Thursday, May 7, 2009

Coptic as a Living Language?

From Rant/Rave:
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.”

I find it interesting that the Coptic dialect spoken differs from the official Coptic of study and liturgy, which descends from Bohairic Coptic. I wonder if this spoken form resembles some of the varieties of dialects from antiquity--Achmimic, Subachmimic, Fayyumic, Sahidic, etc. (most notable in the shifts in vowels)--or if it shows signs of Arabization. I wonder how Coptic might have adapted to more modern devices--in fact, the woman was speaking on the cell-phone in Coptic; what is the Coptic word for "cell-phone"?

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