“Coptic” refers to the native language of Egypt between the time of the Pharoah’s and the Islamic invasion (around 641 CE.)
“Copts” refer to the major ethnoreligious group from Egypt who are known as the Coptic Orthodox Christians today.
The language has dramatically declined in use due to the Islamic invasion in (about) 641 CE. It is a known fact that when the Muslims invaded Egypt, they forced the Coptic people to stop talking Coptic and learn Arabic instead (as it is the language of the Islamic Holy Book – The Quran.) If the Coptic people did not comply, their tongues were to be cut off! In schools, children were forced to learn only arabic and could no longer converse in Coptic. This was the true practice of linguicide! (Language death)
Although it did not completely die out, the Coptic language is still used in the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy to this day. If it wasn’t so special, I don’t think it would have survived – even in the Church!
The Coptic Orthodox Divine Liturgies of St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. Cyril which are still used by the Coptic Orthodox Church today are prayed mostly in Arabic, Coptic and English.
Here’s a story about myself to explain why and how I began to love the Coptic language and Coptic Hymns so much; As a child born and raised in Australia, my parents like many other Egyptian parents took me to the Church every sunday morning to attend the Liturgy at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral – Arncliffe, Sydney – Australia. As a youngster, I never learnt to read or write Arabic but could only understand basic speech – just like most people my age in the Church community. Therefore, there was a Liturgy prayed in English and Coptic for the youth as well as a Liturgy prayed in Arabic and Coptic – for the Arabic speaking congregation. My mother never let me attend the “English Liturgy” as she forced me and my sister to sit next to her during the entire Liturgy. As I grew older, my Mum took my sister and I to the “English Liturgy” to attend there for about a year or two. She came with us so that she could make sure that we were praying attentively rather than sitting and talking with friends. Later on, she decided that she wanted to attend the “Arabic Liturgy” from then on because she enjoyed it much more. I used to use the Liturgy book in English to help me understand while the priest prayed in Arabic and Coptic and while the Deacons sung hymns in Copitc. My love for Coptic [hymns] came in when I attended the “Arabic Liturgy.” I remember asking my parents; “how come the deacons can sing Coptic? Why can’t I learn it too? What are all these hymns? What are they singing and why?” and the only reply I got was that “they learnt it from when they were children.” My parents noticed my interest and took me to hymns lessons with the young deacons but it wasn’t enough. By the age of 12, I realised that no one wanted to teach me the Coptic Language or Hymns. So, I taught [Coptic] to myself. I searched resources in the Church to help me, but the main resource that helped me was something I found online – a list of Coptic letters with their pronunciation in English. For one week, I hand wrote it over and over again until I memorised each letter, months later I was able to read. I began to then learn all the Church hymns in Coptic – I started learning the doxologies, verses of the cymbals (from attending Vespers on Saturday nights) and parts of the Holy Psalmody (Tasbeha.) Later on, I found myself learning from all the older deacons that served in the Arabic Church.
I enjoy everything about Coptic Hymns so much that I compiled a booklet containing hymns for every Coptic feast and fast of the Church. Years on, I still have this collection and wish to make it more complete! Everyday, I realise there’s more and more Coptic Hymns and different tunes, history and meaning behind every hymn! I could go on and on… but I guess I’ll discuss this [history, meaning, and tunes of hymns] in another blog.
Interesting quote from Jean Francois Champollion in a letter to his brother while studying Coptic. He wrote his brother in 1809:
“I am totally immersed in Coptic, I want to know Egyptian as well as I know French, because my great work on the Egyptian papyrus [hieroglyphics] will be based on this language … . My Coptic is moving along, and I find in it the greatest joy, because you have to think: to speak the language of my dear Amenhotep, Seth, Ramses, Thuthmos, is no small thing. … As for Coptic, I do nothing else. I dream in Coptic. I do nothing but that, I dream only in Coptic, in Egyptian. … I am so Coptic, that for fun, I translate into Coptic everything that comes into my head. I speak Coptic all alone to myself (since no one else can understand me). This is the real way for me to put my pure Egyptian into my head. … In my view, Coptic is the most perfect, most rational language known.”
Just as Jean Francois Champollion loved Coptic to a [weird] extent, I too see why he loved it and LIVED IT! And for fun, during my high school years, I actually used to write my homework in my School diary in Coptic letters – so that the teachers don’t understand what I’m writing!! (and also for practice and extreme interest!)
I can also recall trying to pray the “Our Father” in Coptic when I was 12 and still learning the Coptic Language.
Hope you all realise soon that – there’s SOMETHING about Coptic. If you’re Egyptian or part of the Coptic Orthodox Church – appreciate it, let it live!