Coptic Language - Vocabulary


The core lexicon of Coptic is Egyptian, being most closely related to the preceding Demotic phase of the language. Up to 20% of the vocabulary of literary Coptic is drawn from Greek, though borrowings are not always fully adapted to the Coptic phonological system and may have semantic differences as well. There are instances of Coptic texts having passages that are almost entirely composed from Greek lexical roots. However, this is likely due to the fact that the majority of Coptic religious texts are direct translations of Greek works.

What invariably attracts the attention of the reader of a Coptic text, especially if it is written in the Sa'idic dialect, is the very liberal use which is made of Greek loan words, of which so few, indeed, are to be found in the Ancient Egyptian language. There Greek loan words occur everywhere in Coptic literature, be it Biblical, liturgical, theological, or non-literary, i.e. legal documents and personal letters. Though nouns and verbs predominate, the Greek loan words may come from any other part of speech except pronouns.

Words or concepts for which no adequate Egyptian translation existed were taken directly from Greek so as not to alter the meaning of the religious message. In addition, other Egyptian words that would have adequately translated the Greek equivalents were not employed as these were perceived as having overt pagan associations. Old Coptic texts employ many such words, phrases and epithets; for example, the word ⲧⲃⲁⲓⲧⲱⲩ '(Who is) in (His) Mountain', is an epithet of Anubis. There are also traces of some archaic grammatical features, such as residues of the Demotic relative clause, lack of an indefinite article and possessive use of suffixes.

Thus the transition from the 'old' traditions to the new Christian religion also contributed to the adoption of Greek words into the Coptic religious lexicon. It is safe to assume that the everyday speech of the native population retained to a greater extent its indigenous Egyptian character, which is sometimes reflected in Coptic non-religious documents such as letters and contracts.

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