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)
William H Worrell (Coptic sounds, 1934, p 122 ff, view) divides Coptic-Arabic transliterations into three kinds, representing three stages:
- Coptic in full vitality, but taking up Arabic words;
- Coptic still a living language, but Arabic in Coptic letters also used;
- 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).