A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 11, 2013

Claudius Labib: A Would-Be Coptic Ben-Yehuda

Claudius Labib
During my pre-vacation blogging last summer I did a three-part report on the question of why Coptic died out except as a liturgical language, while Aramaic survived in isolated pockets as a spoken (if threatened) language today: you can find that series here: Parts 1 , 2, and 3.

In Part 3 I remarked towards the end, referring to Coptic:
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.
Today I want to talk about the man behind the main effort to revive Coptic, Claudius Labib. I've previously posted about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who almost single-handedly forged modern Hebrew (few towns in Israel lack a Ben-Yehuda street) an restored an ancient language. As I noted in the quote above, he had the advantage that the Jewish diaspora returning to Palestine had no single language in common.

Labib dreamed of reviving Coptic, but faced a huge problem; every Egyptian Copt already spoke Arabic, so he faced the problem that those seeking to revive dead (Manx, Cornish) or shrinking (Irish, many Native American languages) face: competing with the dominant tongue essential to daily life. Most Copts knew no Coptic, save for some liturgical responses or hymns; Jewish males had to learn at least enough Hebrew for prayers and their bar mitzvah reading. It's still something of a miracle that Ben-Yehuda succeeded; it's little surprise that Labib failed.

But as I started to write about Labib I was struck by the parallels with Ben-Yehuda: they were nearly exact contemporaries, for one: Ben-Yehuda 1858-1922, Labib 1868-1918. Both were lexicographers, providing important dictionaries of the languages they sought to revive. Both sought to persuade or compel their own families to speak only the chosen language, though in Ben-Yehuda's case this caused serious problems.

There's not a lot in English on Labib: this post of a short biography and bibliography is most of it, and the source of the photo above. More links in Arabic can be found here. You can find at the first link many of his publication, including online versions of the five extant parts of his never completed Coptic-Arabic lexicon, grammars of Coptic (he favored his own variant now sometimes called the "Claudian" dialect), works on Coptic words surviving in Arabic, etc. He wrote mostly in Arabic or (naturally) Coptic, but some of his works are in French. I refer you particularly to the first link for the fullest information on the man.

Ironically his son, Pahor Labib, has a Wikipedia English entry while Claudius does not. Pahor was a prominent Egyptologist and Coptologist who ran Cairo's Coptic Museum from 1951 to 1965.

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