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March 14, 2019

Wilson Bishai

Professor Wilson B. Bishai (1923 – 2008)

Professor Wilson B. (Basta) Bishai (1923 – 2008) was a highly respected Coptic Coptologist and Orientalist. He was born in Egypt (other source say Germany![1]) in 1923, and emigrated to the United States in 1951 when he was 28 years old, presumably after he had finished his university studies in Egypt. In the US, he attended Washington Missionary College and Adventist Seminary (now called, Washington Adventist University), in the city of Takoma Park, within the Washington Metropolitan area. He graduated with a bachelor degree from it in 1953.[2] A year later, in 1954, he obtained a master degree from Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. Joining the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, he obtained his Ph. D. in Oriental Studies in 1956. The title of his doctoral dissertation was ‘The Coptic Influence on Egyptian Arabic’, which is available only in microfilm, and hasn’t been published yet. Bishai, however, used it later to publish several interesting papers in the years 1960-1964 on the substrate influence of Coptic on Arabic:

Notes on the Coptic Substratum in Egyptian Arabic, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1960), pp. 225-229.

Nature and Extent of Coptic Phonological Influence on Egyptian Arabic, Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 1 October 1961, pp. 175-182.

Coptic Grammatical Influence on Egyptian Arabic, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, No. 3 (Jul.-Sep., 1962), pp. 285-289.

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

He has written several other papers on the subject of the Coptic language, but the most interesting, in addition to the above ones, is ‘Transition from Coptic to Arabic.[3]

Following that, Bishai’s interest seems to have been shifted to Arabic studies. This seems to have happened when he was teaching from 1960-1966 at the National Security Agency (NSA)[4], the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (a division of John Hopkins University that is based in Washington, D.C.), and then Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1966, Bishai moved to Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working as a senior lecturer and professor of Arabic at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). He retired in 1993, aged 70. During that period, he published most of his work on Arabic language and Islamic history, including:

Islamic History of the Middle East: Backgrounds, Development, and Fall of the Arab Empire (1968)

Readings in Modern Literary Arabic (1969)

Concise Grammar of Literary Arabic: A new approach with vocabulary lists, exercises, reading selections and a cumulative glossary (1971)

Humanities in the Arabic-Islamic World (1973)

Modern literary Arabic was published in 1962.


Wilson B. Bishai died at the age of 85, a much loved and respected father, grandfather and colleague to so many academics in the United States and across the world. His contribution to Coptic studies is enormous; and one regrets that he shifted his interest later from Coptic to Arabic. He could have given more to Coptology.


Before Bishai obtained his Ph.D., ‘The Coptic Influence on Egyptian Arabic’, from John Hopkins, several studies had been published on the subject of Coptic influence on Arabic, in its vocabulary and grammar (its phonology, morphology and syntax). The subject was controversial with Copts and Europeans producing papers that were conflicting with each other in their conclusions. There were basically two camps: those who thought Coptic had a significant or noticeable influence on Arabic, and these seemed to be in the majority, and those who denied that.


Significant Coptic influence on Arabic[5] Insignificant Coptic influence on Arabic[6]
Study Scope Study Scope
Praetorius (1901, 1902) Vocabulary and grammar O’ Leary (1934) None
Galtier (1902) Vocabulary (denies any grammatical interference) Worrell (1934) None (he argues for an opposite influence, that Arabic influenced Coptic, rather than the other way round)
Prince (1902) Vocabulary and grammar
Littmann (1902) Vocabulary and grammar
Sobhy (1950) Vocabulary and grammar


Bishai mentions a few of these, and says, “Many scholars hold the opinion that there exists a noticeable Coptic influence on the Arabic vernacular of modern Egypt. Some writers have expressed this belief with various degrees of enthusiasm; others, however, have found sufficient reason to oppose it.”[7] After exploring a sample of the diversity of opinion on the subject, he explains the diversity between the various Coptologists in the following way:


“This diversity is due, perhaps, to the fact that in the past those who dealt with the problem were either native Egyptian Arabicists who studied Coptic without further formal linguistic training, or non-Egyptians who were well trained in linguistics, Coptic and other pertinent languages, but did not master Egyptian Arabic.”[8]


Bishai had an advantage over them. He explains that he was better positioned to tackle the problem:

“The writer [Bishai], however, has the advantage of being a native Egyptian Arabicist plus the formal linguistic training which he received in the Oriental Seminary at the John Hopkins University where he made careful investigation of the problem in question for his doctoral dissertation.”[9]

In his paper, Notes on the Coptic Substratum in Egyptian Arabic (1960), he gives a summary of the results of his Ph.D. He first cautions researchers, before they could ascribe a certain presumed characteristic of Egyptian Arabic to Coptic influence, to take note of other influences on the modern Egyptian vernacular:

  1. The internal evolutionary changes that affect all languages over centuries.
  2. The Arab tribes who immigrated to Egypt during and after the Islamic expansion spoke various dialects “in which the characteristics of modern Egyptian Arabic might well have had their origin.” Arabic solecism (اللَحْن في اللغة) was indeed old and predated Islam. The Arabic of Islam represented the Arabic of only a few tribes around Mecca.
  3. Many other languages have influenced Egyptian Arabic, including Greek, Turkish, Persian, French, English and Italian.

Before one could attribute a certain characteristic in Egyptian Arabic to Coptic influence, one has to eliminate the above three influences.

I do not intend here to detail Bishai’s important findings (one has to study Bishai’s papers in detail to appreciate the quality of his work and the significance of his findings), which he explained in several papers, but just want to say here that he concluded from his research that “Coptic did not influence Egyptian Arabic as much as it would be expected to under normal conditions of bilingualism.”[10] In all areas, in vocabulary and grammar, Coptic seems to have limited influence on Egyptian Arabic.[11] This finding is important enough; but Bishai does not stop there: he comes to very important conclusions about the process of Arabisation and Islamisation of the Copts, and the ethnic origin of the Muslim Egyptians of today.


Linguistic contact between languages is a known phenomenon. When an intrusive language is introduced into a territory by invaders who seize political control of it, it normally assumes a high prestige and the prestige of the original language of the territory suffers. The subjugated people often start learning the language of the invaders to improve their socio-economic position. Initially, a stage of bilingualism develops, when the population speaks two languages, the replacing and replaced (also advancing and receding). Sometimes, the replaced language disappears completely from most domains, and becomes moribund or dead language.

During that period of bilingualism, and while language shift is taking place, sometimes the disappearing language influences the winning language by injecting into it some loanwords, usually nouns of objects not previously known to the invading people (such as agricultural tools, wild and domestic animals and birds, plants, etc.); and if the bilingualism is widespread (that is the local people start speaking the intrusive language in large numbers), the disappearing language may influence the phonology, morphology and syntax of the advancing language, resulting in a peculiar local dialect based on the intrusive language at the time of invasion but with some changes introduced by the dying language. The best example to this is what happened to Latin of the invading Romans when they occupied Gaul: although the Roman occupation led to the death of the Gaulish language, Gaulish was able to inject into Latin some of its characteristics, such as a large vocabulary, thereby creating what is considered a new dialect of Latin – the modern French.

The same cannot be said about Arabic and Coptic: although, Arabic did lead to the decline of Coptic like Latin did to Gaulish, it is not clear that Coptic influenced Arabic in the same way as Gaulish had influenced Latin. The reason for this, as Bishai explains, is the lack of widespread bilingualism between Coptic and Arabic in Egypt during the transition of Coptic to Arabic. This he concluded from his lingual finding that Coptic had only limited influence on Egyptian Arabic – much less that had been suggested by others in the past, such as Sobhi. Such bilingualism must have been very limited.

Sobhy says, “When Copts turned into a Muslim he was bound to learn Arabic. That, he could not do in a day or two. It was only natural then, that he was obliged to speak and have relations with his co-religionists in a mixture of Coptic and Arabic. Thousands did that- and thus a new Arabic dialect was evolved for the inhabitants of Egypt – a mixture of Coptic and Arabic.”[12] But Bishai concludes from his findings that the Copts who converted to Islam at any one time must have been a minor segment of the population (of native Egyptians or Copts). The Arabic speaking portion of the population in Egypt after the Islamic invasion was mostly of Arab origin (and converted Copts must have been a minor segment of the overall population). The effect of converted Copts was, therefore, minimal in its influence on Arabic. Another factor was that Coptic as it seems had little prestige as compared to Arabic; and therefore linguistic interference could not have taken place in any sizable measure from Coptic to Arabic.

Another important conclusion of Bishai which he obtained, judging from the linguistic evidence, is that the Muslim Egyptians of today are perhaps right in claiming predominantly Arab ancestry. This undermines the belief that modern Muslim Egyptians are mostly descendants of the Copts who converted to Islam. This claim has been put forward by many but without any evidence.


Bishai’s contribution to Coptic studies is thus not confined to ruling out the erroneous claim that Coptic contributed significantly to Arabic (by which writers mean Classical Arabic), thereby changing Classical Arabic into a local dialect – Egyptian Arabic. That claim was repeated and exaggerated by many Copts, not just Sobhy, but also later writers such as Ishaq (1975, 1991), who, in my opinion, with all due respect to their scientific contribution, would like us to see Egyptian Arabic as a dialect of Coptic as much as it is of Arabic or, in Sobhy’s words, “a mixture of Coptic and Arabic”.  The suggestion is dangerous, as it makes some believe that Egyptian Arabic is different from Arabic and fundamentally Egyptian, and therefore acceptable to the Copts. The result is that Egyptian Arabic becomes the language with which Copts become identified, and not Coptic. The danger is that it can kill all efforts to revive Coptic.

As already stated, Bishai’s findings are not limited to the substratum influence of Coptic on Arabic – he adds the following important conclusions:

  1. The Islamisation of the Copts did not occur as a widespread phenomenon by which large numbers of Copts converted.
  2. The Copts moved from Coptic to Arabic at a quicker pace, and their period of bilingualism was short.
  3. The Muslims of Egypt are not the sons of the Copts in any significant way.

The process of Arabisation and language shift from Coptic to Arabic is not yet properly studied or explained, despite the many excellent papers published on the subject. Although Bishai does not fully explain it, his research provides much help towards its understanding.


[1] See: معجم أسماء المستشرقين by Yahya Murad (Lebanon, 2004).

[2] The above source says his bachelor degree was from Columbia University in the city of New York. But this is doubtful.

[3] Published in The Muslim World, Volume 53, Issue2 (April, 1963), pp. 145-150’.

[4] The NSA is an intelligence agency of the US Department of Defence, under the authority of the Director of National Intelligence.

[5] Lacy O’Leary in his Notes on the Coptic Language, Orientalis. Nova Series, Vol. 3 (1934), pp. 243-258,  mentions also Stern (1885) and Labib (1900).

[6] O’Leary (see above) mentions also Spitta (1880) and Gairnder (1926).

[7] Notes on the Coptic Substratum in Egyptian Arabic, p. 226.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nature and Extent of Coptic Phonological Influence on Egyptian Arabic, p. 182.

[11] The writer believes that Bishai could have eliminated the influence of Coptic on most of the grammatical characteristics in Egyptian Arabic he wrote about had he studied the Sudanese Arabic, which shows similar characteristics to Egyptian Arabic on these characteristics.

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

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