c– The Coptic Language

The Coptic Alphabet:

The Coptic alphabet contains 32 Letters.
–24 letters are of Greek Origin
–8 letters are pure Coptic and were derived from the Demotic
(Old Egyptian) script.


•  The ancient Egyptians devised a writing system to record their spoken language over 60 centuries ago.
•  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.
•  This script, popularly called hieroglyphics, identified over 4,000 hieroglyphs.
•  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 Phoenicians:

•  Through their frequent travels to the ancient world the Greeks learned their writing system from the Phoenicians who in tern had learned it from the Egyptians.
•  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.
•  This is the system that eventually became the basis for the new Egyptian script, i.e. Coptic.

The Greeks:

•  In 313 BC. Alexander the Great invaded Egypt. His legacy was carried on by his general and successor in Egypt Ptolemeus.
•  That legacy was to have a universal culture, a Greek or Hellenistic one.
•  In Egypt the Greek language prevailed over the Demotic.
•  It offered 24 characters all pronounceable as opposed to over 400 symbols that only a small percentage represented sounds and the rest were ideograms.

The Coptic Language:

•  The Coptic language system used the Greek characters along with several other characters borrowed from the Demotic to denote sounds not available in Greek.
•  The Coptic alphabet contains 32 Letters.
–24 letters are of Greek Origin
–8 letters are pure Coptic and were derived from the Demotic script,  Old Egyptian script.


• 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.
• 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:
a) Akhmimic  b) Lycopolitan (Asyutic)   c) Fayoumic  d) Bohairic   e) Sahidic

Bohairic & Sahidic

Sahidic Dialect: Became from the earliest times the neutral dialect used throughout Egypt and eventually gained literary dominance with the extensive writings of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite. However, now is no longer in use.

Bohairic Dialect: 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.

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