Will The Coptic Language Rise Again?

Posted 66 months ago|6 comments|6,046 views
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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
66 months ago: You never know when some obscure or esoteric information might prove to be useful. Any given language might prove to be needed to decode some historical information, which in turn could illuminate some previously obscure aspect of history, and the the lessons of history are enormously useful in making decisions about current situations.

But then, there is another side to this issue. Most people never even learn their native language as well as they should, much less do they become fluent in several languages. It's not as if human beings have unlimited intellectual capacity. Most people really could benefit from a greater knowledge of science, of history, and of many other things (aside from the relatively meaningless sports scores to which they are more likely to be devoted). In terms of intellectual priorities, obscure languages spoken by few if any people would be very low on the list.

People who do not have a langauge in common face a tremendous obstacle to communication. Indeed, in terms of efficient and successful communication across the world for whatever purpose - business, diplomacy, education, scientific research, or just tourism - it would be best if everybody spoke just one language (which I personally would like to be English).

66 months ago: There is a German saying which translates as '"whoever does not know a foreign language does not know his own. When a person has a second language, be it a local language or dialect, or they have mastered another tongue, it gives them a leg up in understanding their own tongue on a deeper level.
There are things we study such as history that have little practical value but deepen our understanding of the world. those who preserve their culture and heritage are doing a great service to the world.
As far as making English a world language, most people will look at that issue politically and not examine the relative capabilities and range of various languages. We are likely to be stuck with a system in which academics and international merchants arrive at a common tongue. There are six billion people in the world. There are enough minor subjects for them to study. Like you, I believe that Coptic and Piedmontese beat baseball scores
66 months ago: "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."

Are you serious? I have never read anything so absurd in my life. You have obviously never visited the Middle East and also know absolutely nothing about it. You think 'Arabs' are destroying Jewish monuments? and Copts should hide? This is so ridiculous, I am speechless.
66 months ago: The grim treatment of Copts in Egypt is well documented. The following link on You Tube documents their awful conditions. It is only part one of the video. If you cut and paste it, you will see links to part two and three on the side.there is a long track record of anti Christian, anti Coptic persecution in Egypt.

The desecration of the Temple Mount is a matter of record. When the Israeli Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem in 1967, the Western Wall had been used as a garbage dump. In some places latrines were installed. Synagogues in the Jewish quarter that was rendered "Judenrein" by the Jordanians were destroyed. The Israelis have internationalised the Holy City, renovating it and maintaining access to members of all faiths. Regarding the recent destruction, I enclose the following link. Within it are additional links.

Google the term "Destruction of the Temple Mount." Unfortunately, modern Muslims who claim to be fundamentalist are denying the historical record, that the Holy Temple once stood on the Temple Mount that is now being claimed as Muslim. The Wakf (Muslim religious authorities on the Temple Mount) are maintaining today that there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount. I cite the following link as one of many dealing with that topic.

There is ample documentation on the internet about both of these topics. I would welcome you and anyone else who is reading this comment string the examine the evidence and to add their own.
66 months ago: "The Islamic conquest of Egypt involved harsh repression of coptic as a spoken language."

Another wild error, after Shalab's quite correct remarks. Coptic was never suppressed. It died out naturally, after many centuries. Copts were a majority in Egypt until the 10th century, maybe later. Coptic was an everyday language until the 13th century. Arabic was simply a more convenient language, so people took up speaking it.

Repeating Islamophobic slanders is not useful to anyone, Mr. Stettner.
66 months ago: Before you label my assertions as false, please consider the following quotation from a Coptic language history site.

"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. "
I include the link for your consideration

Consider also the following quote which vindicates my assertion that Coptic was pushed as opposed to having fallen.

The Fatimid period of Islamic rule in Egypt was tolerant with the exception of the violent persecutions of caliph Al-Hakim. The Fatimid rulers employed Copts in the government and participated in Coptic and local Egyptian feasts. Major renovation and reconstruction of churches and monasteries were also undertaken. Coptic arts flourished, reaching new heights in Middle and Upper Egypt. [36] Persecution of Egyptian Christians, however, reached a peak in the early Mamluk period following the Crusader wars. Many forced conversions of Christians took place. Monasteries were occasionally raided and destroyed by marauding Bedouin, but were rebuilt and reopened.

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