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JASON ZABOROWSKI: COPTIC IS NEITHER DEAD NOR A LOST LANGUAGE

February 26, 2015

In a previous article, I argued that the Coptic language is not dead. It’s hurting that several lazy scholars have written about the language shift from Coptic to Arabic in medieval Egypt and described Coptic as a dead language. But I am glad that at least one of the eminent scholars in Coptology agrees with my position: Jason Zaborowski,[1] Associate Professor at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, US. I gather his opinion from his excellent article From Coptic to Arabic in Medieval Egypt which was published in Medieval Encounters, in 2008.[2]

Zaborowski’s opinion is that Coptic is neither dead nor lost: he uses the term “Coptic disuse” or “Coptic desuetude instead to describe what happened in Egypt in the Middle Ages which ended by the Copts using Arabic instead of Coptic.

Zaborowski starts by saying:

I use the phrase “disuse of Coptic” as a shorthand for discussing the phenomenon whereby Coptic speakers replaced Coptic with Arabic in their literary productions and especially in their everyday speech, it is not accurate to label Coptic language ‘dead’ while it is currently at least mouthed daily in the Coptic Church’s liturgy.

He supports his argument by the reluctance of the famous English linguist, Andrew Dalby, in his Language in Danger: the Loss of Linguistic Diversity and the Threat to Our Future[3]to speak of languages as ‘dying,’ since the loss of language is ‘defined in such different ways’ and it is only ‘[o]ccasionally [that] it may be linked with … the violent death of all current speakers.’”

Andrew Dalby, Zaborowski says, “refers to [the change] as ‘language loss’ in the process of being replaced by another language: ‘More often the last speakers of any language have switched to another which meets their current needs, and occasionally… a little of their former language may be incorporated in their new one.’ According to Dalby, ‘we are all losers’ in that process of language replacement.”

Zaborowski uses Dalby’s to support his opinion on the inaccuracy of saying Coptic is dead, and goes even further to dismiss that it’s lost:

I would argue further that, as long as there are extant textual representations of a language and enthusiasts of those writings, a language is not altogether dead, nor is it lost. Thus, I employ ‘disuse’ to express the neglect of Coptic-language skills, which went hand in hand with an increasing ‘use’ of Arabic by Egyptian Christians in the course of maintaining and producing their culture.

I return to repeat my previous assertion:

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 also disappeared but has had none of these… To describe Coptic as dead, and placing it on the same footing with really dead languages that have not been recorded and have no extant literature, grammars and dictionaries, and workable phonology, is not just inaccurate but very dangerous, for it implies that Coptic cannot be revived.

__________________________

[1] Zaborowskis scholarship work includes:

  • The Coptic Martyrdom of John of Phanijoit: Assimilation and Conversion to Islam in Thirteenth-Century Egypt (Brill, 2005)
  • “Coptic Christianity,” in Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, ed. Elias K. Bongmba (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
  • “Arab Christian Physicians as Interreligious Mediators: Abū Shākir as a Model Christian Expert,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 22, 2 (April 2011)
  • “From Coptic to Arabic in Medieval Egypt,” Medieval Encounters 14 (2008)
  • “Shenoute’s Sermon The Lord Thundered: An Introduction and Translation,” Oriens Christianus 90 (2006) with Janet A. Timbie.
  • “The Coptic Martyrdom of John of Phanijoit: Assimilation and Restoration from Salah al-Din to the Writing of the Martyrdom: 1169-1211 (565-607 A.H.),” in Actes du huitième Congrès international d’études coptes: Paris, 28 juin – 3 juillet 2004 2 (Peeters, 2007).
  • “Egyptian Christians Implicating Chalcedonians in the Arab Takeover of Egypt: The Arabic Apocalypse of Samuel of Qalamun,” Oriens Christianus (2003).

[2] Jason R. Zaborowski, From Coptic to Arabic in Medieval Egypt, Medieval Encounters 14 (2008): 17 n. 5.

[3] Andrew Dalby, Language in Danger: the Loss of Linguistic Diversity and the Threat to Our Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), x. xi.

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