Neurophilosophy

My language is on the brink of extinction

GospelofMark.jpg

Coptic leaf from the Gospel of Mark, Egypt, c. AD 500. (Southern Methodist University

Nearly half of the world’s 7,000 languages are likely to become extinct over the course of this century, according to an article in the NY Times which discusses a recent study of endangered languages. (See this interactive map for more details of the study.)

One language that is not mentioned in the article or in the study, but which is also on the brink of extinction, is Coptic, the ancient language of Egypt’s indigenous Christian population.

Coptic is a modified Greek script that includes a handful of symbols from Demotic. It came into use in the first century AD, and is grammatically very similar to the Late Egyptian language that was written in hieroglyphics.

Following the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the mid-7th Century, there was persecution of non-Muslims, who were required to pay alms. In consequence, the use of Coptic began to decline. 

Today, Coptic is spoken only by small numbers of priests and choristers in Coptic churches in Egypt and elsewhere. As a child, I attended the Coptic church in South Kensington often; back then (in the late 70s and early 80s) the mass was performed in Coptic and Arabic.

Now, as Egyptians marry into English families, and the number of second generation Egyptians who do not speak Arabic gets bigger, the use of both Coptic and Arabic in church services is declining, and that of English increasing.

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    September 19, 2007

    quibble, but jizya aren’t really alms, it is a tax
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jizya

    and it’s role was to specifically subsidize military expenditures (soldier’s salaries) which non-muslims were exempted (often barred) from. it’s generalize role was reinforce the lower status of non-muslims and transfer wealth from non-muslims to muslim elites (which is why in some places conversion was discouraged because it reduced the tax yield).

    also, there is some scholarly evidence (see peter brown’s ‘the rise of western christendom’) that arabicization tended to precede islamicization. that is, there were never many coptic speaking muslims, as much as arab speaking chrisitans who converted to islam. the model is that common language with the muslims made conversion much more natural.

  2. #2 noahpoah
    September 19, 2007

    Not to be (too much of) a smartass, but if Coptic is a script, how is it spoken?

    More seriously, if Coptic is only spoken in church services, and not in homes and workplaces, it seems to me that it’s already non-viable.

  3. #3 Ktesibios
    September 20, 2007

    Not to be (too much of) a smartass, but if Coptic is a script, how is it spoken?,/blockquote>

    Coptic is a language, descended from the language of ancient Egypt. The script in which it’s written is also known as Coptic because it is used only in writing that language.

    Incidentally, the fact that the Coptic alphabet is largely derived from Greek is a boon to Egyptology, because it records vowels. The heiroglyphic, heiratic and demotic scripts recorded only consonant sounds (somewhat like ancient Hebrew and Arabic), with the result that while we can read Egyptian written in those scripts, we don’t actually know what it sounded like. Extrapolating back from Coptic provides clues about how the language was vocalized.

    A knowledge of Coptic was a critical asset for Champollion in deciphering the ancient language.

  4. #4 Jennifer
    September 20, 2007

    Coptic may no longer be viable, but a language is not actually extinct until the last speaker of that language dies.

    A fact that the NY Times article indicates in the article in question: “In July, Dr. Anderson said, they met the sole speaker of Amurdag, a language in the Northern Territory [of Australia] that had been declared extinct.”
    (emphasis mine)

    The article summarizes a report put out by the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Also referenced in the article is the National Geographic Enduring Voices project, which is trying to make a record of every language that is close to extinction–dictionaries, oral histories, voice recordings, etc.

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