Coptic

The latest form of the ancient Egyptian language; the language of the important Nag Hammadi* Gnostic texts. Its alphabet comprises the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet, in uncial form, and seven Demotic characters expressing consonantal sounds not represented in Greek. The transcription of Egyptian into Greek letters first appears in pagan texts of the first or second century a.d.; translation of biblical books began in the third century. Coptic remained a spoken and literary language until the seventh century, thereafter being gradually replaced by Arabic. It is still the ecclesiastical language of the Coptic Church.* Greek influence upon vocabulary and syntax is considerable, while many characteristics of Egyptian proper (e.g., the suffix conjugations) had disappeared, or had all but disappeared, by the time of the Copts. Several dialects of Coptic existed in the early Christian period; the Bible translations in Sahidic (Upper Egypt) and Bohairic (Lower Egypt) are of particular value. The earliest Bible translation was probably into Sahidic. Coptic was instrumental (with Demotic and Greek) in the decipherment of hieroglyphic Egyptian; the only form of Egyptian with a regular system of vocalization, it has also thrown light on the pronunciation of the ancient language.

W.H. Worrell, Coptic Sounds (1934); W.E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (1939); J.M. Plumley, An Introductory Coptic Grammar (Sahidic Dialect) (1948); W.C. Till, Koptische Grammatik (Saïdischer Dialekt) (2nd ed., 1961).