The Copts are undoubtedly descendants of the ancient Egyptians; but not an unmixed race, their ancestors in the earlier ages of Christianity having intermarried with Greeks, Nubians, Abyssinians, and other foreigners. Their name is correctly pronounced either Ckoobt or Ckibt; but more commonly Goobt or Gibt, and (in Cairo and its neighbourhood, and in some other parts of Egypt) 'Oobt or 'Ibt: in the singular, it is pronounced Ckoob'tee, Ckih'tee, Goob'tee, Gib'tee, 'Oob'tee, or 'lb'tee.
All of these sounds bear a great resemblance to the ancient Greek name of Egypt (Αιγυτος): but it is generally believed that the name of “Ckoobt “is derived from Coptos, (once a great city, in Upper Egypt,) now called Ckooft, or, more commonly, Gooft; to which vast numbers of the Christian Egyptians retired during the persecution with which their sect was visited under several of the Roman emperors. The Copts have not altogether lost their ancient language, their liturgy and several of their religious books being written in it; but the Coptic has become a dead language, understood by very few persons; and the Arabic has been adopted in its stead.
The Coptic language gradually fell into disuse after the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs. For two centuries after that event, it appears to have been the only language that the generality of the Copts understood; but before the tenth century of our era, most of the inhabitants of Lower Egypt had ceased to speak and understand it, [this has been shown by Quatremère, in his Researches on the Language and Literature of Egypt,] though, in the Sa'ee'd (or Upper Egypt), El-Muckree'zee tells, the women and children of the Copts, in his time, (that is, about the close of the fourteenth century of our era, or the early part of the fifteenth,) scarcely spoke any other language than the Sa'ee'dee Coptic, and had a complete knowledge of the Greek.
Soon after this period, the Coptic language fell into disuse in Upper Egypt, as it had done so long before in the Lower Provinces, and the Arabic was adopted in its stead. All the Copts who have been instructed at a school still pray, both in the church and in private, in Coptic; and the Scriptures are still always read in the churches in that language; but they are explained, from books, in Arabic. Many books for the use of priests and other persons are written in the Coptic language expressed in Arabic characters. — Lane's Modern Egyptians, vol. ii. 1836.
Gibbon states, that Cavio affords a shelter for the indigent patriarch of the Copts, and a remnant of ten bishops: forty monasteries have survived the inroads of the Arabs; and the progress of servitude and apostasy has reduced the Coptic nation to the despicable number of twenty-five or thirty thousand families.
We know very little of the ancient language of Egypt. Nearly all the remains of it we now possess, have been transmitted to us through the Coptic, Sahidie, and Bashmuric Dialects. The Coptic Dialect was spoken in Lower Egypt, of which Memphis was the capital: hence it has been called, with great propriety, the Memphitic Dialect. The Sahidic, from the Arabic word Sahad, or Al Sahad, the Upper, or Superior, was the dialect of Upper Egypt, of which Thebes was the capital; it has, therefore, been called the Thebaic. It is impossible to say which of these two dialects was the more ancient.
Georgi, Valperga, Munter, and others, have decided in favour of the Coptic; and Macriny, Renandot, Lacroze, and Jablonsky, with as much show of reason, have contended for the Sahidic. Still, however, the question must be left to conjecture, as we have not sufficient evidence to enable us to decide upon it. Besides these two dialects, which have long been known, there was a third, which was spoken in Baschmour, a province of the Delta.
The existence of three dialects in Egypt has been so satisfactorily proved by Quatremère, Englebreth, and other writers; and so fully confirmed by the Bashmuric fragments which have been discovered and published, that little more need be added. If, however, any doubt remain, the following quotation from a manuscript work of Athanasius, a prelate of the Coptic church, who was Bishop of Kous, will entirely remove it. “The Coptic language,” says he, “is divided into three dialects; the Coptic dialect of Miser, the Bahiric, and the Bashmuric: these different dialects are derived from the same language.”
The introduction of Greek words into the Egyptian language commenced, no doubt, from the time of the Macedonian conquest, which the introduction of Christianity tended to confirm and extend. The Christian religion contained so many new ideas, that new terms were necessary to express them. These terms the language of Greece would readily supply; which, probably, were adopted by the Egyptians, from the Greek writings of the apostles.
Egyptian literature has recently attracted particular attention. All that has come down to us of the language and literature of ancient Egypt is contained in the Coptic, Sahidic, and Bashmuric dialects; and in the Enchorial, Hieratic, and Hieroglyphic inscriptions and manuscripts.
The Coptic, or, as it has been called, the Bahiric, but more properly the Memphitic, was the dialect of Lower Egypt; the Mizur of the Scriptures. This dialect is more regular and systematic in its grammatical construction, and more pure, than the others.
Manuscripts exist, in Coptic, of nearly the whole of the Sacred Scriptures, and of the Services of the Coptic church. The works of some of the early Fathers, and the Acts of the Council of Nice, and also the Lives of a considerable number of Saints and Martyrs, are found in the Coptic dialect.
Dr. Murray says, the Coptic is an original tongue, for it derives all its indeclinable words and particles from radicals pertaining to itself. Its verbs are derived from its own resources. There is no mixture of any foreign language in its composition, except Greek.
The remains which we possess of the Egyptian language, when separated from the Greek, with which it is in some measure mixed up, has no near resemblance to any of the ancient or modern languages.
The importance of the Ancient Egyptian to the antiquary will at once appear, when we consider that a knowledge of it is necessary before the inscriptions on the monuments of Egypt can be properly understood, and the Enchorial and Hieratic manuscripts can be fully deciphered.
The terms Coptic and Sahidic have been adopted instead of Memphitic and Thebaic, lest confusion should be created; as the former are used in those Egyptian publications which have issued from the Oxford University Press.
The Coptic alphabet contains Thirty-two Letters. It will be seen, from a comparison of the alphabets, that the Egyptians adopted the Greek alphabet, with the addition of seven letters.
The Gamma never occurs in Coptic words, except in one or two instances. It is used instead of the Kappa in words derived from the Greek.
The Xi is seldom found in Egyptian words, but principally occurs in words derived from other languages. It is sometimes used instead of ks.
The stops used, are one or two points, . : but two points are most commonly used.
The mark used to divide the verses is +.
When the point or short line (`) occurs over consonants, it generally expresses the vowel e short.
It appears, from some words derived from the Greek, that the point (`) has been used to express the vowels a and o short.
When the point (`) occurs above a vowel, it expresses the soft or sharp breathing of the Greeks. When it is found above e long, it denotes the sharp accent; but when placed above the other vowels, it either expresses the soft accent, or it denotes that the letter should be pronounced separately, and agrees with the diuresis of the Greeks.
When the point (`) is put over a vowel in the beginning of words derived from the Greek, and which has the aspirate in that language, it indicates a sharp breathing.
Some Coptic words are abbreviated by a line or lines above them — Tattam's Grammar of the Egyptian Language. 8vo. 1830.
Pica. Caslon and Livermore. Dr. Wilkins's edition of the Pentateuch.
|Names of letters||Coptic Alphabet||Greek Alphabet||Corresponding English sounds||Number|
|Beta||Β β||b (as v between two vowels)||2|
|Ei||Ε ε||e short||5|
|Heta||Η η||e long||8|
|Ou||Ο ο||o short||70|
|Ou||Ω ω||o long||800|
|Gangia||g (and j before a vowel)|
|Tei||ti, di, or th|