The Transition from Coptic to Arabic
By Samuel Rubenson
Égypte/Monde arabe, Première série, 27-28 (1996)
Introduction: The process in which the last stage of the Egyptian language, Coptic, was replaced by Arabic, has not yet received much attention from scholars. When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the middle of the seventh century, Coptic was the vernacular language of the bulk of the population, as well as the major literary language. In addition to Coptic, Greek was still used for administrative purposes as well as by those sections of the population that remained close to the Byzantine religious and secular centers, mainly in Alexandria and some of the Greek cities. This situation was, however, only the recent result of a gradual language shift occurring during the two centuries before the Arab conquest. Under Ptolemaic rule, Greek had gradually gained a privileged position in Egypt as compared to the Egyptian language, and from the beginning of Roman rule until the early fourth century, Greek had with very few exceptions, been the sole written language of Egypt, and also to a large extent the spoken language, not only of the cities and the administration but also of commerce and religion.
With the eradication of paganism and the establishment of a Christian culture largely dominated by the monastic tradition, in the fourth and fifth centuries, the strength of classical Greek tradition was broken. Coptic monasteries gradually supplanted Greek gymnasiai as the most important educational and cultural centers.
The schism between the Coptic and Byzantine (melkite) Church caused by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 made the shift definite by turning the Egyptian Christians away from Greek Christian tradition.
It is thus significant, that although Egyptian in the form represented by the various Coptic dialects had been the spoken language of the population at large for many centuries, as a literary language it was a fairly recent innovation. It was only in the fourth century that translations of Greek texts became widely diffused and only in the fifth century that literary texts began to be written in Coptic. The emergence of Coptic as a language of literature was, moreover, to a large extent linked to the emergence of a new religions and social culture manifested in the Manichaean, Gnostic and Christian movements and crystallized in the rise of monasticism. Although originating in the Greek-speaking society, they soon began to use Coptic. The success of these new movements and their associated shift to Coptic greatly contributed to the decline of Greek. Coptic literature was thus originally and primarily a vehicle for new ideas born in late Hellenistic times, and to a great extent either based on Greek (or in a few cases, Syriac) texts, or more or less modeled upon these. Not only were content and form borrowed, but as muchas 25% of the vocabulary was Greek. Not only technical terms but also particles and common verbs were borrowed. As a literary language therefore, Copticis as much part of the Greek Hellenistic legacy as of the ancient Egyptian.
After the Arab conquest of Egypt, Coptic continued to be used by the Christian population and remained the sole language of the Church for at least three centuries. During the first century of Arab rule, it seems as if the use of Arabic was mainly limited to the immigrants, and the internal affaire of the military ruling elite. It was only with the large-scale immigration of Arabs, the defeat of Coptic peasant résistance to the new rulers and the repressive taxation of the Copts with the subsequent conversion oflarge parts of the population to Islam in the later eighth and in the ninth century, that Arabic became the main spoken language. By the early ninth century, the use of Arabic among Christians had become widespread but was still regarded as contrary to their fidelity to the Christian heritage. But during the tenth and eleventh centuries, this changed rapidly. Within a few generations Coptic died out as a spoken language, and by the end of the twelfth century, Arabic had become the main written languageof the Church. As is evident from the linguistic works of the great Coptic scholars of the thirteenth century, Coptic was already a classical language known only by those who studied it from preserved texts.