Coptic in Twenty Lessons

Somehow or other, an early version of this was posted, rather than the version that contained a number of links and appropriate attributions to books mentioned and a more moderate comment on Layton’s approach to learning vocabulary. I am working on recreating the final version, but here is a better version in the meantime.

Bentley Layton’s new book Coptic in 20 Lessons arrived yesterday and I’ve enjoyed leafing through it. As I had guessed from the table of contents, he uses a very different method to Lambdin (Introduction to Sahidic Coptic) and obviously I haven’t worked right through it. In addition to the comments from April DeConick, some things that have struck me as I look through:

  • it’s a much smaller book than Lambdin’s. This is largely because it doesn’t have the extensive glossary at the back. This means that students will either have to learn all the vocabulary as they go (which he recommends) or get a dictionary – Smith’s A Concise Coptic-English Lexicon would probably be adequate. During the course of the book, he introduces all words that appear 50 or more times in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament and (as April has already pointed out) he uses real examples rather than made-up sentences.
  • It seems, however, also to have less explanatory text. Without trying to work through it, I’m not sure if he has simply found more concise ways of explaining things or whether it will be necessary to consult his (very expensive even in paperback) Coptic Grammar if you are working without a teacher.
  • Layton intends the student to read, write and speak (or at least read out loud) Coptic. Unlike Lambdin’s book, the exercises in Layton include “translate into Coptic” as well as “translate into English” sections. He includes a handwritten version of the Coptic alphabet and one of the exercises in the first chapter is a list of transliterations which the student is expected to re-write in Coptic script. Pedagogically, this is a better approach.
  • He groups the vocabulary in categories eg in lesson 3, he presents nouns of authority and power (continuing from ch2), nouns about daily life, and nouns about religion and ethics. In chapter 13, there are verbs about communication and mental activity, together with some conjunctions and “other expressions”. I think that Lambdin actually does this to a certain extent, he just doesn’t point it out.
  • The vocabularies are set out in three columns – Coptic, English and Greek (where applicable). this is potentially quite useful, especially for those who know Greek.
  • I wonder if he introduces too many new concepts at once in the first few chapters. I suspect some students might end up feeling rather bemused by the amount of new material at the beginning. I am used to taking a whole year to work through Lambdin, so perhaps I am expecting a slower pace than others might be used to.
  • I was first, rather stunned by the fact that I had managed to post the wrong version of this point and secondly rather stunned by the reading that “You should purchase a copy of WE Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939 and various reprints) and start learning its contents once you’ve finished this grammar or even before.” (emphasis mine). I’ve always worked on the principle that I will learn the words that I use frequently simply by using them and once I’ve bought the dictionary, I can look up the words I don’t know. I have a very broad English vocabulary and I’ve never tried to learn the Oxford or the Macquarie (the standard Australian English dictionary) by heart, not even the concise version. Of course, I have been in trouble with various teachers/professors over this attitude since I was in primary school, so I’m well aware that the whole world does not agree with me, but my basic premise is that I buy reference books so I can refer to them as necessary, not learn them by heart.

Note for Australians:  Because the Co-op Bookshop has a branch at Macquarie University, it stocks a range of Coptic resources including Lambdin.  If you happen to be a member, you might find that it is cheaper to order through them than to buy from an overseas bookshop.


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