Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Will the Coptic Language Rise Again?

Portion of an article appearing in Egyptology News and RantRave.

Some people agonise over endangered species. My pet cause is endangered languages. When I hear that a dialect is dying out or that young people aren’t passing on an obscure language, it saddens me. It is one thing to examine shards of pottery or fragments of a manuscript found insulating a wall. It is another matter entirely when people alive today represent and advocate a point of view that fell from political dominance. When I hear about the descendants of British Loyalists proudly proclaiming their ancestry, it makes my own country’s history come alive with the freshness and immediacy of current events. It is for this reason that I so enjoy Alistair Cooke’s history of America. To me, the proper way to study the past is to recreate the crossroads at which past generations once stood, to wonder anew about truths received as a part of collective memory.

It is generally believed that Coptic is an extinct language, alive only in the prayer books and scriptures of Coptic Christianity, which is one of the major branches of the Christian faith tradition. Coptic is the language of ancient Egypt. Unlike Arabic , it is not Semitic but Afro Asiatic.1 In its earliest from, it was written with hieroglyphics. Later, it was written with a phonetic alphabet which is mainly Greek but has added characters for sounds not found in Greek.

The Islamic conquest of Egypt involved harsh repression of coptic as a spoken language. Indeed even today, the adherents of Coptic Christianity endure civic liabilities in Egypt that are unimaginable in the west.

The most commonly believed time line of the Coptic language lists the mid 1600’s as the time in which the last speaker of this language died. Now there are reports that the language may still be spoken, still a living language.

The most solid report of Coptic language survival comes from the Coptic Monastery of St. Anthony in the Red Sea Mountains about 110 miles southeast of Cairo. According to the “redbooks” web site, the monks in this monastery speak Coptic among themselves as a language of daily business and discourse . The article notes as follows.

“Amazingly, the monks who live here still speak Coptic, a language directly descended from the language of the ancient Egyptians.”

Of course, what really makes a language alive is when families pass it on to children, or better still, when villages perpetuate an endangered tongue. Such reports about Coptic are not numerous enough for those who wish the language well.

Despite this, there is a report of an extended Egyptian family that speaks Coptic among themselves, including even the detail of a woman who got strange looks when she spoke it on her cell phone.

The Daily Star of Egypt reports ‘ “Mona Zaki is one of only a handful of people that continue to use the language in everyday conversation. She speaks a colloquial form of Coptic with her parents and a few relatives that dates back 2,000 years.


I also hope that Coptic will revitalize and be successful.  It would be a shame for the rich language and culture of the Egyptians to forever end up, like so many others, in the dustbin of history.  - Dave

1  I must respectfully disagree with the author here.  Semitic is part of the Afro-Asiatic family.  Egyptian is related to Arabic, Hebrew, and Akkadian.

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