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Extinction for the language of the Pharaohs?

Mona Zaki often receives strange looks when she answers her mobile phone in public. Among her closest friends and family members, the 58-year-old mother speaks colloquial Coptic.
“People look at me if I’m an alien and I don’t belong,” said Zaki, one of a dwindling number of Egyptians who still converse in the language many predict is on the verge of extinction.
More than 1,300 years after the Arab conquest of Egypt, the Coptic language can only be heard during church ceremonies and amidst a handful of families in its native land. UNESCO has labeled Coptic a national heritage language and has begun efforts to reintroduce the spoken form of it across Egypt in the hope of preventing it from dying out completely.
Coptic is a combination of the ancient Egyptian languages: Demotic, Hieroglyphic and
Hieratic. Uniquely combining the Greek and Demotic alphabets, it was the language used by the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt following the spread of Greek culture throughout much of the Near East. In essence, it is the language of the ancient Egyptians themselves.
Zaki is one of only a handful of people that continue to use the language in her everyday conversations. She speaks a colloquial form of Coptic with her parents and a few relatives, that differs from the formalized tongue used in church ceremonies.
“In many ways it helps strengthen my faith,” Zaki said. “It has really helped when I go to church because they still use a form of Coptic for many services.”
But despite her emotional and religious attachment to the ancient language, Zaki does not speak Coptic with her children, and didn’t encourage them to learn.
“I felt that Coptic was a worthless language to have my children speak, therefore I did not do so when they were young,” Zaki said.
But hindsight, she says, is always 20-20. In light of the upcoming UNESCO campaign, Zaki wishes she had emphasized the language more when her children were young.
“If I could go back, knowing that there is a worldwide movement to speak the language, I would have spoken it with my children,” she said. “I guess I have continued the destruction of the language in many ways.”
Coptic is the language of the first Christian church in history, which, according to Coptic history, was established by Saint Mark the Apostle and evangelist in the middle of the 1st century. The head of the church and the See of Alexandria is the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy See of Saint Mark, currently Pope Shenouda III. Around 95% of Egypt’s Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
When Zaki’s generation dies, it is expected be the first language of the early Christian churches to become functionally extinct. Other early Christian languages have managed to hold on in distinct pockets; Aramaic, the language believed to have spoken by Jesus himself, is still spoken in parts of southern Turkey and northwest Syria.
“I hope that the world will come to realize the importance of Coptic in Christian doctrine,” Zaki said. “Egypt is the first home for the Christian church and that makes Coptic truly the first language of Christianity in a sense.”
Copt itself means Egypt. The word Egypt comes from the Greek aiguptios and the Arabic qupt. Both of those words were derived from the Coptic language that was spoken when each community ascended upon Egypt.
With the 7th century Muslim conquest, Arabic became the language of everyday life. After a period of religious turmoil, Coptic leaders in Egypt decided to adopt Arabic to show their Muslim rulers they weren’t loyalists of the European Crusaders.
Now Zaki is one of the few remaining Egyptians raised in a Coptic-speaking household. Her parents, she said, “passed the language down to me like their parents did before them.”
But when she became a mother, Zaki decided to spare her children the isolation she felt in her youth.
“I didn’t want my kids to have to experience the exclusion that Coptic had with me when I was younger,” she said. “I can remember my friends making fun of me when I talked to my parents.”
But now, she says, her fluency is vital to her cultural understanding of being a Copt in Egypt.
“It gives me the strength to practice my faith despite all the hardships that being a Christian in an Islamic country has,” Zaki said. When asked to give specifics, she declined, saying that it would be unfair to the majority of respectable Muslims, especially those whom she calls friends.
Some scholars have suggested that Coptic may be more resilient than official numbers reveal. It is theorized that remote villages in the Delta and in southern Egypt may still speak forms of the language. Because many Egyptians live in small villages far from government control and active study by anthropologists, there’s a hope that Coptic will persist.
Meanwhile, UNESCO is still conducting research on how best to “re-grow” the language, and a Paris-based UNESCO official said the outlook is “hopeful” that Copts in Egypt will actively participate.
However, the issue is complicated by sensitivities surrounding anything related to Egypt’s 10% minority Coptic community.
“We don’t like to get involved in sectarian issues, so we are moving slowly, but we are confident that in time, the conversation will move from religion into the mainstream as a cultural project,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the delicacy of the issue.

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