[Editorial note: [...] indicates use of Coptic or Greek text. Original script is available for viewing in the PDF format of this article.]
ALPHABET IN COPTIC, GREEK. The Greek alphabet is much in evidence in Coptic; in fact, among the various Coptic alphabets (cf. ALPHABETS, COPTIC), all have a considerable majority of Greek graphemes, or letters (cf. ALPHABETS, COPTIC, especially the synoptic table; Kasser, 1980b, pt. II, pp. 280-81). This majority varies from one dialectal alphabet to another. In the following calculation of the percentages, [...] and [...], and [...] and [...], have been considered, respectively, as one and the same grapheme, whether or not provided with a diacritical sign: G and F9, 100 percent; J, 92 percent; F7, F8, and H, 83 percent; S etc. (i.e. S, K, K7, F4, F5, V4, V5, W, M, L4, L5, and L6, together with their subdialects if there are any), with B7, A, i (=pL), and i7 (p’L), 80 percent; B etc. (i.e. B4, and B5), 77 percent; P, 71 percent.
To this strong presence of the Greek alphabet, one may add that Coptic graphemes of demotic origin are assimilated to those of Greek origin, such as [...] formed like [...] with a tail, [...] like [...] reversed and open at the top, and [...] like [...] with two horns or [...] resting on a long horizontal bar underneath. This assimilation and this predominance are indeed such that a superficial observer might very well take an ancient Coptic manuscript for a contemporary Greek one, especially if it was a copy without any superlinear strokes (which may occur even in the dialects in which th euse of such strokes is habitual).
Even if one recalls that Coptic is the final stage of the Egyptian language, which does not belong to the same family as Greek, this indisputable supremacy of the Greek alphabet in the Coptic ought not to occasion any undue surprise. When the first varieties of the Coptic alphabet were created in the course of the third (?) century A.D., Egypt had been wholly within the Hellenic sphere of influence for more than half a millennium, since the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. (Müller, 1969). This fact explains not only the presence of so many Greek graphemes (most frequently the entire Greek alphabet) in the Coptic alphabets but also the abundance of various Greek lexemes (words) used in Coptic. Some lexemes were used excetionally or rarely in the texts that have survived, because they constituted a vocabulary of specialists and were scarcely employed outside their specialty; others were used more or less currently (even very currently) almost everywhere in Coptic literature, because they constituted a vocabulary so completely assimilated (mentally) by the mass of the autochthonous Copts that they considered it wholly Coptic as well as wholly Greek (cf. VOCABULARY, COPTO-GREEK).
Moreover, as can be seen from the texts, the Greek graphemes of the Coptic alphabet were in principle sufficient for transcribing into Coptic those lexemes which came from the Hellenic world. It is only rarely that one sometimes finds in addition, at the beginning of a word or replacing one of the two elements of a double [...], a [...] of demotic origin which seems to render normally the Greek rough breathing; it is also found occasionally in place of the smooth breathing of standard Greek orthography, which has been variously interpreted as a neutralizing of the contrast in pronunciation between the rough and smooth breathings in the Greek of contemporary Egypt (Böhlig, 1958, p.111), a “hyper-urbanism” (Vergote, 1973, p.15) and a “secondary” or “vulgar” aspiration (Weiss, 1966, p.204). Moreover, in the L6 documents (and a group of S documents probably deriving from a region of Upper Egypt where L6 was the autochthonous dialect; (cf. Kasser, 1980a) there is [...], also of demotic origin, where one would expect to find an initial [...], in Copto-Greek words corresponding to Greek words beginning with [...] or [...]. It is not without interest to note further that several Greek graphemes of the Coptic alphabet are used exclusively, or nearly so, for the transcription of Copto-Greek words (e.g., [...]; cf. Vergote, 1973, p.10). All these factors combined produce the result that in an average Coptic page about nine graphemes out of ten are of Greek origin (against one from demotic)—hence the “Greek” appearance, broadly speaking, of these Coptic copies.
The creators of these varieties of Coptic alphabets were by no means strictly “phonologists” in the modern sense of the term. Of course, like their modern counterparts, they seem to have striven to apply as strictly as possible the fundamental and general law according to which every phoneme should be rendered exclusively by a single grapheme, and this, just as exclusively, should render this one phoneme and no other. But, on the other hand, the means they employed and the criteria they applied evidently remained empirical. Above all, they were not always in a position to decide with complete freedom whether this sound or that deserved to be treated graphically as a distinct phoneme, in precise contrast to some other established phoneme; they could not in fact fail to take account of the work of their predecessors. No Coptic alphabet emerged completely new and original from an earlier vacuum.
The very fact that the greater part of the Coptic grapheme are Greek graphemes shows very well where lay the principal model that had to be taken into account, whence sprang the first source whose influence would make itself felt, more or less strongly, in the work of the inventors of Coptic alphabets—all the more because they, though coming from a native Egyptian milieu and carrying on their activity there, were always close to the Hellenic milieu of Egypt and found themselves forced, in reading or in writing, to practice frequently the Greek graphico-phonemic system. It is worthy of note that the PRE-OLD COPTIC alphabet is the Greek alphabet, no more and no less, which was already used according to certain closely related rules for the transcription into Greek of the proper names of autochthonous Egyptians (cf. GREEK TRANSCRIPTION).
The OLD COPTIC alphabets, though still based on the Greek alphabet for the most part, admit a strong minority of graphemes of demotic origin. The Coptic alphabets eliminate several of these, above all for motives of simplification, and by that very fact the Greek alphabetic majority in them is reinforced. Hence, one may see that if the Coptic alphabets were created according to the principle of the fundamental law stated above, the strict application of this principle was limited in various ways, first by the empiricism of the methods employed by the creators, and later and above all by the Hellenic phonological heritage for which these alphabets were the vehicle and which they transmitted from one to the other.
In this process there intervened also a law of “economy,” of which it will be necessary to speak again later. In a general way, one may say that the evolution and succession of these alphabets constitute a process of simplification: the number of the graphemes (and of the phonemes) diminishes rather than increases. It is true that this assertion appears at first to be in flat contradiction with the fact that the most ancient of these alphabets, the Pre-Old Coptic, is more simple than its immediate successors, the Old Coptic and Coptic alphabets. But the Pre-Old Coptic alphabet is only very imperfectly adapted to the transcription of Egyptian; certainly it could satisfy the Hellenic milieus of Egypt, not only in the Ptolemaic era but even down to the Byzantine epoch, because throughout this period it was an alphabet of this nature that sufficed for the transcription, in Greek documents, of autochthonous proper names. Going occasionally beyond its original frame, this type of alphabetic usage could even be applied (before the present era) to the transcription of some isolated Egyptian words (cf. Bilabel, 1938), and attempts were made (also before the present era), with some difficulty, to use it for a very brief and rudimentary text (cf. Lacau, 1934). It emerged anew in the Byzantine epoch in the nonliterary texts (above all private letters), which constitute the dossier for DIALECT G; but that alphabet, too exclusively Hellenic, always remained marginal so far as Coptic and its autochthonous antecedents are concerned.
To the mind of non-Greek Egyptians and possibly of some Greeks in Egypt who were “cross-bred” and strongly assimilated, a merely Greek alphabet would not suffice for the transcription of the language of the country, with its fundamental phonemic originalities; one could not make extensive and systematic use of it, first of all in Old Coptic texts (almost all of them magical texts, in which the correct pronunciation of the formulas played an essential role) and later in Coptic texts (where a vast and varied literary production makes its appearance). When they sought to effect a real transition to the literary stage for their language, the autochthonous men of letters engaged in this task of necessity had recourse to an autochthonous form of writing, that of demotic, and the Old Coptic alphabets that they created ought properly be considered not as successors to the Pre-Old Coptic (i.e. Greek) but as the results of a radical reform of the demotic “alphabet,” with a massive infusion of Greek graphemes (Pre-Old Coptic), results that were eminently “economical,” since demotic had many more graphemes than Old Coptic. It is thus, to say the least, a case of a “compromise” between the Greek system in Egypt and the autochthonous system, but one that, being alone fitted like the latter for rendering the idiom of the country, did so at much less cost (in terms of graphemes and soon of phonemes). The economizing process was continued in the proto-Coptic (cf. PROTODIALECT) and then in the Coptic alphabets, in which (save for the exception in DIALECT H; cf. below) the total of graphemes of Greek origin remained stable, but the number of graphemes of autochthonous origin was gradually reduced: S, the most neutral Coptic idiom, has only six ([...]), and H, the most economical METADIALECT of all (probably twenty-three graphemes altogether; cf. S, with thirty, and P, with as many as thirty-five), has no more than four signs derived from demotic, [...], dispensing with the two autochthonous graphemes [...] and [...], as it also does in principle with no fewer than three Greek graphemes, [...], [...], and [...], not to speak of two others whose use is considerably restricted, [...] and [...], both excluded except in the combination [...] for /u/ and /w/.
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