Egyptian Coptic (Bohairic Coptic: ϯⲙⲉⲧⲣⲉⲙⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ, timetremǹnkhēmi) is an Egyptian language family of closely related dialects, representing the most recent developments of the Egyptian language, and historically spoken by the Copts, starting from the third-century AD in Roman Egypt. Coptic was supplanted by Arabic as the primary spoken language of Egypt following the Muslim conquest of Egypt and was slowly replaced over the centuries. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it remains in daily use as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church and of the Coptic Catholic Church. Innovations in grammar, phonology, and the influx of Greek loanwords distinguish Coptic from earlier periods of the Egyptian language. It is written with the Coptic alphabet, a modified form of the Greek alphabet with several additional letters borrowed from the Demotic Egyptian script.
The major Coptic dialects are Sahidic, Bohairic, Akhmimic, Fayyumic, Lycopolitan, and Oxyrhynchite. Sahidic Coptic was spoken between the cities of Asyut and Oxyrhynchus and flourished as a literary language across Egypt in the period c. 325 – c. 800 AD. Bohairic, the language of the Nile Delta, gained prominence in the 9th century and is the dialect used by the Coptic Church. Despite being closely related, Coptic dialects differ from one another in terms of their phonology, morphology, and vocabulary.
In Coptic the language is called ϯⲙⲉⲧⲣⲉⲙⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ (timetremǹkhēmi) “Egyptian” or ϯⲁⲥⲡⲓ ⲛ̀ⲣⲉⲙⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ (tiaspi ǹremǹkhēmi) “the Egyptian language”. Coptic also possessed the term ⲅⲩⲡⲧⲓⲟⲥ (gyptios) “Egyptian”, derived from Greek Αἰγύπτιος (Aigúptios). This was borrowed into Arabic as قبْط (qibṭ/qubṭ), and from there into the languages of Europe, giving rise to words like French copte and English Copt.
Coptic is today spoken liturgically in the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic Church (along with Modern Standard Arabic). The language is spoken only in Egypt and historically has had little influence outside of the territory, except for monasteries located in Nubia. Coptic's most noticeable linguistic impact has been on the various dialects of Egyptian Arabic, which is characterised by a Coptic substratum in lexical, morphological, syntactical, and phonological features.
However, most words of Egyptian origin that entered into Greek and subsequently into other European languages came directly from Ancient Egyptian, often Demotic. An example is the Greek oasis (ὄασις), which comes directly from Egyptian wḥꜣt or Demotic wḥj. However, Coptic reborrowed some words of Ancient Egyptian origin into its lexicon, via Greek. For example, both Sahidic and Bohairic use the word ebenos, which was taken directly from Greek ἔβενος ("ebony"), originally from Egyptian hbnj.
Many place names in modern Egypt are Arabic adaptations of their former Coptic names:
|Coptic name||Modern name|
|ⲥⲓⲱⲟⲩⲧ (siōout)||أسيوط (ʾasyūṭ)||Asyut|
|ⲫⲓⲟⲙ (phiom)||الفيوم (al-fayyūm)||Faiyum|
|ϯⲙⲉⲛϩⲱⲣ (timenhōr)||دمنهور (damanhūr)||Damanhur|
|ⲥⲟⲩⲁⲛ (souan)||أسوان (ʾaswān)||Aswan|
|ⲙⲉⲙϥⲓ (memfi)||منف (manf)||Memphis|
The Coptic name ⲡⲁⲡⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ, papnoute (from Egyptian pꜣy-pꜣ-nṯr), means "belonging to God" or "he of God". It was adapted into Arabic as Babnouda, which remains a common name among Egyptian Copts to this day. It was also borrowed into Greek as the name Παφνούτιος (Paphnutius). That, in turn, is the source of the Russian name Пафнутий (Pafnuty), perhaps best known in the name of the mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev.
The Egyptian language may have the longest documented history of any language, from Old Egyptian that appeared just before 3200 BC to its final phases as Coptic in the Middle Ages. Coptic belongs to the Later Egyptian phase, which started to be written in the New Kingdom of Egypt. Later Egyptian represented colloquial speech of the later periods. It had analytic features like definite and indefinite articles and periphrastic verb conjugation. Coptic, therefore, is a reference to both the most recent stage of Egyptian after Demotic and the new writing system that was adapted from the Greek alphabet.
The earliest attempts to write the Egyptian language using the Greek alphabet are Greek transcriptions of Egyptian proper names, most of which date to the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Scholars frequently refer to this phase as pre-Coptic. However, it is clear that by the Late Period of ancient Egypt, demotic scribes regularly employed a more phonetic orthography, a testament to the increasing cultural contact between Egyptians and Greeks even before Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt. Coptic itself, or Old Coptic, takes root in the first century. The transition from the older Egyptian scripts to the newly adapted Coptic alphabet was in part due to the decline of the traditional role played by the priestly class of ancient Egyptian religion, who, unlike most ordinary Egyptians, were literate in the temple scriptoria. Old Coptic is represented mostly by non-Christian texts such as Egyptian pagan prayers and magical and astrological papyri. Many of them served as glosses to original hieratic and demotic equivalents. The glosses may have been aimed at non-Egyptian speakers. Under late Roman rule, Diocletian persecuted many Egyptian converts to the new Christian faith, which forced new converts to flee to the Egyptian deserts. In time, the growth of these communities generated the need to write Christian Greek instructions in the Egyptian language. The early Fathers of the Coptic Church, such as Anthony the Great, Pachomius the Great, Macarius of Egypt and Athanasius of Alexandria, who otherwise usually wrote in Greek, addressed some of their works to the Egyptian monks in Egyptian. The Egyptian language, now written in the Coptic alphabet, flourished in the second and third centuries. However, it was not until Shenoute that Coptic became a fully standardised literary language based on the Sahidic dialect. Shenouda's native Egyptian tongue and knowledge of Greek and rhetoric gave him the necessary tools to elevate Coptic, in content and style, to a literary height nearly equal to the position of the Egyptian language in ancient Egypt.
The Muslim conquest of Egypt by Arabs came with the spread of Islam in the seventh century. At the turn of the eighth century, Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan decreed that Arabic replace Koine Greek as the sole administrative language. Literary Coptic gradually declined, and within a few hundred years, Egyptian bishop Severus Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ found it necessary to write his History of the Patriarchs in Arabic. However, ecclesiastically the language retained an important position, and many hagiographic texts were also composed during this period. Until the 10th century, Coptic remained the spoken language of the native population outside the capital.
As a written language, Coptic is thought to have completely given way to Egyptian Arabic around the 13th century, though it seems to have survived as a spoken language until the 17th century and in some localities even longer.
The Coptic language massively declined under the hands of Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who issued strict orders completely prohibiting its use anywhere whether in homes, roadways, or schools. Those who didnt comply had their tongues cut off. He even ordered mothers that spoke to their children in Coptic to also have their tongue cut off. He personally walked the streets of Cairo and eavesdropped on Coptic-speaking homes to find out if any family was speaking Coptic.
From the medieval period there is one known example of tarsh-printed Coptic. The fragmentary amulet A.Ch. 12.145, now in the Austrian National Library, contains a frame of Coptic text around an Arabic main text.
In the early 20th century, some Copts tried to revive the Coptic language, but they were unsuccessful.
In the second half of the 20th century, Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria started a national Church-sponsored movement to revive Coptic. Several works of grammar were published, including a more comprehensive dictionary than had been formerly available. The scholarly findings of the field of Egyptology and the inauguration of the Institute of Coptic Studies further contributed to the renaissance. Efforts at language revitalisation continue to be undertaken, both inside and outside the Church, and have attracted the interest of Copts and linguists in and outside of Egypt.
In 2016, a new proposal to revive Coptic was forwarded.[non-primary source needed]
Coptic uses a writing system almost wholly derived from the Greek alphabet, with the addition of a number of letters that have their origins in Demotic Egyptian. This is comparable to the Latin-based Icelandic alphabet, which includes the runic letter thorn. There is some variation in the number and forms of these signs depending on the dialect. Some of the letters in the Coptic alphabet that are of Greek origin were normally reserved for Greek words. Old Coptic texts used several graphemes that were not retained in the literary Coptic orthography of later centuries.
In Sahidic, syllable boundary may have been marked by a supralinear stroke ⟨◌̄⟩, or the stroke may have tied letters together in one word, since Coptic texts did not otherwise indicate word divisions. Some scribal traditions use a diaeresis over the letters ⲓ and ⲩ at the beginning of a word or to mark a diphthong. Bohairic uses a superposed point or small stroke known as ϫⲓⲛⲕⲓⲙ (jinkim, “movement”). When djinkim is placed over a vowel it is pronounced independently, and when it is placed over a consonant a short ⲉ precedes it.
The oldest Coptic writings date to the pre-Christian era (Old Coptic), though Coptic literature consists mostly of texts written by prominent saints of the Coptic Church such as Anthony the Great, Pachomius the Great and Shenoute. Shenoute helped fully standardise the Coptic language through his many sermons, treatises and homilies, which formed the basis of early Coptic literature.
The core lexicon of Coptic is Egyptian, most closely related to the preceding Demotic phase of the language. Up to 40% of the vocabulary of literary Coptic is drawn from Greek, but borrowings are not always fully adapted to the Coptic phonological system and may have semantic differences as well. There are instances of Coptic texts having passages that are almost entirely composed from Greek lexical roots. However, that is likely because the majority of Coptic religious texts are direct translations of Greek works.
What invariably attracts the attention of the reader of a Coptic text, especially if it is written in the Sa'idic dialect, is the very liberal use which is made of Greek loan words, of which so few, indeed, are to be found in the Ancient Egyptian language. There Greek loan words occur everywhere in Coptic literature, be it Biblical, liturgical, theological, or non-literary, i.e. legal documents and personal letters. Though nouns and verbs predominate, the Greek loan words may come from any other part of speech except pronouns'
Words or concepts for which no adequate Egyptian translation existed were taken directly from Greek to avoid altering the meaning of the religious message. In addition, other Egyptian words that would have adequately translated the Greek equivalents were not used as they were perceived as having overt pagan associations. Old Coptic texts use many such words, phrases and epithets; for example, the word ⲧⲃⲁⲓⲧⲱⲩ '(Who is) in (His) Mountain', is an epithet of Anubis. There are also traces of some archaic grammatical features, such as residues of the Demotic relative clause, lack of an indefinite article and possessive use of suffixes.
Thus, the transition from the 'old' traditions to the new Christian religion also contributed to the adoption of Greek words into the Coptic religious lexicon. It is safe to assume that the everyday speech of the native population retained, to a greater extent, its indigenous Egyptian character, which is sometimes reflected in Coptic nonreligious documents such as letters and contracts.
Coptic provides the clearest indication of Later Egyptian phonology from its writing system, which fully indicates vowel sounds and occasionally stress pattern. The phonological system of Later Egyptian is also better known than that of the Classical phase of the language because of a greater number of sources indicating Egyptian sounds, including cuneiform letters containing transcriptions of Egyptian words and phrases, and Egyptian renderings of Northwest Semitic names. Coptic sounds, in addition, are known from a variety of Coptic-Arabic papyri in which Arabic letters were used to transcribe Coptic and vice versa. They date to the medieval Islamic period, when Coptic was still spoken.
There are some differences of opinion among Coptic-language scholars on the correct phonetic interpretation of the writing system of Coptic. Differences centre on how to interpret the pairs of letters ε/η and ο/ω. In the Attic dialect of Ancient Greek in the 5th century BC, the first member of each pair is a short closed vowel /e, o/, and the second member is a long open vowel /ɛː, ɔː/. In some interpretations of Coptic phonology, it is assumed that the length difference is primary, with ε/η /e, eː/ and ο/ω is /o, oː/. Other scholars argue for a different analysis in which ε/η and ο/ω are interpreted as /e, ɛ/ and /o, ɔ/.
These two charts show the two theories of Coptic vowel phonology:
|Close-mid||eː e||oː o|
Dialects vary in their realisation. The difference between [o] and [u] seems to be allophonic. Evidence is not sufficient to demonstrate that these are distinct vowels, and if they are, the difference has a very low functional load. For dialects that use orthographic <ει> for a single vowel, there appears to be no phonetic difference from <ι>.
Double orthographic vowels are presumed here to be long, as that makes the morphology more straightforward. (Another common interpretation is that these represented glottal stop.)
|Close||ⲉⲓ /i/||ⲟⲩ /u/|
|Close-mid||ⲏ /e/||ⲱ /o/|
|Open-mid||ⲉ /ɛ/||ⲟ /ɔ/|
|Close||ⲉⲓ /i/||ⲟⲩ /u/|
|Close-mid||ⲏ /e/||ⲏⲏ /eː/||ⲱ /o/||ⲱⲱ /oː/|
|Open-mid||ⲉ /ɛ/||ⲉⲉ /ɛː/||ⲟ /ɔ/||ⲟⲟ /ɔː/|
|Open||ⲁ /a/||ⲁⲁ /aː/|
|Close||ⲉⲓ /i/||ⲟⲩ /u/|
|Close-mid||ⲏ /e/||ⲏⲏ /eː/||ⲱ /o/||ⲱⲱ /oː/|
|Open-mid||ⲉ /ɛ/||ⲉⲉ /ɛː/||ⲟⲟ /ɔː/|
|Open||ⲁ /a/||ⲁⲁ /aː/|
|Close||ⲉⲓ /i/||ⲓⲉⲓ /iː/||ⲟⲩ /u/||ⲟⲩⲟⲩ /uː/|
|Close-mid||ⲏ /e/||ⲱ /o/|
|Open-mid||ⲉ /ɛ/||ⲉⲉ /ɛː/||ⲟⲟ /ɔː/[a]|
|Open||ⲁ /a/||ⲁⲁ /aː/|
There is no length distinction in final stressed position, but only those vowels that occur long appear there: <(ε)ι, ε, α, ο~ω, ου>.
In Sahidic, the letter ε was used for short /e/ before back fricatives, and also for unstressed schwa /ə/. It's possible there was also a distinction between short /ɛ/ and /a/, but if so the functional load was extremely low.
In Late Coptic (that is, Late Bohairic), the vowels were reduced to those found in Egyptian Arabic, /a, i, u/.[dubious ] <ω, ο> became /u/, <ε> became /æ/, and <η> became either /ɪ/ or /æ/. It is difficult to explain <η>. However, it generally became /æ/ in stressed monosyllables, /ɪ/ in unstressed monosyllables, and in polysyllables, /æ/ when followed by /i/, and /ɪ/ when not.
There were no doubled orthographic vowels in Mesokemic. Some representative correspondences with Sahidic are:
|Sahidic stressed vowels||α||αα, εε||η||ο||ω||ωω|
It is not clear if these correspondences reflect distinct pronunciations in Mesokemic, or if they are an imitation of the long Greek vowels <η, ω>.
As with the vowels, there are differences of opinion over the correct interpretation of the Coptic consonant letters, particular the letters ϫ and ϭ. ϫ is transcribed as ⟨j⟩ in many older Coptic sources and ϭ as ⟨ɡ⟩ or ⟨č⟩. Lambdin (1983) notes that the current conventional pronunciations are different from the probable ancient pronunciations: Sahidic ϫ was probably pronounced [tʲ] and ϭ was probably pronounced [kʲ]. Reintges (2004, p. 22) suggests that ϫ was pronounced [tʃ].
Beside being found in Greek loanwords, the letters ⟨φ, θ, χ⟩ were used in native words for a sequence of /p, t, k/ plus /h/, as in ⲑⲉ = ⲧ-ϩⲉ "the-way" (f.sg.) and ⲫⲟϥ = ⲡ-ϩⲟϥ "the-snake" (m.sg). The letters did not have this use in Bohairic, which used them for single sounds.
|Nasal||m ⟨ⲙ⟩||n ⟨ⲛ⟩|
|Obstruent||aspirate[a]||pʰ ⟨ⲫ⟩||tʰ ⟨ⲑ⟩||t͡ʃʰ ⟨ϭ⟩[b]||kʰ ⟨ⲭ⟩|
|tenuis||p ⟨ⲡ⟩||t ⟨ⲧ⟩||t͡ʃ ⟨ϫ⟩||kʲ ⟨ϭ⟩[b]||k ⟨ⲕ⟩|
|fricative||f ⟨ϥ⟩||s ⟨ⲥ⟩||ʃ ⟨ϣ⟩||xʲ ⟨ⳋ ⳃ⟩[c]||x ⟨ϧ ⳉ⟩[d]||h ⟨ϩ⟩|
|Approximant||v ⟨ⲃ⟩[e]||r ⟨ⲣ⟩||l ⟨ⲗ⟩||j ⟨ⲉⲓ⟩||w ⟨ⲟⲩ⟩|
It is possible that in addition there was a glottal stop, ʔ, that was not consistently written. Coptic does not seem to have had a glottal stop at the beginning of orthographically vowel-initial words. It is possible that vowels written double were an attempt to indicate glottal stop, rather than a long vowel, in the middle of a word. However, there is little evidence for this (e.g., Arabic words with short vowels and glottal stop are not written with double vowels in Coptic, and Coptic words with double orthographic vowels are transcribed with long vowels rather than hamza in Arabic.)
In Late Coptic (ca. 14th century), Bohairic sounds that did not occur in Egyptian Arabic were lost. A possible shift from a tenuis-aspirate distinction to voiced-tenuis is only attested from the alveolars, the only place that Arabic has such a contrast.
|β||w (final [b])|
|pʰ||b ~ f|
Earlier phases of Egyptian may have contrasted voiceless and voiced bilabial plosives, but the distinction seems to have been lost. Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic all interchangeably use their respective graphemes to indicate either sound; for example, Coptic for 'iron' appears alternately as ⲡⲉⲛⲓⲡⲉ, ⲃⲉⲛⲓⲡⲉ and ⲃⲓⲛⲓⲃⲉ. That probably reflects dialect variation. Both letters were interchanged with ⲫ and ϥ to indicate /f/, and ⲃ was also used in many texts to indicate the bilabial approximant /w/. Coptologists believe that Coptic ⲃ was articulated as a voiced bilabial fricative [β]. In the present-day Coptic Church services, this letter is realised as /v/, but it is almost certainly a result of the pronunciation reforms instituted in the 19th century.
Whereas Old Egyptian contrasts /s/ and /z/, the two sounds appear to be in free variation in Coptic, as they were since the Middle Egyptian period. However, they are contrasted only in Greek loans; for example, native Coptic ⲁⲛⲍⲏⲃ (anzēb) and ⲁⲛⲥⲏⲃⲉ (ansēbə) 'school' are homophonous. Other consonants that sometimes appear to be either in free variation or to have different distributions across dialects are [t] and [d], [ɾ] and [l] (especially in the Fayyumic dialect, a feature of earlier Egyptian) and [k] and [ɡ], with the voiceless stop consonants being more common in Coptic words and the voiced ones in Greek borrowings. Apart from the liquid consonants, this pattern may indicate a sound change in Later Egyptian, leading to a neutralisation of voiced alveolar and velar plosives. When the voiced plosives are realised, it is usually the result of consonant voicing in proximity to /n/.
Though there is no clear evidence that Coptic had a glottal stop, different orthographic means have been posited for indicating one by those who believe that it did: with ⲁ word-initially, with ⲓ word-finally in monosyllabic words in northern dialects and ⲉ in monosyllabic words in Akhmimic and Assiutic, by reduplication of a vowel's grapheme but mostly unwritten.
A few early manuscripts have a letter ⳋ or ⳃ ç where Sahidic and Bohairic have ϣ š. and Akhmimic has ⳉ x. This sound seems to have been lost early on.
Coptic is agglutinative with subject–verb–object word order but can be verb–subject–object with the correct preposition in front of the subject. Number, gender, tense, and mood are indicated by prefixes that come from Late Egyptian. The earlier phases of Egyptian did this through suffixation. Some vestiges of the suffix inflection survive in Coptic, mainly to indicate inalienable possession and in some verbs. Compare the Middle Egyptian form *satāpafa 'he chooses' (written stp.f in hieroglyphs) to Coptic (Sahidic) f.sotp ϥⲥⲱⲧⲡ̅ 'he chooses'.
All Coptic nouns carry grammatical gender, either masculine or feminine, usually marked through a prefixed definite article as in the Romance languages. Masculine nouns are marked with the article /pə, peː/ and feminine nouns with the article /tə, teː/ in the Sahidic dialect and /pi, əp/ and /ti, ət/ in the Bohairic dialect.
Bohairic: ⲡⲓⲣⲱⲙⲓ /pəˈɾoːmə/ – 'the man' / ϯϫⲓϫ /təˈt͡ʃʼiːt͡ʃ/ – 'the hand'
Sahidic: ⲡⲉⲣⲱⲙⲉ /pəˈɾoːmə/ – 'the man' / ⲧⲉϫⲓϫ /təˈt͡ʃiːt͡ʃ/ – 'the hand'
The definite and indefinite articles also indicate number; however, only definite articles mark gender. Coptic has a number of broken plurals, a vestige of Older Egyptian, but in the majority of cases, the article marks number. Generally, nouns inflected for plurality end in /wə/, but there are some irregularities. The dual was another feature of earlier Egyptian that survives in Coptic in only few words, such as ⲥⲛⲁⲩ (snau) 'two'.
Words of Greek origin keep their original grammatical gender, except for neuter nouns, which become masculine in Coptic.
Possession of definite nouns is expressed with a series of possessive articles which are prefixed to the noun. These articles agree with the person, number, and gender of the possessor and the number and gender of the possessed noun. The forms of the possessive article vary according to dialect.
|“your (SG.M) brother”||ⲡⲉⲕ-ⲥⲟⲛ||ⲡⲉⲕ-ⲥⲁⲛ||ⲡⲉⲕ-ⲥⲟⲛ||ⲡⲉⲕ-ⲥⲁⲛ|
|“your (SG.M) sister”||ⲧⲉⲕ-ⲥⲱⲛⲓ||ⲧⲉⲕ-ⲥⲟⲛⲉ||ⲧⲉⲕ-ⲥⲱⲛⲉ|
|“your (SG.M) siblings”||ⲛⲉⲕ-ⲥⲛⲏⲟⲩ||ⲛⲉⲕ-ⲥⲛⲏⲩ|
|“your (SG.F) brother”||ⲡⲉ-ⲥⲟⲛ||ⲡⲉ-ⲥⲁⲛ||ⲡⲟⲩ-ⲥⲟⲛ||ⲡⲉ-ⲥⲁⲛ|
|“your (SG.F) sister”||ⲧⲉ-ⲥⲱⲛⲓ||ⲧⲉ-ⲥⲟⲛⲉ||ⲧⲟⲩ-ⲥⲱⲛⲉ||ⲧⲉ-ⲥⲱⲛⲉ|
|“your (SG.F) siblings”||ⲛⲉ-ⲥⲛⲏⲟⲩ||ⲛⲉ-ⲥⲛⲏⲩ||ⲛⲟⲩ-ⲥⲛⲏⲩ||ⲛⲉ-ⲥⲛⲏⲩ|
|“your (PL) brother”||ⲡⲉⲧⲉⲛ-ⲥⲟⲛ||ⲡⲉⲧⲉⲛ-ⲥⲁⲛ||ⲡⲉⲧⲛ̄-ⲥⲁⲛ||ⲡⲉⲧⲛ̄-ⲥⲟⲛ||ⲡⲉⲧⲛ̄-ⲥⲁⲛ|
|“your (PL) sister”||ⲧⲉⲧⲉⲛ-ⲥⲱⲛⲓ||ⲧⲉⲧⲛ̄-ⲥⲟⲛⲉ||ⲧⲉⲧⲛ̄-ⲥⲱⲛⲉ|
|“your (PL) siblings”||ⲛⲉⲧⲉⲛ-ⲥⲛⲏⲟⲩ||ⲛⲉⲧⲛ̄-ⲥⲛⲏⲩ|
Coptic pronouns are of two kinds, dependent and independent. Independent pronouns are used when the pronoun is acting as the subject of a sentence, as the object of a verb, or with a preposition. Dependent pronouns are a series of prefixes and suffixes that can attach to verbs and other nouns. Coptic verbs can therefore be said to inflect for the person, number and gender of the subject and the object: a pronominal prefix marks the subject, and a pronominal suffix marks the object, e.g. "I I'have'it the ball." When (as in this case) the subject is a pronoun, it normally is not also expressed independently, unless for emphasis.
As in other Afroasiatic languages, gender of pronouns differ only in the second and third person singular. The following table shows the pronouns of the Boharic dialect:
|⸗ ⸗ⲉ ⸗ⲣ ⸗ⲣⲉ ⸗ⲧⲉ|
=∅, =e, =r(e), =te
Most Coptic adjectives are actually nouns that have the attributive particle n to make them adjectival. In all stages of Egyptian, this morpheme is also used to express the genitive; for example, the Bohairic word for 'Egyptian', ⲣⲉⲙ̀ⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ /remənkʰeːmə/, is a combination of the nominal prefix ⲣⲉⲙ- rem- (the reduced form of ⲣⲱⲙⲓ rōmi 'man'), followed by the genitive morpheme ⲛ̀ ən ('of') and finally the word for Egypt, ⲭⲏⲙⲓ kʰēmi.
Coptic, like Ancient Egyptian and Semitic languages, has root-and-pattern or templatic morphology, and the basic meaning of a verb is contained in a root and various derived forms of root are obtained by varying the vowel pattern. For example, the root for 'build' is kt. It has four derived forms: ⲕⲟⲧ kɔt (the absolute state grade); ⲕⲉⲧ- ket- (the nominal state grade), ⲕⲟⲧ⸗ kot= (the pronominal state grade), and ⲕⲉⲧ kɛt (the stative grade). (The nominal state grade is also called the construct state in some grammars of Coptic.)
The absolute, nominal, and pronominal state grades are used in different syntactic contexts. The absolute state grade of a transitive verb is used before a direct object with the accusative preposition /ən, əm/, and the nominal state grade is used before a direct object with no case-marking. The pronominal state grade is used before a pronominal direct object enclitic. In addition, many verbs also have a neutral state grade, used to express a state resulting from the action of the verb. Compare the following forms:
Absolute state grade
Ⲁⲓϫⲓⲙⲓ ⲙ̀ⲡⲁⲓⲱⲧ – Aijimi əmpaiōt
'I found my father.'
Nominal state grade
Ⲁⲓϫⲉⲙ ⲡⲁⲓⲱⲧ – Aijem paiōt
'I found my father.'
Pronominal state grade
Ⲁⲓϭⲉⲛⲧϥ – Aijəntf
'I found him.'
For most transitive verbs, both absolute and nominal state grade verbs are available for non-pronominal objects. However, there is one important restriction, known as Jernstedt's rule (or the Stern-Jernstedt rule) (Jernstedt 1927): present-tense sentences cannot be used in the nominal state grade. Thus sentences in the present tense always show a pattern like the first example above (absolute state), never the second pattern (nominal state).
In general, the four grades of Coptic verb are not predictable from the root, and are listed in the lexicon for each verb. The following chart shows some typical patterns of correspondence:
|Gloss||Absolute state||Nominal state||Pronominal state||Neutral state|
It is hazardous to make firm generalisations about the relationships between these grade forms, but the nominal state is usually shorter than the corresponding absolute and neutral forms. Absolute and neutral state forms are usually bisyllabic or contain a long vowel; the corresponding nominal state forms are monosyllabic or have short vowels.
Coptic has a very large number of distinct tense-aspect-mood categories, expressed by particles which are either before the verb or before the subject. The future /na/ is a preverbal particle and follows the subject:
Ⲡⲉϫⲟⲉⲓⲥ ⲛⲁⲕⲣⲓⲛⲉ ⲛ̀ⲛⲉⲗⲁⲟⲥ - Pecoeis nakrine ənnelaos
Ⲡⲉϫⲟⲉⲓⲥ ⲛⲁⲕⲣⲓⲛⲉ ⲛ̀ⲛⲉⲗⲁⲟⲥ
Pe-joeis na-krine ən-ne-laos
DEF:MASC:SG-lord FUT-judge PREP-DEF:PL-people
'The lord will judge the nations.'
In contrast, the perfective /a/ is a pre-subject particle:
Ⲁ ⲧⲉϥⲥⲱⲛⲉ ⲇⲉ ⲟⲗ ⲛ̀ⲛⲉϥⲕⲏⲥ - A tefsōne de ol ənnefkēs
Ⲁ ⲧⲉϥⲥⲱⲛⲉ ⲇⲉ ⲟⲗ ⲛ̀ⲛⲉϥⲕⲏⲥ
A te-f-sōne de ol ən-ne-f-kēs
PFV DEF:F:SG-3MSG-sister PART carry.ABS PREP-DEF:PL-3MSG-bone
'His sister carried his bones.'
There is some variation in the labels for the tense/aspect/mood categories. The chart below shows the labels from Reintges (2004), Lambdin (1983), Plumley (1948). (Where they agree, only one label is shown.) Each form lists the morphology found with a nonpronominal subject (Marked with an underscore in Coptic) and a third person singular masculine pronominal subject ('he'):
|Tense name||Nominal subject||3rd M. Sg.|
|First Present||Present I||_||NP||ϥ-||f-|
|ⲉⲣⲉ _||ere NP||ⲉϥ-||ef-|
|Relative of First Present||ⲉⲧⲉⲣⲉ _||etere NP||ⲉⲧϥ̀-||etəf-|
|Preterite Present||Imperfect||Imperfect||ⲛⲉⲣⲉ _||nere NP||ⲛⲉϥ-||nef-|
|Preterite Past||ⲛⲉⲁ _||nea NP||ⲛⲉⲁϥ-||neaf-|
|Future I||_ ⲛⲁ-||NP na-||ϥⲛⲁ-||fna-|
|Future II||ⲉⲣⲉ _ ⲛⲁ-||ere NP na-||ⲉϥⲛⲁ-||efna-|
|Future III||ⲉⲣⲉ _||ere NP||ⲉϥⲉ-||efe-|
|Negative Future III||Negative Future II||ⲛ̀ⲛⲉ _||ənne NP||ⲛ̀ⲛⲉϥ-||ənnef-|
|Imperfect of Future||Future Imperfect||ⲛⲉⲣⲉ _ ⲛⲁ-||nere NP na-||ⲛⲉϥⲛⲁ-||nefna-|
|Perfect I||ⲁ _||a NP||ⲁϥ-||af-|
|Negative Perfect I||ⲙ̀ⲡⲉ _||əmpe NP||ⲙ̀ⲡⲉϥ-||əmpef-|
|Perfect II||ⲛ̀ⲧⲉ _||ənta NP||ⲛ̀ⲧⲉϥ-||əntaf-|
|Habitual||ϣⲁⲣⲉ _||ʃare NP||ϣⲁϥ-||ʃaf-|
|Habitual I||ⲉϣⲁⲣⲉ _||eʃare NP||ⲉϣⲁϥ-||eʃaf-|
|Negative Habitual||ⲙⲉⲣⲉ _||mere NP||ⲙⲉϥ-||mef-|
|Jussive||Injunctive||Optative||ⲙⲁⲣⲉ _||mare NP||ⲙⲁⲣⲉϥ-||maref-|
|Conditional||ⲉⲣϣⲁⲛ _||erʃan NP||ⲉϥϣⲁⲛ-||efʃan-|
|Conjunctive||ⲛ̀ⲧⲉ _||ənte NP||ⲛϥ̀-||nəf-|
|Inferential||Future Conjunctive of Result||Future I||ⲧⲁⲣⲉ _||tare NP||ⲧⲁⲣⲉϥ-||taref-|
|Temporal||ⲛ̀ⲧⲉⲣⲉ _||əntere NP||ⲛ̀ⲧⲉⲣⲉϥ-||ənteref-|
|Terminative||"Until"||"Unfulfilled action||ϣⲁⲛⲧⲉ _||ʃante NP||ϣⲁⲛⲧϥ̀-||ʃantəf-|
|"Not yet"||"Unfulfilled action||ⲙ̀ⲡⲁⲧⲉ _||əmpate NP||ⲙ̀ⲡⲁⲧϥ̀-||əmpatəf-|
An approximate range of use for most of the tense/aspect/mood categories is shown in the following table:
|Tense name (Lambdin)||Approximate range of use|
|Present I||Present time in narrative (predicate focus)|
|Relative of Present I||Non-subject relative clause in present tense|
|Circumstantial||Background clauses; relative clauses with indefinite heads|
|Imperfect||Action in progress in the past|
|Future I||Simple future tense (predicate focus)|
|Future II||Simple future tense (adverbial focus)|
|Future III||Future tense conveyed as necessary, inevitable, or obligatory|
|Perfect I||Primary narrative tense (predicate focus)|
|Negative Perfect I||Negative of Perfect I|
|Perfect II||Primary narrative tense (adverbial focus); relative clause form of Perfect I|
|Habitual||Characteristic or habitual action|
|Negative Habitual||Negative of Habitual|
|Injunctive||Imperative for first and third persons ('let me', 'let him', etc.)|
|Conditional||Protasis (if-clause) of a conditional (if-then) statement|
|Conjunctive||Event shares the TAM of a preceding initial verb|
|Future Conjunctive of Result||Used in clauses that express a resultant action|
|Temporal||Past action in a subordinate temporal clause ("when NP V-ed, ...")|
An unusual feature of Coptic is the extensive use of a set of "second tenses", which are required in certain syntactic contexts. "Second tenses" are also called "relative tenses" in some work.
Coptic has prepositions, rather than postpositions:
ϩⲓ ⲡ̀ϫⲟⲓ – hi pjoi
'on the ship'
Pronominal objects of prepositions are indicated with enclitic pronouns:
ⲉⲣⲟⲕ – erok
ⲛⲁⲛ – nan
Many prepositions have different forms before the enclitic pronouns. Compare
ⲉ̀ⲡ̀ϫⲟⲓ – e-p-joi
'to the ship'
ⲉⲣⲟϥ – erof
Coptic typically shows subject–verb–object (SVO) word order, as in the following examples:
Ⲁ ⲧⲉϭⲁⲙⲁⲩⲗⲉ ⲙⲓⲥⲉ ⲛ̀ⲟⲩϣⲏⲣⲉ ⲛ̀ϣⲓⲙⲉ – A tecamaule mise ənoušēre ənšime
ⲁ ⲧⲉϭⲁⲙⲁⲩⲗⲉ ⲙⲓⲥⲉ ⲛ̀ⲟⲩϣⲏⲣⲉ ⲛ̀ϣⲓⲙⲉ
A te-camaule mise ən-ou-šēre ən-šime
PFV DEF:F:SG-camel deliver.ABS PREP-INDEF:SG-girl link-woman
'The she-camel delivered a daughter.'
Ⲡⲉϫⲟⲉⲓⲥ ⲛⲁⲕⲣⲓⲛⲉ ⲛ̀ⲛⲉⲗⲁⲟⲥ – Pejoeis nakrine ənnelaos
ⲡⲉϫⲟⲉⲓⲥ ⲛⲁⲕⲣⲓⲛⲉ ⲛ̀ⲛⲉⲗⲁⲟⲥ
Pe-joeis na-krine ən-ne-laos
DEF:M:SG-lord FUT-judge PREP-DEF:PL-people
'The Lord will judge the people.'
Ⲁⲓϭⲓⲛⲉ ⲙ̀ⲡⲁⲉⲓⲱⲧ – Aicine əmpaeiōt
'I found my father.'
There is also an alternative nominal state grade of the verb in which the direct object of the verb follows with no preposition:
Ⲁⲓϭⲉⲛ ⲡⲁⲉⲓⲱⲧ – Aicen paeiōt
'I found my father.'
There is little written evidence of dialectal differences in the pre-Coptic phases of the Egyptian language due to the centralised nature of the political and cultural institutions of ancient Egyptian society. However, literary Old and Middle (Classical) Egyptian represent the spoken dialect of Lower Egypt around the city of Memphis, the capital of Egypt in the Old Kingdom. Later Egyptian is more representative of the dialects spoken in Upper Egypt, especially around the area of Thebes as it became the cultural and religious center of the New Kingdom.
Coptic more obviously displays a number of regional dialects that were in use from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt, south into Nubia, and in the western oases. However, while many of these dialects reflect actual regional linguistic (namely phonological and some lexical) variation, they mostly reflect localised orthographic traditions with very little grammatical differences.
Sahidic (also known as Thebaic) is the dialect in which most known Coptic texts are written, and was the leading dialect in the pre-Islamic period. It is thought to have originally been a regional dialect from the area around Hermopolis (Coptic: Ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛⲉⲓⲛ, romanized: Shmounein). Around 300 it began to be written in literary form, including translations of major portions of the Bible (see Coptic versions of the Bible). By the 6th century, a standardised spelling had been attained throughout Egypt. Almost all native authors wrote in this dialect of Coptic. Sahidic was, beginning in the 9th century, challenged by Bohairic, but is attested as late as the 14th.
While texts in other Coptic dialects are primarily translations of Greek literary and religious texts, Sahidic is the only dialect with a considerable body of original literature and non-literary texts. Because Sahidic shares most of its features with other dialects of Coptic with few peculiarities specific to itself, and has an extensive corpus of known texts, it is generally the dialect studied by learners of Coptic, particularly by scholars outside of the Coptic Church.
Akhmimic was the dialect of the area around the town of Akhmim (Ancient Greek: Πανὸς πόλις, romanized: Panopolis). It flourished during the fourth and fifth centuries, after which no writings are attested. Akhmimic is phonologically the most archaic of the Coptic dialects. One characteristic feature is the retention of the phoneme /x/, which is realised as /ʃ/ in most other dialects.
Lycopolitan (also known as Subakhmimic and Assiutic) is a dialect closely related to Akhmimic in terms of when and where it was attested, but manuscripts written in Lycopolitan tend to be from the area of Asyut. The main differences between the two dialects seem to be graphic in nature. The Lycopolitan variety was used extensively for translations of Gnostic and Manichaean works, including the texts of the Nag Hammadi library.
Oxyrhynchite (also known as Mesokemic or [confusingly] Middle Egyptian) is the dialect of Oxyrhynchus and surrounding areas. It shows similarities with Fayyumic and is attested in manuscripts from the fourth and fifth centuries.
The most long-lived genres of Coptic texts, composed until the thirteenth and even fourteenth century in the Upper Egyptian dialect, are scribal colophons, inscriptions and graffiti.
Coptic is the name of the final stage of the Egyptian language, spoken and written from the third century AD until perhaps sometime in the seventeenth century.
It [Coptic] is still used today in the rituals of the Coptic (Egyptian Christian) Church.
...there is no uniform "Coptic" language, but a number of dialects.
It [Coptic] is the direct descendant of Ancient Egyptian...
From everything we know it must be assumed that the spoken language behind the written evidence of Coptic was usually acquired as a first language, which means as mother tongue in non-Hellenised, or non-Arabised Egyptian families, but scarcely, if at all, as a second language.
The liturgy of the present day Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is written in a mixture of Arabic, Greek, and Bohairic Coptic, the ancient dialect of the Delta and the great monasteries of the Wadi Natrun. Coptic is no longer a living language.
The Coptic alphabet is the twenty-four Greek letters written in rounded form (thus ⲉ ⲥ ⲱ), to which are added six additional letters taken from Egyptian (Demotic script): ϣ ϥ ϩ ϫ ϭ ϯ.
...four main dialects were spoken in Graeco-Roman Egypt: Bohairic in the Delta, Fayumic in the Fayum, Sahidic between approximately Oxyrhynchus and Lykopolis and Akhmimic between Panopolis and Elephantine.
Coptic comprised a number of dialects, of which Sahidic (centered perhaps in Shmoun-Hermopolis-AI Ashmunein) had the greatest literary importance and the widest use in the Nile valley. Almost all native Coptic literature was composed in Sahidic, between AD 325-800.
Bohairic, a northern dialect, is first attested in the fourth century AD but is primarily represented by texts from the ninth century and later; it is also the dialect used by the modern Coptic Church.