Coptic language's last survivors

Joseph Mayton
7 Min Read

CAIRO: Considered an extinct language, the Coptic language is believed to exist only in the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in Egypt. The ancient language that lost in prominence thanks largely to the Arab incursion into Egypt over 1300 years ago remains the spoken language of the church and only two families in Egypt.

Coptic is a combination of the ancient Egyptian languages Demotic, Hieroglyphic and Hieratic, and was the language used by the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt following the spread of Greek culture throughout much of the Near East. In essence, it is the language of the ancient Egyptians themselves.

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.

Among those early languages, Aramaic was thought to be extinct until recent history proved otherwise. The language is still spoken in parts of southern Turkey and northwest Syria. Zaki feels it would be a great loss to Coptic Christianity and the world if the Coptic language is totally lost.

“I hope that the world will come to realize the importance of Coptic in Christian doctrine, Zaki said. “Egypt is the first home for a Christian church and that makes Coptic truly the first language of Christianity in a sense.

“It is sad to think that the language will truly be dead in the next 100 years. They are already classifying Coptic as a dead language in most encyclopedias, Zaki said. Neither parents used Coptic with their children.

This is similar to the historical decline of the Coptic language. With the Arab conquest, Arabic began to be the language spoken in everyday life. After a period of religious turmoil in Egypt, Coptic leaders decided to use Arabic as their main means of conversation in order to show the Arab rulers that they were not conspirators of the European Crusaders.

It is a sad fact that the language will soon go the way of Latin.

Copt itself means Egypt. The word Egypt comes from the Greek aiguptios and the Arabic qupt – both of those words were derived from the Coptic language that was spoken when each community ascended upon Egypt.

Coptic is the closest descendant to the spoken language of the ancient Egyptians. Combining the Greek alphabet with Demotic, Coptic is a unique conglomeration of languages. Despite this fact, Coptic has no official status in Egypt. The form spoken in church services differs from Zaki’s. Coptic is a combination of the ancient Egyptian languages Demotic, Hieratic and Hieroglyphic. It was the latest evolution of the Egyptian language.

“My parents passed the language down to me like their parents did before them.

Unfortunately for Copts throughout Egypt, this process was broken over the years, she said. “I guess I have continued the destruction of the language in many ways by me not passing it along to my children

“My parents felt it was an important part of our heritage and spoke to me in Coptic since I can remember,

Zaki revealed. “Why I didn’t pass on the language to my children, I don’t know. Zaki says that she often receives strange looks when she is overheard speaking Coptic on her mobile phone. “People look at me as if I am an alien and I don’t belong. I guess that is what my ancestors had to deal with,although violently in some instances, she said,which is the main reason that Zaki chose not to speak Coptic with her children.

“I didn’t want my kids to have to experience the exclusion that Coptic had with me when I was younger, she revealed. “I can remember my friends making fun of me when I talked to my parents

But it is vital to her cultural understanding of being a Copt in a country dominated by Islam. “It gives me the strength to practice my faith despite all the hardship that being Christian in an Islamic country has, Zaki said.

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 would be nice to have more people speaking Coptic, Zaki admitted. “It would mean that our culture and way of life will continue in the years to come.

That is unlikely considering the evidence. As it is already considered a dead language akin to Latin, it seems implausible that undiscovered speakers of Coptic will be discovered.

Hundreds of languages are lost each year as the remaining speakers pass away.

Share This Article
Leave a comment