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Coptic and Syriac

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#1 Anthony


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Posted 08 October 2006 - 12:33 PM

I would like to ask our Oriental Orthodox friends for some linguistic information - I am sorry if I am posting this in the wrong area.

As I understand it, both Coptic and Syriac are in liturgical use but are dead as spoken languages, with the exception of a few Syriac-speaking villages on the Turkish-Syrian border. I would be grateful for any information on the time periods and circumstances in which these languages ceased to be spoken; and also, whether they are still used in theological discourse, or whether they have been completely replaced for that purpose by Arabic.

#2 John Charmley

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Posted 08 October 2006 - 01:59 PM

Dear Anthony,

Pending responses from those best qualified to answer you, my understanding is as follows.

After the late fifth century, Syriac usage diverged between the Nestorians and the Jacobites. Eastern Middle Syriac (Nestorian usage ) was to be found in modern Lebanon, Syria and parts of Iraq. It was in common use until the 7th century, and continued to be in use until the 12th century. Serto, or Western Middle Syriac, as used by the Jacobite churches flouished until the 7th century. Its spoken language, Aramaic, was the tongue most commonly used across the Middle East until the 7th century, when Arabic began to replace it. However, this was a gradual process, and in the lands of the Persian Empire did not happen.

It seems to have been the Mogol Invasions of the 13th century which helped the swift decline of the language.

That being said, it has never quite died out, being used by the Syriac Orthodox and the Assyrian Church of the East, and being spoken in scattered villages throughout the Christian era.

Coptic was used from the 2nd century A.D. through to the 11th century. From the time of the Arab conquest various Arab rulers persecuted Copts, and there was great pressure at times to abandon it; the Copts, with their habitual perseverance, continued to use it for religious services. By the 14th century it was in decline as a spoken language. Some commentators date its cessation earlier than this, attributing it to the Caliph Abd-al-Malik's decision in the 8th century, to have Arabic as the sole official language. In practice this certainly undermined its usage, particularly among those wanting to enter government service, and led to its decline as a literary language, but the question of its actual cessation is a disputed one.

There are those who will argue that Coptic never died out because of its liturgical use, and that today there are those whose families have always spoken Copic. Certainly from the time of Pope Kyrillos IV in the second half of the 19th century, there was a revival in the use of Coptic.

I am sure that there are those who can correct my misapprehensions and mistakes, but one thing that ought to be noted in both cases, is that it was the Christian Faith that preserved these beautiful and ancient languages in a form that kept them living, despite the attempts of enemies of the Faith to suppress them.

Not a complete answer, I fear, but the best my limited knowledge of these things will allow. Hope it helps - and helps stimulate better-informed answers!

In Christ,


#3 Athanasius Abdullah

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Posted 08 October 2006 - 03:44 PM

Dear Anthony and John Charmley,

+irini nem ehmot,

Whether Coptic ceased to be the common spoken language of the Copts by the 15th century or not, grave concerns for its preservation started appearing by the Ayubid era (ca. 12th – 13th C). This is evidenced by the fact that during this period a group of Coptic scholars, particularly the famous “Asal brothers”, began to compose Coptic dictionaries and language textbooks, some of which remain in existence today. Bilingual (i.e. Coptic/Arabic) liturgical manuscripts started appearing about a century earlier than that.

Persecution certainly had a large part to play in the suppression of the Coptic language; there was a period where Copts were threatened with having their tongues cut out if they were heard speaking Coptic.

Coptic is still spoken socially by a small number of families and individuals particularly in upper Egypt. Interestingly (well, for me personally as a Copt at least) there was a fairly recent addition to the Liturgical Coptic hymns of the Church that finds its source in one such individual. During the early 20th century, one of the Church’s leading Cantors, Mu’allim Mikhail, travelled to a town in Upper Egypt and heard an old, lame, yet holy woman chanting an unheard of (in regard to both the melody and lyrics) hymn in Coptic that she learnt from God knows where; because of her spiritual excellence and her evidently God-given gifts and talents (she did not have a school education), her hymn was incorporated into the Liturgical service of the Church and is now chanted before the reading of the Catholic epistle. It’s called “Apetjeek Evol” and it can be heard here (an English translation of the hymn is provided at the link also):


#4 Peter Farrington

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Posted 08 October 2006 - 08:08 PM

Dear brethren

When I was in Sweden last year I had occasion to mix with many Syrian youth who have immigrated there with their families. They seemed to be very active in their use of Syriac and were even sitting around their teachers during breaks in the conference practicing.

There are courses that run in Aleppo, that I'd love to be able to go on, that provide a month's immersion in Syriac learning.

And of course there are a great many academic resources for learning Syriac. So I'd suggest that it seems a very active and vibrant language, still under stress of course as a first language, but surviving quite well as a second.


#5 Anthony


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Posted 09 October 2006 - 12:15 PM

Dear John and Athanasius,

Thank you for the detailed information and (Athanasius) the link. I was very happy to hear that the language of St Antony is still spoken. Curiously, this seems to have escaped the attention of most linguists - the Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com) for example lists Coptic as dead, though that wouldn't be the first inaccuracy or omission I have come across there.

Then comes the delicate question whether that community would benefit from greater publicity, or whether that would just add to the pressure on them.


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