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History of the Coptic Language

Christianity
Typography

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.