Online: Emile Maher Ishak’s ‘The phonetics and phonology of the Bohairic dialect of Coptic…’ D.Phil Thesis

Today I have the great pleasure of publishing one of the most important works on Coptic phonology, which sadly for many years has been unavailable but to a few. In 1975, Emile Maher Ishak (now Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak of Rochester, New York) completed his D.Phil thesis  at the University of Oxford entitled ‘The phonetics and phonology of the Bohairic dialect of Coptic and the survival of Coptic words in the colloquial and Classical Arabic of Egypt and of Coptic grammatical constructions in colloquial Egyptian Arabic’. The thesis, running to 2,130 pages and divided in four volumes, is to date the most exhaustive study of Bohairic phonology.

The thesis is in fact two works. The first (volumes I and II) is a staunch defence of the traditional pronunciation of Bohairic, which the author considers to be genuine in opposition to the modern reformed pronunciation introduced in AD 1858 by Iryan Girgis Muftah. It draws on a wide array of evidence to establish the validity of Old Bohairic; from Arabic manuscripts rendered in Coptic script, to the ancient names of towns of villages, to hieroglyphic and demotic texts. The phonetic values of the Coptic letters in the traditional and in the reformed pronunciation are discussed individually and in detail, utilising many of the sources digitised on this website. Also explored are aspects of Coptic phonology and grammar in comparison with that of Egyptian Arabic.

The second (volumes III and IV) is essentially a dictionary of Coptic survivals in the colloquial and Classical Arabic of Egypt. The author draws from a wealth of valuable lexical evidence gathered from remote towns and villages throughout Egypt. Included at the end of volume IV is an index of cross-references to the Egyptian etymologies of Coptic words discussed.

I hope that Emile Maher Ishak’s thesis, which I know many interested in Coptic phonology have sought after, will prove a valuable addition to the library of Coptic resources now online. I am publishing all four volumes in PDF format, with bookmarks and (mostly) searchable text.

I have prepared a contents of the thesis here (97kB) for ease of reference.

The thesis is available for download in its four volumes here:

Volume I (72MB)

Volume II (51MB)

Volume III (88MB)

Volume IV (111MB)



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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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Greek loan words in Coptic

In 1955 WA Girgis (later Bishop Gregorius) presented a thesis entitled Greek words in Coptic usage to the University of Manchester for a PhD. He later published his work in a series of eight articles in the Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte (BSAC) named Greek loan words in Coptic from 1964-2001. The first article in the series (BSAC 17) is a general introduction, but the following three (BSAC 18-20) deal with what Greek loan words, and in particular their spelling in Coptic, can tell us about Coptic phonology. The article published in BASC 18 deals with stressed and unstressed Coptic vowels, BSAC 19 deals broadly with Coptic consanants, and BASC 20 deals with aspiration.

  • Girgis WA; in religion, Abba Pachomius Al-Muharraki (1964). Greek loan words in Coptic (Part I). Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 17:63-73. View
  • Girgis WA; in religion, Abba Pachomius Al-Muharraki (1966). Greek loan words in Coptic (Part II). Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 18:71-96. View
  • Girgis WA; in religion, Bishop Gregorius (1970). Greek loan words in Coptic (Part III). Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 19:57-87. View
  • Girgis WA; in religion, Bishop Gregorius (1971). Greek loan words in Coptic (Part IV). Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 20:53-67. View

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The pronunciation of Coptic in the Church of Egypt

Sobhy, Georgy PG (1915). The pronunciation of Coptic in the Church of Egypt. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 2(1):15-19.

Georgy Sobhy Bey was an Egyptian physician who made important contributions to the fields of Egyptology and Coptology in the early 20th century. He wrote  his first article on Coptic phonology in 1915, before the modified Graeco-Bohairic pronunciation had become popular among the Copts. He writes:

All modern books written on Coptic by native authors adopt more or less a mutilated form of Greek pronunciation and apply it entirely to their language. Unfortunately none of our native authors here knows sufficient Greek to realise the outstanding mistakes he is trying to form into rules applicable to the Coptic language. I believe that an ordinary uneducated priest in reciting any Coptic prayer in Church, pronounces the language much more correctly, and naturally too, than if he followed those erroneous rules set down in the modern Coptic books – for he has the inherent power of forming the sounds of the different characters in the language of his forefathers.

The article goes on to discuss and summarise the pronunciation of Coptic in the Egyptian Church, particularly in Upper Egypt, at the beginning of the twentieth century. It ends with a parallel transcription of the Lord’s prayer as dictated to Georgy Sobhy by Pope Cyril V.

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The sounds of Old Bohairic – a short phonological outline

Szelog, Michael (2004). The sounds of Old Bohairic – a short phonological outline.

This work is the result of a personal study carried out by Mike Szelog, who is an active member of the Remenkimi Yahoo Group. His study focusses in particular on the phonemic inventory of the Old Bohairic (OB) pronunciation in opposition to the Graeco-Bohairic (GB) pronunciation, which is most widely used in the liturgical worship of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The approach he has taken is to make the conclusions of the study accessible to lay people by avoiding unnecessary technical language and explaining technical terms where they do occur.

Also of interest is a short document produced by Mike Szelog giving the Lord’s Prayer in Bohairic, Sahidic and Fayumic along which its dialectic pronunciation at different times.


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Egyptian phonology: an introduction to the phonology of a dead language

Puest, Carsten (1999). Egyptian phonology: an introduction to the phonology of a dead language. Monographien zur ägyptischen Sprache; 2. Göttingen: Peust & Gutschmidt.

This monograph which describes the history of Egyptian phonology is invaluable to the field of Coptic phonology. It includes discussion of the phonological changes that occured in Coptic and the effects the Greek and Arabic languages have had on this. It has fortunately been digitised and made freely available by Heidelberg University here. I suggest you consult section 2.2 (pp 30-32) in the first instance as an introduction to Late Coptic phonology and Bohairic in particular, although the whole work is of importance.

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Dear All,

Welcome to the copticsounds blog! I hope you will find the resources that I will post on here useful and I would encourage you to post your own.

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