Regarding the Coptic Pronunciation in the Church Hymns – Part 1
Recent developments in the hymns of the church have caused a great deal of unnecessary confusion and discrepancy. I thought it fitting to shed some light on why these developments have come about, and whether they are indeed accurate or not. (This is my first blog post, so if it’s not perfect, please forgive me. I am open to any and all criticism, positive or negative, and I’d be happy to hear from anyone)
Part 1 – What is the cause of the discrepancy?
The main reason for the conflict is that the Coptic language has undergone some rather recent and unnatural changes. Allow me to explain.
The Coptic alphabet shares characters with the Greek alphabet, however, the phonetic sounds of the letters are supposed to be different. In the mid 19th century, there was a movement in the Coptic Church that would allow the Greek and Coptic Churches to merge in Egypt. With good intention, but faulty logic, Irian Effendi Moftah, a leader in the Seminary (Clericeya), decided to try to merge the Greek and Coptic languages. His theory was that changing the pronunciation of the Coptic to Modern Greek was a “reform”. It is also thought that many of the Greek hymns that we have in our church now are a result of this unification trial and entered during that time period.
It took about 50 years to do so, but due to the weak state of the Coptic language at the time, he and his peers were able to standardize this pseudo-coptic language. They began handing down the hymns with this pronunciation and chose cantors that would recite the hymns with the “reformed” version of the language. Later on, when Ragheb Moftah began his project to preserve the hymns of the church and record them, he chose Cantor Mikhail Girgis Ghabrial elBatanouny as the main source for many reasons, one of which being that he had learned this adulterated Coptic.
This is not a matter of different dialects. There are several different dialects of Coptic, however, the only one that is used right now is the Bohairic dialect. It became standard in the church post 11th century, when the patriarchal seat moved from Alexandria to Cairo. Sahidic, Akhmimic, Fayoumic, and other dialects differ in written text and phrasing, not in the phonetics of the letters. Hopefully this will clarify the difference:
Sahidic: (Note the grammatical and spelling differences)
For more information on the original sound of the Coptic language and the changes that occurred please refer to:
- Fr. Shenouda Maher’s PhD Thesis: https://copticsounds.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/online-emile-maher-ishaks-the-phonetics-and-phonology-of-the-bohairic-dialect-of-coptic/
- http://www.stshenoudamonastery.org – under the Coptic teaching tab, and Bohairic pronunciation.
- Bohairic Coptic Teaching Tapes: http://sonoma.websitewelcome.com/~rochcopt/media/Coptic/
Stay tuned for the implications of these changes on the hymns!