Coptic – Living or Dead?

Coptic Etymological Dictionary, by Jaroslav ČernýWe have another surprise bestseller on our hands – the Coptic Etymological Dictionary by Jaroslav Černý, originally published by Cambridge in 1976. This would have been revived in paperback in due course by our colleagues responsible for reissuing the Cambridge backlist, but we thought that the work would be a good fit with our other titles in Egyptology, such as The Mummy, The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen, and A Thousand Miles up the Nile (which is also selling extremely well: and look out for Amelia Edwards’s Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers, now also reissued!).Černý was a Czech, or rather, since he was born in Pilsen in 1898, a Bohemian subject of the Habsburg empire. He caught the Egyptology bug early, and at Charles University in Prague he studied under Bedřich Hrozný, who first deciphered Hittite and recognized it as an Indo-European language. From 1919 he worked in a bank in Prague, but spent all his spare time studying and visiting significant Egyptological collections in Europe, in the course of which he built up a network of friendships with many key figures in the field, including especially Sir Alan Gardiner, author of the classic Egyptian Grammar (first published 1927).  After visits to Egypt under the auspices of the French Archaeological Institute, he was given a personal scholarship by President Masaryk in 1927, and thereafter spent winters in Egypt and summers between Prague and London, working on epigraphic material.

He was in London when war broke out in 1939, and worked as a diplomat for the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. In 1946, he was offered the Edwards Chair of Egyptology at University College London, and subsequently became Professor of Egyptology at Oxford. The Etymological Dictionary was almost complete at his death in 1970, and was seen through the press by colleagues. He himself clearly view the work as an adjunct to W.E. Crum’s Coptic Dictionary (completed in 1939), which did not supply etymological material. Our reissue has demonstrated the usefulness of the print-on-demand process: there seems little doubt but that there has been a small but continuing demand for the book since the hardback went out of print in the early 1990s which we are now able to fulfill.

So what is Coptic? The conventional answer is that it is the latest surviving form of the language of the ancient Egyptians, written using a modified Greek-based script; 20% of its vocabulary, apparently, consists of Greek loan-words. So it is at a distance from ‘Demotic’, the latest form of ‘Ancient Egyptian’, and it survives today only in the liturgy and literature of the Coptic Orthodox Church. However, as was realized by medieval Arabic scholars, and later by Athanasius Kircher among others, the (known) Coptic script expressed a language broadly similar to the (unknown) demotic and hieroglyphic scripts; and it was this insight which helped the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone.

But to state that Coptic ‘survives today only in the liturgy and literature of the Coptic Orthodox Church’ is controversial. ‘Copts’ are today defined by their faith as Christians, and they seem to number anywhere between 5 million and 15 million in Egypt, with another 500,000 in the Sudan, and significant diasporas in the United States, Canada and Australia. However, of these, only a tiny number, estimated on this website at under 300, actually speak the language as their day-to-day vernacular (probably a lesser number than the scholars worldwide who study it), and the same website seems to indicate that this revival is artificial to the extent that its proponent had to learn Coptic himself before teaching it to his family and descendants. Depressingly, the comments about the web post include some vehemently expressed views for and against the revival of Coptic in the politically sensitive context of Egyptian national identity.

How many speakers are needed for a language to be considered ‘living’? The Onge people of the Andaman Islands currently consist of 94 individuals, and their language is ‘endangered’ (you think?). According to the British Council (, the last ‘native’ speaker of Cornish died in 1893, but language revival movements from the early twentieth century onwards have been sufficiently effective that 2,000 people claimed to be fluent in Cornish in a 2008 survey. The resurrection, or even artificial reconstruction, of an almost extinct language was a powerful tool of nationalist movements in the nineteenth century – think of the Baltic states, the Poles and the Czechs and Slovaks, to say nothing of the Irish, Welsh and Gaelic Scots. But it seems that the tiny band of Egyptian Coptic-speakers may find that their efforts are viewed as possibly divisive in the Arab Republic of Egypt.


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3 Responses to Coptic – Living or Dead?

  1. Pingback: Language Life After Life | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: Coptic – Living or Dead? | Cambridge Library Collection Blog | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية

  3. Wael says:

    I came across your article. I thought you might be interested to know that one way to help revive the Coptic language is to increase its presence in the digital world. This is why I developed “Coptic Notes” a powerful iOS mobile app for the iPhone and iPad to help communicate with Coptic online, Its not perfect yet but close.
    At the moment supporting iOS7 only.
    Please kindly share it with your Coptic community.

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