Coptic represents the most recent form of development for the ancient Egyptian language. Although extinct as a spoken language, Coptic is nonetheless retained as a liturgical tongue within the Coptic Orthodox Church and preserves a rich heritage of written documents from the ancient and medieval periods. It is expressed in several dialects.

Coptic refers also to the alphabet employed to write documents in the Coptic language.

The retained knowledge of Coptic was essential to the linguistic analysis of the ancient Egyptian language in its earlier phases and for the nineteenth century decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script.

A Select Bibliography for Coptic exists within this guide.


Coptic is written in a form of the basic Greek alphabet, supplemented by six (sometimes seven) letters adapted from Demotic, the final developmental stage of the Egyptian hieroglyphic / hieratic script.


Coptic is represented in five dialects, none of which vary greatly from the other. The primary areas of difference are in graphic conventions and minor variations of morphpology and lexicon; syntax varies hardly at all.


Sahidic was firmly established as the standard literary dialect of Coptic by the 4th century CE (being employed within the first official translation of the Bible) and maintained its preeminence until its replacement by the Bohairic dialect in the 10th to 11th centuries CE. Some ambiguity exists as to the origins of the dialect: the term Sahidic derives from “aṣ-ṣaʿîd”, the Arabic term for Upper (Southern) Egypt, thereby placing it in the south (the alternate term for Sahidic being Theban or Thebaic); linguistic considerations, however, promote a northern origin from around Memphis and the eastern Delta. Given this ambiguity, some scholars prefer to see Sahidic as representing an “urban” dialect, as opposed to the other “rural”, regional dialects.

The range of extant Sahidic texts is large: the New Testament and a large portion of the Old Testament; a sizeable corpus of ecclesiastical literature and significant remnants of secular literature (preserved to a far lesser degree) – the latter is mostly translated from original Greek sources. Of native Egyptian texts, only the writings of Pamochius (c. 300 CE, the founder of Egyptian monasticism), Shenute (c. 400 CE, the administrator of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt) and Shenute’s disciple Besa, survive. The works of Shenute are widely recognised as the “classics” of Sahidic Coptic literature and reflect his attempts to transform the language into a literary tongue comparable to Greek.


Attested as early as the 9th century CE, the Bohairic dialect (sometimes designated as Memphitic) ultimately replaced Sahidic as the standard literary form of Coptic when it was adopted as the official tongue of the Coptic Church in the 11th century CE. The assumption is that Bohairic represents the dialect of the western Delta (including Alexandria and Nitria), the term Bohairic originating from “al-buḥairah”, the Arabic term for Lower (Northern) Egypt.

The majority of Bohairic texts date from after its adoption by the Coptic Church, many being translations of the Sahidic originals.

An Introductory Grammar of Bohairic Coptic is available online.


Fayyumic represents the dialect of northern Middle Egypt in the regions surrounding the Fayyum Basin and is well attested in texts from the 4th to the 11 th centuries CE.


A literary dialect located within the area of Akhmim (ancient Panapolis) in the southern part of Middle Egypt, Akhmimic was employed for merely a brief period from the 3rd to the 5th centuries CE.


Originating in the area between Akhmim and Luxor, subAkhmimic was widely employed for the translation of Manichaean and Gnostic literature in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. This association with what were later regarded as heretical texts undoubtedly explains its demise as a literary dialect.

The Nag Hammadi texts are written either in subAkhmimic or in a form of Sahidic Coptic influenced by subAkhmimic to varying degrees.

bibliography (general)

Lambdin, Thomas O.
Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983.

Loprieno, Antonio
Ancient Egyptian, a Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


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