The Rise of Coptic.

Jean-Luc Fournet’s The Rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in Late Antiquity looks like a very interesting book, but I’ll probably never read it (it’s expensive, and Coptic is far from the center of my interests); fortunately, Amazon allows me to see the start, and I’ll quote some of it here in case anybody is intrigued or has something to say on the topic:

It is a particular aspect of the relations between Egyptian and Greek that I would like to examine here: the way in which the Egyptian language, in the new form that it took on during Late Antiquity in Christian milieus, namely that of Coptic, developed and attempted to undermine the monopoly that the Greek language had held for centuries as the official language. What I will analyze, then, is a very specific domain of written culture. […]

I will focus in this book on documentary sources and, more specifically, on those produced within a context regulated by the law and the state […], which in Egypt had long been subject to the monopoly of Greek, namely legal texts that the ancients called dikaiōmata, as well as texts pertaining to the judicial and administrative domain. Our task will be to establish the chronology and mechanisms whereby Egyptian came to enter the domain of regulated writing, thus acquiring an official dimension and becoming an actor in public written culture, to the detriment of the monopoly that Greek had acquired for itself. […]

As is well known, a consequence of the Graeco-Macedonian conquest of Egypt and the establishment of the Ptolemaic Dynasty was the institution of Greek as the official language. This situation remained unchanged when Egypt came under Roman domination (30 BC). In the name of a very Roman type of pragmatism, the new power did not attempt to break with the previous linguistic tradition; rather, by availing itself of existing structures, it accepted that the administration continued using Greek while introducing Latin into it under certain circumstances (some documents originating in the army or regarding it, as well as those related to Roman citizenship). Compared to Greek, Egyptian—the language of the large majority of the population—was employed in multiple written forms depending on the context, of which only one was in common usage: Demotic (as opposed to Hieratic, which was reserved for the writing of literary and religious texts, and hieroglyphics, which were restricted to epigraphy). Even though the last example of Demotic is a graffito left on a wall at the Temple of Philae (452), its “natural” use disappeared much earlier. This writing ceased to be used in letters and tax receipts during the middle of the first century and, except in Egyptian temple environments, no longer served for legal transactions as well after the first century. I will not dwell on the cause of this disappearance, which was the economic decline of temples: Roger Bagnall shed light on this almost thirty years ago. What is of interest to me here are its sociolinguistic consequences. Apart from the temple milieus, the population no longer had a form of writing its primary language at its disposal, and from the first century found itself in a situation of collective “agraphia,” condemned to having to make use of Greek for its written communication. The only way to escape this linguistic schizophrenia was to reinvent a new form of writing. The former system was intrinsically bound to temples (which imparted its teaching through “Houses of Life”); and while temples continued to writhe in their death throes, Christianization, which was gaining significant ground during the third century, triggered this reinvention. In a context characterized by the hegemony of Greek and a departure from writing systems derived from ancient hieroglyphics, the new Egyptian writing could only be Greek. Following experiments (called “Old Coptic”) that had already been performed by Egyptian priests who were increasingly unable to master the ancient Pharaonic writing, Greek graphemes were borrowed. To these were added others, for rendering phonemes specific to Egyptian that Greek letters could not express. The process was certainly neither organized nor linear, but among the multiple trials that were attempted independently, one came to be one step ahead of the others. It spread through stages and mechanisms unknown to us, and spawned Coptic in the traditional sense. […]

What is now certain is that the use of Coptic for nondocumentary purposes tends to precede that for documentary ones. Moreover, we note that it does not take on the form of works in the traditional sense but rather that of annotations to Greek texts, Graeco-Coptic glossaries, or school exercises in Greek sets or bilingual writing exercises. We are therefore faced with a subliterary usage intended for learning oriented toward Greek or based on Greek. […] The few pieces that are available and the absence of irrefutable provenance must encourage us not to come to overly definitive conclusions. It is nevertheless tempting to think that the first generations to use Coptic (in the latter half of the third century) lived in urban milieus—the very same ones that led to the formation of municipal elites—or in villages that were significantly Hellenized. […] It was not until several decades later that this writing, once it had been perfected and had proven itself, seems to have spread to the least Hellenized milieus (monastic ones in particular), which apparently used it for documentary purposes, to communicate among themselves.

The situation is fascinating, and I’m glad it’s being studied.

Comments

  1. There is a hint here of a collapse of the pagan temple system before any great blossoming of Christianity. Perhaps this was also true in Greece and Anatolia.

  2. Eitan Grossman, an Israeli linguist, has recently been showing that Coptic, a language studied intensively for centuries, is a gold mine for new insights in historical linguistics and typology. His personal story is a fun read, too.

  3. Yes, it is:

    The first year course in Coptic was probably the most challenging course I took in my entire BA. The professor, Ariel Shisha-Halevy, was – and is – a radical thinker, who showed me that most of what I thought I knew about language was just a collection of prejudices. I don’t want to eulogize someone who I still see often, so I’ll just say that I kept studying Coptic because I wanted to keep hearing what Shisha-Halevy had to say. I also ended up studying Welsh, Irish, Greek, Somali, Yiddish, Ge’ez, Sidamo, and a little Swahili and Polish, but I was mostly focused on Ancient Egyptian in all of its phases.

    I wanted to keep studying, which meant I had to do some more degrees. I was lucky enough to come into the field of Egyptian linguistics when a lot of the established scholars were a bit tired from some titanic clashes about the nature of the Ancient Egyptian verbal system. This meant that those of us working on the later phases, from Late Egyptian to Coptic, could work on new topics, and I think that our teachers were happy to encourage us in this. Also, a lot of us were reading functionalist and typological literature, which gave us a different perspective. All in all, the community of linguists working on Ancient Egyptian and Coptic is a tremendously exciting and supportive one, and it’s a privilege and a source of ongoing happiness to be a part of it.

    And “gold mine for new insights in historical linguistics and typology” is enticing!

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    There is a hint here of a collapse of the pagan temple system before any great blossoming of Christianity.

    Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians attempts to prove the opposite, suggesting that the idea that classical paganism was moribund anyhow is due to Christian wishful thinking, selective reading of the evidence and/or propaganda, along with the history-is-written-by-the-victors syndrome. It’s years since I read it, but I recall finding it at least very interesting, illuminating and entertaining, but perhaps with a hint of its own kind of wishful thinking.

  5. John Cowan says:

    Apart from the temple milieus, the population no longer had a form of writing its primary language at its disposal, and from the first century found itself in a situation of collective “agraphia,” condemned to having to make use of Greek for its written communication.

    That’s pretty misleading: certainly knowledge of writing in any form was not widely dispersed among the population. It should probably read “administrators and lawyers”, though from the -4C to the 2C, Demotic was also a literary script. I do not think it would be le mot juste to say that English lawyers were condemned to write (increasingly bad) French from 1066 to 1658 (Coke’s Institutes said it was almost no longer spoken).

    (Today I learned that a zygote still in vitro (not yet implanted) is legally en ventre sa mere [sic], both for the purpose of taking property under a will or by intestate succession and as the victim of a tort.)

  6. There must be some irony in the fact that a French professor, with numerous previous publications in French, apparently felt compelled to write this book in English. Or maybe that gives him special sympathies with the beleaguered Egyptians forced to write in a foreign language.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Or he simply wanted to reach a larger audience.

    the least Hellenized milieus (monastic ones in particular)

    That surprises me.

    suggesting that the idea that classical paganism was moribund anyhow is due to Christian wishful thinking, selective reading of the evidence and/or propaganda, along with the history-is-written-by-the-victors syndrome.

    Interesting. I’d have thought Christian wishful thinking would have produced “the land was full of devil-worshippers up to the moment that the Church Triumphant arrived” rather than “the Church won unopposed in a vacuum”.

    en ventre sa mere [sic]

    Invisible Latin genitive!

  8. Yes, simple apposition without a preposition is a normal way to indicate the genitive in Old French.

  9. ə de vivre says:

    @dm, re. (non-)Hellenized monks,
    In the East Syriac context, “Christian learning” constituted an intellectual discipline that was seen as separate from, and often at odds with, Greco-Latin education. Important monks often knew Greek, and there was certainly intellectual activity that engaged with the Greek intellectual tradition, but there wasn’t a tradition of monastic study of pagan classics like what eventually led to the development of the university in Western Christianity. It wouldn’t surprise me if (Christology aside) the situation was similar in the Coptic context.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Bentley Layton’s Coptic Grammar, a work which I myself find profoundly irritating because of its stylistic quirks, but is nonetheless well regarded by experts, says

    There are almost no secular intellectual, educational or technical works in Coptic nor belles lettres. For access to such literature, Egyptian readers would have turned to the broader and more varied literature available to them in Greek or Arabic, languages to which Coptic was always politically and socially subordinate.

    He says also that there is a conspicuous absence of systematic theology and works by the great Church fathers, “which would have been read in Greek, Arabic or Syriac, if at all.”

    On the other hand he mentions abundant legal and business documents, school texts, and personal letters both secular and religious.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    It was not until several decades later that this writing, once it had been perfected and had proven itself, seems to have spread to the least Hellenized milieus (monastic ones in particular), which apparently used it for documentary purposes, to communicate among themselves.

    This is interesting because it’s pretty much the opposite of what I’d expect. Monasteries in all religion were powerful institutions. They interacted with the leading classes in politics, business, law, etc, It woudn’t have surpised me if they were early hellenophones that none-the-less clinged on to an increasingy quaint and ornamental form of the ancient language.

  12. A little off topic, but found a cool video of someone pronouncing ancient languages. I didn’t notice Coptic, but they had Middle Egyptian. (I am not sure how accurate the pronunciations are)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUphYFUFnsY&feature=youtu.be

  13. Athelstan John Cornish-Bowden says:

    About 20 years ago I bought Champollion’s Grammaire Egyptienne for 158 francs in a supermarket. (Yes, a supermarket! It’s always a good idea to check the book section of a French supermarket, because sometimes you’ll find some very surprising and interesting offers.) I was very surprised at how far he could get with the language only a few years after he could read hieroglyphics. Later I realized that Coptic, which Champollion probably knew already, was the essential key.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Yes, Champollion studied Coptic first.

    “Christian learning” constituted an intellectual discipline that was seen as separate from, and often at odds with, Greco-Latin education.

    I’m just surprised that Christian learning wasn’t itself in Greek, like the New Testament, the Septuagint, the Church Fathers and whatnot.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    Coptic, which Champollion probably knew already, was the essential key.

    Very much so. There’s the famous story of his deciphering the cartouche of Rameses (on the basis of signs with phonetic values known from cartouches for the Ptolemies) when he realised that “SUN” + m + s reflected Coptic re “sun” and verb form mose “be born.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Champollion#Names_of_rulers

  16. ə de vivre says:

    I’m just surprised that Christian learning wasn’t itself in Greek, like the New Testament, the Septuagint, the Church Fathers and whatnot.

    Churches in the East had fewer scruples about translating religious texts than in the Latin West. The literate traditions in Armenian, Georgian, and Syriac (as the Edessine standard of Eastern Aramaic) came into being essentially as extensions of the churches whose liturgies they recorded. The question of the role that texts in Greek played in an interesting one. There are commentaries on Aristotle in Armenian, Syriac, and Georgian, but AFAIK there was no translation project like that for Arabic that would have made entire texts of Aristotle’s available in translation. In those cases, being on the outer limits of Greek culture and a lack of a tradition of Greek paidea educational organization meant that being literate didn’t automatically mean acquiring a Greek cultural identity. In Egypt, with its much more significant Greek population, I wonder if Christianity appealed precisely to those who weren’t already socially privileged, and therefore less likely to be invested in Greek culture.

  17. I remember reading an interesting comment about Rus reception of Greek culture after Christianization.

    There were many Rus intellectuals who could read Greek, considerable number of books were translated into Slavonic (and there were even more books translated into Slavonic by Bulgarians).

    But…

    The topics they were interested in seemed to be very narrow. For example, there was little interest in Ancient Greek history, culture or philosophy. Very few literature works were translated (for example, they didn’t bother translating Homer!)

    They were mostly concerned with works of Christian authors, geography, world and Byzantine history, things like that. From ancient history, they translated Judean War by Flavius Josephus.

    This lack of cultural sophistication is blamed for the strange turn Russian history took after fall of Constantinople.

  18. @SFReader: Different Christianized (and, although to a less pronounced degree, Islamized) cultures have varied tremendously in how much they preserved elements of their previous pagan religion and folklore as part of their culture. Consider the almost total absence of Germanic myths in the later culture of England. (This is due, no doubt, in large measure to the Norman conquest, but the key fact is that retention of pre-Christian culture is highly contingent; the arrival of a French-speaking upper class is merely the specific contingency responsible in this case.)

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