[Editorial note: [...] indicates use of Coptic text. Original script is available for viewing in the PDF format of this article.]
DIALECTS, GROUPING AND MAJOR GROUPS OF. The discovery of many Coptic manuscripts in the latter half of the twentieth century has led to a multiplication in the identification (sometimes disputed) of Coptic idioms, dialects, and subdialects, an identification based mainly on phonology, the most convenient and generally used criterion (see DIALECT, IMMIGRANT). The most likely working hypothesis that has been agreed upon is that the phonology of these idioms can be determined by analysis of their different orthographic systems; in practice, this is the only viable approach, since Coptic is a dead language. The increase in the tiumber of known idioms is quite obvious: Stern (1880) has only three “dialects,” S, B, and F; Crum (1939) has five, S, B, F, A2 (= L), and A; Kahle (1954) has six, S, B, F, M, A2 (= L), and A; Kasser (1964) has seven or eight, S, (G?), B, F, M, A2 (= L), A, and P; Kasser (1966), has nine, S, G, B, F, M, A2 (= L), A, and P; and Kasser (1973) reaches fifteen, of which, however, five are practically abandoned in Kasser (1981): S, G, (D), B, (K), F, H, (N), M, L, i, A, P. (C), (E).
This multiplicity has led to revision of the very concept of “dialect” and “subdialect” (which should be rigorously distinguished from an IDIOLECT) so as to eliminate certain idioms that are possible but too poorly or too doubtfully attested and (despite Chaine, 1934, pp. 2-3, and Kasser, 1974) to clarify dialectic filiations (Vergote, 1973b; Kasser, 1979; this concept should not be understood in too literal a way). Above all, the multiplicity has led to a classification of the different idioms into families or groups of dialects (Kasser, 1981, pp. 112-18) and then into major groups, to avoid complicating in the extreme the view of the phonetic and phonological facts of Coptic Egypt and to allow its more convenient integration into an analysis (synchronic and diachronic) of the Egyptian language as a whole. (On the terminology here employed, see IDIOLECT, PROTODIALECT, METADIALECT, and MESODIALECT.)
Although presented through the medium of another terminology, such groups of dialects were distinguished by Stern (1880) when he contemplated the existence of two clearly distinct dialects, the Lower Egyptian and the Upper Egyptian, which elsewhere he preferred to call Bohairic and Sahidic, respectively, and when he defined F as “the third dialect, only a variant of Sahidic” and “of less importance.” In the same way, Steindorff (1951) presented two groups of dialects: Upper Egyptian (S, A, L, F) and Lower Egyptian (B, and Bashmuric, a dialect practically unknown).
The grouping of “dialects” set out below is quite similar to that of Kasser (1981) but with some significant differences, the most important of which is the new valuation of S and B: they are no longer considered as “dialects” (as are, e.g., A, L, and M) but as “Coptic languages,” that is, “vehicular,” or supralocal, even supraregional common languages, which permitted the inhabitants of numerous Egyptian regions, where each spoke his own local dialect, to communicate easily and to understand one another. So S is recognized as the common speech of the whole valley of the Egyptian Nile above the Delta, and B (more hypothetically but nevertheless rather likely) is considered the language of the whole Nile Delta. Coptic (supralocal etc.) languages (in touch with many local and regional dialects, which influence and neutralize them appreciably) cannot be compared without great caution with individual (local or regional) dialects.
According to this system, each group of dialects has a “chief,” a dialect that is well represented in texts and is the one with the largest number of phonological (and, as far as possible, morphosyntactical) elements characteristic of its group. In principle, those idioms which have in common a large number of consonantal and vocalic isophones belong to the same dialectal group. Indeed, consonantal isophones are normally the same within a dialectal group, but they may sometimes differ, so long as the differences are tolerable and not decisive. Consonantal differences are tolerable if they fit into the pattern of the normal evolution of a dialect (progressive neutralization), as in > /[...]/ > / / (the protodialect with /[...]/ will belong to the same group as the dialect that has /[...]/ < /[...]/ if their vocalic isophones are in large part the same; cf. Kasser, 1981, p. 114). On the other hand, a consonantal difference is not tolerable if it cannot be registered in a pattern of normal dialectal evolution. Thus, although the vocalic isophones of A and of some members of L are largely the same, the decisive difference between A and L consists in the striking fact that in A alone of all the Coptic dialects h > /x/ everywhere and [...] also > /x/ steadily, and thus [...] and [...] merge into [...] = /x/ constantly and everywhere, whereas in all the other dialects almost all the [...] > /[...]/ > /[...]/ (merging with the other / / < ) and all the h (with a few ) > /x/ > /h/ (merging with the other /h/ < h). This excludes any integration of A into the same schema as, for example, P and S (e.g., *A > *P > *S). It is inconceivable that if in A [...] and [...] have merged into /x/, this distinction should reappear at a later stage, some of these /x/ > /[...]/ > /[...]/ because they derive from and other /x/ > /h/ because they derive from [...].
The six groups of dialects are listed below in an order assumed to correspond to their geographical order, from south to north. As a whole, this schema corresponds to a conception of dialectal geography (see GEOGRAPHY, DIALECTAL) wherein the situation of the chief of each group, thanks to comparison of the isophones (Vergote, 1973, Vol. la, pp. 55-56), may be determined in relation to at least two of the other chiefs (those closest to it), all these chiefs being practically placed on an equal footing vis-à-vis the criterion of localization constituted by their isophones. Since the approximate geographical situation of at least three of these chiefs seems relatively well known (from south to north, A, F, and B, leaving out a fourth, M, which poses a more delicate problem), it appears possible to determine that of the remaining two, L and S, with a high degree of probability: L stands between A and S, and hence to the north of A; S is a vehicular language (the southern koine of Egypt) in contact (near Memphis) with the second Egyptian vehicular language, B (the northern koine), and hence a strong vocalic similarity between S and B (probably due to the influence of some pre-B on some pre-S in pre-Coptic time; see Chaîne, 1934, pp. 13-18, and Satzinger, 1985). Nevertheless, most of the typical phonological and morphosyntactical features of S suggest that the particular pre-Coptic idiom that became S as a widespread common language (see DIALECT, IMMIGRANT) was located not directly near the Delta and B, but rather more to the south, between L and M.
In the following list of six groups, //S means “everywhere in contact with S as a supralocal vehicular language”; and //B means “for the subdialects B4, B7, B74, and probably G, if not for K and K7, everywhere in contact with B as a supralocal vehicular language.” The presence of a question mark (?) indicates strong doubt as to the dialectal identity (i.e., the possibility that one is dealing with a “dialectoid”).
Akhmimic Group (//S)
A: Dialect; chief of the group; further research will possibly permit the definition of some subdialects of A (one might in particular consider that 2 Mc. 5:27—6:21 in Lacau, 1911, somewhat ar-chaic in a few of its peculiarities, attests very sporadically a kind of proto-AKHMIMIC [pA], a practically missing protodialect).
Lycopolitan Group (//S)
i (or pL): Partly sporadic protodialect of L (LYCOPOLITAN or LYCO-DIOSPOLITAN; cf. DIALECT i).
i7: Subdialect of i, through partial neutralization and evolution toward L.
L: Dialect; chief of group.
L4: Subdialect of L.
L5: Subdialect of L.
L6: Subdialect of L.
Sahidic Group (//S)
P: Partially sporadic protodialect; it can be considered a regional dialectal variety very like a kind of (reconstructed) proto-Sahidic, probably immigrant into the region of Thebes (southern region of A also, probably, and perhaps of some variety of L).
See DIALECT P.
S: Language; chief of group. Further research will perhaps permit the definition of some (sub)dialects of S. See SAHIDIC. Mesokemic Group (//S)
M: Dialect; chief of group. Further research will perhaps permit the definition of some subdialects of M. One might in particular consider that P. Mil. Copti 1 and the codex of the Psalms attest a variety of M that could be denominated M4 and that the subdialect of Codex Scheide and Codex Glazier is M5.
W: See Fayyumic group.
Fayyumic Group (//S)
F: Dialect; chief of group.
F4: Subdialect of F.
F5: Subdialect of F; classical FAYYUMIC.
F7: Eccentric and somewhat archaic subdialect of F; possibly a marginal northern protodialect of a variety of F ill known and not attested later.
F8: Eccentric subdialect of F.
F9:Eccentric subdialect of F.
F4, F5, F7, F8, and F9 all have the typical Fayyumic lambdacism.
V: Without lambdacism; mesodialect (between a dominant F and
W, and further M) and in some ways a subdialect of F4 etc. by neutralization.
W: Without lambdacism; mesodialect (between V and M). Has a typical FAYYUMIC orthography, on the one hand, but a typical Mesokemic morpho-syntax, on the other hand; hence its name “crypto-Mesokemic.” One might also associate it with the Mesokemic group.
Bohairic Group (//B)
B: Language; chief of group.
B4: (Sub)dialect of B, possibly rather marginal and to the south.
B5: (Sub)dialect of B; classical Bohairic.
B7: Eccentric and partially sporadic subdialect of B.
B74: Eccentric (sub)dialect of B; in some way subdialect of
B4, and perhaps more to the south.
K: Mesodialect (between a very dominant B and V [or S]).
K7: Eccentric subdialect of K (still further removed from V than K is).
G: Partially sporadic mesodialect (between a very dominant B and S [?], with probably also a third component, perhaps partly Hellenic and difficult to determine).
Difficult to classify in any group remains H: mesodialect, on the one hand (between S and M, or rather S and V, itself a mesodialect associated with the Fayyumic group); on the other hand, a typical metadialect, but too poorly represented to allow one to define it at an earlier (classical) period.
See DIALECT H.
As seen above, the distribution of the Coptic idioms into six dialectal groups and their geographical localization in relation to one another are essentially based on the comparison of the isophones of these idioms, consonantal, on the one hand, and vocalic, on the other. If, however, one observes that there are very few consonantal differences between the varieties of Coptic, that several of these differences can be put down to various degrees of progression of the late Egyptian consonantal evolution (Vergote, 1945, pp. 122-23) in the various Coptic idioms, and that the most neutralized idioms (V. still more L, and above all S) are the most difficult to situate in Coptic dialectal geography, then another method can be envisaged, producing different results and manifesting a different system of dialect grouping.
Based again (for want of anything better) on phonology as it is revealed by the various orthographic systems employed, this method would rely particularly on vocalic phonology, and especially the phonology of the tonic vowels. It thereby relegates to the level of secondary importance certain spectacular phenomena, such as the sonant atonal finals (phonologically vowels) in S, M, L, B, and F or the voiced consonants followed by /[...]/ in A and in the L4 Manichaean witnesses (Kasser, 1982c, p. 49, n. 5), and above all the ordinary atonal final vowels /[...]/ S, M, L, A versus /i/ B, F, phenomena upon which one might have been tempted in the first place to base the most general divisions of Egypt into large supradialectal geographical zones. The result is that, setting aside certain phenomena of extension generally more limited (ibid., p. 50, n. 7) than the phenomena given the primary diacritical function, the observation of the vocalic constants noted in the systematic cases considered to have priority leads to a grouping of the six “classical” entities (two “languages,” S and B, and four “dialects,” A, L, M, and F) two by two, and thus to a subdivision of the linguistic totality of Coptic Egypt not into six “dialectal groups” but into three “major dialectal regions”:
I. The southern (dialects) major region (Upper Egypt), including A and L (and their subdialects, etc.).
II. The middle (dialects) major region (middle and lower Middle Egypt and the Fayyum), including M and F (and their subdialects, etc., among them V and W).
III. The northern (dialects and vehicular language)—southern (vehicular language) major region (Lower Egypt [or the Delta], Middle Egypt, and Upper Egypt), including B and S (and their sub-dialects etc.). See Kasser, 1989.
By this process, one could work out a Coptic dialectal geography at one and the same time perhaps less precise and more nuanced than that tied to the conception of the six dialectal groups above. Even if one admits that the most neutralized idioms (V, still more L, and above all S) of the Egyptian Nile Valley above the Delta each had as principal antecedent some idiom that was in origin a local dialect, this tripartite system would envisage each of them in the Nile Valley as the vehicular language (potentially or effectively) of a given major region, without further specifying their origin (in contrast to A, M, and F). Thus, major region I would have as its only local dialect known at the present time A (Akhmim and environs, perhaps fairly far to the south) but would have L as the semineutralized vehicular dialect of this whole region (viz., the zone of A and other zones to the south and north of it). Major region II would have as a local dialect M (environs of Oxyrhynchus?) and F (with various subdialects, the Fayyum) but would have V as a slightly neutralized dialect tending to become vehicular for the region (viz., the zone of M and F, and some zone between M and F, and to the east of F). Major region III, superposing itself partially on major regions I and II, would have all the local dialects of these regions and both their supralocal dialects (potentially or effectively, V and L) and, above all, both the major Coptic vehicular languages, S and B (further in the Delta, of course, the local dialects or subdialects of Lower Egypt, and K and K7 of lower Middle Egypt; see above, Bohairic group). One must remember here that S, being dominant throughout the Egyptian Nile Valley above the Delta, progressively stifled there A, L, M, W, V, and finally F.
Both systems (six groups of dialects or three major regions of dialects) are to be considered in the present state of knowledge in this field.
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