History Reviews

Rise of Coptic by Jean-Luc Fournet

Coptic, a language of denial 

Coptic, the Egyptian language, does not have an origin story, unlike the Cyrillic scripts which are said to have been invented by St Cyril and his brother Methodius. The historical accounts of Coptic’s early days are not so much shrouded in mystery as in denial.

The Sayings of the Fathers, a collection of short pithy sayings from the early monks creates a picture of a community without books in which illiteracy was a form of virtue. The great monk Anthony stated “the person whose mind is sound has no need of letters”. The books they are rejecting are often supposed to have been written in Greek, but may also be Coptic. 

Perhaps one reason that Coptic has no origin myth is that it was essentially an ancient language with millennia of written history. Coptic is just a different way of writing the same language as the hieroglyphs. One Egyptian monk was even able to have a conversation with the mummified remains of people whose tomb he had taken over as a dwelling place. 

Nevertheless the origins of Coptic is a riddle which historians have sought to solve for many years.  

A new history 

Jean-Luc Fournet, in his new work, seeks to establish a chronology for the language. In the seventh century it became an “official language” widely used in legal documents, alongside church texts and private letters. 

Fournet argues that Coptic was created and developed by highly educated Greek readers and writers in Egypt for their own use. He bases this argument not just on the use of the Greek alphabet (which Coptic uses alongside the addition of six characters), but also the use of Greek diacritical marks. These marks would have been used by an intellectually elite milieu and point towards a group with a deep knowledge of Greek.

This is important because many scholars identify the growth of Coptic as a sign that the Greek language had decreased in importance or had never really had deep roots in Egyptian society, beyond the cities. 

By the Roman period, Greek had become the most important text for “every day” or administrative use. Outside of temples, Demotic  (another written form of the Egyptian language) disappears from the archaeological record around 50 CE. 

By this time, Greek had become largely standardised into Common (or Koine) Greek. In contrast, Coptic from the start emerged in various dialects. The Sahidic from the south become dominant at an early stage. It is in this dialect which many of the books from Nag Hammadi were written, although Subakhmimic was also used. Both dialects are from Upper Egypt which may have been a hotbed for opposition and anti-Greek feeling. Shenoute the Great, an important Christian leader based in the South, rallied against Greek language amongst other things. Yet he used a style which developed from Greek writers of the Second Sophistic.

Not only was Coptic a form of the Egyptian language written in Greek characters, but it also used a specific shape of the Greek characters more commonly used in books. (The Greek used in documents was more cursive, whereas the Coptic used in literary texts and documents is largely the same).

The idea of a hard distinction between Coptic and Greek breaks down under closer analysis. Many literate Egyptians would have been bilingual. Letters between family members were often written in Coptic or Greek, sometimes even within the same letter. 

The idea that Egyptians and Greeks were opposed on sectarian grounds following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE has also been proven to be false. This idea continues to circulate, even if the reality on the ground is more complex. 


He identifies the decrease of legal petitions (amongst surviving papyrii) alongside a growth in legal settlements during the same period. He avoids a simplistic reading that links the development of Coptic with the retraction of state power – writing: 

It is tempting to relate the emergence of legal Coptic to all of these phenomena, which appear to provide evidence for the retraction of state justice in favor of para- or extrajudicial processes. The use of Coptic for the writing of contracts would be an indirect cause of it. Yet how can we relate the appearance of legal Coptic to the withdrawal of state justice? Of the two, which is the cause, and which is the effect? It could be that it was the rise of Coptic in the population and its corollary, the decline of Greek that prompted the litigating parties to give up traditional methods (the libellus process) involving the obligatory use of Greek. In that case, the loss of interest in state justice would therefore be the consequence of the Egyptian aspiration to obtain justice in their own language without going through Greek-speaking intermediate. The opposite can also be ventured: there may have been a crisis of legal institutions forcing the population to resort to extrajudicial proceedings, which made the use of Coptic possible. In this case, the rise of Coptic in our documentation would be the result of the retraction of state justice. 

Jean-Luc Fournet

Beyond the law

Coptic is often considered a Christian language. This argument is perhaps based on a logical fallacy. Most texts were written by Christians, therefore the language itself is Christian. Fournet is right to avoid this thinking. 

Fournet instead points out that the Church in Egypt, grew and developed in a Greek-speaking state. The development of Coptic was contemporaneous with this but possibly not the result of this and certainly not the cause. Nevertheless the growth of Coptic must owe something to the emergence of churches. 

By the period when an Arab administration took over, the church had become increasingly powerful. Fournet provocatively argues that bishops had become “sorts of holy men capable of serving as intermediaries with the administration”. This argument alludes to Peter Brown’s The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. In this still influential paper, Brown argues that Holy men became intermediaries with the divine. It is notable that Brown is not referenced in Fournet’s book even though he is an important enough figure to be used ironically in this way. 

It is also important to note that Fournet does not really unpin the nature of the church beyond the effects of its legalistic interests. The Church’s use of Coptic would have given the language prestige, not just because of its political role, but because of its divine role. Arguably the distinction between divine and political, was never so clear cut in Egypt, where the pharaoh and then emperor was also worshipped as a god incarnate (l’état, c’est moi).

Rise of Coptic by Jean-Luc Fournet

What do you think about Fournet’s argument? Let us know in the comments below.