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Coptic language

Coptic is the most recent phase of ancient Egyptian. It is the direct descendant of the ancient language written in Egyptian hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts. The Coptic alphabet is a slightly modified form of the Greek alphabet, with some letters (which vary from dialect to dialect) deriving from demotic. As a living language of daily conversation, Coptic flourished from ca. 200 to 1100. The last record of its being spoken was during the 17th century. Coptic survives today as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Egyptian Arabic is the spoken and national language of Egypt today.


Coptic is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family and the Egyptian language sub-family. In the Sahidic dialect, the language is known as met ən rəm ən kēmə (language of the people of Egypt) and met kuptaion (Egyptian language); the latter is sometimes encountered in the Graecising form met aiguption. The term logos ən aiguptios (Egyptian language) is also attested in Sahidic, although logos and aiguptios are Greek in origin.

Coptic is written in the Coptic alphabet.

Geographic distribution

Note: This page contains IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for a pronunciation key.

Coptic Egyptian was spoken only in Egypt, and historically has had little influence outside of Egypt proper, with the exception of monasteries located in Nubia. Coptic's most noticeable impact has been on the various dialects of Egyptian Arabic, where an immense amount of words from the Coptic lexicon has been preserved as well as many morphological, syntactical, and phonological correspondences. There are also a handful of words of Coptic origin that have been borrowed more generally into Standard Arabic. These include:

  • timsāħ تمساح "crocodile" (Coptic təmsah "the crocodile")
  • ṭūba طوبة "brick" (Sahidic to'bə; Bohairic to:bi; this subsequently entered Spanish (via Andalusi Arabic) as adobe, whence it was borrowed by American English
  • wāħa واحة "oasis" (Sahidic wahə, Bohairic wehi)

A few words of Coptic origin are found in Greek, some of which where ultimately borrowed into various languages of Europe (e.g. barge from Coptic bari "small boat").

It should be noted, however, that most words of Egyptian origin that entered into Greek, and subsequently other European languages, come directly from ancient Egyptian (often demotic), and not Coptic. An example of this is Greek ὄασις oasis, which comes directly from Egyptian WḤ3T or demotic WḤỈ and not Coptic wahə. Interestingly, Coptic re-borrowed some words of ancient Egyptian origin back into its lexicon via Greek. For example, both Sahidic and Bohairic use the word ebenos, which was taken directly from Greek ἔβενος "ebony", originally from Egyptian HBNY.

Finally, Old Nubian (and modern Nubian languages) borrowed many words of Coptic origin.

Official status

As an extinct language, Coptic does not have any official status. The mediaeval Bohairic dialect is, however, presently used as a liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches (along with Arabic and Greek).


Coptic possesses a number of regional dialects that were in use from the Mediterranean coast and south into Nubia, as well as the western oases. However, while many of these dialects reflect actual regional linguistic variations, some are more probably localised orthographic traditions and likely should not be taken as a true indication of linguistic variation.

The major dialects of Coptic are:


Sahidic (formerly called Thebaic) is dialect in which most known Coptic texts are written, and was the leading dialect in the pre-Islamic period. It is thought to have originally been a regional dialect from the area around al-Ashmunayn (ancient Hermopolis magna), but around AD 300 it began to be written in literary form, including translations of major portions of the Bible. By the 6th century a standardised spelling had been attained, and it was highly influential as the standard dialect for the Coptic Orthodox Church throughout Egypt. Almost all native authors in Coptic wrote in this dialect. Sahidic was, beginning in the 9th century challenged by Bohairic, but is attested as late as the 14th century.

While texts in other Coptic dialects are primarily translations of Greek literary and religious texts, Sahidic is the only dialect with a considerable body of original literature and non-literary texts. Because Sahidic shares most of its features with other dialects of Coptic and has few peculiarities specific to itself, and has an extensive corpus of known texts, it is generally the dialect studied by learners of Coptic, particularly by scholars outside of the Coptic Church.


The Bohairic (or Memphitic) dialect is generally believed to originate in the western Nile delta. The earliest Bohairic manuscripts date to the 4th century AD, but most texts come from the 9th century and later; this may, however, be due to poor preservation conditions for texts in the humid regions of northern Egypt. It shows several conservative features in lexicon and phonology not found in other dialects. Bohairic is the dialect used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church, replacing Sahidic some time in the 11th century. In contemporary liturgical use, there are two traditions of pronunciation, arising from successive reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries (see Coptic pronunciation reform).

Some members of the Church have attempted to revive the Bohairic dialect as a language of daily usage, and a number of booklets and grammars have been published to this end. (For one thorough example, see Mattar 1990.)


Akhmimic was localised around the town of Akhmim (ancient Panopolis), and flourished during the 4th and 5th centuries, after which it became extinct. Akmimic is phonologically the most archaic of the Coptic dialects. One characteristic feature is the retention of the phoneme /x/, which is realised as /š/ in most other dialects. Similarly, it uses an exceptionally conservative writing system strikingly similar to "Old Coptic".


Lycopolitan (also known as Subakhmimic and Assiutic) is similar to Akhmimic in terms of when and where it was attested, though manuscripts written in it tend to be localised in the area of Asyut, ancient Lycopolis. The main differences between the two dialects seem to be only graphical in nature, though Lycopolitan was used extensively for translations of gnostic and Manichaean works, including the Nag Hammadi library texts.


Fayyumic (or Faiyumic; in older works it is often called Bashmuric) was utilised primarily in the Fayyūm region west of the Nile Valley. It is attested from the 3rd to the 10th centuries. It is most notable for writing ⲗ l where other dialects generally use ⲣ r.


Oxyrhynchite (also called Mesokemic or (confusingly) Middle Egyptian) was localised in Middle Egypt around Oxyrhynchus, and shows similarities with Fayyumic. It is attested in manuscripts from the 4th and 5th centuries.


The core lexicon of Coptic is derived from the ancient Egyptian language, being most closely related to the demotic phase of the language. Approximately one-third of Coptic vocabulary is drawn from Greek, though borrowings are not always fully adapted to the Coptic phonological system and may have semantic differences as well. There are instances of Coptic texts having passages that are almost entirely composed from Greek lexical roots. However, it must be remembered that the majority of Coptic texts are direct translations of Greek works.

Writing system

Coptic uses a writing system almost wholly derived from the Greek alphabet, with the addition of a number of additional letters—six in the case of Sahidic—that have their origins in Demotic Egyptian. There is some variation in the number and forms of these demotic signs depending on the dialect of Coptic involved. Some of the letters in the Coptic alphabet that are of Greek origin were normally reserved only for words that are themselves Greek in origin.

In Sahidic, syllables may have been indicated by a supralinear stroke, though many scholars hold that it was used to indicate /e/; there is currently no agreement on this issue. Some scribal traditions use a diaeresis over and at the beginning of a syllable. Bohairic uses a superposed point or small stroke known as a djinkim. It is thought to be unrelated to the Sahidic supralinear stroke, and may possibly indicate a voiceless glottal plosive.

Most Coptic texts do not indicate a word division.


Coptic was predominantly used from its Christian beginnings in the late 2nd century till the time of the Great persecution of Diocletian in the late 3rd century as a translational tool from Greek to Egyptian. After the persecution, the monastic movement picked up tremendous steam. The monastic communities were large and mostly Egyptian. This generated the need for the abbots of these communities to write their rules in the Egyptian language. Furthermore, the Fathers of the Egyptian Church, who otherwise usually wrote in Greek, addressed some of their works to the Egyptian monks in Coptic. Hence, with monastic fathers like Saint Anthony the Great, Saint Pachomius, and Saint Macarius and their respective disciples writing to their monks; and with Church Fathers like Saint Athanasius, Saint Theophilius, and Saint Cyril writing also to them in Coptic, the Golden Age of the Coptic language was about to begin.

It was not until Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite (ca. - )came on the scene that Coptic really achieved its literary excellence. Saint Shenouda was able to transform the language from a tool to communicate instructions to the monks to a wide-variety literary language that addressed monks, ecclesiastic authorities, laymen, and even government officials. His charisma, knowledge of Greek language and rhetoric, as well as his innovative mind gave him the necessary tools to elevate the Coptic language, in content and style, to a literary height never achieved before nor equaled since. The Coptic scholars are constantly astounded by his great writings as more and more of them are being studied and accurately published.

This literary legacy continued to a lesser degree through the writings of his disciple Saint Besa in the second half of the 5th century. But such writings were mostly for the edification of the large monastic community in the White Monastery. Later in the 6th and 7th centuries other fathers wrote many works in Coptic like Rufus of Shotep, Constantine of Asyut, and Pisentius of Qift.

Coptic during the early Arabic period (7th to 10th centuries)

By the middle of the 7th century AD, Egypt came under the dominance of Arab rulers with the spread of Islam. At the turn of the 8th century AD, Caliph Abd al-Malik Ibn Marawan made Arabic the sole official language of Egypt, replacing Koine Greek as the language of government affairs. The move further eroded the number of literate Coptic readers, most of whom made up the ranks of government workers and their families and who were also educated in Greek. This pressured Egyptian government officials to learn Arabic so that they may also pass on such work to their offspring. The move may have helped bring about the birth of modern Egyptian Arabic. The combined ascendancy of Greek and especially Arabic eventually relegated literary Coptic. Within a few hundred years, Bishop Severus of Al-Ashmunain found it necessary to write his History of the Patriarchs in Arabic to address such a drastic decline.

Ecclesiastically, the language continued strong. In fact, a great number of Hagiographic texts were composed during the early parts of this period. Coptic continued to be used in the Church with Greek as the second language, as seen from the texts that survived from the period. However a relatively small number of liturgical manuscripts survived from such period to show how it was being used. This was due to the heavy use to which such manuscripts were subjected, poor preservation during the period of decline in use, and the parchment material they were written on that did not lend itself to Arabic such heavy use.

During this period some loan-words made their way into the language. But there was no indication that the Arabic language was used in the Church. There were no Coptic-Arabic manuscripts that belong to this period or any literary citation to indicate its possible use. Coptic also remained the spoken language of the peasants and probably the clergy.

Coptic versus Arabic (11th to 14th centuries)

As the 11th century approached, the relatively good relations between the rulers of Egypt and the Church were drastically changed as the Hakem b'Amr Allah became the ruler. His violent mood swings took their toll on the Christians who were periodically subjected to open persecutions, had their churches closed for up to two years at a time, and saw their language being prohibited from use. This period did not last long, but it definitely left open the door for further decline in Coptic use. During the same period, the European Crusaders waged their wars against the Muslim rulers of the Middle East in an effort to secure the holy places. Their presence in the area generated waves of persecutions and oppressions against the Copts. Introduction of literary Arabic in the 12th century by the Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turaik was probably an attempt to show the Muslims that the Copts are different from the enemy they were fighting.

Such move may have been considered wise at the time but it actually opened the flood gates. Christian Arabic literature flourished afterward. Later in the period, literary Arabic spread into liturgical books, replacing Greek in bilingual texts and intruding on traditionally non-bilingual ones. Even purely Arabic liturgical texts began to appear, indicating that Arabic moved from a mere reference translation to actual use in the churches. Original composition in Coptic became limited to liturgical hymns and prayers. The only Coptic literary texts composed in the later part of the period were the martyrdom of Saint John of Phanidijoit, written as such to shield from the eyes of the Muslims, and compositions, urging the Copts to revive their language.

Further testimony to the gradual decline of the language as a reading tool was supplied by the many lexicographic works that were introduced during the period. They were in the form of Muqadimat (Grammar) and Salalem (Scalae or word lists). Another sign of decline were Arabic texts circulating among the monks but written in Coptic characters, as they could not still read the Arabic script. This was eventually replaced with the writing of Coptic text in Arabic letters that we see nowadays in the Coptic Church.

In summary, this period saw the decline of Coptic literary use in its last stronghold, the Church. Eventually, it led to the weakening of the Church which subsequently weakened the language more, a natural chain reaction. The number of Christians declined due to conversion to Islam.

Decline as a spoken language (up to the 17th century)

After the 14th century the Church experienced a decline spiritually and numerically. The dominance of the Ottoman Empire over Egypt in the early 16th century seemed to accelerate such decline. Production of Coptic Manuscripts slowed down to a trickle. This is an indication that Coptic books were not used as often as before in the Church, so there was no need to produce more. Tradition still mandated that Coptic be used in Church services but in a decaying fashion. Eventually Vansleb, the German traveler, concluded upon seeing an old man speaking in Coptic that with his death (the man's) Coptic will die. Such observation may not have been completely accurate but it gave an indication that Egyptian Arabic has replaced Coptic as the primary spoken language among the Copts, if not the only one.

Revival in the 19th century

In the beginning years of the second half of the 19th century, Pope Cyril IV of Alexandria started a Church-sponsored movement to educate the clergy and the new generations. Revival of Coptic seemed to be a necessary tool for such a movement. So Coptic language education was offered in all the schools that he built alongside the other curriculums that was needed to make a new, better, and educated generation.

Pope Cyril IV of Alexandria did not last long on the throne of Saint Mark. His death was in part brought upon by opponents of his reforms. But he had laid the ground work for such movement to continue. In the last half quarter of that century, the movement to revive the Coptic language intensified.

These dedicated people spread the language among the masses. They printed many of the Coptic service books for the first time, as they were only extant in manuscript form, thus reviving the use of Coptic in the Church services. Several works of grammar were produced as a result, along with a more comprehensive dictionary than was then available. The establishment of the Clerical College also aided in the propagation of the movement.

Coptic in the 20th century

Coptic continued its growth in the Church and among the Ecclesiastically-educated groups that were produced in the early parts of the 20th century. Coptic schools, instituted by Pope Cyril VI and others that emulated them, continued their valuable work among the Coptic community. The clerical college also continued the tradition of the 19th century revival of Coptic. With the advent of the revolution of 1952, the Arabic language became more prominent in Egypt and had eventually an influential effect on the new educated classes among the Copts. As members of these groups were called upon to serve the Church, they brought with them a preaching spirit that put Arabic in a new prominent position in the services, i.e. sermons. Unintentionally, and in spite of the good will of such people and their love of the tradition of the Church, they introduced again an element that eventually weakened the revival process.