Loanword lexicography in the DDGLC project: Recording contact-induced language change of Egyptian-Coptic over 1,500 years
What is Coptic?
Coptic is the name of the last phase (ca. 300 CE - 1300 CE) of the longest-attested human language yet available to linguistic study, the Ancient Egyptian language (Loprieno 1995 & 2001; Loprieno & Müller 2012; Schenkel 1990). Closely connected to the Christian population of Egypt, Coptic is one of the most important languages of ancient Christian literature, alongside Greek, Latin and Syriac. A great deal of Biblical and early Christian literature was translated into Coptic for Egyptian consumption, while an autochthnous Coptic Christian literature flourished for centuries (Emmel 2007). Writings of other late antique religious movements survived (often exclusively) in Coptic manuscripts, such as the Manichaean books from Medinet Madi and Kellis or the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Codices and Codex Tchacos (which contains the notorious Gospel of Judas). Aside from its significance as a medium of literary writing, Coptic also served as the written form of communication in everyday Egyptian life. Massive finds of papyri in Egypt have revealed thousands of Coptic documentary texts, such as private and business letters, administrative writings and legal documents. Due to the contrast between the written language as used in formal, literary circumstances and its life in the wider social sphere, Coptic includes a considerable variety of linguistic registers. Coptic also includes up to a dozen highly standardized local dialects (Funk 1991, Kasser 1991a), as well as a number of less standardized (or de-standardized) written norms. In terms of ancient languages, the Coptic corpus is extraordinarily large and diverse. Its diversity makes generalizing work on the Coptic language more difficult, but also more complex and informative.
Language Contact in Hellenistic, Roman, and Early Islamic Egypt
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 Greek mercenaries in the Pharaohs' armies were 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. For over 1000 years, Greek functioned both as the spoken language of a courtly, administrative, and urban élite, and as a written language. It gradually dominated administration, economy, literature, sciences, and even private day-to-day correspondence (Ray 2007, Torallas Tovar Sofia 2010, van Minnen 1998, Vierros 2008 & 2012). Only after the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in the mid-7th century CE did the importance of Greek diminish (Richter 2010). Some of its functional domains became occupied by the Coptic native language, others by Arabic, the language of the new governors. 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 (Kasser 1991b, Lefort 1934, Oréal 1999, Rahlf 1912, Reintges 2001 & 2004). The occasional occurrence of Arabic loanwords in 8th- and 9th-century CE Coptic texts indicates incipient Coptic-Arabic contact. Some 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 (Delattre et al. 2012, Papaconstantinou 2007, Zaborowski 2008), bear evidence of intensified borrowing from Arabic (Richter 2006 & 2009).
All in all, it is no exaggeration to say that the Greek-Egyptian contact is the most broadly attested case of language contact in antiquity. Starting with borrowing from Greek into pre-Coptic Egyptian (Clarysse 1987, Fewster 2002, Rutherford 2010), and taking into account borrowing from Arabic to later Coptic, the Egyptian-Coptic language grants us 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 the language data, together with their internal diversity and their diachronic extension, should make investigation into linguistic borrowing into Coptic an important and most rewarding work. However, not at least due to the sheer abundance of data, traditional lexicographical approaches to the loan vocabulary of Coptic (Böhlig 1956, Weiß 1969, Tubach 1999) failed three times during the 20th century.
Work and aims of the DDGLC project
The project Database and Dictionary of Greek Loanwords in Coptic (DDGLC) has been hosted by the Egyptological Institute -Georg Steindorff- of the University of Leipzig since April 2010, when it began its pilot phase, funded by the Saxonian State Ministery of Sciences and Art. Since November 2012, it has been funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft as a long-term project with a projected lifespan ranging through 2024. The DDGLC project seeks to produce a systematic, comprehensive and detailed lexicographical compilation and description of Greek loanwords as attested in the entire Coptic corpus throughout all dialects and genres of text. The results of the project shall be made available 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 individual spelling, its full textual context, an English translation, and an encoding to describe its significant grammatical characteristics. At the next level, all data from the attestation level will be grouped according to their "type", forming lists of sublemmata and lemmata, as one would see them a dictionary. Above all this 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. The DDGLC project will document and present 1,500 years of contact-induced language change of the Egyptian-Coptic language to linguists, philologists and historians for further study.
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