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Pre-Coptic - Coptic Wiki


This general term indicates different stages of script or script forms that to a greater or lesser extent prepared or influenced the creation of the Coptic script. Since the use of the Greek alphabet is essential to the definition of Coptic, it is obvious that one must go back to the first more or less regular contacts between Greeks and Egyptians—such as the foundation of the Greek colony of Naucratis in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (seventh-sixth century B.C.)—to search for the very beginnings of Egyptian written with Greek letters.

Indeed, the transliterations of Egyptian names in Greek texts (GREEK TRANSCRIPTIONS) are the first seeds of Pre-Coptic. But an occasional rendition of a Greek name in hieroglyphs can also be encountered, such as 3rksk3rs for Alexicles (Quaegebeur, 1976, pp. 50-51; cf. de Meulenaere, 1966, pp. 42-43). In the same period (Twenty-sixth Dynasty, sixth and seventh centuries B.C.) demotic script came into general use in the administration.

Demotic scribes regularly employed phonetic, instead of etymological, orthographies. This phenomenon and its effect on phonetic orthographies in hieroglyphic merit more detailed study (Quaegebeur, 1980, pp. 68-69). Some authors even think that phonetic and, in particular, alphabetic spellings in hieroglyphic texts from late onward are to be explained as tendencies toward simplification caused by the advantages recognized in the simple Greek script system (e.g., Brunner, 1965, p. 767).

But we must not overlook that in this period Aramaic texts too are known in Egypt. An example is the notation of the word ntr (god) by means of the uniliteral signs n + t (compare noute) on the Naucratis stela (1. 5; Nectanebo I; cf. Lichtheim 1980, p. 87, for bibliography).

From the late fourth and early third centuries B.C., when after the of Alexander the Great many Greeks settled in Egypt, one finds an enormous number of Egyptian names integrated into Greek texts. On the other hand, many Greek anthroponyms, such as those of eponymous priests and priestesses, were rendered alphabetically in demotic documents (Clarysse et al., 1982). In both kinds of transliteration a measure of systematization occurs with local characteristics.

Apart from the custom of writing Egyptian names in Greek documents in the alphabet used, there survives evidence from Greco-Roman times of a few isolated attempts to transcribe Egyptian generic names or somewhat longer texts by making exclusive use of the Greek alphabet. In such cases, one speaks of PRE-OLD COPTIC.

The last stage of Pre-Coptic, then, is OLD COPTIC. From the first century AD. onward, attempts to write Egyptian (Late Egyptian or contemporary vernacular) with Greek characters to which were added a varying number of supplementary signs from demotic became more numerous and more systematic. Moreover, it is interesting to see that in the same period demotic scribes were making ever greater use of alphabetic orthographies (Spiegelberg, 1901, pp. 18-19; Lüddeckens, 1980, p. 256).

Unique of their kind are the demotic ostraca of Narmuthis (Madinat Madi) from the second century AD., school exercises of a sort (Bresciani et al., 1983), in which Greek is mixed with demotic; not only are Greek words in Greek script integrated into demotic texts, but also some attempts are made to write native words in an alphabetical way, combining Greek and demotic signs (Pernigotti, 1984).

The transition from the Egyptian scripts to Old Coptic was fostered by circumstances: first of all, mention should be made of the decline of the temple scriptoria, which put an end to the tradition of complex hieroglyphics and of the difficult demotic script, which was also used for religious, literary, and scientific works. (The last hieroglyphic inscription, found at Philae, dates from 393-394 AD.; demotic survives in graffiti at Philae until the fifth century, the last dated example belonging to 452-453.

This southern center of the Isis cult was only closed, by a decree of Justinian, in 550.) Further, it should be borne in mind that from Ptolemaic times onward the bearers of the pharaonic heritage often knew Greek or even had a Hellenistic education, as is apparent from Greek translations of demotic literature.

The abandonment of such a characteristic script system implies a fundamental change in cultural traditions. (That is why the Lexikon der Ägyptologie does not devote an article to the Coptic script.) The national language survives, but tainted by a large number of Greek words (see VOCABULARY, COPTO-GREEK).

The transition from the demotic to the Coptic language is difficult to date precisely (Sethe, 1925; Vergote, 1973, Vol. 1b, pp. 1-4). Nor is the relation between the Coptic DIALECTS and any dialectal differentiation in the earlier, Pre-Coptic and in particular Pharaonic, language phases definitely clear (Osing, 1974).


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  • Clarysse, W.; G. van der Veken; and S. P. Vleeming. The Eponymous Priests of Ptolemaic Egypt. Papyrologica Lugduno- Batava 24. Leiden, 1982.
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