[Editorial note: [...] indicates use of Coptic text. Original script is available for viewing in the PDF format of this article.]
PROTODIALECT. From the earliest time that its existence is attested (before 3000 B.C.) until its most recent form, prior to its extinction as a living tongue, the Egyptian language has evolved somewhat in its phonology. To be sure, while this language was still alive, Coptology had not yet been born, so that no phonologist possessing modern scientific skills could, by hearing the language pronounced as it was spoken, note precisely its articulation. However, there exist thousands of Egyptian texts, both pharaonic and Coptic, that record the existence of diverse orthographies. If they are simultaneous, they are considered dialectal orthographies synchronically. If they are successive, they are considered to indicate various evolutionary stages of the language.
Even though orthography is merely a conventional system with an essentially practical usage and therefore a system with rather empirical foundations, and though it is very far from answering all theoretical questions asked by phonologists and from satisfying the concerns, curiosity, and needs of the researcher, one cannot deny that orthography has some capacity to inform one of the nature of a language’s phonology. This is particularly true either when the vocabulary of this language has adopted lexemes of other languages whose phonology is better understood or when various lexemes of the language in question have been cited, if not adopted, in texts from a neighboring language with a better-known phonology. To a certain extent, such is the case with pharaonic Egyptian and, to an even greater degree, Coptic, because of the close coexistence of Coptic and Greek in Roman-Byzantine Egypt, in which the autochthonous majority who spoke Coptic were politically dominated by the Hellenized minority, even within the framework of the imperial Roman administration. Thus, one finds many Egyptian proper nouns transcribed into Greek, and vice versa, as well as numerous Greek words adopted into Coptic, a language whose alphabet is in fact mostly Greek (see VOCABULARY, COPTO-GREEK and ETYMOLOGY; also ALPHABET IN COPTIC, GREEK, and ALPHABETS, COPTIC).
The phonological evolution observable in Egyptian before the Coptic era is unfortunately limited to consonants since pharaonic writing exhibited no vowels. In Coptic, on the other hand, the vowels were written along with the consonants. Concerning Egyptian, one should not be surprised to observe some phonological evolution, since the language can be analyzed today on the basis of texts covering more than three thousand years. Coptic, however, existed for scarcely a millennium, and even less if one stops with the epoch in which it ceased to be both productive in the literary field and truly living as a spoken language among Egyptians, surviving with difficulty and increasing artificiality for several centuries only within the closed and conservative milieu of the Coptic clergy. Consequently, one might expect to observe no evolution within Coptic and to see here only one stage, the single and final stage in the evolution of the Egyptian language. At most, by comparing the idioms of Coptic with each other, one finds that some, particularly Akhmimic (A) and Bohairic (B), have a phonemic inventory slightly richer than certain others, such as Sahidic (S), Lyc (Dios)politan (L), Mesokemic (M), crypto-Mesokemic (W), South Fayyumic (V), and Fayyumic (F). For example, A and B have retained phonemes such as /x/ from pharaonic Egyptian, which classical S and L have lost. This is, of course, an interesting phenomenon. But the phenomenon is even more remarkable when the presence and disappearance of such a phoneme can be noticed in the documents of a single dialect, as it evolves from a formative archaic stage, relatively rich in phonemes, to a more recent, neutralized and impoverished state.
Such observations can also be made here or there in the study of vowels (Kasser, 1984, pp. 246ff.), where the phenomenon remains strictly confined to Coptic because pharaonic Egyptian texts exhibit no written vowels. One must admit that, if one finds in the same position and quality (i.e., long stressed, short stressed, unstressed) a greater variety of vocalic usage, this is a sign of archaism. This vocalic archaism is frequently confirmed by consonantal archaic phonology (see below). Thus, for example, insofar as final unstressed vowels are concerned, A, L4, L5, M, and S have only one ([...]), while L6 still possesses two ([...] and [...]), as do V and F ([...] and [...]). F7 also has two ([...]and [...]). One could also say that B retains two ([...] and [...], that is, zero vowel, no vowel at all). Further, one also sees two in proto-Lyco(Dios)politan (pL, [...] and [...]) and in proto-Theban (P, [...] and [...]), dialects whose consonantic inventory is very archaic (see below).
It can thus be observed that almost all Coptic dialects have adopted only one or the other of the two vowels [...] or [...] in the unstressed final position, the second tightly closed and the first less closed or more or less medial. But the archaic P and F7 show in that position a very open, unstressed final vowel, [...], an unusual and remarkable phenomenon in Coptic.
The study of Egyptian phonological evolution remains most fruitful when dealing with consonants, which have been transcribed over a period of approximately four thousand years, from the most ancient of pharaonic texts to the later Coptic documents. In fact, the result of such an analysis can be a synoptic table like that published by Vergote (1945, pp. 122-23), which expanded Worrell��s study (1934). As far as Coptic is concerned, however, this table shows only synchronic and interdialectal differences, except in the cases of silencing (disappearance of phonemes).
Nevertheless, some thirty years later, Vergote (1973-1983, Vol. 1a, p. 57) discovered some rare archaic documents in Coptic that attest and manifest the existence of a “proto-Subakhmimic” or rather (in present Coptological terminology) “proto-Lyco(Dios)politan” (see DIALECT I and Kasser, 1990), and of a “proto-Sahidic” (according to Vergote’s terminology, now rather to be considered a “proto-Theban” very similar to some reconstructed “proto-Sahidic”; see DIALECT P and Kasser, 1990), sigla respectively pL and P. These remarkable idioms had conserved up to the third-fourth centuries two phonemes that can reasonably be considered archaic in the Lyco-(Dios)politan cluster, and also in comparision with Sahidic. Still surviving in pL and P, they have disappeared from L, and also cannot be found in S. The first is /x/, which is derived from h = /x2/ (rarely from [...] = /x3/). The second is the phoneme /ç/, which is the principal intermediate form in the evolution that starts with [...] = /x3/ and finally ends at /[...]/ in all Coptic dialects, except for Akhmimic (A), which has /x/ in its place. This /x/ is apparently identical to the /x/ derived from /x2/. Therefore, even within Coptic, in the consonants there is a small segment where a modest but significant phonological evolution in the Egyptian language can be observed.
Present terminology is that of Kasser (1980a, pp. 109-111), who called proto-Theban (considered more precisely a kind of proto- Sahidic) and proto-Lycopolitan “protodialects.” When, through the very rare discovery of archaic texts, protodialects appear in Coptology, the protodialect exists as an entity logically anterior to the Coptic “dialects” that have been defined and named according to the habitual and traditional criteria. It is anterior not exactly in the same way that a father is anterior to his son, but as someone of the father’s generation, perhaps the father’s brother or cousin, is logically anterior to the father’s son. Concerning the dialects, their character as “dialects” came to be recognized because their differentiating traces were observed throughout the known Coptic texts. Furthermore, these dialects represented, each in its own way, the state of the phonological evolution of the Egyptian language in the various regions of the country. This held true during the entire Coptic era, or at least for A, L, M, W, V, and possibly F until they were smothered by S. Therefore, in contrast to these various idioms in general, but more particularly in contrast to L and also S, respectively, proto-Lycopolitan (pL) and proto-Theban (P) are called “protodialects.” A specific protodialect of B, F, V, W, M, or A may yet come to light, should new texts be discovered with such archaic phonological features.
Concerning L and also S, it is known that these idioms lost /ç/ and even /x/ at the termination of a well-known phonological evolution: the majority of x3 > /ç/ > /[...]/, while x2, linked to a minority of x3,> /x/ > /h/. Consequently, it is the survival of /ç/ and /x/ in pL and P very similar to some reconstructed “proto-Sahidic”) that makes the former a proto-dialect of L and the latter a protodialect that looks very like a tentatively reconstructed proto-dialect of S, pL in the rest of its phonological system being very Lycopolitan and P being more often than not identical with S. In A and B, on the other hand, one can see in the mass of their manuscripts from each period that /x/ was always present, so that this phoneme plays a role in the definition of A and B as dialects and has nothing of a protodialectal stage.
A protodialect, therefore, can exist only in relationship to a dialect to which it is extremely similar, if not identical, in most of its phonological traits. This dialect, however, shows a phonological evolution in some precise point���almost always in its consonants— away from its protodialect. This type of relationship of protodialect to dialect is also that which exists, in a reversed sense, between a dialect and a METADIALECT, with this latter showing a state of evolution posterior to that of the dialect to which it corresponds.
For reasons tied to the status of the present knowledge of Coptic, which is based on documentation known to the present day, the presence or absence of /ç/—or even /x/ in a dialect other than A or B—in the graphicophonological system of one of the varieties of the Coptic language forms the only certain criterion that will permit one to distinguish between a protodialect and a dialect.
As for the age of these protodialectal documents. one will note that they are among the most ancient Coptic manuscripts, an observation that seems logically normal. However, occasionally a certain “dialectal” document will slightly predate a particular “protodialectal” document (just as the father’s son may be, in certain cases, a little older than his uncle or some relative from his father’s generation), indicating that the protodialect survived in one region of Egypt longer than in another. And when it vanished, its disappearance would probably be progressive, with a certain period of contemporaneous usage of the protodialect by the conservatives and of the dialect by the innovators in the same area (see LANGUAGE(S), COPTIC).
It will be instructive here to borrow some component parts from the synoptic table of Vergote in a slightly modified order, adapting and illustrating each one with an example and choosing in particular those components that are useful in the definition of a protodialect.
The abbreviations and adaptations employed are as follows: for periods, MK = Middle Kingdom, NK = New Kingdom, pC = Saitic and Greco-Roman (or proto-Coptic) period, C = Coptic period; for dialects, L = A2 of Vergote; S... = S, F, and its subdialects, as well as M and V, which were still unknown to Vergote in 1945; L... within the pC period = pL (and through P a reconstructed *pS). Without postulating or defining any phonological difference between them, two varieties of /x3/ will henceforth be distinguished here: the major form whose evolution was /ç/ > /[...]/ in L... is /x33/; and the minor form that evolved into /h/ in L... is /x32/.
(MK) [...] > (NK) [...] > (pC) /h/> (C) /h/; for example, [...] > [...]ko L, S..., B, A, to be hungry.
(MK) h > (NK) h > (pC) /h/ > (C) /h/; for example, hb > [...] L, S..., B, A, thing.
(MK) x2 > (NK) x2 > (pC) /x2/ [A], /x/ L..., [B] > /x2/ A, /x/ B, but /h/ L, S...; for example, [...] [...] B, P (and a reconstructed *pS), [...] A, pL, but [...] L, S..., inside part.
x3 = (MK) x32> (NK) x32 > x2 = (pC) /x2/ [A], /x/ L..., [B] > /x2/ A, /x/ B but /h/ L...; for example, [...] B, [...] P and a reconstructed *pS [...] A (and pL through [...]), but [...] L, S..., to live.
x3 = (MK) x33 > (NK) x33 > (pC) /ç/ L..., [B], but /x33/ [A], then (pC) /ç/ L..., [B] > (C) / / L, S...., B, and (pC) /x33/ [A] > /x/ A; for example, [...]pr > [...] P and a reconstructed *pS), [...] pL, [etc., and /ç[...]pi/ pB] > [...] S, L, [...] M, [...] W, V, F, B, but [/x[...]p[...] pA] > [...] A, to become
(MK) [...] > (NK) [...] > (pC) /[...]/ > (C) /[...]/; for example, [...]p, [...] L, S..., B, A, to receive.
[See also: Dialect i; Dialect P.]
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