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OUR PRESENT DAY LINGUAL FOLLIES

March 14, 2019

I spoke in a previous article about our fathers’ folly in relation to language. What they did, they did, and we can’t change it. But what we – modern Copts – do, we can still alter or stop. Our own lingual follies are legion: all of them represent ideas or actions that help to prevent the revival of our beautiful Coptic language. Some of these follies: the bitter, often nasty, fight (I wouldn’t call it debate) between those who prefer the Old Bohairic and those who defend the Neo-Bohairic;[1] the stupid idea that God wanted us to abandon Coptic and speak, instead, Arabic, so that we may preach to the Arabs and bring to them the Christian message of salvation; the idiotic idea that because Coptic wasn’t Our Lord Jesus Christ’s language, Coptic is not important, and can happily be abandoned.

All these are follies that the mere mention of will usually be sufficient to expose them. But, there is another tricky folly, which has some followers in Coptic circles, even amongst those with good knowledge of Coptic; and this folly is presented in the following manner: ‘Egyptian Arabic’ or ‘Egyptian Colloquial Arabic’ (masri مَصْرِي) is not really Arabic language but a completely different language; it is different from both ‘Classical Arabic’[2] and ‘modern Standard Arabic’[3]. This claim is based on the assumption that Egyptian Arabic is heavily influenced by a strong Coptic substratum, involving both its vocabulary and grammar. It is, therefore, so the claims goes, a “mixture of Coptic and Arabic”[4], not at all an Arabic dialect that developed internally from the many Arabic dialects that arrived in Egypt with the Arab invasion and the frequent immigration waves that followed up to this day. In this way it can be considered an Egyptian language, not Arabic; and in this sense, the Copts must embrace it, and identify with – in other words, take it as their national language.

This is, as I have written in a previous article, is a dangerous claim. In effect, it leads the Copts to forget about their true national language, the Coptic language; abandon any effort to revive; and satisfy oneself with Egyptian Arabic.

The Coptologist Wilson Bishai has dispelled the myth that Coptic has influenced Arabic in any significant way. Other languages, such as Persian and particularly Turkish have influenced Arabic more. He was clear that the often exaggerated claim of Coptic influence on Arabic was limited in both vocabulary and grammar. The grammatical influence claim seems to have calmed down, but there are still some Copts who want us to see a huge influence of the Coptic lexicon: they claim that Egyptian Arabic contains many Coptic loanwords. Sometimes they stretch their imagination and go to really ridiculous levels of trying to return the etymology of Arabic words to a Coptic origin. We have seen efforts to make words and phrases such as ‘al-Qahira’ (القاهرة),sham al-Naseem’ (شم النسيم), and ‘nairouz’ (نيروز) appear Coptic. There is no doubt that some words from old languages survive in the languages that replace them – and Coptic is not different on this front. This does not change the identity of the replacing language. There are some words in everyday use of what we call Egyptian Arabic that are clearly Coptic: these are mainly related to cultural items that the Arabs never knew in their Arabian desert. And they are rare, not many: Bishai has estimated them to be 109 loanwords;[5] and even Ishaq, who tends to be liberal on this issue, counts only 197.[6] These loanwords include many ecclesiastical words that are used mainly by the Copts and are hardly known by the Muslims of Egypt,[7] items that were not known to Arabia such as agricultural tools, animals, birds, fish, and plants, and place words. As O’Leary has noticed, many of these should not really be considered as loanwords.[8] Considering that there is an estimated 80-150 million Arabic words, it is obvious how little influence on the Arabic language Coptic vocabulary has been.

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Why do we do that? I believe it is a psychological trait in all occupied and oppressed peoples: being beaten politically and linguistically by the invading Arabs and their intrusive language, some wanted to see some sort of victory in the defeat: they therefore search for loanwords in Arabic, and strain their minds in finding a Coptic origin to several words that exist in Egyptian Arabic. It is a state of delirium in my opinion and self-deception. At least it could be regarded as a distraction from the most important task of Coptic revival.

How can we liken these dreamers? They are like a man who once had a beautiful wife – like the following Delirious Man.

 

THE DELIRIOUS: A SHORT STORY

A man once had a beautiful wife. He loved her dearly and she served him well. To him she was more precious than jewels and diamonds; and in her was his soul. It was difficult for others to recognise him in isolation from her. And one day, while fast asleep as if in a coma, and while his wife was in the back garden tending to the cows and goats and milking them to feed their children, some robbers, of barbarian nature, broke in; and finding the man deeply asleep, they instantly tied his hands up, and took him captive. As they were going out, they saw his beautiful wife working in the garden. And they desired her; and they raped her; and, true to their nature, they killed her. As they were assaulting her, her embroidered and colourful dress, that distinguished her to all her acquaintances, was torn apart, and was shredded to pieces. And the robbers collected some of the shreds and took them to their women. When they reached their tents, they threw the man into a shed; and subjugating him, they made him feed their camels and goats. And the man could not free himself from captivity, and gave all hope for freedom. All the time he remembered his wife and wept as he recalled her beauty, dedication and service. And there was no end to his misery. He became like a man as if his soul was rented out of his body, and was no more but a walking frame. He dreamed of his olden days, his sweet home that was confiscated by the robbers, his beloved wife and his children who were enslaved and scattered. And there was no solace under the sun for him. One day, as he was shearing the goats in the fields, he saw a woman of the robbers’ coming out of her tent, wrapped in a black robe and her entire face was covered in a veil. Stitched into her robe were a few pieces of the shredded, embroidered dress of his dead wife. And the poor man’s eyes immediately welled up with tears; and his heart was squeezed with indescribable pain. And being feverish and delirious, he imagined that he was seeing the very soul of his wife again; and he fell in love with the robbers’ woman. And that was strange, for neither was the robber’s woman his wife nor would she ever be his. He remained soulless; but, in some odd way, he found solace in self-deception.

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[1] I use the terms Old Bohairic and Neo-Bohairic here to denote the Coptic phonology used in the Coptic Church before Pope Cyril IV (1854 – 1861) and then the one he introduced during his patriarchate. Others use different terminologies.

[2] Or Quranic Arabic.

[3] It is the form of Arabic that is based on Classical Arabic, with the same grammar but with more varied vocabulary, and used in formal situations, such as in political address, newspaper, books, radio and telly news.

[4] G. Sobhy, Common Words in the Spoken Arabic of Egypt (Cairo, 1950), p. 3.

[5] Wilson Bishai, Coptic Lexical Influence on Egyptian Arabic, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 39-47.

[6] Emile Mahir Ishaq, Egyptian Arabic Vocabulary, Coptic Influence On. Coptic Encyclopedia (CE: A112b-118a), ed. Aziz Atiya (1991).

[7] Ishaq, for example, includes 12 such ecclesiastical words.

[8] De Lacy O’Leary, Notes on the Coptic Language, Orientalis. Nova Series, Vol. 3 (1934), pp. 243-258.

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