From the time when the Copts, like other nations or linguistic entities, felt the need to have at their disposal in writing the equivalents, exact or approximate, of the words of their language, attempts were made to compose modest lists of bilingual vocabulary; these may justly be considered the ancestors of modern Coptic dictionaries. In general, these lists follow either the order of the words as they are found in the particular text that had to be translated, or a more or less “logical” order, with lexemes classed by subject or themes.

Thus, although the Coptic language was only at the beginning of its literary existence, when Christianity began to spread into the segment of the population that was almost exclusively Coptic and unfamiliar with Greek, there was need for Greco-Coptic glossaries. (At first Christianity was diffused through works in Greek, and chiefly in Greek-speaking milieus.)

The oldest extant Coptic glossary is in a manuscript in the MESOKEMIC dialect that seems to be from the second half of the third century (Bell and Thompson, 1925). Later, if use certainly continued to be made of such glossaries (Bell and Crum, 1925, manuscript of the sixth century, idiolectal S = Sa or S1) there may have been need also of Latin-Coptic or Latin-Greek-Coptic glossaries; one of them has been preserved by a manuscript of the first half of the sixth century (apparently Coptic language S; cf. Schubart, 1913).

In the middle of the seventh century, was invaded and occupied, once and for all, by the Arabs. This event was decisive for the future of the Coptic language. During the Byzantine period, in conjunction with the development of the Coptic church, this idiom consolidated its position on the literary level. A large number of literary texts were translated into one or another of the various dialects of Roman Egypt. Here and there bilingual Greco-Coptic manuscripts were also copied (Treu, 1965), but in comparison with the uniquely Coptic manuscripts, they are exceptions.

Thus, on the arrival of the Arabs, Coptic was full of vigor. At first, the Arabs further enhanced its importance by proscribing the use of Greek in the Egyptian administration; and while from the seventh to the middle of the eighth century Greek progressively disappeared from Egyptian documents, Coptic took its place, and so it was down to the beginning of the ninth century. Then, in its turn, Arabic, already officially commissioned to replace Coptic in the administration for a hundred years and having for that reason continued to advance to the detriment of Coptic, soon supplanted it almost everywhere in administrative texts.

With this new orientation of Arab policy in Egypt, the ninth century thus saw the appearance of the first that threatened the very existence of the Coptic language. The latter at first resisted with some success, but under constant pressure its resistance gradually crumbled and came to nothing. In the tenth century Arabic was taught to the Coptic clergy (Casanova, 1901). From the eleventh century on, in some regions of Egypt, Coptic was understood only imperfectly, and from the eleventh century to the fourteenth, Coptic men of letters sought to make good this neglect by compiling grammars and, above all, Copto-Arabic vocabularies (more rarely Greco-Copto-Arabic, older Greco-Coptic ones adapted to Arabic).

Such a vocabulary was called a SULLAM (plural, salalim) or scala, and without a sullam these grammars could only be used with difficulty by those to whom they were to teach the Coptic language. Most of them give only BOHAIRIC, notably the celebrated Scala magna of Abu al-Barakat (fourteenth century; cf. Mallon, 1906-1907; Munier, 1930; van Lantschoot, 1948). Others, however, set SAHIDIC beside Bohairic, above all the lexicons placed after the famous grammar of Athanasius of Qus (fourteenth century) and that of Anba Yuhanna of Samannud (thirteenth century) in the Coptic codex 44 in the National Library, Paris.

These vocabularies, like the earlier glossaries, make no distinction between Coptic words of Egyptian origin and those of non-Egyptian origin (for the most part Greek). In so doing, they are in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Coptic language in which, except for certain very specialized lexemes of extremely rare usage, most of the words of Greek origin were felt to be not foreign words but genuinely Coptic, for the same reason as words of pharaonic origin (see VOCABULARY, COPTO- GREEK).

However, European scholars, who from the fifteenth century, and still more from the dawn of the seventeenth, took an interest in this language, looked at it from a very different point of view. It was not so much Coptic in itself, a language practically dead, that attracted their attention but rather Coptic as the only accessible form, however, evolved (degenerate and impoverished), of the ancient Egyptian language. It was through Coptic that they hoped one day to reach an understanding of the hieroglyphs, and indeed it was this road that finally led to the success of Champollion in 1822.

After the Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta of A. Kircher (1643) and the manuscript dictionary of Fell at the end of the seventeenth century (the first in which the words were arranged alphabetically; cf. Quatremière, 1808), several important lexicons and dictionaries saw the light in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (above all, Lacroze and Scholtz, 1775, S and B; Tattam, 1853, S, B, and a little F). A work of clearly superior quality to what had appeared before was by Peyron (1835, S, B, and a little F); this book represents a remarkable advance in Coptic lexicography.

For the first time, the autochthonous Coptic words were classified like those in the majority of Semitic languages, taking account of the in the first place and of the vowels only in secondary fashion. This system allows the placing together, quite naturally, of the various dialectal forms of a single Coptic word, since they most often differ in their vowels, not in their consonants. For another thing, it makes consultation of Coptic dictionaries easier for their principal users, Egyptologists familiar with the pharaonic language, in which in general only the consonants are expressed in writing.

However, parallel with the development of Coptic studies in Europe, and no doubt also encouraged by the contacts established in between the Egyptologists and the Copts, several Coptic personalities attempted to revive this ancient language in the form of its Bohairic variety. Their work essentially stands in the tradition of the autochthonous grammarians of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but it could also render service to European Coptologists. The chief lexicons published within the frame of this genuinely Coptic activity appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth (Barsum, 1882; Labib, 1915).

The twentieth century in Europe saw the appearance of the first Coptic etymological dictionary, which firmly established the link between the Coptic lexicons and their counterparts for pharaonic Egyptian (Spiegelberg, 1921; S, A, L [called A2], F, and B); but this dictionary, concentrating on etymology, gives only very summarily the various written forms and meaning of the words. One may assume that, knowing the preparations Crum was making for the publication of his great dictionary, Spiegelberg renounced in advance any thought of a work as rich as that of his rival.

Crum published his work in fascicles and completed it on the eve of World War II (1939; S, A, L [called A2], F, and B). Although a little outmoded here and there (new and important manuscripts have been discovered since 1939), Crum’s monumental work has scarcely aged, and one may affirm that it is even today by far the best Coptic dictionary (the richest and the most precise) at the disposal of and Egyptologists. Thus, fifty years after its completion it has not yet been displaced.

However, Coptic lexicographers have not remained inactive; they have sought in various ways to order the new material placed at their disposal since 1939 (through the Bodmer Papyri, the Nag Hammadi texts, and other Coptic witnesses of even greater interest, though less well known).

This material reveals the existence of many dialects and subdialects hitherto quite unknown or known only in so deficient away, so imprecise a form, that they could not be properly defined and systematically used before (Kasser, 1964, 1966). Spiegelberg’s old Handwörterbuch has even been republished, though after a revision so thorough as to make of it practically a new work (Westendorf, 1977); this book, gathering up very completely, although sometimes without enough critical concern, the material available to its author, is of great service for rapid consultation.

The fact remains that for those whose researches require consultation in somewhat greater depth, only Crum (1939) is really satisfactory. Coptology therefore has an urgent need for a new Coptic dictionary, complete and detailed, including autochthonous Coptic lexemes, Copto-Greek, and Copto-Arabic. Such a work is at present in preparation in Switzerland (Kasser, 1972). A new Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue copte (Vycichl, 1983) has also been prepared in Geneva and published in Louvain.


  • Bachatly, C. Le Monastère de Phoebammon la Thébaïde, Vol. 2, pp. 33-34, 40-42. Cairo, 1965.
  • Barsum, I. Al-Kharidat al-Bahiyah fi Usul al-Lughat al-Kibtiyah. Cairo, 1882.
  • Bell, H. I., and W. E. Crum. “A Greek-Coptic Glossary.” Aegyptus 6 (1925):177-226.
  • Bell, H. I., and H. Thompson. “A Greek-Coptic Glossary to Hosea and Amos.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11 (1925):241-46. Casanova, P. “Un Texte arabe transcrit en lettres coptes.” de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 1 (1901):1-20. Cerny, J. Coptic Etymological Dictionary. Cambridge, 1976. Crum, W. E. A Coptic Dictionary. Oxford, 1939.
  • Kasser,    R.    Compléments    au    dictionnaire     copte    de    Crum. Bibliothèque d’études coptes 7. Cairo, 1964.
  • . “Compléments morphologiques au dictionnaire de Crum, le vocabulaire caractéristique des quatre nouveaux dialectes coptes: P, M, H et G.” de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 64 (1966):19-66.
  • . Les Dictionnaires coptes.” In Textes et langages de l’Egypte pharaonique: Hommage à Jean-François Champollion à l’occasion du cent-cinquantiéme anniversaire du déchiffrement des hiéroglyphes (1822-1972), Vol. 1, pp. 209-216. Cairo, [1972].
  • Kircher, A. Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta, Opus Tripartitum. Quo Linguae Coptae sive Idiomatis Illius Primaeui Aegyptiorum Pharaonici, Vetustate Temporum Paene Collapsi, ex Abstrusis Arabum Monumentis, Plena Instauratio Continetur. Cui Adnectitur Supplementum Earum Rerum, quae in Prodromo Copto, et Opere Hoc Tripartito, vel Omissa, vel Obscurius Tradita Sunt. Rome, 1643.
  • Krall, J. “Reste koptischer Schulbücherliteratur.” Mittheilungen aus der Sammlung der Papyrus Erzherzog Rainer 4 (1888):126-35.
  • Labib, C. J. pilexikon   n]acpi    nte   niremn,/mi.      Cairo, 1895-1915.
  • Lacroze, M. V. de. Aegyptiaco-Latinum ex Veteribus Illius Linguae Monumentis Summo Studio Collectum et Elaboratum. Quod in Compendium Redegit Ita ut Nullae Voces Aegyptiacae, Nullaeque Earum Significationes Omitterentur Christ. Scholtz. Notulas Quasdam, et Indices Adjecit Carolus Godofredus Woide. Oxford, 1775.
  • Lantschoot, A. van. Un Précurseur d’Athanase Kircher, Thomas Obicini et la Scala Vat. copte 71. Louvain, 1948.
  • Mallon, A. “Une École de savants égyptiens au moyen age.” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth 1 (1906):109-131; 2 (1907):213-64.
  • Munier, H. La scala copte 44 de la Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, Vol. 1, Transcription. Bibliothèque d’études coptes 2. Cairo, 1930.
  • Osing, J. Review of J. Cerny, Coptic Etymological Dictionary. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 64 (1978):186-89.
  • Parthey, G. F. C. Vocabularium Coptico-Latinum et Latino- Copticum e Peyroni et Tattami Lexicis Concinavit G. Parthey. Accedunt Elenchus Episcopatuum Aegypti, Index Aegypti Geographicus Coptico-Latinus, Index Aegypti Geographicus Latino-Copticus, Vocabula Aegyptia a Scriptoribus Graecis Explicata, Vocabula Aegyptia a Scriptoribus Latinis Explicata. Berlin, 1844.
  • Peyron, V. A. Linguae Copticae. Turin, 1835.
  • Polotsky, H. J. Review of W. E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 25 (1939):109-1 13.
  • Quatremére, E. M. Recherches critiques et historiques sur la langue et la littérature de l’Egypte. Paris, 1808.
  • Schubart, W. “Ein lateinisch-griechisch-koptisches Gesprächbuch.” Klio 13 (1913):27-38.
  • Spiegelberg, W. Koptisches Handwörterbuch. Heidelberg, 1921. Tattam, H. Aegyptiaco-Latinum, ex Veteribus Linguae
  • Aegyptiacae Monumentis, et ex Operibus La Crozii, Woidii, et Aliorum,    Summo    Studio    Congestum,   cum    Indice    Vocum Latinarum. Oxford, 1835.
  • Till, W. C. “Achmîmische Berichtigungen und Ergänzungen zu Spiegelbergs Koptisches Handwörterbuch.” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 62 (1927):115-30.
  • Treu, K. “Griechisch-koptische Bilinguen des Neuen Testaments.” In Koptologische Studien in der DDR, pp. 95-100. Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Sonderheft. Halle, 1965.
  • Vycichl, W. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue copte. Louvain, 1983.
  • Westendorf, W. Koptisches Handwörterbuch, bearbeitet auf Grund des Koptischen Handwörterbuchs von Wilhelm Spiegelberg. Heidelberg, 1977.