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August 6, 2012

The Sick Child (or Det syke barn) by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1896).[1]


Coptic is indeed moribund (and therefore threatened) but it is not extinct or dead as Biblical Hebrew was not dead or extinct – it can be revived if the right conditions arise and the right remedy is given.

If Biblical Hebrew wasn’t deed, as indeed it wasn’t, then Coptic is too not dead.


Steven Roger Fischer has written an interesting book titled A History of Language,[2] but I found his section, Endangered Languages and Language Extinction particularly interesting.

I have always argued that Coptic is not dead. Let us see if we can expand on that on a Fischer’s backdrop. It is unfair to place a language with a known alphabet, vocabulary, phonology and syntax that has disappeared from daily-life use on the same footing with a language that has had none of those, or has completely disappeared that none of these exist.

I take an excerpt from Fischer:

Once dead, languages cannot be ‘resurrected’ … . Among languages, there is no Lazarus. One often hears the claim that Hebrew is a modern ‘revival’. However, Hebrew never died. Always the prestige language of its speakers, for religious and ethnic reasons, Hebrew was the written and sung language of Jewish religious services, so it was constantly heard and spoken. Eventually, because of political necessity with the founding of a Jewish state in 1948, Hebrew was raised from the ritual second language to an active first language. Modern linguistic revival attempts, such as with Manx and Cornish, invariably remain the diversion of small interest groups, without large-scale linguistic repercussions: the metropolitan languages that replaced these remain the first language.[3]

Now, I don’t know about Manx and Cornish, but placing Coptic[4] on the same footing with a language that has not been recorded and that has disappeared from lingual existence because its population have been wiped out from the face of the earth through a massacre, epidemic or some other natural disaster is not convincing. Some try to distinguish between the two, and call an unrecorded language such as the Trumai[5] and the Kasabe[6] languages that have been completely lost when their last speaker died “extinct language”, while they reserve the term “dead language” to languages such as Biblical Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, Ge’ez and Coptic – languages that have disappeared from daily use but are well recorded and often used for ritual purposes. But the distinction they use is only academic and taxonomic: to many of them all languages that have disappeared from daily use, whether you put them in the category of ‘extinct’ or ‘dead’, cannot be revived – they are well dead and any attempt to revive them must be buried. As Fischer says, “Once dead, languages cannot be ‘resurrected’ … . Among languages, there is no Lazarus.”

But as I already said in a previous article, linguists are a confused bunch, and they often use imprecise definitions. Furthermore, and because of this, they always have exceptions when it suits them. And here, in Fischer’s above passage, we just have one: dead languages cannot be resurrected but Biblical Hebrew wasn’t really dead since it had been recorded and was still being used for religious purposes. It has, therefore, been possible to revive Hebrew, which is now the spoken and written language of Israel.

We don’t disagree with Fischer on this matter. We indeed think Hebrew wasn’t dead just because it disappeared, for politico-economic reasons, from daily use within the Jewish population: Hebrew was alive: its alphabet, vocabulary, grammar and phonology were all known and recorded. Hebrew did not need a resurrection miracle – Hebrew required another miracle: the miracle of the Jews of the world establishing a national homeland, modernising Hebrew, and making it the official language of schools, civil service and military. This is resuscitation of a moribund language or, if one wishes, a threatened language, but not resurrection of a dead language.

As you can see: the miracle is political and not lingual. Had Israel rather resurrected Trumai or Kasabe that would, however, been a lingual miracle – a raising of a lingual Lazarus from the dead; but that was, of course, not the case.[7] Similar to Biblical Hebrew, any of the other languages that share in the historical, national and religious importance of Biblical Hebrew, i.e. Latin, Sanskrit, Ge’ez and Coptic, can be elevated from a liturgical level where it is used for religious purposes mainly to a national level where it becomes the active language of daily use. It only needs national programme and action, and gaining of sufficient political power.

The conclusion is: Coptic isn’t, as Biblical Hebrew wasn’t, dead – Coptic is a live language at a liturgical level waiting to be elevated to a higher level when the nation thinks in it, speaks it, and writes its literature in it. Political and economic circumstances that allow a threatened language to be revived vary, and there is no single model for national resuscitation of a language, but the Israeli model seems to be the most successful.

The message is a message of hope while that of the indifferent linguists’ is one of despair – if one believes them, one has only to hurry up in arranging for a funeral and burial ceremony once they pass a verdict of dead/extinct on a language.

[1] Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944) painted several versions of this portrait of his older and favourite sister Sophie who was born in 1862 and died in 1877 from tuberculosis (TB), when she was 15. TB is a disease caused by a bacterium – it is treatable, but anti-tuberculous drugs were not discovered until after 1940.

[2] A History of Language bySteven Roger Fischer (London, Reaction Books Ltd, 1999).

[3] Ibid; p. 198.

[4] Fischer, of course, does not talk about Coptic; however, the verdict of many linguists on Coptic is that it is dead if not extinct. See SIL: Ethnologue Database (2009).

[5] The Trumai language is a language that used to be spoken in Venezuela until possibly shortly after the 1960s. David Crystal tells us of the striking loss of Trumai by an influenza epidemic: “A dramatic illustration of how a language disappears took place in Venezuela in the 1960s. As part of the drive to tap the vast resources of the Amazonian rain forests, a group of Western explorers passed through a small village on the bank of the Coluene River. Unfortunately, they brought with them the influenza virus, and the villagers, who lacked any immunity, were immediately susceptible to the disease. Fewer than 10 people survived. A human tragedy, it was a linguistic tragedy too, for this village contained the only speakers of the Trumai language. And with so few people left to pass it on, the language was doomed.” David Crystal, Languages, when the last speakers go, they take with them their history and culture. Civilization. February/March 1997; p. 41.

[6] The date of death of the Kasabe language, a Cameroonian language, is given as the 5th November 1996. David Crystal, again, gives us the story of its sad death: “In late 1995, a linguist, Bruce Connell, was doing some field work in the Mambila region of Cameroon. He found a language called Kasabe, which no westerner had studied before. It had just one speaker left, a man called Bogon. Connell had no time on that visit to find out much about the language, so he decided to return to Cameroon a year later. He arrived in mid-November, only to learn that Bogon had died on 5th November, taking Kasabe with him.” David crystal, Millennium Brirfing: the death of language. Prospect. November 1999; p. 56.

[7] This should not be taken in any shape or form to suggest that the writer minimises the huge efforts and dedication of Jews who worked hard to revive their language.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Atreyu Crimmins permalink
    August 23, 2012 6:56 pm

    Phenomenal article. I was going to write a piece about the so-called lingual Lazarus and ‘revival’ of dead languages myself but you have done a tremendous job and made any effort on my part redundant. Well done for highlighting and elucidating such an important topic.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      August 23, 2012 8:02 pm

      Thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate it.



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