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.