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WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO CHAMPOLLION’S COPTIC DICTIONARY AND GRAMMAR?

December 31, 2019

Champollion

From early years, Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832) showed interest in Oriental languages. In 1802, at the age of twelve years, he started his formal education at the Abbé Dussert School and there he mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Ethiopic, Arabic, Syriac, and Chaldean. In 1804, he was attended Lycée in Grenoble, and in 1806 he was admitted to the Academy of Grenoble after submitting his essay titled ‘Geographical Description of Egypt before the Conquest of Cambyses’.

But his real entry into Coptic and the hieroglyphic script did not start in earnest until he went to Paris in 1807 to study under Silvestre de Sacy, who was the first Frenchman who attempted to read the Rosetta stone. The Rosetta stone was created in 196 BC representing a decree issued in Memphis by the Ptolemaic King Ptolemy V Epiphanes (r. 204 – 180 BC). It was written in two languages and three scripts on the stone: Egyptian, using hieroglyphic and demotic scripts (top and middle respectively) and Ancient Greek (bottom version). It was discovered in 1799 in the town of Rashid (Rosetta) by the French, and was confiscated by the British after the French withdrew from Egypt under British pressure as part of the Capitulations of Alexandria in 1801, and was taken to London, where it now resides in the British Museum. Through the Rosetta stone, Champollion was able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. He started is efforts in 1808 while in Paris when he began to study it from a replica. In 1824 he published his book Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens (Primer of the Hieroglyphic System of the Ancient Egyptians) opening the gate to the huge discipline of Egyptology and the study of Ancient Egyptian history, literature, culture and civilisation.

Champollion would not have been able to do so without a prior excellent knowledge in Coptic, a language which he described as “the most perfect and the most rational language known”[1] of all languages. He recognised the strong connection between Coptic and Ancient Egyptian. It was at the Academy of Grenoble (1806-1807), at the age of sixteen years, that he first started his interest in Coptic as he was taught a bit of it by the Syrian Egyptian Dom Raphael de Monachis. But it is during his period in Paris (1807 – 1809) that he was able to satisfy his thirst for Coptic. Paris was then the city to be in for all scholars after the campaigns of Bonaparte had brought back to it monuments, manuscripts, books, works of art and antiquities from diverse parts of the world, including Egypt.

Much of his research was undertaken in the National Library … [there,] Champollion was privileged to gain access to the mass of foreign books that had come as loot from napoleon’s campaigns and which were still not properly catalogued. He set himself to study all the Coptic texts, most of which had been taken from the Vatican Library in Rome. Years later, when these manuscripts were returned to Italy, the English antiquarian Sir William Gell [1777 – 1836] remarked: ‘As to the Coptic and Champollion, I think there are a few Coptic books in Europe he has not examined: a very learned friend of mine told me there is no book in the Vatican in that language, that has not remarks of Champollion in almost every page, which he made when the MSS. were in Paris.’[2]

In Paris, Dom Raphael introduced Champollion to the Coptic priest Yohanna Cheftichi who had left to France with the Coptic Legion of General Ya’qub when the French withdrew from Egypt, and was serving at the church of Saint-Roche on the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris to which the Coptic immigrants went. Champollion frequently visited Cheftichi at his church and spoke with him Coptic in his attempt to improve his Coptic. In March 1809, he wrote to his brother:

I give myself up entirely to Coptic…I wish to know Egyptian like my French, because on that language will be based my great work on the Egyptian papyri.[3]

And a month later, he writes also:

I only dream Coptic and Egyptian…I am so Coptic to amuse myself I translate everything that comes into my head…It is the true means of putting pure Coptic into my head. After that I will attack the Papyri and thanks to my heroic valour, I hope to come to an end. I have already made a great step.[4]

We must accept that Champollion, despite his love and appreciation of Coptic, regarded Coptic as the essential step for the deciphering of Hieroglyphic. His main aim was Hieroglyphics. But in doing that, Champollion contributed to the study of Coptic, even though his effort in that field has not yet been made available to the world. At that time, Champollion had some of the dictionaries and grammar written by Copts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when Coptic was declining. Of western writings, he had the grammar written by the German scholar, Athanasius Kircher (1602 – 1680), Prodromus coptus sive aegyptiacus, which Kircher published in 1636. Champollion thought books written by the Copts were superior to that written by Kircher, but he was not satisfied by any of these. He decided to write his own Coptic grammar and dictionary:

Champollion…found that the existing dictionaries and grammar books of the [Coptic] language were inadequate, so while he pored over the texts he also began the mammoth task of compiling Coptic grammar and a Coptic dictionary as a prelude to his hieroglyphic studies.[5]

In 1815, Champollion finished his monumental books of Coptic dictionary and grammar when he was in Grenoble. Bonaparte had abdicated on 4 April 1814, and the Bourbon monarchy, in the person of King Louise XVIII, was restored. Politics changed, and the Republicans, including Champollion, fell out of favour with the new regime. However, on 1 March 1815, Bonaparte returned from his exile in Alba to the south of France, and then marched and occupied Paris, regaining political control. On his march to Paris, he met Champollion in Grenoble; and, there, Champollion told Bonaparte that he had just finished his monumental book on the Coptic dictionary and grammar. Napoleon held the same belief that Coptic was the key to Hieroglyphic. He ordered Champollion to bring the manuscripts to Paris where he would ensure their publication. Champollion’s brother, Jacques-Joseph, took the manuscripts to Paris and handed them to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Academy for formal assessment prior to publication.

But Napoleon’s days were numbered. On 18 June 1815, his troops were defeated in the Battle of Waterloo by the British and Prussians, and he abdicated on the 22nd and exiled to Helena, never to return again. The Monarchists, including Champollion’s previous teacher, Silvestre de Sacy, who took a certain dislike to Champollion, were in ascendancy now. And the publication of Champollion’s books was rejected by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres on pressure by de Sacy, declaring that it was not worthy of being published at government expense. Champollion himself was exiled to his birthplace, the small village of Figeac. There, in 1816, Champollion completely reorganised and revised his two books.  The dictionary reached more than 1000 pages, and he was thinking of printing it in four volumes if he could.

The only way to make these books available to scholars and public was to publish them on Champollion’s own expense, which was not possible considering his limited financial resources; and so, when his brother asked him to publish it, he asked him to forget the idea.

After Champollion’s death in 1832, his brother persuaded the French government to purchase all of his brother’s unpublished papers. A commission was set to consider the proposal, and all papers were moved to the National Library at Paris, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including the Coptic dictionary and grammar manuscripts. But they were again refused publication, this time by the commission.

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To this date, Champollion’s manuscripts on Coptic dictionary and grammar remain at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris; and they remain unpublished. This is a great shame and a great loss to the world of academia. They may be outdated, they may be defective, but they cannot be without real value. What is more, they were written by one of the best linguists and polyglots, a man who loved Coptic and thought high of it, a man who contributed to the science of Egyptology beyond any other man.

One hopes that Champollion’s books on Coptic grammar and dictionary get published one day. It needs collaboration between researchers and sponsors. I do hope that the Copts would cover the expenses of the publication.

Sources:

  • Jean-François Champollion Biography from Ctruth “See the Truth about Chronology Today”
  • Lesley and Roy Adkins, The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs (London, 2000)
  • Andrew Robinson, Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion (London, 2012)

__________________________________________

[1] Andrew Robinson, Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion (London, 2012), p. 61.

[2] Lesley and Roy Adkins, The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs (London, 2000), pp. 82-83.

[3] Ibid, p. 87.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 83.

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