[Editorial note: [...] indicates use of Coptic text. Original script is available for viewing in the PDF format of this article.]
PHONOLOGY. In Coptic, as in any other language, it is vital to distinguish carefully between phonology and phonetics. According to Dubois (1973, p. 373), “Phonetics studies the sounds of language in their concrete realization, independently of their linguistic function.” Phonetics is thus a science concerned with a phenomenon purely material and physical, and therefore measurable by means of instruments of physics, sensitive and especially adapted for this delicate task. Consequently, phonetics does not treat the semantic use of these sounds or of their combinations; it is concerned neither with their signification nor with the message they take part in expressing.
On the other hand, “phonology is the science that studies the sounds of language from the point of view of their function in the system of linguistic communication. It studies the phonic elements that distinguish, within one and the same language, two messages of different meaning” (ibid., p. 375). Thus, in English, for instance, it is only the difference between the phonemes /d/ and /t/ that distinguishes the two words, entirely different in meaning, “doodle” (scrawl) and “tootle” (toot repeatedly). Of course, both of these words could be pronounced in a great many different ways and with nuances that may be studied, measured, or defined, according to the speaker’s linguistic habits or to the conditions in which he pronounces them at any given time (local, dialectal, personal habits, or possibly the pronunciation arising from a physical malformation, an occasional cold, a broken tooth, a mouth full of food, a state of fatigue making for negligent elocution, and so on). Yet, on the phonological level, these nuances are in no way taken into account: each of these two words is subject to but a single interpretation, /’du:dl/ and /’tu:tl/, respectively. Practically speaking, whatever the speaker’s accent (provincial, negligent, or obstructed, within certain limits), the listener will usually decode the message in the same way.
In ALPHABETS, COPTIC, the synoptic table gives (on the extreme left) the phonological value of the various Coptic graphemes, a value well known or at least sufficiently well known or probable. This value occasionally varies from one dialect or subdialect to another; one even observes certain idioms wanting one or several phonemes present in others. However, the present article will not treat these dialectal differences but present a complete inventory of Coptic phonemes (Table 1), “Coptic” considered comprehensively, as a total phenomenon comprising all particular idiomatic, dialectal, and subdialectal diasystems (cf. Stern, 1880, p. 7; Mallon, 1907, p. 7; Chaîne, 1933, pp. 2-3; Worrell, 1934, pp. 83-98; Vergote, 1945, p. 10; Steindorff, 1951, p. 11; Till, 1955, p. 40, and 1961, p. 3, and especially Vergote, 1973, pp. 7, 13, 18, and Kasser, 1981).
The synoptic table gives only the graphemes of four Coptic idioms—vehicular languages S and B, dialect A, and protodialect P—considered here as the most typical phonologically and alphabetically. (More details can be found in the synoptic table in ALPHABETS, COPTIC; gem. = graphic vocalic gemination; the phoneme /v/ is found only in the subdialects B7, J, G, F9, and H [grapheme [...]]; [wa] = phoneme wanting in this dialect).
From the following list of Coptic phonemes must be removed, of course, the phoneme combinations rendered in the script by a single grapheme—/ks/ (14), /ps/ (23), /ti/ (30), /c[...]/ (33), and, in all Coptic idioms except B and its subdialects, /th/ (8), /ph/ (21), and /kh/ (22). In B etc. they are, respectively, aspirated allophones of /t/ (19), /p/ (16), /k/ (k), as [...]h/ is the aspirated allophone of /[...]/ (28) (see BOHAIRIC).
Coptic has eight (or perhaps nine) vowels proper, namely /a/ (1), /e/ (5a), /[...]/ (5b), /[...]/ (7), /i/ (9a), /o/ (15), /u/ (20b), /[...]/ (24), and perhaps /y/ (20a). /[...]/ is a medial vowel, /a/ is the most open (or most voiced) vowel, and /i/ and /u/ (and, as the case may be, /y/; see below), the most close (or least voiced): the gradation from most open to most close being /a/, /e/, / /, /i/ for the palatal and anterior series, and /a/, /o/, /[...]/, /u/ for the velar or postenor one.
Coptic has five (perhaps even six) sonants (of truly vocalic value, although expressed in the script by an apparently consonantal grapheme), namely /[...]/ (2b), /[...]/ (11b), /[...]/ (12b), /[...]/ (13b), /[...]/ (17b), and possibly /[...]/.
[See PDF version of this article for Table 1. Synoptic Table of Coptic Phonemes.]
TABLE 1. Synoptic Table of Coptic Phonemes
All the above Coptic phonemes are thus, on the phonological level, vowels. On the other hand, all other phonemes of Coptic presented below are, phonologically considered, consonants.
Coptic has probably only two glides, or semivowels (or voiced fricatives; see below), which are voiced consonants (their consonantal value is certain, although they are rendered by apparently vocalic graphemes): /j/ (9b) and /w/ (20c). It is possible to conceive that Coptic might have a third glide, /[...]/, in some very rare Copto-Greek words, such as S, B [...] ([...], hyacinth-coloured, written frequently [...] or even B [...], probably pronounced /hy a kin thi non/ or even more likely /hi a kin thi non/; however, [...] a kin thi non/ seems not inconceivable.
Coptic has six sonorants, or voiced consonants: /[...]/ (2a), /l/ (11a), /m/ (12a), /n/ (13a), /r/ (17a), and /v/ (32), of which /l/ is a lateral, /r/ is a vibrabt trill, /m/ and /n/ are nasals, /[...]/ and /v. are, like the glides, voiced fricatives.
All the other consonants below are unvoiced. Note that the Greek voiced fricative /z/ (6) and the Greek voiced stops /g/ (3) and /d/ (4) occur practically only in Copto-Greek words (cf. VOCABULARY, COPTO-GREEK), in which, however, they have probably lost their original (Greek) voicing; thus, as elements of Coptic, /z/ = /s/ (18), /g/ = /k/ (10), and /d/ = /t/ (19).
Coptic has 6 fricatives: /s/ (18), /[...]/ (25), /f/ (26), /h/ (27), /ç/ (34), and /x/ (35).
According to the traditional Coptic grammar, Coptic has only a single affricate, /[...]/ (28). However, DIALECT H (and perhaps even F and the subdialects of the Fayyumic dialectal group, except F7) may also have /[...]/ (/ç/ being pronounced nearly like [t[...]], and /[...]/ nearly like [tç]).
Coptic has five stops: /k/ (10) (and /c/ (29), which is a palatalized /k/ corresponding approximately to [kj]); /p/ (16); /t/ (19); and /’/ (31) (see ALEPH; CRYPTOPHONEME; and GEMINATION, VOCALIC). For the aspirated affricate and stops in B etc. (/[...]h/, /kh/, /ph/, /th/), see above.
Click tabs to swap between content that is broken into logical sections.