A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 10, 2012

Aramaic vs. Coptic: Language Survival vs. Fossilization, Part I

I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts in advance on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy.
This is Part One of a multi-part post which, I hope, will be of interest not just to those interested in Coptic and Aramaic, but to anyone interested in the survival or non-survival of minority languages throughout the Middle East.  It seeks to answer, or explore the elements of an answer, to this question: Aramaic today still has over half a million speakers; Coptic, though one of the most ancient languages on earth, and the Copts being the largest Christian group in the Middle East, has been reduced to a liturgical language for centuries. Why?

During my vacation postings about this time last year, I had several posts about Aramaic and Syriac through the centuries, spoken Western Aramaic today, and spoken Eastern Aramaic today. Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the whole Middle East, with inscriptions found from Egypt to China and India, still lingers in a few islands of speakers — some 15,000 speakers of Western Aramaic, in Syria,  and perhaps half a million speakers of Eastern Aramaic in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and a Western Diaspora. Most of these speakers are Christian, but there are Muslim speakers in Syria, and others are Jewish, Samaritan, or Mandaean. It is also of course the liturgical language of several Eastern Christian denominations, Karaite Judaism, Samaritanism, and Mandaeanism.  See last year's posts, linked above, for more.

When Coptic Pope Shenouda III died earlier this year, a commenter raised an interesting question: why does Aramaic still survive as a spoken language, however scattered, while Coptic is reduced to only a liturgical language? The Copts are by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and their language, which is merely the last form of Egyptian, has an unbroken lineage of some 4500 or more years. Yet it has been several centuries since anyone learned Coptic at their mother's knee; it is today a religious and scholarly, not a native, spoken tongue. Why did Aramaic survive (if hanging by a thread) as a spoken tongue while Coptic did not?

It's a great question. I'm not sure there's a single answer, and it also requires us to delve into some controversial debates (like, exactly when did Coptic cease to be spoken natively? 14th century? 17th century? 19th century? All have their advocates). And since my doctoral dissertation was on the ‘Abbasid period in Egypt, the eighth and ninth centuries,  a key period of Arabization and Islamization, it brings up some memories of my own historical research. (And contrary to my younger colleagues' claims, I did not write my dissertation during the ‘Abbasid period.)

Though perhaps too many of my posts tend to focus on Egypt, I think this one actually has considerable interest beyond that. What has preserved other non-Arabic languages across the Arab world, not just Aramaic but bigger languages like Kurdish and the Amazigh/Berber tongues, Nubian, Armenian, Circassian, Mehri and the other surviving South Arabian languages, etc?

This map from the Gulf 2000 site (click here or on the map to see an enlargeable version) doesn't even include North Africa, but is a reminder that the Arabic-Persian-Turkish-Hebrew image most of us carry in our heads is a gross oversimplification.
If the Caucasus, Sudan, and North Africa were included, the map would be even more colorful.

But these islands of minority languages, ranging from big ones like Kurdish to tiny enclaves like the three towns north of Damascus that speak Western Aramaic, all have survived, for various reasons, in the sea of Arabic.

Yet Coptic, with 4000 years of history and a cohesive minority that outnumbers many of those whose languages endure, is only a liturgical tongue today? Why?

Bear in mind that I don't know the answer, but I intend to spend several posts considering the evidence.

A Short History of Egyptian

The earliest evidence of proto-writing in the Nile Valley is gradually being pushed back, but seems to date from around 3200 BC or even a couple of centuries earlier. By the time a language can be discerned through the proto-writing, that language is Egyptian. That language, after millennia of evolution, is still used in parts of the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and may have been in daily use as a spoken language as recently as three centuries ago. That is nearly 5000 years of a living, if changing, language. The earliest Chinese writing dates from the second millennium BC, and Hebrew was reduced to a liturgical language for some 1500 or more years before its revival; neither can approach Egyptian in terms of probable, documented endurance as a language. (Though, like Chinese, that language changed enormously through the millennia.) The hieroglyphic writing system had a simplified form known as hieratic, and eventually evolved a more cursive system called demotic, and the language evolved through multiple changes.

Coptic is merely Egyptian in its latest form. It was written in the Greek alphabet, with an additional six (or in one dialect, seven) characters taken from demotic. Coptic was Egyptian transformed through Hellenization and Christianization, and thus was influenced by external elements, while remaining Egyptian. Though it had a lengthy history of its own which I'll discuss next time, it also was very much the tongue of Egypt, and was spoken for more than a millennium in its own right. 

Check in after the weekend to see where I'm going with this. Since not everyone will be interested, other posts will be interspersed.


Rashad said...

Looking forward to this series! It is something I've always wondered about. If I had to guess I would say that in some sense Copts were too well integrated into society to retain a separate language that served no real purpose once Arabic became so dominant. Whereas other minority communities (like the Armenians in Egypt for example) or in other parts of the region have distinct non-national identities, of which language is a a part.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


i certainly don't have a definitive answer so I hope you're not disappointed. But I think you're partly there, plus the georaphy of the Nile valley facilitates that, whereas other minorities (Kurds, Kabyles etc.) have geographies that work against, not towards, integration.