Centuries of Struggle for Survival of Coptic Language 

 Watani Elhamy Khalil 

Recent work on ancient manuscripts examines the stages of this extraordinary language shift 

The picture shows:At a public lecture in Coptic studies at UCLA on 23 February: From left, front row: Mr Hany Takla, president of St Shenouda Society; Dr Arietta Papaconstantinou, the lecturer; and Dr Claudia Rapp, professor of history at UCLA. Back row: Dr Gawdat Gabra, visiting professor of Coptic studies at Claremont Graduate University; and Dr Jacco Dieleman, assistant professor of Egyptology at UCLA.  

When did the Coptic language cease to become the language of daily life in Egypt and why?


That was the topic of a lecture given by Dr. Arietta Papaconstantinou at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on February 23, 2007. The lecture was attended by over forty-five people, one third university students, one third from the Coptic community and one third from the public at large.

 The lecturer was introduced by Dr Jacco Dieleman, assistant professor of Egyptology, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Dr Dieleman also announced that classes in Coptic Language would be offered at the university starting January 2008 for both undergraduate and graduate students. 

Dr Papaconstantinou is currently a fellow in Byzantine Studies at the prestigious Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington D.C. She is working on a project entitled, "The Rise and Fall of Coptic: A Cultural History of the Language and its Speakers." She is on a leave of absence from the Collège de France in Paris.


 Papaconstantinou is a specialist in Coptic and Byzantine studies, both as a philologist and cultural historian, as exemplified by her book ++Le culte des saints en ?gypte des Byzantins aux Abbassides. L’apport des inscriptions et des papyrus grecs et coptes,++ collection "Le monde byzantin", CNRS ?ditions, Paris 2001. 

Papaconstantinou’s lecture at UCLA was entitled: ++‘They have forgotten Their Language and Speak the Language of the Hijra’++ – Reconsidering the Fate of Coptic after the Arab Conquest.


 When the Arab army leader Amr ibn al-As conquered Egypt in 642 AD, he subjugated a Christian country where proficiency in their native Coptic tongue and Greek were the norm. Despite the gradual introduction of Arabic in Egyptian society, the first two centuries of Arab rule were productive in terms of original Coptic literature. The form and content of those texts have much to say about the self-definition of the Egyptian Christian communities during that period.  

However, even though ecclesiastical authors in Egypt did not start using Arabic until the tenth century, when they did start they almost completely abandoned Coptic as a writing language.


Over the following two centuries, Coptic gradually disappeared as a spoken language as well, so that by the thirteenth century, Coptic was only used in formal ritual contexts, primarily the liturgy.

 Although Arabicisation was widespread among the Christian communities of the Middle East, only Coptic was eventually fully supplanted by Arabic, thus bringing a longstanding tradition of multilingualism within the country to an end.  The lecture dealt primarily with an analysis of an Arabic version of the Vision of St Samuel of Qalamun. This text prophesised about and lamented the loss of the Coptic language and its displacement by Arabic.

Dr Papaconstantinou quoted extensively from a paper written in French in 1915 describing the calamity envisioned by "Samuel, Superiur de Deir el-Qalamun".


 In the paper, the primary source states, "readers in the church will no longer understand what they read nor what they say because they will have forgotten their language," and also, "you see the men of those times look for clerical rank while they are not yet ready to read (in Coptic) before the people."  Papaconstantinou attempted to use the internal evidence in the text to trace the time of its composition.

In this case she was making the assumption that this text either is entirely Pseudo-Samuel or has added elements from a more contemporary time. In any case she agreed with the earlier author, Samuel Rubensen, about the existence of a lost parent Coptic text. The Arabic text here is part of Ms. Arabe 150 of the ++Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris++ collection.  

It seems then, probably as early as the ninth century, that Copts who worked for the rulers or government of the time had to converse and write in Arabic which St Samuel called "the language of the hijra." To assure that their sons would have jobs, Coptic parents taught them Arabic.


This does not seem to be the case away from Cairo, especially in Upper Egypt. In fact the text does praise the Upper Egyptian for their continuing use of the language at least until his time. Scholars are advancing a probable 13th century date for the time of the writing.

In other words the process even in Cairo was a slow decline over a few centuries not a sudden drop in usage. In any case the use of Coptic in liturgical services is well attested in the manuscript tradition until modern times.

Revival of the Coptic language started in the middle of the 19th century by Pope Kyrillos IV. It is now studied at many academic institutions around the world mainly to enable the understanding and translation of original work written in Coptic during its first millennium. It is remarkable, however, how few attempts have been made to explain the centuries of Coptic language shift and those few suggestions mostly focus on linguistic and religious aspects, or rest on biased premises.

In her lecture, Dr Arietta Papaconstantinou showed that recent work on the sources of the period is opening up an avenue for a renewed approach, which involves examining more closely the stages of this development and taking into consideration the broader historical context within which this extraordinary language shift took place.  

This lecture, organised by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, was co-sponsored by The St Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society based in Los Angeles. More information about Coptic language can be found at the society website www.stshenouda.com.___

Dr Elhamy Khalil is a retired Medical Director who lives in California. He is a frequent contributor to Watani International. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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