Late stage of the Egyptian
language, first recorded in the late second century of this era
missionaries then first saw fit to translate large chunks at the Bible
into native Egyptian; rather than stick with the current hieratic
scripts, which were rather complex and awkward, they adapted the Greek alphabet, adding letters for sh, f, h, j, ch, and a ligature
The basic grammar and most common words are clearly Egyptian. However, since Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in 332, the language of administration and education had changed to Greek. Certainly many of the new Christian Coptic religious texts and biblical translations borrowed heavily, then, from Greek, especially for legal and technical terms; it is unclear how much of this was artificial, and how much Greek was commonly used in spoken Egyptian.
Coptic for the first time allowed a record of dialects; prior Egyptian had been standardised into long-lasting periods, Old Egyptian, New Egyptian, and Middle Egyptian; the hieroglyphs reflect little of the spoken language (little enough of the grammar as it is). Coptic, allowing weak and strong vowels as well as case endings, can be divided into the following dialects:
- Sahidic: the first literary language, and first dialect of the bible-translators. Also called Theban, for its supposed origin in that nome. Most modern scholars believe it may instead come from the eastern delta around Memphis.
- Bohairic: probably the language around the western delta, near Alexandria; it replaced Sahidic as a literary language around the 9th century.
- Fayyumic: not surprisingly the Egyptian used around the Fayyum Basin; less common than Sahidic, but well attested beginning in the mid-4th century.
- Achmimic: language of southern Middle Egypt, mainly used in that region from the 3rd-5th centuries.
- Subachmimic: really only written from the 4th-5th centuries, important for its association with gnostic and manichaean texts; the Nag Hammadi papyri are written in a variant of Subachmimic.
The 7th century Arab
conquest led to the slow demise of spoken Coptic; by the early 15th century, it was pretty much a dead language
, used perhaps only in certain churches' liturgies. I have heard rumors that a small group of families was recently found in Northern Egypt who are said to still speak a much-altered but still-recognisable form of Coptic as a primary language. I've heard rather little about the case, though, since it was discovered a few years ago.