Some people agonise over endangered species. My pet cause is endangered languages. When I hear that a dialect is dying out or that young people aren’t passing on an obscure language, it saddens me. It is one thing to examine shards of pottery or fragments of a manuscript found insulating a wall. It is another matter entirely when people alive today represent and advocate a point of view that fell from political dominance. When I hear about the descendants of British Loyalists proudly proclaiming their ancestry, it makes my own country’s history come alive with the freshness and immediacy of current events. It is for this reason that I so enjoy Alistair Cooke’s history of America. To me, the proper way to study the past is to recreate the crossroads at which past generations once stood, to wonder anew about truths received as a part of collective memory.
It is generally believed that Coptic is an extinct language, alive only in the prayer books and scriptures of Coptic Christianity, which is one of the major branches of the Christian faith tradition. Coptic is the language of ancient Egypt. Unlike Arabic , it is not Semitic but Afro Asiatic. In its earliest from, it was written with hieroglyphics. Later, it was written with a phonetic alphabet which is mainly Greek but has added characters for sounds not found in Greek.
The Islamic conquest of Egypt involved harsh repression of coptic as a spoken language. Indeed even today, the adherents of Coptic Christianity endure civic liabilities in Egypt that are unimaginable in the west.
The most commonly believed time line of the Coptic language lists the mid 1600’s as the time in which the last speaker of this language died. Now there are reports that the language may still be spoken, still a living language.
The most solid report of Coptic language survival comes from the Coptic Monastery of St. Anthony in the Red Sea Mountains about 110 miles southeast of Cairo. According to the “redbooks” web site, the monks in this monastery speak Coptic among themselves as a language of daily business and discourse . The article notes as follows.
“Amazingly, the monks who live here still speak Coptic, a language directly descended from the language of the ancient Egyptians.”
Of course, what really makes a language alive is when families pass it on to children, or better still, when villages perpetuate an endangered tongue. Such reports about Coptic are not numerous enough for those who wish the language well.
Despite this, there is a report of an extended Egyptian family that speaks Coptic among themselves, including even the detail of a woman who got strange looks when she spoke it on her cell phone.
The Daily Star of Egypt reports ‘ “Mona Zaki is one of only a handful of people that continue to use the language in everyday conversation. She speaks a colloquial form of Coptic with her parents and a few relatives that dates back 2,000 years.
“In many ways it helps strengthen my faith,” Zaki said. “It has really helped when I go to church because they still use a form of Coptic for many services.” Her dialect, however, differs slightly from the standard Coptic that is used for study and church services. She does not speak Coptic with her children. “I felt that Coptic was a worthless language to have my children speak, therefore I did not do so when they were young,” said Zaki. Coptic is the language of the first Christian church in history, and when the members of the two families that speak the colloquial form of Coptic die, it will be the first language of the early Christian churches to become extinct.”
Sadly, this article paints a portrait of a language in its dying stages , with one of its last speakers apologetically explaining her decision not to transmit it to her children.
The article about Ms. Zaki does however cautiously offer hope for the survival of Coptic as a language in the following paragraph.
“Some scholars have theorized that some remote villagers in the Delta region of Egypt or in the south of the country may still speak forms of the Coptic language. Because many Egyptians live in small villages away from government control and active study by anthropologists, it is theorized that Coptic will persist despite official numbers.”
It should be noted that the remoteness and disconnectedness of remote regions in the Arab world may actually be preserving many secrets. Americans who live in nuclear families that often spread out over wide areas are not equipped to preserve ancient traditions. The incursion of modernisation can sound the death knell for a language that is surviving. A case in point is Cuba, where Yoruba survived as a spoken language, until its speakers were sent to state boarding schools. This broke the chain of transmission for Yoruba in Cuba. Today, Yoruba in the Western hemisphere lives on in Brazil.
The factor of Islamic fundamentalism can not be ignored. There are too many examples of destruction of archeological treasures for political reasons. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel has been the scene of much Arab construction work, in which many Jewish artifacts and landmarks have been damaged and destroyed. It might actually be better for Coptic speakers to remain hidden for their own safety in the current political climate.
There is a place for archaeology, a very important place. But it is the living who make the shards and fragments of the past come alive. The treasures of Egypt are not only hidden in pyramids or underground vaults, they are in the hearts and on the tongues of its people. It would greatly benefit us all if these treasures were recognised and preserved.
Reprinted With permission From Magdeburgerjoe.com