A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aramaic vs. Coptic: Language Survival vs. Fossilization, Part III: When DID Coptic Cease to Be Spoken?

I'm on vacation until tomrrow. This is the last of my vacation postings. Part I of this post appeared August 10. Part Two appeared on Friday. 

In our previous discussions we've tried to talk about some of the factors that have kept Aramaic a living language (if a minority one) while Coptic, the late version of one of the world's oldest languages, has been reduced to merely a liturgical language in the Coptic Church. It's an important question, and I hope our discussion has been informative, but it also begs another question: when did Coptic cease to be spoken on a daily basis?

Language survival is a major issue these days, and linguists are struggling to record disappearing languages before they die. Sometimes one can be quite specific about when native speakers ceased ti exist. Thus the death of Ned Maddrell on December 27, 1974 is recorded as the passing of the last native speaker of Manx.  Of course, written languages never really die. Manx has its enthusiasts, and though they did not grow up speaking it, they hope to revive it. The Vatican has an agency that coins new terms in Latin as needed for ecclesiastical use, and people still publish in Latin. Similarly, since the 19th century there has been something of a revival of Coptic, and some enthusiasts can speak it for communication, not just for liturgy. But that's not what is meant by a "living language": when, exactly, did Coptic cease to be a tongue that people learned at their mother's knee, spoke as their first language for daily affairs, even if they also spoke Arabic? 

The question is actually not easily answered. If you go to the "Coptic Language, Spoken" entry in The Coptic Encyclopedia, you'll find a string of evidence coming as far down as the 19th century, but there are skeptics about how some of this evidence should be interpreted. No one doubts that Coptic was in widespread use down to Fatimid times when, as noted in the last entry in this series, the Caliph al-Hakim sought to forbid its use. Coptic was often used alongside Arabic down to the 11th or 12th centuries, when Coptic inscriptions start to disappear. From the 13th century or so, the picture is more obscure. From that article:
In the fourteenth century, a remarkable work entitled Triadon, a didactic poem in Sahidic Coptic, appeared by an anonymous writer, possibly an Upper Egyptian monk. The original poem was in 734 verses, of which only 428 survived, with an Arabic translation that is somewhat artificial and not always clear. It was an attempt to glorify the moribund Coptic language and eulogize biblical personalities and Coptic saints.
In the fifteenth century, the Arab historian al-MAQRIZI (d.1441) points out in his famous work Al-Khitat wa-al-Athar (On History and Geography) that women and children in Upper Egypt knew almost no other tongue for communication but Sahidic Coptic (Vol. 2, p. 507). Again in the same work (Vol. 2, p. 518), while discussing the region of Durunkah in the province of Asyut, he mentions that the inhabitants of the Upper Egyptian Christian villages were all conversant with the doctrines of their faith, as well as with the Coptic language.
In the sixteenth century, according to statements made by the famous Egyptologist J. MASPERO in 1909, the Copts still spoke Coptic. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), it is tradition that a priest and an old Coptic woman were introduced to a seventeenth-century French tourist as the last Egyptians who were thoroughly acquainted with Coptic as a spoken language. Afterward, Coptic survived only as the language of the liturgy. Moreover, the Dominican traveler J. M. VANSLEB points out in the account of his
travels in Upper Egypt in 1672-1673 that Anba Yu‘annis, archbishop of Asyut, introduced to him a certain Mu‘allim Athanasius, who was the last Copt to be conversant with the Coptic language as a speaking medium in the country. Nevertheless, the English writer James E. Quibell reports in the year 1901 that the Reverend David Strang of the American mission at Bani Suef informed him that when he first came to Egypt some three decades before that date, Coptic had been spoken in Upper Egypt within living memory. As a concrete example, a certain Jam Estephanos, an old man from Qus, stated that he remembered as a boy hearing his parents converse in Coptic, which was probably true of the
inhabitants of both Qus and Naqadah (Worrell, 1942, p. 306). W. H. Worrell quotes an oral tradition about Coptic in the village of Ziniyyah, a village in the same neighborhood. A carpenter by the name of Ishaq is credited with the importation from Asyut of Coptic to Ziniyyah. One Tanyos, a Coptic-speaking person, came to Ziniyyah from Naqadah, where he died a centenarian around the year 1886. Another by the name of Muharib, who also spoke Coptic, came from Naqadah at the age of eighty. Khalil abu Bisadah, who knew spoken Coptic from his parents at Ziniyyah, is said to have been taught written Coptic by both the aforementioned Tanyos and Muharib. He continued to live at Ziniyyah until his death around the year 1910. From Naqadah again, a certain Mityas came to share the teaching of Coptic at Ziniyyah with Khalil abu Bisadah. At Farshut in the nineteenth century, the cantors and priests spoke only Coptic within the church sanctuary. Yassa ‘Abd al-Masih, who died in 1959, reported that his grandfather used only Coptic within the church. The Ziniyyah tradition of the use of Coptic as a speaking medium does not mean that Coptic had survived in Egypt as a spoken language that late, but only that it was employed in spots for the glorification of a defunct institution (Worrell, 1942, pp. 301-304).
After the two well-known citations to Maqrizi, about which more momentarily, most of these citations are anecdotal and it is not entirely clear what they may mean. Introducing someone as the last person conversant in Coptic, or an old man remembering his parents could converse in Coptic, does not mean it was still a true living language: people can converse in Latin, or Sanskrit, but that does not make them living languages; some people can converse in Coptic today, but they have learned the language as adults, not as children. And the anecdotes from travelers like Vansleb, and the modern anecdotes with their tendency to cite old people's memories of long dead ancestors, seems fairly weak evidence. Coptic may have survived into the 16th century or even the 17th in parts of Upper Egypt, but the evidence seems pretty anecdotal. The 18th and 19th century stories may refer to learned clergy who could converse in Coptic, as some can today, and clearly references traditions of speaking only Coptic in church,

The Maqrizi references (the page numbers cited above are to the two-volume Bulaq edition of his Khitat) are the most commonly cited evidence that Coptic was in routine spoken use in Maqrizi's day. But the section is part of Maqrizi's discursus on the Copts, and his discussion of the Coptic towns and monasteries of Upper Egypt. Much of that section is derived from the works of earlier historians. Sometimes Maqrizi names his sources, sometimes not; sometimes the source can be recognized. Some critics have said the passages on Coptic refer to a period earlier than the time of Maqrizi.

Certainly, Coptic disappeared as a spoken language in the Delta and Lower Egypt long before it did in Upper Egypt. There is little evidence for everyday use of Coptic in Lower Egypt much later than the Fatimid period, but traces of it in Upper Egypt centuries later. Assuming Maqrizi really is providing a contemporary witness, we can assume it was still spoken in the early 1400s. The 16th and 17th century attestations are a lot more dubious, at least as evidence of any widespread use outside of religious contexts.

Coptic experienced a revival of sorts in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the teaching of Coptic in the church schools and a growing emphasis on training of the clergy in the language, whereas in previous centuries they had sometimes merely committed the liturgical formulas to rote memory. While there have been attempts to revive it as a spoken language, like most other such attempts at revival for national or religious reasons (Welsh among non-native speakers, Irish outside the Gaeltacht), has had only limited success. People already speak Arabic, the language needed for daily life. The great exception in the history of language revival, Hebrew in Israel, remains exceptional because there was no other common language to turn to.

I don't know if I've contributed anything to scholarship in these postings, but I at least hope these reflections will have been of interest to some readers.

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