Friday, March 7, 2008

Coptic: Starting from Zero

I will continue this blog by going on to the next language I am studying at CUA: Coptic. Back in early 2006, as I was contemplating my course of studies at the university I was about to enroll in, I decided to do something with Coptic that I had not done for a long time: start cold. My desire to overachieve in language studies has usually led me to study a lot on my own before beginning a course. I considered following this "standard procedure" with Coptic, but then I thought, hey, why not test myself and see if my language acquisition ability is still as sharp as it was 30 years ago? I did study the extra letters that Coptic added to the Greek alphabet, and somehow I picked up on the fact that "p" had something to do with masculine gender and "t" with feminine gender, but that was all. I had no idea how verbs, nouns or syntax worked. It was gratifying to see that, even though my learning was not perfectly smooth, it was quick and fairly solid.

Coptic reminds me of a statement I found in the old edition of Teach Yourself Malay, the edition pubished in the 1950's or 60's, one of the many Teach Yourself books that I bought as a kid. The author said that Malay was a language about which after ten weeks of study you think you know everything, but after ten years, you know you never will. To be sure, Coptic has a rather complicated set of tense systems, but the word order is extremely regular: Subject-Verb-Object. Sometimes, for stylistic reasons or in imitation of Greek word order, the subject is placed after the verb, but in this case it is preceded by a short word, nkyi, which simply serves to say, "This is the subject and it follows the verb." What could be easier?

Well, now that I'm in my fourth semester instead of my first, I see that a great many things could be easier. Coptic syntax has a lot of subtleties, especially Coptic composed by native speakers (particularly Shenoute) rather than just translated from Greek, as so much Coptic literature is. Coptic has a number of homophonous words and morphemes, and often there are uncertainties as to how a certain string of letters should be divided up (like Greek, whose alphabet it borrowed, Coptic was not written with nice, neat spaces between words). Spelling variations can represent either scribal idiosyncrasies or actually morphological differences. Borrowed Greek words may have meanings that appear way down the list in a standard lexicon, or that are not even in these lists, but only attached by some thin strand of meaning.

An Esthetic Appreciation of Coptic

Coptic is quite a fascinating, versatile language. It is not actually a Semitic language, but a member of the Egyptian branch of the broader Afro-Asiatic language group, of which Semitic and other families form part. Coptic is taught in CUA's Semitics department because of the powerful role of the Egyptian Church in the early centuries of Christianity, and its close association with the Syriac Church.

As I was studying Coptic, I was struck by the interesting mix of features in it. About half of its grammatical characteristics are similar to Semitic, and the other half is in part unique in my experience, and in part reminds me of numerous other languages that I have studied, such as Farsi, Russian and Mayan.

The effort required to gain a good knowledge of Coptic is worth it if you want to understand a major swath of early development of the Church. A lot of the theological arguments crucial to the definition of "orthodoxy" and "heresy" were carried out Coptic speakers. The Greek New Testament manuscripts that represent what is generally considered the oldest version of the text were copied in Alexandria, Egypt, by scribes who, in many cases, had Coptic as their first language. Major forms of monasticism had their origin among Coptic-speaking Egyptians, and a good deal of their writing still survives. Hurray for Coptic!

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