Learning Coptic

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.


7 thoughts on “Learning Coptic

  1. Pingback: Coptic in Twenty Lessons « Judy’s research blog

  2. I found your blog through a link on Iyov’s blog. What you say about Lambdin resonates with me: I had similar problems with his Coptic grammar, as regards the silliness of his sentences. I also found irritating the fact that his index did not allow one to find where he spoke about individual words. This is a problem also with his Hebrew grammar. As regards the latter, I was fortunate in discovering it at such a time as I was already reasonably familiar with Hebrew grammar, and so this was not so great a drawback. Nonetheless, I do prefer texts like GKC that enable one to isolate discussions on individual lexemes. I know of nothing like this for Coptic.

    I also was fortunate to be given the opportunity, in my Honours year, of working through Lambin’s grammar on Ge’ez. THAT one, I found very useful, but perhaps this is only because virtually nothing else existed to guide the beginning student. Not much else seems to exist for Coptic either. And certainly not for dialects other than Sahidic (a problem that is presently becoming the bane of my existence). I should have a look at Layton; I had previously not heard of him, but I am ready to clutch at any straws that I may find right now, and his might be of the life-saving kind.

  3. Simon,

    If you click on the Coptic category in the Categories heading on the left, you will find several more posts about learning Coptic that have information about a range of other resources. Plumley’s Coptic Grammar is an on-line resource that is helpful. Ariel Shisha-Halevy’s Coptic Grammatical Chrestomathy has some very helpful tables at the back that show how everything fits together. Layton’s A Coptic Grammar is probably the most comprehensive book available but he talks about the grammar using a different set of descriptors to those used by Lambdin, so you need sometimes to switch mindsets. I will eventually have to “bite the bullet” and buy a copy of this book, but the cheapest I’ve ever seen it is about USD125 which seems to me to be outrageous for a paperback.

    What other dialects are you interested in? If you go to http://www.stshenouda.com/society/copticcd.htm you can order a copy of the Coptic CD volume 1 which, in addition to copies of the New Testament in Sahidic, Bohairic and Greek, also has lessons in Bohairic Coptic. Other than that, Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, offers an on-line course in Coptic that includes “The study of Bohairic and other dialects (Akhmimic, Lycopolitan, Fayumic, Mesokemic) gives access to the entire wealth of Coptic literature in the original.” You can find information about it by clicking on
    http://www.coptic.mq.edu.au/subjects.html#lan and following the appropriate link. They may be able to point you to print resources.


  4. Ah, I was worried that you might mention Macquarie University! That is actually where I’m studying, and the texts that they have made available seem still to be the only ones around. I am in my second year now and, while I had no problem with Sahidic last year, the dialects this year are very confusing. Bohairic, Akhmimic and Fayyumic are the ones that we have been looking at so far, but we are also going to be doing some Mesokemic and Lycopolitan.

    I shall see if I can find Layton’s grammar in the library: USD125 is too much for a paperback. Thankyou!

  5. Pingback: judy learning blog

  6. Pingback: Layton’s Coptic Grammar – some comments « Judy’s research blog

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