Languages (New York: Mentor Book, 1962) p. 35.
11 Hans Jensen, Sign, Symbol and Script (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969) p. 148.
12 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 10.
13 Ibid. See also, Engelbach, Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, pp. 322-323
14 Georges Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, p. 121
15 Ibid.
16 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 10; Engelbach, Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, p. 324.
17 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 10.
18 Ibid. p. 9.
19 Fr. Shenouda Maher, “The Evolution of the Coptic Language,” Coptologia (Historica Coptica), vol. 16, 2000, pp. 61-62.
20 Ibid. p. 62.
21 E.A. Wallis Budge, The Mummy, p. 355.
22 Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 6.
23 Fr. Shenouda Maher, “The Evolution of the Coptic Language”, p. 62.
24 Ibid., p. 63.
25 Ibid. p. 64.
26 Ibid.
27 Yassah Abd El-Messieh, “el-Lahagaat el-Qibtiya wa-athaaruha el-Adabiya,” Safhet Min Tarikh el-Quibt, Resalet Mar Mina el-Khamesa, (Alexandria, Egypt: The Society of Mar Mina the Meraculos, 1954), pp. 41.  Some parts of the Coptic dialects originally written in Arabic, but the author of this article translated them into English.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid. pp. 41-42.
30 Ibid. p. 42.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid. p. 43.
33 Ibid. p. 44.
34 Murad Kamil, The Civilization of Egypt in the Coptic Period, Matba‘at Dar el-‘Alam el-‘Arabi, Cairo, p. 123 (in Arabic).
35 Murad Kamil, “From Diocletian to the Entrance (Occupation) of the Arabs,” The History of the Egyptian Civilization (Cairo: The Ministry of Culture and National Organization), vol. 4, p. 245 (in Arabic).
36 Ibid. pp. 248-250.
37 Ibid. pp. 250-251.
38 Ibid. p. 251.
39 Ibid. pp. 252-253.
40 Ibid. pp. 253, 255, 256.
41 Murad Kamil, The Civilization of Egypt in the Coptic Period, p. 122.
42 Murad Kamil, “el-Qibt fi Rukb el-hadarah el-‘Aalamiya”, safhat Min Tarikh el-Qibt, Resalet Mar Mina el-Khamesa (Alexandria, Egypt: The Society of Mar Mina the Meraculos, 1954), pp. 20-21.
43 Murad Kamil, “From Diocletian to the Entrance (Occupation) of the Arabs,” pp. 253, 255, 256.
44 Fr. Shenouda Maher, “The Evolution of the Coptic Language”, p. 65.
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid.
47 Ibid., p.67.
48 Ibid. p. 68.
49 Tito Orlandi, “Literature, Copte,” The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), vol. 5, p. 1451.
50James M. Robinson, General editor, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers), p. 15.
51 Tito Orlandi, “Literature, Copte,” p. 1453.
52 Ibid., p. 1454.
53 Ibid., p. 1455.
54 Ibid. pp. 1455-1456.
55 Ibid. p. 1457.
56 Ibid. p. 1459.
57 Murad Kamil, Coptic Egypt (Cairo: Scribe Egyptien, 1968), pp. 23-24
58 Aziz S. Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1968), p. 17.
59 Murad Kamil, The Civilization of Egypt in the Coptic Period, pp. 71-72; Yassah ‘Abd el-Messieh, “El lahagaat el-Qibtiya wa-ataaruha el-Adabiya,” pp. 49-52.
60 Ibid. p. 50; Fr. Shenouda Maher, “ Coptic Language, Spoken,” The Coptic Encyclopedia, pp. 605-606.