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Egypt, languages in

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Anne Boud’horsAnne Boud’hors

Egypt, languages in 

The Egyptian language existed for almost 5,000 years (from approximately 3500 bc to the 15th century ad). It belongs to the so-called ‘Hamitic-Semitic’ or ‘Afroasiatic’ group, in which it occupies a unique position.

Its hieroglyphic written form, developed around 3500 bc, was used until pagan temples were officially closed in ad 391. Hieratic, a cursive system, was employed in sacred and administrative texts written on papyrus.

Several stages of evolution can be distinguished within the classical Egyptian language: ancient, middle, and neo-Egyptian. The popular or Demotic tongue also possessed a written form derived from hieroglyphics, which was used alongside the other variants from the 7th century bc until the 5th century ad, the date of the last graffiti in pagan temples. With the conquest by Alexander the Great in 330 bc, Greek was officially introduced to Egypt and the two languages existed side by side without influencing each other in any significant way. However, between the 2nd century bc and the 3rd century ad, for reasons at once religious and practical, several attempts were made to transcribe Egyptian words in the Greek alphabet. The corpus of these texts, said to be written in ‘old Coptic’, was mostly magical in nature and demanded exact pronunciation of words, something not always permitted by Egyptian writing, which is purely consonantal. Another significant corpus used in determining the history of the language is made up of hundreds of ostraca (shards of inscribed pottery) discovered at Narmouthis at the Fayyum oasis. They represent the bilingual archives (in Demotic and Greek) of a community of pagan priests from the 2nd century ad. The extent of the incorporation of Greek lexical items may be observed there, and the Demotic texts present grammatical traits that later show up in Coptic; this reflects a transitional stage for which evidence had long been missing.

Finally, a decisive change occurred with the conversion and Christianization of Egypt. With translation into Egyptian of Christian texts written in Greek, the hieroglyphic system, which had become both unwieldy and too markedly pagan, was abandoned. It was replaced by the Greek alphabet supplemented with letters borrowed from Demotic that allowed the transcription of sounds unknown in Greek. That literary language is precisely the one called ‘Coptic’, a term that derives from the adjective aiguptios, ‘Egyptian’, in its Arabized form qubti.

The earliest manuscripts attesting Coptic date from the end of the 3rd century. At its beginning, the language was characterized by strong diversity of dialects. For the first three centuries of Coptic’s existence, there were at least six major dialects, not to mention dialectic varieties of which there are but single attestations. The six main dialects were (from south to north) Akhmimic, Sahidic, Lycopolitan, Oxyrhynchitic, Fayyumic, and Bohairic. These dialects were distinguished by several factors: alphabet (variations in the form and number of Demotic letters), vocalization, lexicon, and syntax. Starting in the 4th century, Sahidic became the literary and vehicular dialect of the Nile Valley; the lesser dialects disappeared towards the 6th century, except for Fayyumic and Bohairic. The latter was the language of Lower Egypt; in the 11th century it became, and remains to this day, the official language of the Coptic Church. While the syntax of the various Coptic dialectics stayed profoundly Egyptian and reflected its legacy from both Neo-Egyptian and Demotic, its lexicon contained a great number of words, some 4,000, borrowed from Greek.

Until the 6th century, Coptic seemed confined to religious literature and the private sphere, whereas Greek, the language of the local authority, was quite pervasive and served as the preponderant vehicle for legal and administrative purposes. Its decline started with the Arab conquest of 641. Following the rapid Arabization of the country, Coptic was unable to establish itself durably. In the 13th century, scholars of the Egyptian Church attempted to record the structures of the language in bilingual works in Coptic and Arabic; the language was already in danger at this time, and became extinct no later than the 15th century.

Anne Boud’hors


CoptEnc vol. 8 s.v. languages, Coptic, cols. A145a–151b (R. Kasser).Find this resource:

    N. Bosson and S. H. Aufrère, eds., Égyptes … l’égyptien et le copte: livre-catalogue de l’exposition (Musée archéologique de Lattes, 3 juin– 31 octobre, 1999).Find this resource:

      J. H. Johnson, Thus Wrote ‘Onchsheshonqy—An Introductory Grammar of Demotic (SAOC 45, 32000).Find this resource:

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          J. Quack, ‘En route vers le copte: notes sur l’évolution du démotique tardif’, in A. Lonnet and A. Mettouchi, eds., Les Langues chamito-sémitiques (afro-asiatiques), vol. 2 (Faits de langues 27, 2006), 191–216.Find this resource: