By common consent, the term “dialect” is used by Coptologists for those idioms whose originality, in relation to one another, is very strongly marked. The basis for judgment is, of course, on the lexical and morphosyntactical levels, but also and above all, using the most convenient and practical criterion, on the phonological level, through the number of phonemic oppositions, their quality, and the clarity of their representation in their respective orthographic systems.
This originality is, however, located at the very heart of the classical Coptic stage of evolution, and not at the immediately anterior stage (that of the PROTODIALECT) or at any stage immediately posterior. On this basis, if such a posterior stage of evolution should manifest itself clearly enough in one text or another (normally late), one might call the language of this text a “metadialect” (Kasser, 1980a, p. 112).
It is in fact known that after the beginnings of the history of literary Coptic and long before the extinction of the language and its reduction to the status of a fossil piously preserved as a purely liturgical language, all the Coptic idioms except for B, and perhaps to some extent F, were progressively stifled by the most tenacious among them, S, the “vehicular language” of the whole Nile Valley above the Delta.
One can detect more or less the point at which they were stifled on the literary level. But no doubt they survived for some time further on a strictly oral level, though undergoing very profoundly the contamination imposed upon them by the dominant language, S. This survival can be seen (through orthography and its deviations) from the phonological idiolectalism of many copies of S written in the region of the old lapsed dialect: in these IDIOLECTS undeniable influences from the defeated idiom continually appear, in varying degree, alongside typically Sahidic forms (Chaîne, 1933, pp. xv- xxiii, and 1934, pp. 1-9).
Such are the peculiarities of numerous documents found in the Theban region, in which a subterranean L (or A) through under- or overcorrection succeeds in disturbing very effectively the vocalization of copies that are theoretically S (or eventually Ss/l, more often than Ss/a, from their lexemes) but in any case are generally characterized by the presence in greater or smaller number of lexemes strongly idiolectalized into Sl or Sa (on the phonological level).
It is not inconceivable that as a result of particularly favorable general circumstances (e.g., weakening of the dominant “language”) or of the obstinacy of a scribe deeply attached to his local patois long after the apparently final extinction of a dialect on the literary level, this dialect, considered dead, should surface again in one isolated copy or another.
It could then be a case not of the reappearance of the dialect in its ancient form but of an avatar of the dialect, a rather different and, in some ways, developed form of it, an original form that clearly shows the effects of the influence of S but one in which can be found, nonetheless, several of the characteristics of the old dialect, which had not quite died out. This late, postclassical form of a dialect, surviving in a developed condition (or degenerate, according to the criterion by which one judges it), could be described as a “metadialect.”
It is also not inconceivable that in the Arab period, at the time of the decline of the dominant neutral Coptic idioms S, some minor dialect that was not quite stifled by S should have come to life for some time in a very poor and mediocre fashion on the literary level, profiting from the space it could briefly occupy in those times of cultural anarchy when S had lost its supremacy and Arabic had not yet conquered it absolutely (enough to make impossible the survival of any remnant of Coptic cultural life in the depths of some remote district).
The cultural anarchy itself, and perhaps the influence of Arabic, which gave this linguistic renaissance an original character, may give the impression, on the one hand, of decadence in the language and, on the other, of the birth, still vague and confused, of a new form of the Egyptian language, in some ways “post-Coptic.”
Even if such a phenomenon did not have an opportunity to display itself in full bloom, even if it was reduced perforce to a timid and rather clumsy essay, it remains nonetheless very interesting for the linguist analyzing “le fait copte” diachronically and in its various dialects. Here one might by analogy call this new idiom, even poorly outlined, a “metadialect.”
The only metadialectal Coptic idiom actually well enough known to allow one to study the phenomenon is DIALECT H (or Hermopolitan, or Ashmuninic). Since metadialectalism shows itself, above all, through phonological and morphosyntactical impoverishment, it is possible that it will scarcely afford any significant original elements on these levels. In such a case, it will be legitimate to concede that the incorporation of the metadialect into a general and systematic study of the Coptic dialects is not indispensable.
- Chaîne, M. Eléments de grammaire dialectale copte. Paris, 1933.
- . Les Dialectes coptes assioutiques A2, les caractéristiques de leur phonétique, de leur syntaxe. Paris, 1934.
- Kasser, R. “Dialectes, sous-dialectes et ‘dialecticules’ dans l’Egypte copte.” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 92 (1966): 106-115.
- . Prolégomenes à un essai de classification systématique des dialectes et subdialectes coptes selon les critères de la phonétique, I, Principes et terminologie.” Muséon 93 (1980a):52-l12. “…, II, Alphabets et systèmes phonétiques.” Muséon 93 (1980b):237-97. “…, III, Systèmes orthographiques et catégories dialectales.” Muséon 94 (1981):87-148.