The Coptic Language and Script

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Although attempts had been made in the 2C BC to transliterate the Egyptian language into the Greek script, with little success, it was not until the early 1C AD that a conscious effort was made to express Egyptian in Greek script. This was achieved using the Greek alphabet with the addition of seven characters taken from the late demotic Egyptian for sounds not represented in Greek. This was the origin of the Coptic script which embraced the current Egyptian vernacular, already heavily adulterated with Greek terminology, with perhaps five or more dialects. The most important of these were Bohairic of the Delta and Sahidic from Upper Egypt. The first examples in Coptic are secular ephemera from the early 2C AD, progressing through glosses to Greek texts, translations from Greek, and finally Gnostic and Christian works composed entirely in Coptic. Flourishing literature existed in both dialects. Sahidic, purged of all Greek elements after the Council of Chalcedon, was the more prolific, but since most of the senior hierarchy of the church were northerners, in the mid 11C Bohairic was ordained as the official liturgical language. Although now only used in the liturgy, it persisted as a spoken language until the 13C “while Sahidic may have survived until the 17C in the South.


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