Learning Coptic | Beginning

Languages have always been a passion of mine (hence learning Greek, for one). Once upon a time, I could learn vocabulary just by reading it, but those days are long past. So I'm going to try to systematize my learning a little bit, and of course talk about it here.

When I was learning Greek, I had the advantage of already having some experience with it from when I was in college. Plus, passive vocabulary (i.e. being able to recognize a Greek word when I see it versus producing a Greek word on my own) is far easier to learn.

I've long been fascinated by Gnosticism, particularly its overlaps with more traditional Christian doctrine. As Wikipedia explains:

Many of these systems believed that the material world is created by an emanation or 'works' of a lower god (demiurge), trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by gnosis, spiritual knowledge acquired through direct experience.

Aside from being interested in the cosmology just for its own sake, I do like the emphasis on direct experience of the divine. One version I've seen believed that the demiurge was the God depicted in the Old Testament, and that the kinder, more forgiving God from the New Testament was the “true” God, the pleroma. There's also a more modern version that saw Jesus and Mary Magdalene as two halves of a divine whole, calling them Christ Logos (the Word) and Christ Sophia (wisdom). At the least, the idea that one without the other is incomplete is compelling to me.

Many of the Gnostic works that remain to us are written Coptic, particularly those from the Nag Hammadi Library (a jar of papyrus codices found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945). So to Coptic I go.

Coptic is the last form of Ancient Egyptian (think hieroglyphs). It was the form of that language that was used in Egypt up until the Muslim conquest of the Middle East in the 600s.[^1] Rather than using hieroglyphs, however, it's written with the Greek alphabet, thanks to Alexander the Great's conquering Egypt a ways before. Many Christian terms are simply transliterated over. But despite the alphabet being the same, the grammar (and most of the vocabulary) is completely different from Greek. For example, many “helping” words (such as possessive pronouns, e.g. “my” or “your”) are prefixes that attach to the words that they modify. Overall, Coptic loves it some prefixes.

Anyway, there was also the question of dialect. The two most common are Bohairic, which was spoken in lower Egypt,[^2] and Sahidic, which originally developed farther south around Hermopolis. Sahidic was the main literary dialect for most of Coptic's history, only being supplanted by Bohairic in the 1200s. Thus it's the one with the largest corpus of ancient works, both original and in translation. Everything found in the Nag Hammadi library, for example, was in Sahidic. But thankfully the differences are mostly in terms of spelling rather than grammar. But because my primary interest is early literature, I chose Sahidic.


As I mentioned, vocabulary is my primary difficulty, and I'm still trying to find the best way to learn for me. Rote memorization is a significant weakness of mine; I was once given a memory test, and my results were getting into “borderline impaired” range (7th percentile on delayed memory, for example).

Even flashcards, often considered the gold standard, I don't find particularly helpful. So as I decided to start this project, which meant learning a language from scratch, my first step was to look at more suggestions as well as thinking about my own learning style. Two things that I kept seeing were context and frequency of exposure. For the first, this means learning words as part of some broader whole, whether a phrase or a sentence. In my own experience, I've often had language teachers encourage us to create sentences with new vocabulary words, and my Russian professor in undergrad frequently had us learn songs.[^3]

I sorta knew this, but because I'm stubborn, I kept looking for ways to get back to my peak ability. This is, of course, unrealistic. But the bigger issue is a tendency to over-extend myself. I tend to cram tons into my short-term memory, then get frustrated when it's not all there later. This also means that I have to be very careful not to over-extend myself at the beginning. At the same time, it's hard: how do you write sentences to learn a word when you're first starting out and so barely know anything?

The answer, I hope, has come with thinking about where my strengths do lie. Grammar tends to stick in my head a lot better, as one of my favorite aspects of language is seeing how things are broken up and conceptualized, particularly where those things differ from English. And of course, I'm more likely to stick with something that's interesting.

So the method I'm going to attempt is this. First, I need to figure out the most basic grammatical rules that I need to be able to build some kind of functional sentence(s). The other thing I'm going to try is the post-it approach, where you label stuff in your everyday life with words from the language you're trying to learn. Of course, since I'm learning a language that's no longer actively spoken, I'm going to have to get creative with some modern things. This in turn informs the basic building blocks I need to learn. Ultimately, I came up with the following:

My hope is that this will given me enough to start forming sentences with the words that I use, which will in turn reinforce my memory of the grammar. I plan on trying to write a story using all the words of a given chapter in the textbook I'm using, then going back every day until everything sticks. Then I'll see if I can recognize all the words independently. If so, off to the next chapter I go. As I learn more grammar beyond the above, I can then make it a point to include that as well.

[1] After this, the day-to-day language of the area was gradually supplanted by Arabic. The Bohairic dialect is still used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, however.

[2] As a reminder, “lower” and “upper” are relative to the flow of the Nile. Because it flows from south to north, “lower” Egypt was to the north of “upper.”

[3] Two that I still remember fondly are the heartbreaking Это все (“This is all”) by ДДТ (DDT, named for the insecticide) and the darkly-humorous Лето (“Summer”) by Зоопарк (Zoo).

#coptic #languagelearning