April DeConick and Mark Goodacre both advocate that students of Christian origins should learn Coptic. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, but common sense suggests that not being able to access a signficant proportion of the source documents in their original languages puts you at a distinct disadvantage. So how to you go about learning Coptic?
For quite some time, most English speakers have used Thomas Lambdin’s Introduction to Sahidic Coptic. It’s thorough, but has several drawbacks. One is that the glossary/vocabulary at the back of the book uses English rather than Coptic conventions for its ordering. This makes it easier for English speakers to find words in it, but makes it difficult to then find your way around Crum’s A Coptic Dictionary or Smith’s A Concise Coptic-English Lexicon and (I am fairly sure) the indices in the Coptic edition of the Nag Hammadi library. Another is that some of the sentences in the exercises are designed to illustrate Coptic constructions rather than to make a great deal of sense in English, so students will sometimes find themselves wondering if they have really translated them correctly. A third is that it assumes a grasp of English grammatical terms that most contemporary students simply don’t have. It is also quite expensive because it’s published in hard cover.
Bentley Layton’s new book Coptic in 20 Lessons – Introduction to Sahidic Coptic With Exercises & Vocabularies (27 Euro) may change the teaching of Coptic. It can also be bought at Amazon for $34, so it’s significantly cheaper than Lambdin which Amazon offers for $65. This is because Layton is a paperback, so it will be interesting to see how it holds up to frequent use.
I can’t comment on the other issues that I see as problems with Lambdin, because I don’t expect my copy to arrive for several weeks yet. Neither Mark nor April have yet received of their copies of it, either, although there’s an enthusiastic recommendation for it in the comments on Mark’s site. Looking at the table of contents, however, it appears that Layton follows the approach he uses in his in his Coptic Grammar which is significantly different to Lambdin’s.
Lambdin uses an approach which is familiar to those who have learned other languages – he addresses verbal conjugations one at a time. You learn the First Perfect, then its relative forms, then the Temporal, then the Second Perfect, imperatives, the First Present and so on. Layton’s table of contents doesn’t mention any of these conjugations – instead it talks about durative sentences, non-durative conjunctions, cleft sentences etc. This is, I think, a very different way of conceptualising Coptic to Lambin’s approach. I am very interested to see whether I will find it easier, harder or just different. 🙂
As far as teaching yourself Coptic is concerned, someone commented on April’s blog that they had worked through Lambdin in about a month and found that they could read The Apocryphon of John reasonably easily, if slowly, with the aid of a dictionary. This is, IMHO, an impressive achievement. Lambdin has 30 chapters and while you can whizz through the early ones fairly quickly, the later ones require a considerable amount more time. Lambdin in a month would require quite a number of hours each day. I also think that it would be quite challenging to teach yourself Coptic if you had no prior experience of learning a language other than English and even if you know another language that uses the Latin alphabet, I think learning a language that requires a new alphabet without some sort of face-to-face help would be quite challenging. If Coptic is your third, fourth, fifth language, especially if you already have some form of Greek, it would be much easier.
[Update] My preferred method, though, would be to learn from someone who already knows the language, but in Australia that’s not all that easy. Obviously, it’s taught here at the University of New England, but not every year and usually as a special unit rather than a regular offering. Macquarie University in Sydney offers it formally, as does Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne (in semester 2 they are even looking at some of the Gospel of Judas). Another option that I just found out about is the possibility to obtain an Master of Arts in Coptic Studies entirely on-line through Macquarie. I have no idea what it’s like, but it sounds like a good compromise between face to face teaching and teach yourself.
[Update – 9 August] April DeConick has posted on her blog about the new Bentley Layton book. It sounds really promising and I’m looking forward to the end of the month when my copy is due to arrive.