Ancient World

The Rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in Late Antiquity


Jan 21, 2020
37 b/w illus. 3 tables. 1 map.
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Coptic emerged as the written form of the Egyptian language in the third century, when Greek was still the official language in Egypt. By the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641, Coptic had almost achieved official status, but only after an unusually prolonged period of stagnation. Jean-Luc Fournet traces this complex history, showing how the rise of Coptic took place amid profound cultural, religious, and political changes in late antiquity.

For some three hundred years after its introduction into the written culture of Egypt, Coptic was limited to biblical translation and private and monastic correspondence, while Greek retained its monopoly on administrative, legal, and literary writing. This changed during the sixth century, when Coptic began to penetrate domains that were once closed to it, such as literature, liturgy, regulated transactions between individuals, and communications between the state and its subjects. Fournet examines the reasons for Coptic’s late development as a competing language—which was unlike what happened with other vernacular languages in Near Eastern Greek-speaking societies—and explains why Coptic eventually succeeded in being recognized with Greek as an official language.

Incisively written and rich with insights, The Rise of Coptic draws on a wealth of archival evidence to shed new light on the role of monasticism in the growing use of Coptic before the Arab conquest.