Origin and Evolution of the Coptic Language

ⲠⲓϪⲓⲛⲥⲉⲛϮ ⲛⲉⲙ Ⲭⲉⲗⲁⲭⲉ* Ⲛ̀ϯⲁⲥⲡⲓ Ⲛ̀ⲣⲉⲙⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ

A Brief Account

Deacon Dr. Medhat Riad Wassef

Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark – Jersey City


Ancient Egyptian Language is not only one of the very oldest recorded human languages but it superseded other languages in its larger documented history. It was first written down toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C., and remained in continuous recorded usage down to the eleventh century AD, a period spanned over 4,000 years, Coptic being its last stage. It faded as a spoken tongue during the Middle Ages, when it was superseded by Arabic, though it continues to live on in the Liturgy of the Coptic Church. Interestingly, few families in Upper Egypt apply the Coptic language in their daily usage. Currently, interest in learning the language is shown, though sporadic, in the Coptic world.

The body of ancient Egyptian written material that has survived is enormous. The most visible is seen in temples and tombs. Yet, in large part, documented in religious and funerary texts as well as in secular documents of many different types such as administrative, business, legal, literary, scientific, official, biographical and historical, as well as in private inscriptions.

Stages of the Egyptian Language


Egyptologists identify five stages in the development of the Egyptian language, each characterized by certain distinctive features of grammar and conventional system of spelling. The language of the very earliest inscriptions (from the Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (c. 3100 -2650 BC), sometimes called "Archaic Egyptian", is not included as a stage. This is because the inscriptions in question are too limited in content to allow any meaningful analysis of the underlying language.

Old Egyptian

This is the language of the inscriptions of the Old Kingdom (c. 2650-2135 B.C.). The period in which the first continuous texts appear. It is the language found in the pyramids' texts. Documents of this stage are mainly official or otherwise funerary texts and tomb inscriptions, including some biographical texts, and characterized by special spelling. Old Egyptian continues with little modification into Middle Egyptian.

Middle Egyptian

This is the vernacular language of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, (c. 2135-1785 B.C). Very close to that of Old Egyptian in structure, and regarded as the "classical" stage of the language. It was used in literary, philosophical, religious and monumental inscriptions through to the Greco-Roman Period.

Late Egyptian

This is everyday language of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, (c. 1550-700 B.C.), as witnessed particularly in secular documents of the Ramesside Period (c.1300-1080 BC). Very different from Old and Middle Egyptian, especially in its verbal structure. It is chiefly exhibited in business documents and letters, but also in stories and other literary compositions, and to some extent also in the official monumental inscriptions from Dynasties XIX onwards.

Various foreign words made their appearance, as attested in letter exchanges with neighboring countries. The Late Egyptian period is a most fundamental point of division perceived as lying between the first two stages and the last three. The language carries the origins of the Coptic language.


This is the vernacular successor of Late Egyptian, written in books and documents in the script known as Demotic, attested from the beginning of the Late Period down to Late Roman Times (c. 700 B.C. – 5th century A.D.). Now, the old "classical" idiom is blended with later, vernacular elements.


This is the final stage of the language, as written in the Coptic script, from the third century A.D. onwards. This is the only stage of the language of which the vocalic structure is known, and in which distinct dialects are recognized. Also, it is characterized by the use of vowels.

Distinct Coptic dialects are recognizable. The two major dialects are Sahidic, the standard literary dialect until the tenth century AD, its place of origin uncertain, possibly Thebes or Memphis; and Bohairic, originally the dialect of the West Delta, which supplanted Sahidic as the official dialect in the eleventh century.

The Egyptian Script


The Egyptian writing system represents one of the oldest recorded languages known in the history of mankind. It meant to give material form to the spoken language and to enhance human communications. It proved to be one of humanity's greatest inventions. The earliest evidence of writing was made at the very end of the Predynastic period (ca. 3250 B.C.), yet it is still unclear how the system of writing developed. Ancient Egyptians believed writing was the invention of Toth, the divine scribe and the lord of writing. The earliest known complete sentence appeared ca. 2690 BC.


Earliest Evidence of writing in Egypt

A bulk of early inscriptions were found around two oldest cities of ancient Egypt, Abydos and Saqqara. Inscriptions in tombs in Abydos were found on ceramic vessels, seal impressions and miniature signs on ivory objects. The content of the inscriptions consists of names of gods, officials and places. Radiocarbon dating confirmed writing to be dated two centuries before the first dynasty. This finding prompted the theory that the Egyptian writing system was born in the Abydos region. Cylinder seals found in the region of Naqada (ca. 3800-3300 BC) belong to an earlier form of notations that was replaced by the Egyptian writing system.




Early Egyptian writing appeared in response to the needs of the royal governance, social and economic systems. It has been suggested that it was first "invented" for administrative purposes and economic organization of exchange of goods.

Texts commonly consist only of short and restricted entries. They consist almost wholly of titles and names, personal, mainly royal, place-names and names of commodities. Labels found usually written in ink, or roughly incised on pottery vessels and stone. In the case of the vessels, they identify the owner, the contents and sometimes the source. In the case of the ornamental objects, where the hieroglyphs form an integral part of a larger scene, they identify the representations with which they are associated.

Inscriptions were found in a series of objects decorated with "figurative" representations. The most famous of these objects is the palette of King Narmer (Mina), the last king of the predynastic period (ca. 3150 B.C.). The king's hieroglyph name is inscribed on the top of both sides, with other identifiable hieroglyphs present. Narmer is represented engaged in acts symbolic of his status and authority depicted in the larger part of both sides of the palette.

Late Predynastic Period – Abydos POTTERY VESSEL with Ink Label

Naqada – Pot with incised design of uncertain meaning – Knife on Right, Figurine on Left



Differentiation of the Egyptian Script

By the late period of Egyptian history three distinct scripts were in use for writing the Egyptian language, known as Hieroglyphic, Hieratic and Demotic respectively. They are superficially different from each other in appearance but actually represent the same writing system. Out of Hieroglyphic evolved a more cursive writing known to us as Hieratic, and out of Hieratic again, by 700 B.C., evolved a very rapid script known as Demotic. In the Greco-Roman period all three were in use contemporaneously. All three were eclipsed during the Roman Period by a fourth script, called Coptic.


Hieroglyphic script was the earliest form of Egyptian writing, and it was also the longest-lived. The first hieroglyphs appear in the late Predynastic Period, in the form of short label-texts on stone or pottery objects, dated (c. 3100-3000 B.C.). The last datable examples are to be found in a temple inscription on the island of Philae (Aswan) carved in (A.D. 394), nearly three and a half thousand years later. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is the most beautiful ever designed, characterized by an intrinsic beauty and fine detail of design and coloring.

Island of Philae (Aswan)


Originally, the script was employed to write different kinds of texts, in a variety of media. Hieroglyphs were increasingly confined to religious, formal and monumental contexts, mostly in carved relief in stone. It was for this reason the ancient Greeks called the individual elements of the script ta hiearoglyphica, "the sacred carved (letters)", from which terms "hieroglyph" and "hieroglyphic" are derived.

Hieroglyphic is a full writing system, characterized by its elegance, capable of communicating the same kind of complex linguist information as our current alphabet, though it does so by different means. The signs of the hieroglyphic script are largely pictorial or "iconic" in character, most are recognizable pictures of natural or man-made objects. Typologically the script is a "mixed" system, which means its constituents do not all perform the same function; some of the signs convey meaning, others convey sound.

Hieroglyphic inscription is arranged either in horizontal lines or in vertical columns. The sequence of signs is continuous with no punctuation marks or word spaces. Rules of reading are according to the direction of the signs; If the signs (e.g., man's face or duck's beak) are directed to the left, then the reading is directed from left to right, and vice versa. The same is applicable when written from above downwards. Orientation is usually from right to left. It is interesting to note that male statues, at large and visible in museums, require the left foot be placed forward, a posture that derives from the hieroglyphic figure in the preferred right oriented inscriptions.


Hieroglyph Script from the Book of the Dead

HIEROGLYPH – Papyrus from the Book of the Dead




Hieratic is the cursive adaptation of the hieroglyphic script. The signs being simplified to facilitate quick reproduction of a kind required in non-monumental contexts. It is the day-to-day script of Egypt for nearly two and a half millennia. It was Egypt's administrative and business script throughout most of its history, and was also to record documents of a religious, literary and scientific nature. It is found most typically on rolls or sheets of papyrus or on bits of pottery and stone called ostraca.

Hieratic Script above written in
Hieroglyphic below

HIERATIC – A Passage Extolling the Scribal Life – Papyrus

Papyrus: Traditional Hieratic Script above
Abnormal Hieratic below

Hieratic origin clearly goes back to the beginning of the writing in Egypt, since the first stages of its development are observable in the semi-cursive hieroglyphs that occur as label on vessels of the late Pre-dynastic Period.

At the beginning of the Late Period (ca. 600 B.C.) Hieratic was finally ousted from secular use by another cursive script, demotic. Thereafter, its use became confined to religious documents, which is why it was called hieratica, "priestly", by the Greeks. The latest known hieratic documents are religious papyri dated to the third century A.D.

Documents in Hieratic were usually written in black ink, applied by means of a brush made of a stem of rush. Red ink was occasionally employed to mark out a special section, beginning of a text or a numerical total, or to indicate punctuation points in literary compositions. Like Hieroglyphic, Hieratic could be written either in columns or horizontally.

Up to the 11th Dynasty Hieratic texts were usually written either in horizontal lines or in columns. Hieratic proper script orientation always reads from right to left.

By the New Kingdom two separate styles began to appear. One was a cursive handwriting used for documents, such as business. The other was a more elegant handwriting, more appropriate for literary texts.

By the late New Kingdom and during the Third Intermediate period, two regional variants developed out of the cursive business handwriting, both even more cursive. The first is called the "abnormal" Hieratic in Upper Egypt. The second is Demotic in Lower Egypt. By the 26th century, the abnormal Hieratic was completely supplanted by Demotic.


Demotic is the vernacular successor of Late Egyptian, beginning of the Late Period down to Late Roman Times (c. 700 BC – 5th AD.). For the rest of Egyptian history demotic was the only native script in general use for day-to-day use. The last Demotic text inscription is seen in the temple of Philae dated to AD 450.

The name demotic, ancient Greek demotica, "popular (script)", refers to its secular functions. Like hieratic, demotic was mostly confined to use on papyri and ostraca. It is a very cursive script, written in horizontal lines with right to left orientation.

Papyrus: Traditional Hieratic Script above
Abnormal Hieratic below

The demotic was used for legal, administrative and commercial material. However, it also includes, from the Ptolemaic Period on, literary compositions, as well as scientific, and even religious texts, which were written in a more calligraphic style. Another development of the Ptolemaic Period was that the script began to be used monumentally, particularly in funerary and commemorative stelae. The best-known example is the so-called Rosetta stone, which contains a single text, a priestly decree c. 196 BC, with respect to King Ptolemy 5th, repeated in three scripts, hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek – the latter was then the official language of Egypt.

Statuette of Ancient Egyptian Scribe

Part of Granite Scribe Statue with Papyrus
between his knees – Writing Tools below.

The Rise of Coptic


Coptic is NOT a new language. It is the ancient Egyptian language in its final stage. Egypt was known by the ancient Greeks as Aegyptus, and Aigyuptios as Egyptian, as far back to the seventh century B.C. This nomenclature, in turn, was adapted from the ancient Egyptian name Ha-Ka-Ptah, (House of god Ptah), the given name of Memphis, capital of Egypt and site of temple of god Ptah probably by Herodotus, the Greek philosopher, after visiting Egypt.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt in the Seventh century A.D. the Greek name was corrupted using the middle syllable of the Greek name "gypt" and arabized as "qipt" and "qipty" for Egypt and Egyptian. These terms were used by the Arabs to denote the native Christian inhabitants of the country. With the process of islamization, the terms "qipt" and "qipty" became specific to the citizens who retained their Christian faith, as opposed to the Egyptians who took Islam as their religion. So, these terms denote citizenship and are NOT related to the Christian religion. Therefore, the term Coptic should refer to the Egyptian nationality and not specifically to Egyptian Christianity. Unfortunately, currently the term Copt is erroneously applied to the Christian Egyptian. Every "Egyptian" citizen is a Copt, irrespective of religion.

Kimi is the real ancient Egyptian name of the country. It means the "Black Land", since the color of the fertile Nile valley is dark and lies between the yellow Eastern and Western deserts. In Coptic the land of Egypt is called "Rem-en-Kimi." Incidentally, the term "Chemistry" is derived from Kimi, with respect to the excellence of ancient Egyptians in chemistry.

The Old Coptic

Attempts to record the Egyptian language phonetically in Greek script go back to the sixth century B.C., in the observance of Egyptian names transcribed into Greek. During the Roman period a new writing system called "Old Coptic" evolved, ushering the decline of the Demotic. The earliest recognizable form is datable to the end of the first century A.D. It was used to write native magical texts, astrological or "popularly" religious "pagan" texts. In Old Coptic the Greek letters are supplemented by several more Demotic characters than are retained in the later standardized form of the Script. However, Old Coptic script is different from that of Coptic, and devoid of borrowings from Greek.

The Developing of Coptic

By the third century A.D., pre-Constantinian Egypt, translating the Bible from Greek into Egyptian was the motive force for the development of Coptic. This was made up entirely of translations of sacred Biblical texts, and few post-biblical theological writings. Approximately in the 330s the range of religious literature expanded dramatically in the middle decades of the fourth century, Orthodox or otherwise, as in the Nag Hammadi "Gnostic Library."

Extensive literature in Coptic, came mostly from libraries of monasteries, concerning mainly Biblical and religious subjects. Meanwhile, secular non-religious material, much of which, again, originating from monastic communities, include private and official correspondence and administrative, business and legal documents.

Coptic texts were written on papyrus or ostraca, wooden tablets, parchment, and later, paper were utilized, and also was adapted for monumental use. The Coptic script is written or carved in horizontal lines reading from left to right. No gaps were left between words and punctuation was minimal (if present at all). Whatever the text or format, the arrangement and direction of Coptic writing follow the common Greek mode.

The Coptic is not just an artificial creation of a central group, but Christian groups in every region of Egypt took up the idea in the third century and by the fourth century there was a version of Coptic for every known dialect.

A major characteristic of Coptic is the use of the alphabet and the richness of its vocabulary with Greek loan words. By comparison, Demotic Greek loan words are very limited.

Influence of the Greek Language

The conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 322 B.C. and the subsequent Greek-speaking administration of the country under the Ptolemies led to the thorough Hellenization of Lower Egypt (Northern – Delta). Egyptian-Greek bilingualism was apparently commonplace in the Delta, and it is probable that much Greek technical, legal and commercial terminology was introduced into spoken Egyptian at this time.

It was only natural, then, that the Coptic translators of the Bible generously supplemented the native vocabulary (lexicon) with many more borrowings from Greek. Gradually by time the Greek vocabulary of any Coptic text became increasingly large, however, with visible Coptic characteristics and within the natural framework of the Coptic grammar, which is clearly different from the Greek grammar.

The relatively higher number of Greek words and terms in Coptic books – translated from Greek, such as the Bible or writings of the early Church fathers, or books written by Coptic authors – could be related to many factors. Greek theological terms and phrases are exceedingly better in terms of the expression of clear and accurate meaning, which are often present in Greek philosophy books. Another reason is lack of alternatives in the ancient Egyptian lexicon. on the advent of Christianity.

At the times of the Greek Empire the Greek language became lingua franca. Educated people in most countries of the Greek empire became bilinguals. Borrowing foreign words among different countries is acknowledged by linguist scholars. Examples are seen in many Western European languages. The best example is the English language where the presence of words and terms originated from Greek through Latin could be ascertained. This is also clearly visible in Medical and Scientific terms. Latin borrowed much from Greek.

The Coptic Script


Coptic represents a distinct departure from the other scripts. It consists of 32 letters of the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet, supplemented by seven characters taken from the demotic to denote Egyptian phonemes (letter sounds) not known to Greek. It is also a full alphabetic script in which the vowels of the language are represented, as well as the consonants.

The seven letters borrowed from the demotic and their phonetic values are shown as follows:

Ϣ (Shai) – ϥ (Fai) – ϧ (Kha ) – ϩ (Hori) – ϫ (Janja) – ϭ (Cheema) – ϯ (Ti).

However, the standard Sahidic alphabet consists of 31 letter form, lacking the letter ϧ (Khai).

In the "Old Coptic" the Greek letters are supplemented by several more demotic characters than are retained in the "later standardized" form of the Coptic script.

The development of this standard form of the alphabet, which was well established by the fourth century AD, is closely associated with the spread of Christianity in Egypt. It has been suggested that the impetus for its development was provided by the need to furnish translations of the New Testament and other religious texts, from Greek, for the native population in a regularized and easily accessible form, a task for which the demotic script appears to have been considered both inadequate and inappropriate.

The surviving literature in Coptic is extensive, with a huge quantity, coming mostly from the libraries of monasteries, being devoted to religious, mainly Biblical subjects. Non-religious material, much of it again originating from monastic communities, include private and official correspondence and administrative, business and legal documents, but very little of a purely "literary" or scientific nature.

Most of the surviving documents were written in ink, again with the reed pen, on papyrus or ostraca, though wooden tablets, parchment and later, paper were also utilized, and the script was adapted without difficulty for monumental use. Many of the documents are in the form of the "codex", the ancestor of the modern book, made up of individual leaves of papyrus or parchment connected at the spine, which was introduced during the early centuries AD.

A feature peculiar to Sahidic Coptic was the use of a superlinear stroke (Ginkim), unknown to Greek, which was regularly placed above certain consonants or groups of consonants to indicate a syllable. Later, the use of "Ginkim" became established in the Bohairic script.

Origin of the Coptic Alphabet


The earliest human steps towards alphabetic writing appear to have been taken in the early to middle second millennium B.C. A number of texts characterized by short inscriptions have been discovered in Sinai, and dated c. 1700 B.C. onwards. The most famous ones are found at Serabit al-Khadim carved by Semitic-speaking miners at the turquoise mines in Sinai. It played a major role in the discovery of the origin of the alphabet. Because the number of signs in those inscriptions was so small (less than thirty) and similarities of signs and basic principle of the Egyptian script, it quickly became clear that the script was an alphabet, and Egyptian inspiration is behind the invention. Now it is named Proto-Sinaitic script.



Evolution of the Alphabet

While the exact evolution of the Proto-Sinaitic script is unknown, Gardiner "Egyptologist" and most scholars agree that the script is derived from Egyptian Hieroglyphics. The significant presence of Semitic population among Ancient Egyptians in Sinai and the strategic importance of trade routes from Egypt to nearby Semitic countries, played a significant role in the appearance of the Proto-Sinaitic script, which became the link between Egypt and the neighboring Semitic countries.

The Proto-Sinaitic script uses the corresponding Semitic (not the Egyptian) word for the object of the original pictograph as the starting point and uses the sound of the first letter of the pronounced word as the value of the sign.

Thus, the drawing of an ox head stood for "ox" in West Semitic language and was pronounced "alpu"; the corresponding to the Arabic word "aleef". Hence the "ox" pictograph (a circle with two horns – the ox head) was used for the consonant "a". Similarly, the drawing of a house (a rectangle lacking the lower side) stood for "house" in West Semitic language was "bet." Hence the "house" pictograph was used for the consonant "b" … and so forth. Also, the sign for a hand is used to denote the /k/ sound through the West Semitic word Kaph for "palm" or "hand", a word shared in the Semitic Arabic and Hebrew, (note also the consequent Greek derivative letter name Kappa.) The rest of the Alphabet are initially typical and unchanged Demotic letters.

This linguistic system is called, by linguists, the acrophonic principle. Meaning that the association of the letter name e.g. (Kaph) with its initial phoneme (a single sound) (/K/) is called the acrophonic principle (acro – "top-most" + phone "voice, sound"), and the fact that it is via Semitic vocabulary, that such principle operates, suggests that the linear alphabet arose for the purpose of writing a Semitic language.

The spread of the Alphabet to the West:

Soon the alphabetic characters of the Proto-Sinaitic script spread from Sinai to the neighboring countries, writing texts of their own language, replacing their original "non-alphabetic" cuneiform script. Texts' language is called Canaanitic, (related to ancient Canaan "old Palestine") which belongs to the West Semitic group of languages, located on the East Mediterranean. The Phoenician coast region, especially Byblos, may have played a major role in the evolution of the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet. The script became known as Proto-Canaanite. The twenty-two-letter alphabet of the Phoenician script had become established c. 1050 BC – probably at the time of establishment of the kingdom of Israel – remained essentially unchanged during most of its life.

Now, it has been established that the Proto-Canaanite script is the direct descendant of the Proto-Sinaitic. And, from the Proto-Sinaitic/Proto-Canaanitic alphabet became the writing systems of a large proportion of the modern world's population, Chinese being the main exception.

The Transport of the Alphabet to Greece

There is a wide accepted view that the Greeks learned the alphabet from the peoples of the Phoenician coast. The ascription of the alphabet to the Phoenicians was firmly embedded in Greek historical tradition as found in the works of the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus. The earliest Greek script is known to be the eighth century B.C. Through Phoenician geographic connection, trade and otherwise, the script spread gradually to Phoenicians colonies around the Mediterranean. Adapting and modifying the same alphabetic characters to their own language.

Since the Canaanite/Phoenician writing characters formed the basis of the Greek alphabet, and the Greek, in turn, to the Latin, even east European Cyrillic. Gardiner "the British Egyptologist" attested that the hieroglyphs live on, through transmitted form, within the English" alphabet. One can attest the contribution of the ancient Egyptian script to that of many countries including Europeans at their current shape.

The Return of the Ancient Egyptian Script

It is conceivable, with great degree of confidence, to state that the Coptic alphabet, drawn out of the Greek Alphabet, that which originated from the Proto-Sinatic Alphabet, is, definitely, in turn derived from the ancient Egyptian script. The Coptic Alphabet is originally Egyptian not of Greek origin.

Coptic Dialects


Ancient Egyptian dialects formed the basis of the current Coptic dialects. Evidence of dialectical differences is found as early as the third millennium B.C.

Individual dialects became recognizable at the Coptic period when the language spelled out in the Greek alphabet.

Coptic literary dialects are generally accorded to two major geographical sites. Lower Egypt dialect, known as Bohairic and Upper Egypt group of dialects, known as Sahidic, Fayyumic and Achmimic. Minor dialects existed such as Memphitic, related to the region of Memphis (near Cairo), the Capital of the Old Kingdom, it replaced the Bohairic, and secondary Achmimic named also Assyutic, and Bashmuric a branch of Bohairic used by people North of Delta.

A. Major Coptic Dialects

Bohairic Dialect [B]

Generally, the Dialect of Lower Egypt. The term Bohairic comes from Arabic Bahari, Lower "Northern" Egypt. It is generally assumed that Bohairic was the dialect of Western Delta and Wadi Natrun including Alexandria. However, the designation Memphitic has also been used for this dialect, as seen in its oldest texts. After the Arab conquest in the seventh century, and as an indirect consequence, the dialect extended to the entire delta.

Bohairic is the only dialect that completed its linguistic writings by adaptation from the Demotic and was the literary idiom of the whole of Egypt. It is believed that the word spelling in the Bohairic dialect was used as the basis for those in the rest of the dialects.

Bohairic texts are attested as early as the ninth century, but the dialect does not seem to have achieved wide usage until it was adopted as the official dialect of the Coptic Church in the eleventh century. Most Bohairic texts come after this time, and many of them were translated from Sahidic originals.

By the eleventh century the Bohairic dialect became the official dialect of the Coptic Church. The election of Patriarchs, in that period, from Abu-Maqar Monastery, at Wadi Natrun, played an important role in the translation of the New Testament into Bohairic Coptic, and became the official text of the Church. Numerous transcribers of the New Testament and other religious texts, in this and other monasteries around, helped dissemination of the New Testament to the rest of the churches in all Egypt.

After the relocation of the Patriarchate from Alexandria to Cairo in the eleventh century, Bohairic became the language of Coptic literature. By the end of the sixteenth century, Sahidic dialect faded significantly from daily life usage. Bohairic replaced Sahidic, as the standard literary dialect. It became the only dialect known to the Copts owing to its liturgical usage in all churches till present.

Sahidic Dialect [S]

Upper Egypt dialect. The name Sahidic, from Arabic as-saeid, Upper (i.e., Southern) Egypt, currently means the entire part of Egypt south of Cairo. There is conflicting evidence on its geographical location: Linguistic considerations, however, favor a northern locale, in the neighborhood of Memphis, Saqqara and the eastern Delta; other, places in Thebes, in the south, (hence its alternate name: Theban, Thebaic). One cannot rule out the possibility that both locations are correct; the fact that Thebes and Memphis alternated as the capitals of Egypt, through much of its history and were the chief centers of religious and commercial activity, could have led to the development of an "urban" dialect in these two areas, quite distinct from the dialects of the "rural" areas that lay between.

By the fourth century A.D. Sahidic was firmly established as the standard literary dialect and retained this status until its demise around the tenth century. Sahidic was the dialect chosen for the official translation of the Bible until the eleventh century, then superseded by the Bohairic.

Surviving texts in Sahidic include, in addition to the New Testament and a large portion of the Old Testament, considerable corpus of church literature and some remnants of secular literature, nearly all of which is translated from Greek. Of famous native works, we have the writings of St. Pachomius (c. 300), the founder of Egyptian Monasticism; St. Shenoute (c. 400), the administrator of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt; and St. Bessa, a disciple of St. Shenoute.

COPTIC Ostracon – Receipt for wheat delivered to a mill.
Sahidic Coptic – 4th Century

Pastoral Letter from a Bishop Thebes 6th Century A.D.

Copto-Arabic Manuscript
The Psalms and Odes – 1108 A.M. – 1392 A.D.


Transliterated Arabic written in Coptic script

B. Minor Coptic Dialects

Fayyumic [F]

As its name implies, was the dialect of northern Middle Egypt in the vicinity of and including the Fayyum basin. It is well attested in texts ranging from the fourth to the eleventh century, but it apparently never attained the status of Sahidic.

Texts in the Fayyumic dialect were found written in Fayyumic in the period ranging from the fourth to eleventh centuries. Subdivisions of this dialect attested by scholars into sub-regions, depending on minor regional variation, for example exchanging letter R by letter L and so forth.

Achmimic [A]

Generally located in the area of Akhmim (Panopolis) in southern Middle Egypt, extending south to Luxor. It enjoyed only a brief literary period from the third to the fifth century. It was the old dialect of Upper Egypt, which soon gave way to Sahidic.

The Achmimic dialect left its impression on the Sahidic, as evident in the writings of St. Shenouda and the Nag Hammadi texts. It is noteworthy that both Achmimic co-existed with the Sahidic which was then considered the dialect of literature of the entire Southern Egypt.

Subachmimic [A2]

Initially the dialect of Asyut (Lykopolis), tentatively localized between Akhmim and Thebes, However, the exact geographical origin is disputed. It was used extensively in the fourth and fifth centuries for the translation of Manichaean and Gnostic literature. Its association with this heretical material probably had much to do with its early demise as a literary dialect. The Nag Hammadi texts are in Subachmimic or a variety of Sahidic influenced by Subachmimic in varying degrees.

Oxyrhynchus [M]

Mesokemic or Middle Egyptian, located in the region around Bahnasa. Literature in this dialect, found in this area, belonged mainly to the fourth and fifth centuries.

Bashmuric [G]

The dialect of Bashmur region, a marshland north east of the Delta, and currently submerged by the Mediterranean Sea. It was famous for the multiple revolts, during the eighth and ninth centuries, by the mainly Christian inhabitants against the oppression of the Moslem Arab rulers. By the end of the ninth century the entire Coptic population was savagely decimated, many were murdered and the rest were relocated and sent as prisoners to Baghdad Iraq.

The Bashmuric dialect is considered among the Bohairic subgroups, named Dialect G. It is also called Mansuric, for its very close proximity to the Mansura region. The dialect is characterized by the sole use of the Greek alphabet.

A rare Coptic liturgical tune known as the Bashmuric tune currently exists, however used rarely, in certain liturgical occasions.

Other minor dialects existed such as Memphitic and Minor Achmimic (Assyutic).

Ancient Language (Pre-Coptic) Vocalization

Achievement of vocalization (pronunciation) of the ancient Egyptian language is one of the most arduous tasks for the Egyptologists. Knowledge of pronunciation of the older stages of the Egyptian language is based on the vocalized forms found in Coptic, Greek, Assyrian and Babylonian. Of these Coptic is by far the most important.

Egyptologists examined and made copies of ancient Egyptian texts, found in Egyptian monuments, papyri, ostraca and in every museum in the world. They also studied Coptic texts and their well-known pronunciation, through meeting Coptic people well versed with the Coptic language in multiple monasteries and churches, along the entire land of Egypt.

This process was achieved by examining character for character, letter for letter, and word for word of ancient Egyptian texts versus corresponding Coptic texts. This methodology is by far the most important, as Coptic being the spoken old Egyptian language in its latest stage of development. That was a key essential factor for a recovery, as near as possible, of the ancient Egyptian pronunciation.

Example of these efforts is the well-known early nineteenth century French linguist Champollion. After deciphering the Rosetta Stone ancient scripts, Father Youhanna, Coptic Priest and scholar, present in Paris, taught Champollion Coptic language, and through elaborate methodology, Champollion and other later linguists were able to deduce the pronunciation of the Hieroglyphic, Hieratic and Demotic scripts.

Jean-François Champollion


Remoteness of the Coptic pronunciation, in time, from that of the older stages of the Egyptian language is a factor to be considered for determining the exact older pronunciation. Meanwhile, the lack of vowels in the Hieroglyphs added to the problem. Vowels and consonants of the older language have usually become modified in the lapse of time, so that the more recent equivalents can at best serve only as a basis for inference. Generally, and for fairness and historic comparison, any human language is liable to change by time, in words and pronunciation. The English language spoken at the time of Shakespeare, 16th century, is significantly different from current English.

It is worth noting that word-forms of the Sahidic dialect, and some particulars of the Akhmimic dialect, seem to have preserved its ancient character better than the other dialects. Also, as Sahidic alphabet lacks letter (ϧ – Khai), its sound is applied to other closely similar letters depending on the word and sentence context.

Moreover, but to a much lesser extent, the deduction of word vocalization by a process of extraction from the bilingual transliterated hieroglyphic names and words present in, and with their known pronunciation, in Greek, Assyrian and Babylonian documents of trade, diplomatic correspondence and others, received in Egypt from these countries. However, these are few in number with respect to Coptic and confined mainly to proper names.

Important examples are found in the fully vocalized transcriptions of Egyptian names and words transliterated in Cuneiform on the famous clay tablets known as the Amarna letters (14th. Century B.C.) and on those constituting the Archives of the Hittite capital Boghaz Keui (present day Turkey) (13th. B.C.).

Another example, the Amarna letters, the famous correspondence exchanged between rulers of Middle East countries and the Pharaohs of Egypt. Amarna was the capital city of the Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, located in Minya province. Middle Egypt. Letters were written in Cuneiform script on clay tablets by rulers of countries such as Hatti (Hittites – Eastern Turkey), Babylonia, Assyria and vassal rulers (under the rule of Egypt) of Eastern Mediterranean coastal lands, and directed to the pharaohs of Egypt, among whom Pharaoh Amenhotep III is one to mention.

Now, the Vocalic structure of a very considerable number of words were finally produced. Currently, Egyptologists are able to read and easily translate the Hieroglyphic, Hieratic and Demotic scripts. Finally, it is stated with some confidence that the vocalic system found in Coptic language belongs to a phase of the Egyptian language at least as old as Old Egyptian.

Abydos King List – Abydos Temple


The Coptic language is not a new language spoken by the Egyptians on the advent of Christianity. It is the final stage of the uninterrupted ancient Egyptian language.

History of human initiation of the writing system in the 4th. Millennium B.C. is credited to Egypt. The earliest inscriptions of the Egyptian language go back to over three thousand years B.C. The principles of the Ancient Egyptian scripts, Hieroglyphic, Hieratic and Demotic, and writings are now well understood.

Similarly, the invention of the Alphabet system in human history started in the Sinai region of Egypt, and the script is known as Proto-Sinatic. Spread of the script, through a process of adaptation and modification, reached Phoenicia then to many places around the Mediterranean including Greece, modified to suit their own language' sound. The Greek script used for writing the ancient Egyptian language is essentially that that was initially borrowed from the Demotic script. The Coptic Script is originally Egyptian.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, once said "Egypt is the gift of the Nile". Today, one would say with confidence "Egypt gave humanity the gift of writing". Coptic Language gave life to the ancient Egyptian script, vocabulary, and its vocalization. Emphasis is strongly stressed on the original meaning of the word "Coptic" which, thoroughly, means Egyptian.

Finally, the Coptic Language is authentic and not an invention, as some authors think. It is alive in the Liturgical language of the Coptic Church, the body of Christ. Current enthusiasm by the Coptic youth to serve in the Diaconate capacity offers, perhaps, a glimpse of future learning of the language in depth. It might take too many generations to come for speaking the language at home!


  1. Reading the Past. Introduced by J.T. Hooker. Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet. University of California Press. 1990.
  2. Introduction to Sahidic Coptic. Thomas O. Lambdin. Mercer University Press. 1982.
  3. Egyptian Grammar – Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs. Sir Alan Gardiner. Third Edition, Revised. Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum. 1994.
  4. A Coptic Grammar. Bentley Layton. Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. Harrassowitz Verlag. Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. 2004.
  5. Roger S. Bagnall. Egypt in Late Antiquity. Princeton University Press. 1993.
  6. Father Shenouda Maher Ishaq. History of the Coptic Language and its speaking. 1989. (Arabic).
  7. Book of the Egyptian Coptic Language. Sobhi, Dr. George. Presented by Basilius, Shaker. 1925. (Arabic)
  8. Wallis Budge, E.A.; An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary. Two Volumes. Dover Publication Inc. 1978.
  9. W. E. Crum. A Coptic Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Reprint 1979.
  10. Evelyn Rossiter, Commentaries. The Book of the Dead – Famous Egyptian Papyri. 1997.
  11. Chiftichi Yohanna. In Claremont Digital Library. Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia> Chiftichi, Youhanna. PDF.
  12. Ilona Rigulski. The Origins and Developments of Writings in Egypt. The British Museum. Oxford Handbooks Online. PDF.
  13. Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The Hieroglyphic writing. Arrangement and direction of the Hieroglyphic writing. In Hieroglyphs step by step.
  14. H.G. Anba Demetrius. Read and Pray – Little by Little. Metropolitanate of Mallawi. 1991.
  15. How did Egypt get its name? – World Atlas. <https://worldatlas.com> world Facts.
  16. Egyptian Art Orientation: orientation. University College London. http://www.ucl.ac.uk
  17. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  18. Marina Escolano Poveda. Demotic: Opening new window into understanding of Egyptian history and culture. American Research Center in Egypt.


* Χελαχε. This title word is Greek, means "Evolution". No alternate word for the word "Evolution" in Coptic is found in the following dictionaries:

a. W. E. Crum. A Coptic Dictionary, See reference number 9.

b. Moawad David Abdel-Nour. Coptic Language Dictionary – For Bohairic and Sahidic dialects, Coptic and Arabic.


Jonah's Passover – Meshir 2,1739 – February 9, 2023