Coptic sounds before Arabic

William H Worrell (Coptic sounds, 1934, p 122 ff, view) divides Coptic-Arabic transliterations into three kinds, representing three stages:

  1. Coptic in full vitality, but taking up Arabic words;
  2. Coptic still a living language, but Arabic in Coptic letters also used;
  3. Coptic a dead language, represented in Arabic letters.

The two documents I am adding to the site today, the medical text of Émile Chassinat and the alchemistic text of Ludwig Stern, belong to the first stage and in Worrell’s words are the “latest reliable evidence that can be used” for deducing Coptic pronunciation without Arabic influence. As such, these are two of the most important surviving documents for the study of Coptic sounds before Arabic. Later texts such as those published by Casanova (1901, view), Sobhy (1926, view) and Galtier (1906, view) suffer from both Arabisation of Coptic phonetics and the conventionalisation of Coptic-Arabic transcription. This makes the deduction of actual Coptic sounds very difficult.

The first document is a medical text found at Mashaich (Lepidontopolis), opposite Girga, in 1892-1893. The text is written in Sahidic and is dated to the ninth or tenth century. The scribe reproduces in Coptic letters the actual pronunciation of Arabic words rather than their fixed orthographic form. This makes the text very useful for studying the sound of Sahidic Coptic letters during that time, before they were affected by Arabic pronunciation.

  • Chassinat, Émile (1921). Un papyrus médical copte. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire, 32. [Selected sections only: introduction, discussion of Coptic phonology, and index of Arabic words transcribed in Coptic.] View

The second document is the alchemistic text from Sohag, near Akhmim, published by Stern. Worrell and Chassinat both date the document to around the tenth century; although Stern thought it was written significantly later. The document is written in Sahidic with some Akhmimic influence. As with the medical text published by Chassinat, this text uses a number of vernacular Arabic words written in Coptic script.

  • Stern, Ludwig (1885). Fragment eines koptischen Tractates über Alchimie. Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 23: 102–119. View

Both these texts are widely discussed in subsequent studies of Coptic phonology, but for a quick useful English description of the texts and a discussion of what conclusion may be drawn from them, see Worrell’s Coptic sounds (1934), particularly chapter 4 (view).

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