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Classical Coptic Pronunciation

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Canis Majoris:
Kemetic language script and pronunciation changed greatly throughout its long history, from beginning as simple logograms "🐈" and evolving into hieroglyphics that combine the same logograms' pronunciations. For the sake of saving time, a simplified cursive form called "hieratic" evolved and later further simplified into the Demotic script. Finally the language was written in Greek script during Roman times. At times, Coptic has been written in Arabic, and Arabic in Coptic.

Egyptians invented Demotic to write the Kemetic language in 700 BCE as a simpler form of the Hieroglyphics. Demotic became a fossil of Late Egyptian pronunciation and created diglossia between written and contemporary grammar, syntax, and pronunciation (a modern example is French). Many natives in Egypt remained illiterate- even with the implementation of the new Demotic script.

Later, Macedonians brought the Greek language and script to Egypt, and the Ptolemaic Empire made Greek its prestige language. Law, business, and administration were conducted primarily in Greek. The Demotic script and dialects sporadically were transliterated into Greek before the Roman annexation of Egypt; although hieroglyphics maintained a level of importance as the Classical language of Egypt and continued the Ancient Middle Egyptian tradition, Greek was becoming much more utilized.

During the Roman period, Egyptians added 7 new letters to the Greek script, all representing Kemetic sounds that Greek did not possess; its pronunciation was based on Egyptian Greek- Greek that had changed from Classical Greek. Regional dialect scripts like Bohairic, Faiyumic, and Sahidic formed around the 1st Century AD, and expressed exact dialectal pronunciations to contemporary native Egyptian ears based on Egyptian Greek spelling conventions. This created a melange of differing Coptic writings, all based on local dialects. The Eastern Roman Empire's ban of Pagan religions made Greek increasingly the only script used, contributing to the loss of Hieroglyphic and Demotic script knowledge.

We know what Egyptian Greek sounded like based on mispellings, and the Kemetic dialects reflected similar errors in their script. Egyptian Greek and Kemetic shared these features in Coptic script:

All of the examples below are from Bohairic.
Vowels/ Dipthongs:
The distinction of long and short vowels disappeared , and some vowels merged with dipthongs.

i: ⲓ/ⲩ*/ⲉⲓ*/ⲏ* ⲃⲁⲃⲩⲗⲱⲛ/ⲃⲁⲃⲓⲗⲱⲛ, ⲏⲥⲁⲓⲁⲥ/ⲏⲥⲁⲏⲁⲥ, ϩⲓⲏⲃ/ϩⲏⲓⲃ, Ⲇⲁⲩⲓⲇ/Sah.Ⲇⲁⲩⲉⲓⲇ. Babylon, Esaias/Esaeas(Isaiah), Hieb/Heib, lamb, Dauid, David, compare Sahidic Ⲇⲁⲩⲉⲓⲇ, Daueid,  David. ⲩ could be written as ⲓ;  ⲉⲓ/ⲏ was sometimes confused with ⲓ, but not always.
ei(between e and i): ⲉⲓ/ⲏ/ⲟⲓ ⲟⲩⲉⲓⲛⲓⲛ/Sah.ⲟⲩⲁⲓⲛⲓⲛ, ⲣⲱⲙⲏ.  Ueinin, Ionian(Greek), compare Sahidic ⲟⲩⲁⲓⲛⲓⲛ, Uainin, Ionian(Greek), Romei, Rome.
e: ⲁⲓ/ⲉ ⲣⲱⲙⲉⲟⲥ/ⲣⲱⲙⲁⲓⲟⲥ. Romeos/Romaios, Rōmaeus/Roman
eu: ⲉⲩ ⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ. Pneuma, spirit
au: ⲁⲩ Ⲁⲩⲅⲟⲩⲥⲧⲟⲥ. Augustos, Augustus, a Roman name
u: ⲟⲩ ⲛⲟⲩϯ. Nuti, god.
o: ⲟ/ⲱ ⲡⲟⲡⲗⲓⲟⲥ/ⲡⲱⲡⲗⲓⲟⲥ, ⲟⲩϩⲟⲣ/ⲟⲩϩⲱⲣ, ϩⲑⲟ/ϩⲑⲱ. Poplios, Publius, a Roman name, Uhor, dog, Ht'or, horse
Rarely, ⲱ o and ⲟⲩ u were interchanged.

Most dialects didn't use aspirated letters when writing, but those that did made a distinction between p'-p, ⲫ-ⲡ;t'-t, ⲑ-ⲧ; k'-k, ⲭ-ⲕ. Greek aspiration was not consistently applied, and in some cases words were over aspirated.

b: Ⲃⲁⲃⲩⲗⲱⲛ. Babylon compare Faiyumic Ⲡⲁⲃⲓⲗⲱⲛ Pabilon
d: ⲇⲣⲁⲡⲉⲧⲏⲥ, ⲧⲣⲁⲡⲉⲧⲏⲥ. drapetes/trapetes, fugitive
p'/ph: ⲫ ⲫⲓⲟⲙ. p'iom (Faiyum) compare Sahidic ⲡⲉⲓⲟⲙ peiom
t'/th: ⲑ ϣⲑⲟⲣⲑⲉⲣ. sht'ort'er (to disturb) compare Faiyumic ϣⲧⲁⲗⲧⲉⲗ shtaltel
k'/kh: ⲭ ⲭⲏⲙⲓ. k'emi(Egypt) compare Sahidic ⲕⲏⲙⲉ keme 
ϩ ϩⲓⲣⲏⲛⲏ, Ⲓⲣⲏⲛⲏ, Ⲉⲓⲣⲏⲛⲏ; Hirene, Irene, Eirene, from Ειρηνη, Peace; Ⲏⲣⲱⲇⲏⲥ, ϩⲏⲣⲱⲇⲏⲥ. Erodes, Herodes, Herod

The language based on these rules would be what a writer from nearly two thousand years ago would have heard. It is not what the most recent speakers would have sounded like, but in the same way that Classical Arabic is pronounced differently to Modern Arabic dialects, in such a way does Classical Coptic differ from the more recent Coptic pronunciations. Classical Coptic pronunciation is a fossil of earlier Coptic pronunciation.

Very pleased to meet the good information I was looking for.


Some Demotic letters seem to be different in Bohairic vs Sahidic. In Sahidic, Ϧ is absent, Ϫ is pronounced like ch, and Ϭ is pronounced kj. Can you confirm and compare this to pronunciation of Demotic?


Canis Majoris:
For Bohairic words compared to hieroglyphs, we can see that ϫ correlates to a "dj" sound: 𓋴𓆓𓂧𓀁 cαϫιδ sadjid, compared to Coptic cαϫι sadji (word, to speak) 𓆓 = ϫ.
For ϭ we can see a correspondence to "k", such as in 𓂓𓅓 χαμ kam, ϭⲱⲙ qom (garden), 𓂓 = χα, the word for the "Ka" (Ancient Egyptian Religion). Ⲧhere is evidence that it could sound like "ch" in Coptic Egyptian. Take 𓅷𓄿𓂞 for example, it sounded like tji or chi, and became "ϭⲓ"(to take).

As for ϩ we can see that ϩ is an "h" sound such as in 𓎛𓏏𓂋𓃗 htor, ϩⲑⲟ hto (horse); 𓎛 = h.

Finally for ϧ we can see it makes a "kh" sound and comes from 𓐍, as in 𓐍𓂧𓊛 khed(northwards, down the nile), ϧⲏⲧ khet (north). Sometimes, 𓐍 becomes ϣ, such as in Khonsu 𓐍𓈖𓇓𓅱(the god), Coptic Ϣⲟⲛⲥ Shons, though this is not common.

I haven't studied Sahidic very much; I assume the pronunciation was similar to Bohairic.

Hi Canis Majoris:

This is very interesting. How about the letter Ϯ? What does it correspond to? Why, do you think, it was added when Greek alphabet already had Ⲧ & Ⲇ?

The other thing we notice in Arabi-Bohairic pronunciation is absence of the sounds of v & p. Would you compare this situation to the ancient Egyptian language?



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