3 Coptic language

Coptic language

ⲘⲉⲧⲢⲉⲙ̀ⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ, Μετ Ρεμνχημι Mad.Rmenkami
Spoken in Egypt, Canada, Australia, United States
Native speakers 300[1][2][3]  (date missing)
Language family
  • Egyptian
    • Coptic
Writing system Coptic alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-2 cop
ISO 639-3 cop
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Coptic or Coptic Egyptian (ⲘⲉⲧⲢⲉⲙ̀ⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ Met Remenkēmi) is the current stage of the Egyptian language, a northern Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Egypt until at least the 17th century. Egyptian began to be written using the Greek alphabet in the 1st century.[4] The new writing system became the Coptic script, an adapted Greek alphabet with the addition of six or seven signs from the demotic script to represent Egyptian sounds the Greek language did not have. Several distinct Coptic dialects are identified, the most prominent of which are Sahidic and Bohairic.

Coptic and Demotic are grammatically closely akin to Late Egyptian, which was written in the Hieroglyphic script. Coptic flourished as a literary language from the 2nd to 13th centuries, and its Bohairic dialect continues to be the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It was supplanted by Egyptian Arabic as a spoken language toward the early modern period, though revitalization efforts have been underway since the 19th century. The number of people who speak Coptic today reaches around 300.[2][3]



The native name of the language is ⲙⲛⲧⲣⲙⲛⲕⲏⲙⲉ (ment rəm ən kēme) in the Sahidic dialect and ⲙⲉⲧⲣⲉⲙⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ (met rem ən kēmi) in Bohairic. The particle prefix ment-/met- is a construct of the verb ⲙⲟⲩϯ mouti ('to speak'), which forms all abstract nouns in Coptic (not only those pertaining to "language"). The expression literally means 'language of the people of Egypt', or simply 'Egyptian language'. Another name by which the language has been called is ⲙⲛⲧⲕⲩⲡⲧⲁⲓⲟⲛ ment kuptaion from the Copto-Greek form ⲙⲛⲧⲁⲓⲅⲩⲡⲧⲓⲟⲛ ment aiguption ('Egyptian language'). The term logos ən aiguptios ('Egyptian language') is also attested in Sahidic, although logos and aiguptios are both Greek in origin. (Greek vocabulary in Coptic is comparable to Latinate vocabulary in English.) In the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the name is more officially ϯⲁⲥⲡⲓ ⲛ̀Ⲣⲉⲙ ⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ ti-aspi ən rem ən kēmi, 'the Egyptian language', aspi being the Egyptian word for language.

Geographic distribution

Coptic is an extinct language, according to Ethnologue, in that is has no native speakers. Coptic no longer has any official status in Egypt. However, it is presently a liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches (along with Arabic). Coptic Egyptian was spoken only in Egypt, and historically has had little influence outside of Egypt proper, with the exception of monasteries located in Nubia. Coptic's most noticeable linguistic impact has been on the various dialects of Egyptian Arabic, which is characterized by a Coptic substratum in terms of lexical, morphological, syntactical, and phonological features.[citation needed]

Influence on other languages

In addition to influencing the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of Egyptian Arabic, Coptic has lent to both Arabic and Biblical Hebrew such words as:

  • timsāḥ, تمساح (Arabic), תמסח (Hebrew) – "crocodile"; ⲉⲙⲥⲁϩ emsaḥ.
  • ṭūbah طوبة "brick"; Sahidic ⲧⲱⲃⲉ to:be; Bohairic ⲧⲱⲃⲓ to:bi; this subsequently entered Catalan and Spanish (via Andalusi Arabic) as tova and adobe respectively, the latter of which was borrowed by American English.
  • wāḥah واحة "oasis"; Sahidic ⲟⲩⲁϩⲉ waḥe, Bohairic ⲟⲩⲉϩⲓ weḥi.

A few words of Coptic origin are found in the Greek language; some of these later were lent to various European languages (e.g., barge, from Coptic ⲃⲁⲁⲣⲉ bari, "small boat"). 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 of this is the Greek ὄασις oasis, which comes directly from Egyptian wḥ3.t or demotic wḥỉ. Yet Coptic reborrowed some words of ancient Egyptian origin back 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 hbny.

The Coptic name ⲡⲁⲡⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ, papnoute (from Egyptian pa-ph-nuti), means "the (man) of God". It was adapted into Arabic as Babnouda, which 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), e.g. the famous mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev.

The Old Nubian language and the modern Nobiin borrowed many words of Coptic origin.


5th-6th century Coptic liturgic inscription from Upper Egypt.

Egyptian may have the longest documented history of any language, having remained in written use from c. 3200 BC to the Middle Ages and as a spoken language for longer. Coptic belongs to the Later Egyptian phase which started to be written in the New Kingdom. Later Egyptian represented the colloquial language. It had analytic features like definite and indefinite articles and periphrastic verb conjugation. Coptic therefore is a reference both to the most recent stage of Egyptian after Demotic, and to the new writing system that was adapted from the Greek alphabet.

Coptic before the Islamic period

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 period. Scholars frequently refer to this phase as Pre-Coptic. However, it is clear that by the late pharaonic period, 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 1st century. The transition from the older Egyptian scripts to the newly adapted Graeco-Coptic script 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.

8th century Coptic manuscript of Luke 5.5–9

Under late Roman rule, Diocletian persecuted many Egyptian converts to the new Christian faith. This 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 Egyptian Church, such as Anthony the Great, Pachomius, Macarius and Athanasius, 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 2nd and 3rd centuries. However, it was not until Shenouda the Archimandrite that Coptic became a fully standardized 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 pre-Christian Egypt.

Coptic during the Islamic period

Egypt came under the dominance of Arab rulers with the spread of Islam in the 7th century. At the turn of the 8th century, Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan decreed that Arabic replace Koine Greek and Coptic as the sole administrative language. Literary Coptic gradually declined such that within a few hundred years, Egyptian bishop Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa found it necessary to write his History of the Patriarchs in Arabic. However, ecclesiastically the language retained its 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.

Persecutions under the Mamluks led to the further decline of Coptic[citation needed], until it completely gave way to Egyptian Arabic around the 17th century[citation needed], though it may have survived in isolated pockets for a little longer. In the second half of the 19th century, Pope Cyril IV of Alexandria started a national Church-sponsored movement to revive the Coptic language. Several works of grammar were published, along with a more comprehensive dictionary than had been previously available. The scholarly findings of the field of Egyptology and the inauguration of the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies further contributed to the renaissance. Efforts at language revival continue to be undertaken, both inside and outside the Church, and have attracted the interest of both Copts and Muslims in Egypt.

Writing system

Stone with Coptic inscription
Main article Coptic alphabet

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 makes it 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 only for words that are themselves Greek. Old Coptic texts employed 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. Such words in the northern dialects have ([e] or [ə]) in place of the superlinear stroke. Some scribal traditions use a diaeresis over /i/ and /u/ at the beginning of a syllable. Bohairic uses a superposed point or small stroke known as a djinkim. It may be related to the Sahidic supralinear stroke, or additionally, it may indicate a glottal stop. Most Coptic texts do not indicate a word division.


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 and Shenouda the Archimandrite. Shenouda helped fully standardize 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, being most closely related to the preceding Demotic phase of the language. Up to 20% of the vocabulary of literary Coptic is drawn from Greek, though 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, this is likely due to the fact that 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.[5]

Words or concepts for which no adequate Egyptian translation existed were taken directly from Greek so as not to alter the meaning of the religious message. In addition, other Egyptian words that would have adequately translated the Greek equivalents were not employed as these were perceived as having overt pagan associations. Old Coptic texts employ many such words, phrases and epithets; for example, the word ⲧⲃⲁⲓⲧⲱⲩ '(Who is) in (His) Mountain', is an epithet of Anubis.[6] 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 non-religious documents such as letters and contracts.


Coptic provides the clearest indication of Later Egyptian phonology thanks to 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 due to 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.[7]


There are some differences of opinion among Coptic language scholars on the correct phonetic interpretation of the writing system of Coptic. Differences center on how to interpret the pairs of letters ε/H and ο/ω. In Greek spelling 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 (Plumley 1948, Lambdin 1983), it is assumed that the length difference is primary. Thus ε/H is e/eː and ο/ω is o/oː. Other scholars (Greenberg 1962/1990, Reintges 2004:25) argue for a different analysis in which ε/H and ο/ω are interpreted as e/ɛ and o/ɔ.

The following two charts show the two theories of Coptic vowel phonology.

Monophthong phonemes (length theory)
Front Central Back
Close-mid eː   e   oː   o
Mid   ə  
Open a
Monophthong phonemes (vowel quality theory)
Front Central Back
Close-mid e     o  
Mid ɛ ə ɔ
Open a

In the Upper Egyptian dialects, a superlinear stroke is placed over sonorants to mark a reduced /e/. This vowel does not undergo reduction in northern dialects, where it is indicated by in Bohairic and or in Fayyumic. For example, /ʃemʃə/ 'to worship' is Sah/Akh/Lyc ϣⲙ̅ϣⲉ, Bohairic ϣⲉⲙϣⲓ and Fayyumic ϣⲏⲙϣⲓ. The vowel quality of /e/ can vary: either [e] or [ɛ] depending on the dialect. In Sahidic and other Upper Egyptian dialects, word-final corresponds to word-final in the northern dialects.

The vowel /ɑ/ is typically represented by —its presence may be an indicator of emphasis spread in the same syllable. For example, ⲥⲁ (used in the construction 'man of [trade]') is transcribed [sˤɑ] in medieval Coptic-Arabic papyri. In some phonetic environments, /o/ is a more open [ɔ], and /a/ is a more forward [æ]. The vowel /ə/ is always unstressed and can be reduced to zero as in earlier Egyptian scripts, which did not indicate unstressed and most stressed vowels.

Coptic also has three to four diphthongs – mainly [aj], [ɔj] and [aw] – although these may be interpreted as series of vowels and glides. In some dialects, they are monophthongized.


As with the vowels, there are differences of opinion over the correct interpretation of the Coptic consonant letters, particular the letters ϫ and Ϭ. The letter ϫ is transcribed as ⟨j⟩ in many older Coptic sources and Ϭ as /ɡ/ (Plumley 1947) or /tʃ/. Lambdin (1983) notes that the current conventional pronunciations are different from the probable ancient pronunciations: ϫ was probably pronounced [tʲ] and Ϭ was probably pronounced [kʲ]. Reintges (2004:22) suggests that ϫ was pronounced [tʃ].

The following chart shows the consonants that are represented in Sahidic Coptic orthography. Consonants that are rare, or found primarily in Greek loanwords are shown in parentheses:

IPA chart of Sahidic Coptic consonants
Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p   t   (d) k   (ɡ) ʔ
Palatalized stop
Nasal m n
Trill r
Fricative β f s   (z) ʃ h
Affricate (t͡ʃ   d͡ʒ)
Approximant w j
Lateral l

Bohairic Coptic has an additional consonant, /x/, spelled Ϧ. It is possible that in the ancient pronunciation of Coptic that there were additional consonants which were not spelled in the writing system, such as /ʕ/.

Earlier phases of Egyptian may have contrasted voiceless and voiced bilabial stops, 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. This probably reflects dialect variation. Both letters were interchanged with and ϥ to indicate /f/, and was also used in many texts to indicate the bilabial approximant /w/. Coptologists believe that Coptic was articulated as a voiced bilabial fricative [β]. In the present-day Coptic Church services, this letter is realized as /v/, though this 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, Coptic ⲁⲛⲍⲏⲃⲉ (anzībə) and ⲁⲛⲥⲏⲃⲉ (ansībə) 'school'. Other consonants that sometimes appear to be either in free variation or to have different distributions across dialects are [t] and [d], [r] and [l] (especially in the Fayyumic dialect – a feature of earlier Egyptian) and [k] and [ɡ], with the voiceless stops being more common in Coptic words and the voiced ones in Greek borrowings. Apart from the liquid consonants, this pattern may indicate a phonological change in Later Egyptian leading to a neutralization of voiced alveolar and velar stops. When the voiced stops are realized, it is usually the result of sonorization in proximity to /n/.

Old Coptic texts graphically express the Egyptian pharyngeals in a variety of ways. For example, the Old Coptic grapheme was occasionally used to convey a voiceless pharyngeal fricative. In literary Coptic, the two sounds are not indicated by separate letters, suggesting loss of phonemic status. Instead, the adapted demotic grapheme ϩ, which normally stands for /h/, is used to express either sound. In unstressed initial syllables and stressed final syllables, the voiced pharyngeal fricative is sometimes conveyed by as in ⲁϣⲁⲓ (ʕšai) 'to multiply'. Similarly, different methods are employed to graphically express the glottal stop: with word-initially, with word-finally in monosyllabic words in northern dialects and in monosyllabic words in Akhmimic and Assiutic, by reduplication of a vowel's grapheme, but mostly as [∅].


Coptic has a 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 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/.[8]

pə-roːme 'the man'

tə-ciɟ '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, though in the majority of cases the article marks number. Generally, nouns inflected for plurality end in /wə/, though there are some irregularities. The dual was another feature of earlier Egyptian that survives in Coptic in only few words, such as ⲥⲛⲁⲩ (snaw) 'two'.

Words of Greek origin keep their gender, except for neuter nouns, which become masculine in Coptic.


Coptic pronouns are of two kinds, dependent and independent. Independent pronouns are used when the pronoun is acting in a true noun state. This means that it is the subject of a sentence, object of a verb or indirect object of a verb or the object of a preposition. Dependent pronouns are a series of prefixes and suffixes that can attach to verbs and even other nouns. Coptic verbs therefore can be said to inflect for the person, number and gender of the subject. Coptic is also a pro drop language so a Pronoun subject need not and often is not directly stated. Coptic verbs do not inflect at the end of a verb but rather at the beginning. Since Coptic has moved to being a subject–verb–object language this creates an unusual effect of someone saying "I I'have'it the ball." The pronoun prefix is for the subject and the pronoun suffix is usually for the object or indirect object.


The majority of 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 /remenkiːmi/, is a combination of the nominal prefix rem- (the reduced form of ⲣⲱⲙⲓ rōmi 'man'), followed by the genitive morpheme n ('of') and finally the word Egypt kīmi.


The verbal grade system

Coptic, like Ancient Egyptian and Semitic languages, has root-and-pattern or templatic morphology, where 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: kɔt (the absolute state grade); ket- (the nominal state grade), kot= (the pronominal state grade), and 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/, while 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 (Lambdin 1983:39):

Absolute state grade

a-i-kʲine əm-p-a-eioːt
perfective-1sg-find.abs prep-def:masc:sg-1sg-father
'I found my father.'

Nominal state grade

a-i-kʲən p-a-eioːt
perfective-1sg-find.nom def:masc:sg-1sg-father
'I found my father.'

Pronominal state grade

'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) which states that 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), and never show 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
spread poːrəʃ pərʃ poːrʃ porəʃ
dig ʃike ʃekt ʃakt ʃoke
comfort solsəl səlsəl səlsoːl səlsoːl
roll skorkər skərkər skərkoːr skərkoːr
build koːt ket kot keːt

It is hazardous to make firm generalizations about the relationships between these grade forms, but it is usually the case that the nominal state is 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.

Tense/aspect/mood inflection

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 I /na/ is a preverbal particle, and follows the subject (Reintges 2010:210):

-tʲoeis na-krine ən--laos
def:m:sg-lord fut-judge prep-def:pl-people
'The lord will judge the nations.'

In contrast, the perfective /a/ is a pre-subject particle:

A te-f-soːne de ol ən-ne-f-keːs
perf 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 non-pronominal subject and a 3rd person singular masculine pronominal subject('he'):

Tense name (Reintges) Tense name (Lambdin) Tense name (Plumley) Nominal subject 3rd masc sg pronominal subject
First Present Present I ø NP f-
Second Present ere NP ef-
Relative of First Present etere NP etəf-
Circumstantial ere NP ef-
Preterite Present Imperfect Imperfect nere NP nef-
Preterite Past nea NP neaf-
Future I NP na- fna-
Future II ere NP na- efna-
Future III ere NP efe-
Negative Future III Negative Future III ənne NP ənnef-
Imperf. of Future Future Imperfect nere NP na- nefna-
Perfect I a NP af-
Negative Perfect I əmpe NP əmpef-
Perfect II ənta NP əntaf-
Habitual I ʃare NP ʃaf-
Habitual II eʃare NP eʃaf-
Negative Habitual mere NP mef-
Jussive Injunctive Optative mare NP maref-
Conditional erʃan NP efʃan-
Conjunctive ənte NP nəf-
Inferential Future Conjunctive of Result Future IV tare NP taref-
Temporal əntere NP ənteref-
Terminative "Until" "Unfulfilled action" ʃante NP ʃantəf-
"Not yet" "Unfulfilled action" əmpate NP 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 1st and 3rd 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, ...")

Second tenses

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 (Reintges 2004).


Coptic has prepositions, rather than postpositions:

hi p-tʲoi
on def:masc:sg-ship

'on the ship'

Pronominal objects of prepositions are indicated with enclitic pronouns:

ero=k 'to you (m.sg)'

na=n 'for us'

Many prepositions have different forms before the enclitic pronouns (Lambdin 2003:30-31). Compare

e p-tʲoi 'to the ship'

ero=f 'to him'


Sentential syntax

Coptic typically shows subject–verb–object (SVO) word order, as in the following examples:[9]

A -kʲamaule mise ən-u-ʃeːre ən-shime
perfective def:fem:sg-camel deliver.abs prep-indef:sg-girl link-woman
'The she-camel delivered a daughter.'
-tʲoeis na-krine ən--laos
def:m:sg-lord fut-judge prep-def:pl-people
'The Lord will judge the people.'
A-i-kʲine əm-p-a-eioːt
perfective-1sg-find.abs prep-def:masc:sg-1sg-father
'I found my father.'

The verbs in these sentences are in the absolute state grade (Reintges 2010:208), which requires that its direct object be introduced with the preposition /ən, əm/. This preposition functions like accusative case.

There is also an alternative nominal state grade of the verb in which the direct object of the verb follows with no preposition:

a-i-kʲən p-a-eioːt
perfective-1sg-find.nom def:masc:sg-1sg-father
'I found my father.'


Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo church.

There is little written evidence of dialectal differences in the pre-Coptic phases of the Egyptian language due to the centralized 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 Mediterranean coast 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 localized orthographic traditions with very little grammatical differences.

Upper Egypt


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 el-Ashmunein (Coptic Ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛⲉⲓⲛ Shmounein), but 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 standardized 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 century.

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, (Greek Panopolis), and flourished during the 4th and 5th 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 realized as /ʃ/ in most other dialects. Similarly, it uses an exceptionally conservative writing system strikingly similar to Old Coptic.

Lycopolitan (also known as Subakhmimic and Assiutic) is a closely related dialect to Akhmimic in terms of when and where it was attested, though manuscripts written in it tend to be from the area of Asyut. The main differences between the two dialects seem to be only graphic in nature, though Lycopolitan was used extensively for translations of gnostic and Manichaean works, including the Nag Hammadi library texts.

Lower Egypt


The Bohairic (also known as Memphitic) dialect originated in the western Nile delta. The earliest Bohairic manuscripts date to the 4th century, but most texts come from the 9th century and later; this may be due to poor preservation conditions for texts in the humid regions of northern Egypt. It shows several conservative features in lexicon and phonology not found in other dialects. Bohairic is the dialect used today as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church, replacing Sahidic some time in the 11th century. In contemporary liturgical use, there are two traditions of pronunciation, arising from successive reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries (see Coptic pronunciation reform). Modern revitalization efforts are based on this dialect.


Fayyumic (also written as Faiyumic; in older works it is often called Bashmuric) was spoken primarily in the Faiyum region west of the Nile Valley. It is attested from the 3rd to the 10th centuries. It is most notable for writing , which corresponds to /l/, where other dialects generally use /r/ (probably corresponding to a flap [ɾ]). In earlier stages of Egyptian, the liquids were not distinguished in writing until the New Kingdom, when Late Egyptian became the administrative language. Late Egyptian orthography utilized a grapheme that combined the graphemes for /r/ and /n/ in order express /l/. Demotic for its part indicated /l/ using a diacritic variety of /r/.

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 4th and 5th centuries.

See also


  1. ^ "Exclusive: An Interview with the Only Egyptian Family that Still Speaks the Coptic Language inside Egypt". Coptic Assembly of America. http://www.copticassembly.org/showart.php?main_id=838.  The number of people who speak Coptic reaches around 300, and no one is still in Egypt except the family of Titti Mouris[unreliable source?]
  2. ^ a b "Nefertiti speaks" ([unreliable source?]Scholar search). 2008-10. http://besara7a.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/عائلة-مصرية-جدا 
  3. ^ a b "إنهم يتحدثون القبطية". Theban Legion. http://www.katibatibia.com/Events/afamilytalkingonlycoptic.htm. [dead link][unreliable source?]
  4. ^ Reintges, Chris H. (2004). Coptic Egyptian (Sahidic Dialect). Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe. ISBN 978-3-89645-570-3. 
  5. ^ Girgis, WA (1963-64). Greek loan words in Coptic. Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 17:63-73.
  6. ^ Gignac, Francis Thomas, p. 174
  7. ^ Sijpesteijn, Petra; Lennart Sundelin (2004). Papyrology and the History of Early Islamic Egypt. Leiden, Boston: Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 978 90 04 13886 5. 
  8. ^ Lambdin 1983:2
  9. ^ Reintges (2010:211) Lambdin (1983:39)

Further reading

General studies

  • Emmel, Stephen. 1992. "Languages (Coptic)". In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman. Vol. 4 of 6 vols. New York: Doubleday. 180–188.
  • Gessman, A. M. (1976). "The Birth of the Coptic Script". University of South Florida Language Quarterly 14 2-3. 
  • Gignac, Francis Thomas. 1991. "Old Coptic". In The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by Aziz Suryal Atiya. Vol. 8 of 8 vols. New York and Toronto: Macmillian Publishing Company and Collier Macmillian Canada. 169–188.
  • Kasser, Radolphe. 1991. "Dialects". In The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by Aziz Suryal Atiya. Vol. 8 of 8 vols. New York and Toronto: Macmillian Publishing Company and Collier Macmillian Canada. 87–96.
  • Wolfgang Kosack. Lehrbuch des Koptischen.Teil I:Koptische Grammatik.Teil II:Koptische Lesestücke, Graz 1974.
  • Loprieno, Antonio. 1995. Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Polotsky, Hans Jakob. 1971. "Coptic". In Afroasiatic: A Survey, edited by Carleton Taylor Hodge. (Jana Linguarum: Series Practica; 163). 's Gravenhage and Paris: Mouton. 67–79.

Grammars and grammatical studies

  • Chaîne, Marius. 1933. Éléments de grammaire dialectale copte: bohairique, sahidique, achmimique, fayoumique. Paris: Paul Geuthner.
  • Eberle, Andrea, & Regine Schulz. 2004. Koptisch – Ein Leitfaden durch das Saïdische. LINCOM Languages of the World/Materials 07. Munich: LINCOM Europa.
  • Jernstedt, Peter V. 1927. Das koptische Präsens und die Anknüpfungsarten des näheren Objekts. 'Comptes rendus de l'Academice des Sciences de l'Union République Soviétique Socialistes. 2, 69-74.
  • Lambdin, Thomas Oden. 1983. Introduction to Sahidic Coptic. Macon: Mercer University Press.
  • Layton, Bentley. 2000. A Coptic Grammar (Sahidic Dialect): With a Chrestomathy and Glossary. (Porta linguarum orientalium; N.S., 20). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Layton, Bentley. 2007. Coptic in 20 Lessons: Introduction to Sahidic Coptic with Exercises and Vocabularies. Peeters Publishers, ISBN 9042918101.
  • Mallon, Alexis. 1956. Grammaire copte: bibliographie, chrestomathie et vocabulaire. 4th edition. Beyrouth.
  • Mattar, Nabil. 1990. A Study in Bohairic Coptic. Pasadena: Hope Publishing House.
  • Plumley, John Martin. 1948. Introductory Coptic Grammar. London: Home & Van Thal.
  • Polotsky, Hans Jakob. 1987. Grundlagen des koptischen Satzbaus. American Studies in Papyrology 28. Decatur, Ga.: Scholars Press.
  • Reintges Chris H. 2004. Coptic Egyptian (Sahidic dialect): a learner's grammar. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Reintges, Chris H. 2010. Coordination, converbs, and clause-chaining in Coptic Egyptian typology. in Isabelle Bril, ed. Clause linking and clause hierarchy Studies in Language Companion Series 128. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, ISBn 97890 272 05889.
  • Shisha-Halevy, Ariel. 1988. Coptic Grammatical Chrestomathy: a course for academic and private study. Orientalia lovaniensia analecta 30. Leuven: Peeters.
  • Shisha-Halevy, Ariel. 1986. Coptic Grammatical Categories: Structural Studies in the Syntax of Shenoutean Sahidic. Analecta Orientalia 53. Roma: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum. ISBN 88-7653-255-2.
  • Shisha-Halevy, Ariel. 2007. Topics in Coptic Syntax: Structural Studies in the Bohairic Dialect. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 160. Leuven – Paris – Dudley, MA: Peeters. ISBN 978-90-429-1875-7.
  • Tattam, Henry, A compendious grammar of the Egyptian language as contained in the Coptic, Sahidic, and Bashmuric Dialects (London 1863)
  • Till, Walter C. 1994. Koptische Dialektgrammatik. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter.
  • Vergote, Jozef. 1973–1983. Grammaire copte. Leuven: Peeters.
  • Younan, Sameh. 2005. So, you want to learn Coptic? A guide to Bohairic Grammar. Sydney: St.Mary, St.Bakhomious and St.Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church.


  • Černý, Jaroslav. 1976. Coptic Etymological Dictionary. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Crum, Walter Ewing. 1939. A Coptic Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Reprinted by Sandpiper Books Ltd, London & Powells Books, Chicago, 2000.
  • Vycichl, Werner. 1983. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue copte. Leuven: Éditions Peeters.
  • Westendorf, Wolfhart. 1965/1977. Koptisches Handwörterbuch. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.


  • Depuydt, Leo. 1993. "On Coptic Sounds." Orientalia 62 (new series): 338–375.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H (originally published 1962). The interpretation of the Coptic vowel system. In: On language: selected writings of Joseph H. Greenberg. Eds: K Denning & S Kemmer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990: 428-438
  • Loprieno, Antonio. 1997. "Egyptian and Coptic Phonology". In Phonologies of Asia and Africa (Including the Caucasus), edited by Alan S. Kaye. Vol. 1 of 2 vols. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. 431–460.
  • Peust, Carsten. 1999. Egyptian Phonology: An Introduction to the Phonology of a Dead Language. (Monographien zur ägyptischen Sprache; 2). Göttingen: Peust & Gutschmidt.


  • Kammerer, Winifred (compiler), A Coptic Bibliography, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950. (Reprint New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969)

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