Ancient Egyptian Language


Here is a video to try to have a better look at what was the ancient Egyptian language,what some letters meant and what different methods of writing were there? Through an imagination trip through time, come with me Nora Hesham to have a glance at the ancient times of Egypt.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs: The Language of the Gods

Egyptian hieroglyphs are among the oldest writing systems in the world, dating back some 5,200 years. Known in ancient Egyptian as the “language of the gods” and said to have been created by the god of knowledge Thoth, hieroglyphs were vital in the fulfilment of royal duties and were used by powerful pharaohs and their scribes to record the achievements of their reign. Today, millions of hieroglyphs in sacred texts, sarcophagi, tombs, and monuments remain as memories of a highly civilized, bygone era.

The ancient Egyptian writing system is a pictorial script with a huge number of characters: 24 of which stand for what would be recognized as letters, others stand for complete words or combinations of consonants. There are between 700 and 800 basic symbols called glyphs and there is no punctuation or indication of where words or sentences begin or end.

The glyphs are usually read from right to left, top to bottom and do not use spaces or punctuation. On the walls of temples and tombs in Egypt , they generally appear in columns.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed on a wall. ( Paolo Gallo /Adobe Stock)

Priests used hieroglyphs to write down prayers and texts related to life after death and worship of the gods. When preparing their tombs, many citizens in Egypt had hieroglyphic guides of the afterworld written on the surfaces of tomb walls and on the insides of coffins. A cartouche was a type of name tag on a sarcophagi, often reserved for royalty and was shaped in an oblong fashion and can be also found on Egyptian monuments and papyri documents.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions on temple walls and other monuments were used for decorative and sacred purposes. Parts of the Book of the Dead , a compilation of spells the ancient Egyptians believed would assist them in the afterlife, were inscribed on sarcophagi.

Inscriptions found on temple walls, graves, and monuments were destined for ‘eternity.’ Hieroglyphs retained their importance as a means of communication with the Gods and the Egyptians believed their language was a gift from Thoth, their moon God of wisdom, and goddess Seshat.

The position of a woman in marriage

Men and women in Ancient Egypt seem almost equal in marriage, and women have enjoyed greater rights, such as the right to dispose of property or initiation divorce. In the Egyptian art, women were often depicted as supporting or encompassing their husband, while husband and wife often call each other as “brother” or “sister”, again, suggesting a relationship of equal. Hemet was usually word in documents meaning female partner or wife and it was known from the period of Old Kingdom of Egypt. From the period of XVI century BC, instead of “hemet” Egyptian more often used word ‘senet’ which means sister. The difference between “hemet” and “senet” was that word “hemet” more often used as religious meaning of wife. From the period of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt in marriage contracts appears word ‘hebsut’ and its suggest that this word was also synonymous with word ‘hemet’ or wife. The words ‘ankhet en niut’ along with word ‘nebet per’ probably seems to marked a married woman. These words differ depending to where they appeared. The word “Hebsut’ were not commonly used in monumental contexts. The word ‘hemet’ was often used in tombs, stele or statues. As well the word ankhet-en-niut means citizens from the period of Egyptian New Kingdom, and this word appeared in hieratic form, while the word ‘nebet per’ symbolized “mistress of the house” and this word were more often on monumental buildings. In case when children were born in marriage, that marriage Ancient Egyptians considered as successful. Therefore, the main duty of a Egyptian woman in marriage was to give birth as many children as possible because the death rate in Egypt was to high. The duty of woman in marriage was also to take care of children and the home.

Clay statuette of Tawaret found in Nubia (todays Sudan) . Tawaret was a deity who protect childbirth and fertility. Current location Musem of Fine Arts, Boston Source: Wikimedia under licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Ancient Egyptian learned to apply some techniques of pregnancy tests. The pregnancy tests were described in papyrus. One test was taking the pulse, investigate the color of the skin and condition of the woman, and another test suggest to check the urine on pots of barley. Within this test Egyptians tried to predict whether boy or girl will be born. The woman needed to urinate daily on emmer wheat ( Triticum dicoccum) , and barley wheat ( Hordeum vulgare) . If sprouted first barley wheat, a woman will give birth to a girl. The child would be male when the emmer wheat sprouted first. If any of these plants did not sprout at all, then woman probably was not pregnant.

During the Old Kingdom within squatting position on two bricks known as Birth bricks woman gave birth. On this way woman personified the godmother Meshkhenet. Later during the period of Egyptian New Kingdom further, bricks probably was built in small room or on the roof of the house, pavilion in the garden. In this room or pavilion woman gave birth. She were also spent the first days and weeks together within infant. This ceremony was shown on piece of pottery (ostraca) found in the ancient village Set Maat (Deir-el-Medina).

After woman gave birth the whole process not completed because she need to spent some time in isolation in order to get purification. She spent time in “birth room” decorated with motive of Tawaret (deity with the head of hippopotamus and stomach of a pregnant woman) and Bes. These two gods according to believe protects mothers and their newborn children. After she complied period of purification (couple of weeks) she was able to join her community. Because the childhood was full of dangers and these deities need to protect the child after birth.

Egyptian womans and their children

Despite producing children in marriage, Egyptian woman was not only limited to house. Often due to necessity, a married woman employed herself in various occupations and professions.

Incestuous marriage

Incest in marriage was very common for Ancient Egyptian. For example Tutankhamun’s wife Ankhesenamun was also his half-sister. Before marrying Tutankhamon, Ankesenamun was married to his father Akhenaten. Recently research about the death of Tutankhamun also suggest that he was born from incestuous marriage. Cleopatra also married both of her brothers Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. One of the most visible examples of the incestuous-born child was pharaoh Amenhotep, who, supposedly scientists, was born of the third generation of marriages among brothers and sisters.

The Importance of the Ancient Egyptian Scribe

Not everyone in ancient Egypt could read and write hieroglyphics thus making their meaning incomprehensible to the common citizen. Only one group had this knowledge and they were called scribes. In order to become a scribe, one had to receive an education at a special school which could take several years to complete and it was usually young boys who entered in at the age of six or seven.

Scribes were indispensable to the Pharaohs. These scribes may also have something to do with how long the ancient Egyptian language was able to survive since hieroglyphs were seen as a gift from the gods - to alter or abandon them was as an act of sacrilege.

Sculpture of an ancient Egyptian scribe. (Jose Ignacio Soto /Adobe Stock)

Egypt Culture

Religion in Egypt

About 90% of the population are Muslim, with the majority of the remainder being Christian, including followers of the Coptic Christian faith. There is also a small Jewish population.

Social Conventions in Egypt

Islam is part of all aspects of daily life with many social conventions stemming from the teachings of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Hospitality is a significant element, especially to visitors. Shaking hands is the normal greeting but male visitors should wait for a woman to offer her hand first.

Dress should always be conservative and women should cover upper arms and legs. This is particularly important when visiting religious buildings - when hair should also be covered - and conservative towns. Dress standards tends to be a little more relaxed in modern nightclubs, restaurants, hotels and bars in Cairo, Alexandria and other tourist resorts. Official or social functions and smart restaurants usually require more formal wear. Smoking is widespread.

Photography: Tourists are required to pay a fee if wishing to take photographs inside pyramids, tombs and museums. Ask permission when taking pictures of someone, especially women. Some traditionally-dressed locals demand money when they &lsquopose&rsquo outside historic sites, especially temples and pyramids.

What Language is Spoken in Egypt?

The predominant dialect in modern Egypt is Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (or Masry ). Now, as you may know, each Arabic speaking country has its own accent, and most are actually split into groups of different dialects. There are many different varieties of the language.

Literary Arabic is the official language and the most extensively written in Egypt. Another important element is that this is the liturgical language of Islam, which happens to be the majority religion (and state religion) of Egypt. When the Qur’an, the central religious text of Islam, was written, there were 7 different dialects of classical Arabic being used, and they were all incorporated into, though the Quraishi version became de standard upon which today’s text is based.

The Arabic language is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, with 293 million native speakers and a total of 422 million speakers around the world. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

How did this expansion begin? After Napoleon entered Egypt in 1798, the Arab culture entered a period of greater contact with the West. As we can imagine, the influx of new Western concepts required the Arabic language to be updated. So, in the early 20th century, regional Academies of the Arabic language began a process of language reform, focused on expanding the Arabic vocabulary. These updates culminated in what’s known as Modern Standard Arabic (Al-fuSHa).

It is important to distinguish that Modern Standard Arabic is the language of books, media, education, and even formal situations, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the language of everyday speech.

For colloquial speech, each country has it’s ‘amiya or “ Arabic dialect ”. The differences are in pronunciation, not in vocabulary or grammar. This is because after the Islamic conquest took place, there was an important political need for standardizing written Arabic since huge numbers of people were beginning to speak it. Hence, the script was made more practical and the grammar and style of prose was standardized.

Orally, the dialects of the invaders or Arabic “koine” (which was the common language of conquering Arab armies) was also influenced by the original languages of the conquered areas. The dialects of Egypt, for example, were influenced by Coptic, as we’ve mentioned before.

Over the centuries, the neo-Arabic dialects continued to evolve into the modern Arabic dialects of today, but literary Arabic remained relatively untouched, especially because the Arabic of the Qur’an was always seen as the ideal kind of Arabic to imitate. This most likely had a conservative effect on the dialects as well, limiting them from changing too much.

The level of understanding that two speakers can reach in these areas depends on both exposure and the geographic distance of their dialects. Although these days, with the spread of cable TV and the Internet, people are exposed to a a wider range of dialects on a much more regular basis.

Also, when people with significantly different dialects communicate with each other, they can switch to Modern Standard Arabic, or simply adjust their speech to make it more formal and similar to al-fuSHa.

Among all these branches, Egyptian Arabic is the most widely understood first dialect in Middle East-North Africa, probably due to the influence of Egyptian cinema and music industry throughout the Arabic-speaking world. However, there are internal differences in Egyptian territory.

For instance, Saidi Arabic is the main spoken language of most people in southern Egypt, whereas in the Upper Nile Valley there are around 300,000 speakers of Nubian languages, such as Nobiin and Kenuzi-Dongola. In the western desert, Eastern Libyan Arabic is spoken, and in the Eastern Desert, where almost 77,000 people live, they speak Beja.

With this understanding, it’s easy to tell why the Egyptian vernacular has always been such a wonder to everyone, including Egyptians themselves.

Tomasz Derda(Editor) Adam Łajtar(Editor) Jakub Urbanik(Editor)

Christelle Alvarez(Editor) Arto Belekdanian(Editor) Ann-Katrin Gill(Editor) Solène Klein(Editor)

ISBN: 9781785703638
Published by : Oxbow Books
Series: Current Research In Egyptology
Volume: 16
The sixteenth Current Research in Egyptology (CRE) conference was held from the 15&ndash18 April 2015 at the University of Oxford and once again provided a platform for postgraduates and early career Egyptologists, as well as ind. . Learn More


Medu Neter means "words of nature", nature being all the infinite forms of existence. Its name is reflective of both its complexity, spiritual nature, and the reverence in which its speakers held it. It is the oldest known language that has a large body of written literature in Africa and the world. Medu Neter was spoken and written more than 10,000 years ago and underwent many changes and developments during its long history.

The carvings and paintings on the walls of Temples and Tombs reveal knowledge that attempts to explain the sciences of nature and man. There one will find man&rsquos oldest written spiritual teachings. Also, there is recorded the history of Kemet written by Kemetic people. accounts, and record keeping. Also, on papyrus are found the world&rsquos first treatises on mathematics, medical procedures, herbs, astronomy, biographies, epic tales, poetry. They wrote about everything that people write about today. The writings on papyrus - the world&rsquos first paper were used for everyday correspondence. Medu Neter is truly the Classical Language of Africa.

The people of Kemet invented a highly developed writing system along with paper, ink, and pen with which to write. The writing was one of the most important contributions that African people gave to the world.

Join us on this wonderful journey to preserve this beautiful ancient classical language so it will continue to live through eternity.

That which historians of language have long known and understood has been fully confirmed by a recent study of ancient Egyptian genomes.

Over the past many years, there has been a great deal of debate, almost always among those who want to further various political or racialist agendas, as to who the ancient Egyptians actually were.

Ownership of history is, of course, crucial in the realm of identity politics. The more history frays and is dissolved, or even becomes obliterated, the more readily identity may be constructed to suit political ends.

This is especially true among those who seek to carve out identity within the multicultural context of western societies, where the identity of the majority is made invisible, while the nationality (and therefore the history) of the various “ethnicities” is enlarged and “celebrated.” This, of course, leads to a distortion of history, making it into a romantic fetish.

Unfortunately ancient Egypt has suffered much distortion in this regard.

There is Joseph Smith’s and William Phelps “discovery” and “translation” of ancient hieroglyphic texts about Abraham and Joseph (Smith was often regarded as being proficient in reading and understanding the ancient language of the Egyptians). The story of Egypt plays an integral part in Mormonism.

These papyri (along with real mummies) had been profitably sold, in 1835, to Smith, by one Michael Chandler, a rather shrewd businessman, who in turn had bought them from the adventurer Antonio Lebolo, known for despoiling many an ancient tomb.

Then, there is the entire industry of Negritude and Black Zionism, which extends a black origin to all the civilizations of the ancient world, including Egypt (and even ancient Greece and Rome).

This has led to a common belief that since Egypt is in Africa, the ancient Egyptians were sub-Saharan Africans, i.e., they were blacks. The problem with this view is that it assumes that the passing millennia have had no effect whatsoever on the population of Egypt. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is Africa did not become “black” until about 1400 AD, with the Bantu expansions and the eventual slaughter and reduction of other races, by them, that were living in Africa, such as the pygmies and the Khoisan.

As well, all of North Africa has always been “non-black,” and this includes Egypt.

However, modern-day mythologizers (the purveyors of “black racialism”) and the historians have always been at odds over this topic. The former seek to affirm the “blackness” of Africa, while the latter point to historical fact. Facts usually do not get in the way of politics.

Language is one such fact. The ancient Egyptian language (or Middle Egyptian), which came to be written down in hieroglyphics, hieratic and then demotic, is classified as an “Afroasiatic” language but this is not as clear at it may at first seem.

As an Afroasiatic language, Middle Egyptian is a “cousin” to the Semitic family of languages, which in the ancient world included much variety (Akkadian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Punic, Aramaic, Samaritan, Nabataean, Sabaean). In the present day, this variety has diminished to Arabic (and its various dialects), Hebrew, and Ethiopic (Ge’ez).

The ancient Egyptian language, therefore, was closely related to its Semitic cousins, most of which existed outside Africa proper and thus it has long been suggested that that is where we must look for the point of origin of Afroasiatic (since all languages begin in a specific geographical location, from where they spread outwards).

The Russian linguist and historian, Igor M. Diakonoff, first outlined where the origin-point of Afroasiatic is found, by consideration of its earliest, or “proto” form. Words are given their proto-form by comparison with all of their cognates in other languages that belong to the same family group.

This reconstructed, earliest form of Afroasiatic is called, “Proto-Afrasian.”

Shared words, especially for flora and fauna, in the various related languages, point to a location on the map where such species of plants and animals are found.

Diakonoff’s study pointed to the Natufian archaeological complex as the location where Proto-Afrasian was first spoken.

The Russian archaeologist, Alexander Militarev, confirmed this location as the home of Proto-Afrasian, with his own study of the flora and the fauna of Palestine in its ancient context.

Thus, the ancient Egyptians were Natufians, who came into Egypt likely seven thousand to twelve thousand years ago.

This conclusion, provided by historical linguistics, has just been confirmed by the careful study of Egyptian mummy genomes, undertaken by Verena J. Schuenemann, and others.

Schuenemann and her colleagues discovered that the history told by ancient Egyptian DNA matches the history of linguistic fact:

  • The ancient Egyptians have their origin in the Levant (modern-day Palestine, in Israel), and they migrated into the Nile Delta and the Sinai, bringing with them their goats and sheep.
  • The ancient Egyptians were closely related to ancient and modern European populations, as well as ancient populations in what is now Turkey and Iran.
  • The sub-Saharan admixture that is now evident in the modern Egyptian population is a recent occurrence, which took place during and after the Roman period.

This confirmation is significant because it suggests that historical linguistics indeed yields a highly accurate understanding of the movement of people.

Thus, who were the ancient Egyptians? They were indeed Natufians, and genetically related to people like the Phoenicians and the Canaanites of Palestine, like the Hatti (the pre-Indo-European people of Anatolia), and like the Elamites, (the pre-Aryan population of Iran).

This also explains why there are red-haired and blonde mummies. Famously, Ramesses II had red hair, and Yuya and his wife Thuya are blonds, while brown hair was common.

Ramesses II mummy, ca. 1213 BC

Mummy of Sitre-In, wet-nurse of Queen Hatshepsut, ca. 15th century BC

We now need to work on placing the origins of the ancient Egyptians in their proper Middle Eastern historical, linguistic and genetic context.


The Coptic Language is the name used to refer to the last stage of the written Egyptian language. Coptic should more correctly be used to refer to the script rather than the language itself. Even though this script was introduced as far back as the 2nd century BC., it is usually applied to the writing of the Egyptian language from the first century AD. to the present day.

II. Short History of the Egyptian Language before Coptic

The ancient Egyptians devised a writing system to record their spoken language over 60 centuries ago. The first application seems to have been the calendar. The system started by giving each word a symbol, called hieroglyph. This convention was of course doomed because of the tremendous vocabulary it would have generated. Out of such ideas they took some of these hieroglyphs and associated a sound value to them which, when combined together, would spell out the spoken word. The sound values of such characters depended mostly on the pronunciation of the word that it denoted in the early stage. Thus the hieroglyph for mouth, pronounced 'ro' became the sound 'r' in the new system. About 130 hieroglyphs have been identified as voiced characters. Some represented a single sound, others a two-character sound, and some a three-character sound. Many more hieroglyphs were added to represent the idea or to enhance the meaning of the word. These are commonly referred to as 'ideograms' and they brought the number of identified hieroglyphs to over 4,000. This script, popularly called hieroglyphic, was both beautifully drawn as well colorfully painted. It was used for inscription on Egyptian monuments as well as a variety of written texts on papyrus.

In parallel with the development of the hieroglyphic script, a second script came to light. Such script was a mere simplification of the artistic, and sometimes laborious, hieroglyphic. It was originally devised by the priests to record the records of the temples and then became a tool of the government servants, educated by the learned priests, who used it to record the affairs of the state. Due to the priestly origin of the script the name 'hieretic' was popularly affixed to it. This script used the same symbols, drawn in a simplified way. There is no indication that script had as many ideograms as the hieroglyphic had.

With the decline of the state such a cumbersome writing method became impossible to preserve it as is. So in the fifth century BC. a new script was devised that was both simpler to write and included about ten percent of the total number of hieroglyphs used previously. This new script came to be referred to as 'Demotic'. The cursive, and relatively ugly appearance of characters, in comparison to the hieroglyphic, was compensated for by its relative compactness. Many written records were preserved in that script but they dared not inscribe it on temple walls.

III. Origin of Coptic among Egyptian Pagans:

In 313 BC. Alexander the Great invaded Egypt. His legacy was carried on by his general Ptolemeus and his successors in Egypt. That legacy, simply stated, was to have a universal culture. Such culture would of course be the Greek or Hellenistic one. With the culture comes the language, so it became the proper way for the educated classes to learn Greek and encourage their children to learn it for the economical as well as the social advantages. In script, the Greek was far superior to the Demotic, the last surviving Egyptian script at the time. It offered 24 characters all pronounceable as opposed to over 400 symbols that only a small percentage represented sounds and the rest were ideograms.

It is important to note here that the Greeks learned their writing system from the Egyptians through the frequent travelers of the ancient world, the Phoenicians. In the course of their commercial dealings with the Egyptians, the Phoenicians imported the Egyptian script and molded it into an alphabet with a far smaller number of characters, all pronounceable and all consonants. As they traveled the Mediterranean and traded with the inhabitants of the Greek Isles, they gave their version of the Egyptian writing system to the Greeks. They in turn revised its orthography and added a number of written vowels. A system that eventually became the basis for the new Egyptian script, i.e. the Coptic.

The pagan Egyptian priests, as a result of the invasion of the Greek language, found themselves at a disadvantage. The source of income as well as the power of their temples depended a great deal on the making and the sales of magical amulets. Now these amulets, written in Egyptian, can not be pronounced by those who can afford to pay for them. If they can not use, properly or at all, it is safe to say that they would not buy it. To avert such economic and religious massacre, they reverted to a transliteration system of these amulets. This new system used the Greek characters along with several other characters borrowed from the Demotic to denote sounds not available in Greek. The economic success of such system made them extend its use to other applications such as horoscopes and the like. The number of borrowed Demotic characters eventually were reduced. The resultant script was highly standardized, in the common tradition of the Ancient Egyptians.

IV. Origin of Coptic among Christians in Egypt

Christianity in Egypt owes its formal introduction to St. Mark the Evangelist. He most likely came first to Alexandria in the early fifties of the first century AD., accompanying his uncle St. Barnabas. This came as a result of the news of Apollo, who represented an imperfect Christianity that existed in Alexandria at the time. After the repose of St. Barnabas in Cyprus, St. Mark came again by himself and started proclaiming the word of God among the Jews. The legacy that St. Mark left in Egypt was a Christian community made up primarily of converted hellenized Jews. Christianity remained eclipsed by the powerful Jewish community in Alexandria at the time. After the Jewish Revolt in the first quarter of the second century AD. and subsequent annihilation of the Jews in Alexandria, the Christians of Egypt became visible to the world.

The first visible signs of such presence were rather blemishing to the character of the Church. Two teachers of Gnostic, heterodox repute, traveled abroad at different times during the middle of the second century AD. They were Basilides and Valentinus. The latter became infamous due to his quest to be the bishop of Rome. In any case, these teachers influenced the arrival of Pantanus, the missionary, presumably to introduce the orthodox teachings of Christianity to a seemingly Gnostic community. After his arrival he discovered that this was not exactly the case and there was a strong orthodox community present as a result of the evangelizing work of St. Mark and his successors. Being a renowned Christian teacher he was put in charge of the Christian school of Alexandria, a rather small school that taught those who are willing to serve the Lord the fundamentals of Christianity. Shortly after his arrival, St. Demetrius, the first bishop of Egyptian origin, became the bishop of Alexandria about 189 AD.

The contact between Pantaenus, the missionary, and St. Demetrius the representative of the large and mostly non-Christian Egyptians was truly a match made in Heaven. As a result a missionary movement to convert the Egyptian peasants began. The School of Alexandria probably became a school to prepare the missionaries and direct their activities.

The dilemma faced by those responsible for directing such missionary work was the uniformity of the message to be given to the Egyptians. The missionaries knew how to read Greek but not Demotic. The Egyptian peasants did not know how to read either but they understood the sounds of the language written by the Demotic script, i.e. Egyptian. To insure that the Word of God, written in the Scriptures, be preached the same by the different missionaries, it had to be written in a way that the missionaries can read and the Egyptians can understood when it was read to them. So the missionaries translated the Scriptures into the Egyptian tongue but wrote them using the Greek characters they are familiar with. These attempts differed from those of the pagans in that they did not use any Demotic character in the beginning. The shortcomings of that system were eventually realized and more characters, borrowed from the Demotic, were added to bring them to the current six or seven additional characters that survived in the Sahidic and Bohairic dialects respectively.

V. Dialects

Now we see two independent attempts to write the Egyptian language in new script. Each attempt was unique in its motive, approach, and audience. Due to the distribution of the population along the length of the Nile, many dialects developed. Each was characterized by the use of different vowels in pronouncing the same words as well as some distinct variation in the vocabulary. The pagans attempted from the start to develop a uniform written language in a neutral Dialect, the Sahidic. Because of their early start, they were successful in their efforts and nearly erased any influence that such regional dialects had on their own version of Coptic. The Christians on the other hand put the benefit of the people ahead of proper language development and resurrected all these regional dialects in a written form. Eventually most of these dialects fell into disuse as the uniform Sahidic became the more dominant again. Another factor that affected these the dialects was the fact that the Coptic language was generally weakened by the influence of Arabic.

All the dialects were to a large extent geographically-dependent. Their spanned the entire length of the Nile Valley. Based on literary records we have such dialects as the Akhmimic and the Lycopolitan (Asyutic) dialects of Upper Egypt, the Middle Egyptian and the Fayoumic of Middle Egypt, and the Bohairic of the Delta. Then there is the Sahidic dialect that became, from the earliest times, a neutral dialect used throughout Egypt and eventually gained literary dominance with the extensive writings of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite. There is also a host of minor dialects as well as subdialects to the ones mentioned above.

Now Bohairic is the only surviving dialect of Coptic. It was kept alive first by the strength of the monastic communities of Wadi n' Natrun which used it extensively. Then with the move of the Patriarchate from Alexandria to Cairo in the 11th century, Bohairic, the dialect of the District, became the official dialect of the Church replacing the Sahidic.

VI. The Golden age of Coptic:

Coptic was used from its Christian beginnings in the late second century AD. till the time of the Great persecution of Diocletian in the early 4th century AD. predominantly as a translational tool from Greek to Egyptian. After the persecution, the monastic movement picked up tremendous steam. It was for the Copts the only way they can express their great love for God, that they earlier expressed with the willing sacrifice of their most precious possession, their earthly lives. These monastic communities were large and mostly Egyptian. This generated the need for the abbots of these communities to write their rules in their own language, i.e. Coptic. Also the Fathers of the Coptic Church, who usually wrote in Greek, addressed some of their works to the Egyptian monks in Coptic.

So with monastic fathers like St. Antony, St. Pachomius, and St. Macarius and their respective disciples writing to their monks and Church Fathers like St. Athanasius, St. Theophilius, and St. Cyril writing also to them in Coptic, the Golden Age of Coptic was about to begin.

It was not until St. Shenouda the Archimandrite came on the scene that Coptic really achieved its literary excellence. St. Shenouda who lived from 348 to 466 AD. was able to transform the language form a tool to communicate instructions to the monks to a wide-variety literary language that addressed monks, ecclesiastic authorities, laymen, and even government officials. His charisma, knowledge of Greek language and rhetoric, and his innovative mind gave him the necessary tools to elevate the Coptic language, in content and style, to a literary height never achieved before nor equaled since. The Coptic scholars are constantly astounded by his great writings as more and more of them are being studied and accurately published.

This literary legacy continued to a lesser degree through the writings of his disciple St. Besa in the second half of the fifth century. But such writings were mostly for the edification of the large monastic community in the White Monastery. later in the sixth and seventh centuries other fathers wrote many works in Coptic like Rufus of Shotep, Constantine of Asyut, and Pisentius of Qift.

VII. Coptic During the Early Arabic Period (7th to 10th Century AD)

By the middle of the seventh century, Egypt came under the dominance of Arab rulers that eventually tried to force the Copts to learn Arabic to keep their government jobs. This policy slowly eroded the number of Coptic lay readers who were mostly from the ranks of these government workers and their families. In other words the pressure put on such families to learn Arabic to ensure their continuing service in the government and the inheritance of such work by their offspring, made them slowly neglect educating their children in literary Coptic. Within a few hundred years Bishop Severus of Al-Ashmunain found it necessary to write his 'History of the Patriarchs' in Arabic to address such a drastic decline.

Ecclesiastically, the language continued strong. In fact, a great number of Hagiographic texts were composed during the early parts of this period. Coptic continued to be used in the Church with Greek as the second language, as seen from the texts that survived from the period. However a relatively small number of liturgical manuscripts survived from such period to show how it was being used. This was due to the heavy use that such manuscripts were subjected to, poor preservation during the period of decline in use, and the parchment material they were written on that did not lend itself to such heavy use.

During this period some Arabic loan-words made their way into the language. But there was no indication that the Arabic language was used in the Church. There were no Coptic-Arabic manuscripts that belong to this period or any literary citation to indicate its possible use. Coptic was also the spoken language of the peasants and probably the clergy.

VIII. Coptic versus Arabic (from 11th to 14th Century AD.)

As the 11th century approached, the excellent relations between the rulers of Egypt and the Church were drastically changed as the Hakem-bi-Amr-Allah became the ruler. His violent mood swings took their toll on the Christians who were periodically subjected to open persecutions, had their churches closed for up to two years at time, and saw their language being prohibited from use. Through God's grace, this period did not last long, but it definitely left open the door for further decline in Coptic use.

During the same period, the European Crusaders waged their wars against the Moslem rulers of the Middle East in an effort to secure the holy places. Their presence in the area generated waves of persecutions and oppressions against the Copts. This was due to the Moslems seeing in the sign of the Cross, displayed by the Crusaders, an implied alliance of the Copts with those invaders and a great threat to the country. Of course there was no chance of such alliance, for the Crusaders considered the Copts as heretics and treated them worse than they treated the Moslems, as sad as it might sounds. Introduction of Arabic in the 12th century by Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turaik was probably an attempt to show the Moslems that the Copts are different from real enemy that they were fighting.

Such move may have been considered wise at the time but it actually opened the flood gates. Christians Arabic literature flourished afterward. Later in the period, Arabic invaded the liturgical books, replacing Greek in bilingual texts and intruding on traditionally non-bilingual ones. Even purely Arabic liturgical texts began to appear, indicating that Arabic moved from a mere reference translation to actual use in the churches. Original composition in Coptic became limited to liturgical hymns and prayers. The only Coptic literary texts composed in the later part of the period were the martyrdom of St. John of Phanidijoit, written as such to shield from the eyes of the Moslems, and compositions, urging the Copts to revive their language.

Further testimony to the gradual decline of the language as a reading tool was supplied by the many lexicographic works that were introduced during the period. They were in the form of Muqadimat (Grammar) and Salalem (Scalae or word lists). Another sign of decline was Arabic texts circulating among the monks but written in Coptic characters, as they could not still read the Arabic script. This eventually was replaced with the writing of Coptic text in Arabic letters that we see nowadays in the Coptic Church.

In summary, this period saw the decline of Coptic literary use in its last stronghold, the Church. Eventually, it led to the weakening of the Church which subsequently weakened the language more, a natural chain reaction. The number of Christians declined due to conversion to Islam. This can probably be attributed to the decline in Coptic which represented a cultural barrier for the Copts from the Arabic-Moslem Culture. But now the increasing use of Arabic bridged that barrier and made it easier for the border-line Christians to cross to seemingly greener grounds!

IX. Coptic Decline as a Spoken Language (to 17th Century)

After the 14th century the Church experienced a decline spiritually and in numbers. The dominance of the Ottoman Empire over Egypt in the early 16th century seemed to accelerate such decline. Production of Coptic Manuscripts slowed down to a trickle. This is an indication that Coptic books were not used as often as before in the Church, so there was no need to produce more. Tradition still mandated that Coptic be used in Church services but in a decaying fashion. Eventually Vansleb, the French traveler, concluded upon seeing an old man speaking in Coptic that with his death (the man's) Coptic will die. Such observation may not have been completely accurate but it gave an indication that Arabic has replaced Coptic as the primary spoken language among the Copts, if not the only one!

X. Revival of Coptic in the 19th Century AD

God, in His great mercy, did not let that decline goes unchecked. In His usual fashion, He brought forth a gleam of light in the midst of that self-imposed darkness. Such light was St. Cyril IV, Patriarch of Alexandria in the beginning years of the second half of the 19th century. St. Cyril started a Church-sponsored movement to educate the clergy and the new generations. Revival of Coptic seemed to be a necessary tool for such a movement. So Coptic language education was offered in all the schools that he built alongside the other curriculums that was needed to make a new, better, and educated generation.

St. Cyril did not last long on the throne of St. Mark. In fact too short of time for such a great figure in Church history. His death was in part brought upon by opponents of his reforms. But he laid the ground work for such movement to continue. In the last half quarter of that century the movement to revive the Coptic language intensified. The eyes of those in that movement turned to Greece in an effort to establish a standardized method of pronouncing Coptic. It was felt that Greek preserved the original sound value of many of the characters in Coptic because of its close association with Coptic in its early days. However the Greek tongue underwent some modifications due to the effect of 150 years of Turkish (Ottoman) dominance. Because of the lack of any other available means, a new pronunciation system was established for Coptic that made it sounds not as Egyptian as it should have sounded.

In spite of the above shortcoming, those dedicated people spread the language among the masses. They printed many of the Coptic service books for the first time, as they were only extant in manuscript form. Thus reviving the use of Coptic in the Church services. Several works of grammar was produced as a result along with a more comprehensive dictionary that was available before. The establishment of the Clerical College also aided in the propagation of the movement.

Watch the video: What Ancient Egyptian Sounded Like - and how we know (January 2022).