or Coptic Egyptian
) is the final stage of the Egyptian language
, a northern Afro-Asiatic
language spoken in Egypt
until at least the seventeenth century. Egyptian began to be written using the Greek alphabet
in the first century. The new writing system became the Coptic script
, an adapted Greek alphabet with the addition of six to seven signs from the demotic
script to represent Egyptian phonemes
absent from Greek
. Several distinct Coptic dialects are identified, the most prominent of which are Sahidic and Bohairic.
As developmental phases of Egyptian, both Coptic and Demotic are grammatically closely akin to Late Egyptian, which was written in the hieroglyphic script, but differ significantly in their graphic representation.
Coptic flourished as a literary language from the second to thirteenth centuries, and its Bohairic dialect continues to be the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It was supplanted by Egyptian Arabic as a spoken language toward the early modern period, though revitalization efforts have been underway since the nineteenth century. Some claim that it never became extinct.
The native name of the language is (mentrmenkēmə
) in the Sahidic dialect and (metremenkīmi
) in Bohairic. The particle prefix ment-/met-
is a construct of the verb mouti
('to speak'), which forms all abstract nouns in Coptic (not only those pertaining to "language"). The expression literally means 'language of the people of Egypt', or simply 'Egyptian language'. Another name by which the language has been called is ment kuptaion
from the Copto-Greek
form ment aiguption
('Egyptian language'). The term logos ən aiguptios
('Egyptian language') is also attested in Sahidic, although logos
are both Greek in origin. In the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church
, the name is more officially tenaspi en remenkimi
, 'the Egyptian language', aspi
being the Egyptian word for language.
As a nearly extinct language
, Coptic no longer has any official status in Egypt
. However, it is presently a liturgical language
of the Coptic Orthodox
and Coptic Catholic
churches (along with Arabic
). Coptic Egyptian was spoken only in Egypt, and historically has had little influence outside of Egypt proper, with the exception of monasteries located in Nubia
. Coptic's most noticeable impact has been on the various dialects of Egyptian Arabic
, whose lexicon has preserved a large number of Coptic words, in addition to Coptic morphological
, and phonological
Influence on other languages
Apart from Egyptian Arabic, there are a handful of words of Coptic origin that have been borrowed more generally into Classical Arabic
and Biblical Hebrew
. These include:
- timsāḥ, تمساح (Arabic), תמסח (Hebrew) - "crocodile"; emsaḥ.
- ṭūbah طوبة "brick"; Sahidic to:be; Bohairic to:bi; this subsequently entered Spanish (via Andalusi Arabic) as adobe, whence it was borrowed by American English.
- wāḥah واحة "oasis"; Sahidic waḥe, Bohairic weḥi.
A few words of Coptic origin are found in Greek, some of which were ultimately borrowed into various European languages (e.g. barge from Coptic bari "small boat"). However, most words of Egyptian origin that entered into Greek, and subsequently other European languages, come directly from ancient Egyptian (often Demotic). An example of this is Greek ὄασις oasis, which comes directly from Egyptian wḥ3.t or demotic wḥỉ. Yet Coptic re-borrowed some words of ancient Egyptian origin back into its lexicon via Greek. For example, both Sahidic and Bohairic use the word ebenos, which was taken directly from Greek ἔβενος "ebony", originally from Egyptian hbny.
In addition, the Greek name Παπνούθιος Paphnutius finds its origin in Coptic papnute 'the (man) of God' – still a common name in Egypt. The name entered Russian as Пафнутий (for example, the famous mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev). Finally, Old Nubian and modern Nobiin borrowed many words of Coptic origin.
may have the longest documented history of any language, having remained in written use from c.
3200 BC to the Middle Ages and as a spoken language for longer. The history of the language is characterized by two important transitions, one in the structure of the language and another in its orthography.
First, a change from synthetic
patterns in the verbal system and the nominal syntax
took place, often described in scholarly literature as a transition from "Older Egyptian" (Old and Middle Egyptian) to "Later Egyptian" (Late, Demotic and Coptic Egyptian). Later Egyptian is characterized by the development of analytic features such as prefixal definite and indefinite articles, which replaced the earlier suffixal markers of morphological
oppositions (more akin to Semitic
), as well as a periphrastic
development involving a change from the older VSO word order
(also characteristic of Classical Arabic
and Biblical Hebrew
) to SVO.
A second change marks the transition from the older Egyptian writing systems, namely the native hieroglyphic
, and demotic
scripts, to the Coptic alphabet
. Coptic therefore is a reference both to the final stage of Egyptian after Demotic
, and to the new writing system that was adapted from the Greek alphabet
Coptic before the Islamic period
The earliest attempts to write the Egyptian language using the Greek alphabet are Greek transcriptions of Egyptian proper names, most of which date to the Ptolemaic
period. Scholars frequently refer to this phase as Pre-Coptic. However, it is clear that by the late pharaonic period
, demotic scribes regularly employed a more phonetic orthography, a testament to the increasing cultural contact between Egyptians
even before Alexander the Great
's conquest of Egypt
. Coptic itself, or Old Coptic
, takes root in the first century. The transition from the older Egyptian scripts to the newly adapted Graeco-Coptic script was in part due to the decline of the traditional role played by the priestly class of ancient Egyptian religion
, who unlike most ordinary Egyptians, were literate in the temple scriptoria. Old Coptic is represented mostly by non-Christian texts such as Egyptian pagan prayers and magical and astrological papyri. Many of them served as glosses to original hieratic and demotic equivalents. The glosses may have been aimed at non-Egyptian speakers.
Under late Roman rule, Diocletian persecuted many Egyptian converts to the new Christian faith. This forced new converts to flee to the Egyptian deserts. In time, the growth of these communities generated the need to write Christian Greek instructions in the Egyptian language. The early Fathers of the Egyptian Church, such as Anthony the Great, Pachomius, Macarius and Athanasius, who otherwise usually wrote in Greek, addressed some of their works to the Egyptian monks in Egyptian. The Egyptian language, now written in the Coptic alphabet, flourished in the second and third centuries. However, it was not until Shenouda the Archimandrite that Coptic became a fully standardized literary language based on the Sahidic dialect. Shenouda's native Egyptian tongue and knowledge of Greek and rhetoric gave him the necessary tools to elevate Coptic, in content and style, to a literary height nearly equal to the position of the Egyptian language in pre-Christian Egypt.
Coptic after the Islamic period
Egypt came under the dominance
rulers with the spread of Islam
in the 7th century. At the turn of the 8th century, Caliph Abdel al-Malik bin Marwan
decreed that Arabic
replace Koine Greek
and Coptic as the sole administrative language. Literary Coptic gradually declined such that within a few hundred years, Egyptian
bishop Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa
found it necessary to write his History of the Patriarchs
. However, ecclesiastically the language retained its important position, and many hagiographic
texts were also composed during this period. Until the tenth century, Coptic remained the spoken language of the native population outside the capital.
Violent persecutions under the Mamluks led to the further decline of Coptic, until it completely gave way to Egyptian Arabic sometime in the 17th century, though it may have survived in isolated pockets for a little longer. In the second half of the 19th century, Pope Cyril IV of Alexandria started a national Church-sponsored movement to revive the Coptic language. Several works of grammar were published, along with a more comprehensive dictionary than had been previously available. The scholarly findings of the field of Egyptology and the inauguration of the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies further contributed to the renaissance. Efforts at language revival continue to be undertaken, both inside and outside the Church, and have attracted the interest of both Copts and Muslims in Egypt.
- Main article Coptic alphabet
Coptic uses a writing system almost wholly derived from the Greek alphabet, with the addition of a number of letters that have their origins in Demotic Egyptian. There is some variation in the number and forms of these signs depending on the dialect. Some of the letters in the Coptic alphabet that are of Greek origin were normally reserved only for words that are themselves Greek. Old Coptic texts employed several graphemes that were not retained in the literary Coptic orthography of later centuries.
In Sahidic, syllable boundary may have been marked by a supralinear stroke. Such words in the northern dialects have ([e] or [ə]) in place of the superlinear stroke. Some scribal traditions use a diaeresis over /i/ and /u/ at the beginning of a syllable. Bohairic uses a superposed point or small stroke known as a djinkim. It may be related to the Sahidic supralinear stroke, or additionally, it may indicate a glottal stop. Most Coptic texts do not indicate a word division.
The oldest Coptic writings date to the pre-Christian era (Old Coptic), though Coptic literature consists mostly of texts written by prominent saints of the Coptic Church such as Anthony the Great
and Shenouda the Archimandrite
. Shenouda helped fully standardize the Coptic language through his many sermons, treatises and homilies, which formed the basis of early Coptic literature.
The core lexicon
of Coptic is Egyptian
, being most closely related to the preceding Demotic
phase of the language. Approximately one-third of the vocabulary of literary Coptic is drawn from Greek
, though borrowings are not always fully adapted to the Coptic phonological system and may have semantic
differences as well. There are instances of Coptic texts having passages that are almost entirely composed from Greek lexical roots. However, this is likely due to the fact that the majority of Coptic religious texts are direct translations of Greek works.
Words or concepts for which no adequate Egyptian translation existed were taken directly from Greek so as not to alter the meaning of the religious message. In addition, other Egyptian words that would have adequately translated the Greek equivalents were not employed as these were perceived as having overt pagan associations. Old Coptic texts employ many such words, phrases and epithets; for example, the word 'Who is in His Mountain', is an epithet of Anubis. There are also traces of some archaic morphosyntactic features, such as residues of the Demotic relative clause, lack of an indefinite article and possessive use of suffixes.
Thus the transition from the 'old' traditions to the new Christian religion also contributed to the adoption of Greek words into the Coptic religious lexicon. It is safe to assume that the everyday speech of the native population retained to a greater extent its indigenous Egyptian character, which is sometimes reflected in Coptic non-religious documents such as letters and contracts.
Coptic provides the clearest indication of Later Egyptian phonology
thanks to its writing system, which fully indicates vowel sounds and occasionally stress pattern. The phonological system of Later Egyptian is also better known than that of the Classical phase of the language due to a greater number of sources indicating Egyptian sounds, including cuneiform letters
containing transcriptions of Egyptian words and phrases, and Egyptian renderings of Northwest Semitic
names. Coptic phonology, in addition, is known from a variety of Coptic-Arabic
papyri in which Arabic letters were used to transcribe Coptic and vice versa. They date to the medieval Islamic period, when Coptic was still spoken.
In the Upper Egyptian dialects, a superlinear stroke is placed over sonorants to mark a reduced /e/. This vowel does not undergo reduction in northern dialects, where it is indicated by in Bohairic and or in Fayyumic. For example, /ʃemʃə/ 'to worship' is Sah/Akh/Lyc , Bohairic and Fayyumic . The vowel quality of /e/ can vary: either [e] or [ɛ] depending on the dialect. In Sahidic and other Upper Egyptian dialects, word-final corresponds to word-final in the northern dialects.
The vowel /ɑ/ is typically represented by —its presence may be an indicator of emphasis spread in the same syllable. For example, (used in in the construction 'man of [trade]') is transcribed [sˤɑ] in medieval Coptic-Arabic papyri. In some phonetic environments, /o/ is a more open [ɔ], and /a/ is a more forward [æ]. The vowel /ə/ is always unstressed and can be reduced to Ø as in earlier Egyptian scripts, which did not indicate unstressed and most stressed vowels.
Coptic also has three to four diphthongs — mainly [aj], [ɔj] and [aw] — although these may be interpreted as series of vowels and glides. In some dialects, they are monophthongized.
The status of /p/ and /b/ in Coptic is not entirely clear. To be sure, earlier phases of Egyptian may have contrasted voiceless and voiced bilabial stops, but the distinction seems to have been lost sometime during the language's evolutionary history, prior to the 7th-century Islamic conquest. Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic all interchangeably use their respective graphemes to indicate either sound — for example, Coptic for 'iron' appears alternately as , and . More confusingly, both letters were interchanged with and to indicate /f/, and was also used in many texts to indicate the bilabial approximant /w/.
There is further evidence from transcriptions of Egyptian by other languages that /b/ and /p/ were not contrasted, or that /p/ had been lost at least in later phases. For example, the name of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis was written in Classical Greek with a voiced bilabial stop rather than /p/. Since Classical Greek more securely had both sounds, there is good reason to believe that ancient Greek writers transcribed the Egyptian phoneme based on how they heard it pronounced by contemporaneous Egyptians. Some Coptologists have also suggested that Coptic may have been articulated as a voiced bilabial fricative [β]. In the present-day Coptic Church services, this letter is realized as /v/, though this is almost certainly a result of the pronunciation reforms instituted in the 19th century.
Whereas Old Egyptian contrasts /s/ and /z/, the two sounds appear to be in free variation in Coptic and are contrasted only in Greek loans; for example, Coptic (anzībə) and (ansībə) 'school'. Other consonants that sometimes appear to be either in free variation or to have different distributions across dialects are [t] and [d], [r] and [l] (especially in the Fayyumic dialect — a feature of earlier Egyptian) and [k] and [g], with the voiceless stops being more common. Apart from the liquid consonants, this pattern may indicate a phonological change in Later Egyptian leading to a neutralization of voiced alveolar and velar stops. When the voiced stops are realized, it is usually the result of sonorization in proximity to /n/.
Old Coptic texts graphically express the Egyptian pharyngeals in a variety of ways. For example, the Old Coptic grapheme was occasionally used to convey a voiceless pharyngeal fricative. In literary Coptic, the two sounds are not indicated by separate letters, suggesting loss of phonemic status. Instead, the adapted demotic grapheme , which normally stands for /h/, is used to express either sound. In unstressed initial syllables and stressed final syllables, the voiced pharyngeal fricative is sometimes conveyed by as in /ʕʃaj/ 'to multiply'. Similarly, different methods are employed to graphically express the glottal stop: with word-initially, with word-finally in monosyllabic words in northern dialects and in monosyllabic words in Akhmimic and Assiutic, by reduplication of a vowel's grapheme, but mostly as [Ø].
Typical of other Afro-Asiatic languages
, Older Egyptian was a fusional language
with a Verb Subject Object synthetic
structure. Later Egyptian, including Coptic, is marked by a diachronic shift to a Subject Verb Object
word order, prefixed constructions for nominal morphemes
of gender and number, as well as a move toward a polysynthetic
type in Coptic. While some vestiges of the suffix inflectional pattern survive in Coptic (mainly to indicate inalienable possession
), the change is fairly uniform across the different dialects. The decline in suffix inflection can be observed when comparing the Classical Egyptian form stp.f
'he chooses' to Coptic f.sotp
'he chooses', where the third person
singular masculine marker has been preposed.
All Coptic nouns carry grammatical gender
, either masculine or feminine. In earlier Egyptian, feminine nouns were distinguished by the Afro-Asiatic feminine suffix -t
. In Coptic, this pattern was replaced by two sets of prefixal definite and indefinite articles that also indicate number
— however, only definite articles mark gender. Coptic has a number of broken plurals
, another vestige of Older Egyptian, though in the majority of cases the prefix article marks number. Generally, nouns inflected
for plurality end in /w/ in masculine forms and in /wə/ in feminine forms, though there are some irregularities. The dual was another feature of earlier Egyptian that survives in Coptic in only few words, such as /snaw/ 'two'.
Coptic pronouns are of two kinds, dependent and independent. Independent pronouns are used when the pronoun is acting in a true noun state. This means that it is the subject of a sentence, object of a verb or indirect object of a verb or the object of a preposition. Dependent pronouns are a series of prefixes and suffixes that can attach to verbs and even other nouns. Coptic verbs therefore can be said to infect for the person, number and gender of the subject. Coptic is also a pro drop language so a Pronoun subject need not and often is not directly stated. Coptic verbs do not inflect at the end of a verb but rather at the begining. Since Coptic has moved to being a Subject Verb Object language this creates an unusual effect of someone saying "I I'have'it the ball." The pronoun prefix is for the subject and the pronoun suffix is usually for the object or indirect object.
Earlier Egyptian adjectives were formed through a process known as nisbation
by adding the suffix -j
to a noun; only few such examples survive in Coptic: /hrɑ/ 'face' → /hrɑj/ 'facial'. Some nouns can also function as adjectives, but the majority of Coptic adjectives are expressed by the introduction of an attributive particle n
between two nouns, a process common to many Berber languages
. In all stages of Egyptian, this morpheme is also used to express the genitive
— for example, the Bohairic word for 'Egyptian', /remenkiːmi/, is a combination of the nominal prefix rem-
(the reduced form of rōmi
'man'), followed by the genitive morpheme n
('of') and finally the word Egypt kīmi
Verbs in Coptic change in two ways. First, a verb will have certain pronominal prefixes and suffixes attached to it to show the subject and object of the verb. Secondly, the vowel sound in the verb will change to show past tense or conditional state. Coptic has a number of conjugation patterns where certain kinds of constinent groups will have a similar series of vowel changes to effect the change in time, voice or mood for the verb.
All nouns in a sentence accept the Subject will almost always be preceded by a preposition. Prepositions in Coptic do not just denote adverbial usage as in English. The Direct object, indirect object, and any other use of a noun in a sentence except the subject is indicated by a preposition. Coptic in fact works similar to the declention system of Greek or Latin but instead of the grammar sounds coming at the end of noun, they preceed the noun. Another example would be turning the postpositions of Japanese into prepositions that preceed a noun. The sound does not really become a part of the word, it is only a grammar sound to tell you the function of the word it preceedes. Some prepositions can be placed in front of independent pronouns but other require dependent pronouns.
Word order in Coptic is not free. Word order can be either Subject Verb Object or Verb Subject Object with the correct prepositions in place but can not usually place the object before the subject.
There is little evidence of dialectal differences in the pre-Coptic phases of the Egyptian language due to the centralized nature of the political and cultural institutions of ancient Egyptian society. However, literary Old and Middle (Classical) Egyptian represent the spoken dialect of Lower Egypt around the city of Memphis, the capital of Egypt in the Old Kingdom. Later Egyptian is more representative of the dialects spoken in Upper Egypt, especially around the area of Thebes as it became the cultural and religious center of the New Kingdom.
Coptic more obviously displays a number of regional dialects that were in use from the Mediterranean coast in northern Egypt, south into Nubia, and in the western oases. However, while many of these dialects reflect actual regional linguistic (namely phonological and some lexical) variation, they mostly reflect localized orthographic traditions with very little morphosyntactic differences.
Sahidic (formerly called Thebaic
) is the dialect in which most known Coptic texts are written, and was the leading dialect in the pre-Islamic
period. It is thought to have originally been a regional dialect from the area around el-Ashmunein
), but around 300 it began to be written in literary form, including translations of major portions of the Bible
. By the 6th century, a standardized spelling had been attained throughout Egypt. Almost all native authors wrote in this dialect of Coptic. Sahidic was, beginning in the 9th century challenged by Bohairic, but is attested as late as the 14th century.
While texts in other Coptic dialects are primarily translations of Greek literary and religious texts, Sahidic is the only dialect with a considerable body of original literature and non-literary texts. Because Sahidic shares most of its features with other dialects of Coptic with few peculiarities specific to itself, and has an extensive corpus of known texts, it is generally the dialect studied by learners of Coptic, particularly by scholars outside of the Coptic Church.
Akhmimic was the dialect of the area around the town of Akhmim
, (ancient Panopolis
), and flourished during the 4th and 5th centuries, after which no writings are attested. Akhmimic is phonologically the most archaic of the Coptic dialects. One characteristic feature is the retention of the phoneme
/x/, which is realized as /ʃ/ in most other dialects. Similarly, it uses an exceptionally conservative writing system strikingly similar to Old Coptic.
Lycopolitan (also known as Subakhmimic and Assiutic) is a closely related dialect to Akhmimic in terms of when and where it was attested, though manuscripts written in it tend to be from the area of Asyut. The main differences between the two dialects seem to be only graphic in nature, though Lycopolitan was used extensively for translations of gnostic and Manichaean works, including the Nag Hammadi library texts.
The Bohairic (or Memphitic
) dialect originated in the western Nile delta
. The earliest Bohairic manuscripts date to the 4th century, but most texts come from the 9th century and later; this may be due to poor preservation conditions for texts in the humid regions of northern Egypt. It shows several conservative features in lexicon
not found in other dialects. Bohairic is the dialect used today as the liturgical language
of the Coptic Orthodox Church, replacing Sahidic some time in the 11th century. In contemporary liturgical use, there are two traditions of pronunciation, arising from successive reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries (see Coptic pronunciation reform
). Modern revitalization efforts are based on this dialect.
Fayyumic (or Faiyumic; in older works it is often called Bashmuric
) was spoken primarily in the Faiyum
region west of the Nile Valley. It is attested from the 3rd to the 10th centuries. It is most notable for writing , which corresponds to /l/, where other dialects generally use /r/ (probably corresponding to a flap
[ɾ]). In earlier stages of Egyptian, the liquids
were not distinguished in writing until the New Kingdom
, when Late Egyptian
became the administrative language. Late Egyptian orthography utilized a grapheme
that combined the graphemes for /r/ and /n/ in order express /l/. Demotic
for its part indicated /l/ using a diacritic variety of /r/.
Oxyrhynchite (also called Mesokemic or [confusingly] Middle Egyptian) is the dialect of Oxyrhynchus and surrounding areas. It shows similarities with Fayyumic and is attested in manuscripts from the 4th and 5th centuries.
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