Guest Post: Tonio Sebastian Richter – Contact-Induced Language Change of Egyptian-Coptic: Loanword Lexicography in the DDGLC Project

Prof. Tonio Sebastian Richter (Ägyptologisches Institut der Universität Leipzig): 1992 Diploma in Protestant Theology; 1996 MA in Egyptology and Religious Studies; 1999 PhD thesis on language and style of Coptic legal documents (printed as Rechtssemantik und forensischeRhetorik Leipzig 2002; 2nd ed. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2008), 2005 habilitation Pacht nach koptischen Quellen.

He specializes in Coptology; his research interests include Coptic linguistics, papyrology and epigraphy, and topics in the history of Byzantine and early Islamic Egypt, such as the history of law, social and economic history, plurilingualism and language change, pagan and Christian religion, magic, hermetism, alchemy and late antique sciences. Tonio Sebastian Richter is co-editor of the Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde and of the Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete and advisory board member of Lingua Aegyptia (SOURCE).

Coptic is the name of the last phase (ca. 300 CE – 1300 CE) of the longest-attested human language available to linguistic study, the Ancient Egyptian language (Loprieno 1995 & 2001; Schenkel 1990). Next to Greek, Latin and Syriac, Coptic is one of the most important languages of ancient Christian literature. Biblical books and other early Christian texts have been translated into, and composed in Coptic. In addition, writings of ‘heretical’ movements, such as Manichaeism and Gnosticism, survived (often exclusively) in Coptic manuscripts; among them the notorious Gospel of Judas. Besides its significance as a written medium of literary texts, Coptic also served the written communication of day-to-day life. Massive finds of papyri in Egypt have revealed thousands of Coptic documentary texts, such as private and business letters, administrative writings and private legal documents. Apart from the contrast between the language used in formal, literary circumstances and that of the wider social sphere, Coptic also includes up to a dozen highly standardized written dialects (Funk 1991, Kasser 1991b), as well as a number of less standardized (or de-standardized) norms. In terms of ancient languages, the corpus of Coptic texts is extraordinarily extensive and diverse. This diversity makes generalizing work on Coptic more complex, but also more informative.

Coptic was an eminent ‘language in contact,’ mainly borrowing from two donor languages, Greek and Arabic. Greek was spoken and heard in Egypt as early as in the 7th century BCE, a millennium before the standardization of Coptic. Greek merchants who settled in Egypt and mercenaries in the Pharaohs’ armies were acting as early agents of linguistic interaction. As a result of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Greek spread over the Eastern Mediterranean and became the most important lingua franca in the Middle East. In Egypt, where one of Alexander’s generals established a Hellenistic dynasty, Greek was used alongside the native Egyptian language from the 4th century BCE up to the 8th century CE. Over mor more than 1000 years, Greek functioned both as the spoken language of a courtly and urban élite, and as a written language. It gradually dominated administration, economy, literature, sciences, and even private day-to-day correspondence. Only after the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in the mid-7th century CE, the importance of Greek diminished. Some of its functional domains were occupied by the Coptic native language, and by Arabic, the language of the new governors (Richter 2010). The massive Greek impact on the contemporary Egyptian idiom becomes obvious in thousands of Greek loanwords in Coptic, representing almost all parts of speech and semantic fields (cf. e.g. Kasser 1991a, Lefort  1934, Oréal 1999, Rahlf 1912, Reintges 2001, 2004). Occasional Arabic loanwords occurring in 8th- and 9th-century CE Coptic texts indicate incipient Coptic-Arabic contact, and Coptic texts from the 10th and 11th centuries, the period in which major parts of the indigenous population of Egypt began to shift from their native language to Arabic, bear evidence of intensified borrowing from Arabic (Richter 2006, 2009b).

All in all, it is not an exaggeration to say, that the Greek-Egyptian contact is the most broadly and densely attested case of language contact in antiquity. Beginning with borrowing from Greek into pre-Coptic Egyptian (Clarysse 1987, Fewster 2002), and taking borrowing from Arabic into later Coptic into acount, the Egyptian-Coptic language provides the opportunity to look over 1.500 years of contact-induced language change in a single ancient language under fairly well-known historical and sociolinguistic conditions. The exceptional wealth of language data and their diachronic extent would seem to make investigation in linguistic borrowing into Coptic a most rewarding work.

However, not at least due to this wealth, traditional lexicographical approaches to the loan vocabulary of Coptic (Böhlig 1956, Weiß 1969, Tubach 1999) failed three times during the 20th century.

Since April 2010, a project entitled Database and Dictionary of Greek Loanwords in Coptic (DDGLC) is hosted by the Egyptological Institute –Georg Steindorff– of the University of Leipzig. The DDGLC project aims at a systematic, comprehensive and detailed lexicographical compilation and description of Greek loanwords as attested in the entire Coptic corpus through all dialects and sorts of text. Its intended outcome shall be provided in an online database and in a printed dictionary. The core tool of the DDGLC project is a relational database designed to connect linguistic and extra-linguistic data concerning types and tokens of all identifiable loanwords in Coptic. The database combines, and will reveal, the relationships between multiple levels of data: At its foundational level, the database records every single instance of a foreign word used in a Coptic source (i.e. token usage); each individual attestation will provide the loanword’s full textual context, an English translation, and an encoding to identify its significant grammatical characteristics. At the next level, all data from the attestation-level will be grouped according to their “type”, forming a list of sublemmata, as one would see in a dictionary. Above this all stands a meta-linguistic level, which categorizes the data according to their textual and manuscript source, as well as the dialect, region and date in which it was written. Since autumn 2012 the DDGLC project is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft as a long-term project with a foreseen lifetime up until 2024. For further particulars about the DDGLC project please follow this link:


Böhlig, Alexander 1956. “Die Fortführung der Arbeit am Lexikon der griechischen Wörter im Koptischen“. Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle – Wittenberg 5/4, 655-657.

Clarysse, Willy 1987. “Greek loanwords in Demotic,” in: Vleeming, Sven P. (ed). Aspects of Demotic Lexicography. Acts of the 2nd Conference for Demotic Studies, Studia Demotica 1, Leiden 1987, 9-33.

Fewster, Penelope 2002: „Bilingualism in Roman Egypt“. In J.N. Adams, M. Janse & S. Swain: Bilingualism in Ancient Society.  Language Contact and the Written Text. Oxford, 220-245.

Funk, Wolf-Peter 1991. Art. ‘Dialects, Morphology of Coptic’, Coptic Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, 101-108.

Kasser, Rodolphe 1991a. “Vocabulary, Copto-Greek”. Coptic Encyclopedia vol. 8, 215-222.

–          – 1991b. Art. ‘Geography, Dialectal’, Coptic Encyclopedia vol. 133-141.

Lefort, Louis-Théophile 1934. “Le copte: source auxiliaire du grec”. In: Mélanges Bidez, tome II, Brussels, 569-578.

Loprieno, Antonio 1995. Ancient Egyptian. A linguistic Introduction. Cambridge.

–          – 2001. “ From Ancient Egyptian to Coptic,” in: M. Haspelmath et al. (eds.), Language Typology and Language Universals / Sprachtypologie und sprachliche Universalien / La Typologie des langues et les universaux linguistiques: An International Handbook / Ein internationales Handbuch / Manuel international. Berlin – New York 2001, 1742-1761.

Oréal, Elsa 1999. “Contact linguistique. Le cas du rapport entre le grec at le copte”. Lalies 19, 289-306.

Rahlfs, Alfred. “Griechische Wörter im Koptischen”. Sitzungsberichte der königlich-preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 1912, 1036-1046.

Reintges, Chris 2001. “Code-mixing strategies in Coptic Egyptian”. Lingua Aegyptia 9, 193-237.

–          – 2004. “Coptic Egyptian as a Bilingual Language Variety”. In: Pedro Bádenas de la Peña, Sofía Torallas Tovar, Eugenio R. Luján(eds.) Lenguas en contacto: el testimonio escrito. Madrid, 69-86.

Richter, Tonio Sebastian 2006a. “Coptic[, Arabic loanwords in]”. In: Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, vol. 1. Leiden, 595-601.

–          – 2009b. “Greek, Coptic, and the ‘Language of the Hijra’. Rise and Decline of the Coptic Language in Late Antique and Medieval Egypt”. In: H. Cotton, R. Hoyland, J. Price, & D.J. Wasserstein (eds.), From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East. Cambridge UP, 401-446.

–          – 2010. “Language choice in the Qurra papyri”. In: Arietta Papaconstantinou (ed.), The multilingual experience: Egypt from the Ptolemies to the ‘Abbâsids. Ashgate.

Schenkel, Wolfgang. 1990. Einführung in die altägyptische Sprachwissenschaft. Darmstadt.

Tubach, Jürgen 1999a. “Bemerkungen zur geplanten Wiederaufnahme des Wörterbuchprojekts „Griechische Lehnwörter im Koptischen“ in Halle”. In: Stephen Emmel et al., Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit. Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses Münster, 20.-26. Juli 1996. Bd. 2: Schrifttum, Sprache, Gedankenwelt. Sprachen und Kulturen des Christlichen Orients 6/2. Münster, 405-419.

Weiss, Hans-Friedrich 1969. “Ein Lexikon der griechischen Wörter im Koptischen”. Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 96, 79-80.


About Alin Suciu

I am a researcher at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities. I write mostly on Coptic literature, Patristics, and apocryphal texts.
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