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Old Bohairic Pronunciation


Bohairic dialect in Bohairic pronunciation (B) was the one used by the Coptic Church all over Egypt, due to the availability of its manuscripts that were produced by monks of the desert of Shihat (Natron Valley), and the condition was so for many, many centuries until now.

During 1858-1860, there was a trial to merge the Coptic Church with the Greek Church so that one Patriarch be the head of both Churches in Egypt, but the trial did not succeed. The combination of Coptic and Greek pronunciations was one of the actions taken at that time.

The teacher of Coptic in the Patriarchal Church at that time was CIrian effendi Guirguis Moftah}.  He was very enthusiastic in changing Coptic sounds, made a project and applied it to do so.

  1. His hypothesis was that as long as Coptic and Greek have almost the same alphabet they share the same pronunciation. Thus any change of Coptic pronunciation towards Greek is a reform.

  2. The expected union between the 2 churches was a cofactor in proceeding.

  3. The Egyptians were at that time suffering stresses and an inferiority complex due to the appearance of the French expedition (1798-1801) and the scientists of the expedition who stayed many years after the expedition left Egypt. Many people turned out thinking that whatever is European is correct due to the vast differences that were between the Egyptians and French people.

The fact is that many languages share the same alphabet. For example, the Latin alphabet is used in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, etc… but the phonetic value of sounds vary much from one language to another. Imagine pronouncing parlez vous francais in English pronunciation, or a name like Southampton, in a French style. That is the difference in addition, Coptic borrowed Greek letters in approximate values to what they had at that time, Greek language itself was changed much overtime. Bohairic pronunciation is a natural one, while the GB (Graeco-Bohariric, i.e. Bohairic Coptic according to Modern Greek Pronunciation) came as a synthetic man-made one.

The pronunciation of CIrian effendi G. Moftah was spread by the central power of the Klirikia (Theological Seminary), Patriarchal School and it took about 50 years to be generalized all over Egypt and is used till now by almost all Churches except for a very small minority in upper Egypt that chose their priests from among their congregation preserving their own authentic tradition.

Over the course of time, the Old Bohairic (OB) pronunciation was mistakenly named by CIrian's scholars as Sahidic, or that the change would help an expected merge. It became generalized after that.

The Old Bohairic Pronunciation

It has no strict rules of pronunciation. It is as variable as English and sounds much like a natural language where you cannot state what the rules of pronunciation are. It just comes by listening and practice. It fits 100% with the slang Egyptian tongue. Many consonants are the same as the Modern Ecclesiastical pronunciation, e.g. z, k, l, m, n, r, s, sh, f, kh, while others are different. Here's a rough guide about its pronunciation.

  • Alpha (a, a) as in far and at

  • Wida (b,w) as in bad, was

  • Gamma (g,n,gh) ...

  • Dalda (d) as in duck

  • Eia (a) as in at

  • So (6)

  • Zada (z)

  • Hada(h) (a, ee) as in at, teen

  • Tita (t) as in town

  • I (i) as in pin

  • Kappa (K)

  • Laula (L)

  • Mei (M)

  • Nei(N)

  • Eksi (X)

  • O (o,oa) as in off, oat

  • Bei (b) as in boat

  • Ro (R)

  • Sima (S)

  • Dau (D,T) as in do, wet

  • ha ( i, w) as in pin, how

  • Fi (F,B) as in fat, bat

  • Kei (K, sh, kh)

  • Epsi (ps)

  • Omega (oa) as in boat

  • shy (sh)

  • fy (f)

  • khy (kh)

  • hoary (h, h}) as hat and occasionally, like haa (h}a) in Arabic as in temsah}, h}arb,

  • djandja (dj) as in age

  • gshima (gsh, sh)

  • di (di) as in dig

Scientific backup of Old pronunciation (prior to CIrian's changes 1858-1860)

  1. The names of Roman emperors written in hieroglyphic scripts.

  2. Spelling mistakes in hieroglyphs due to dictation.

  3. Quality of letters in Hieroglyphic and their phonetic values. e.g.: Hieroglyphic never included "Th", "dh" ,"v".

  4. Spelling mistakes due to dictation of Greek names and/or specific terms. e.g.: Theotokos in Coptic.

  5. Spelling variation and mistakes in typing Coptic itself, rendering same phonetic values for some letters. e.g.: in English some and sum.

  6. Coptic manuscripts transcribing Arabic, in Coptic letters, in other words manuscripts where Arabic is written in Coptic for educational purposes dating as far as 10th Century, where for example theta was always used to describe the letter "taa" and not "thaa".

  7. Latin Phonetic transliteration and transcription done by various scholars dating from the 16th up to the 40's of last Century, done by Petraeus (1659), Maria Cramer, Rochemonteix (1891), Georgy Sobhy (1915,1918), Worrell (1942).

  8. Coptic manuscripts written in 3 columns Coptic/Arabicized-Coptic/Arabic translation, to aid people to read Coptic, in other words, manuscripts writing Coptic in Arabic letters, dating to 18th, and 19th Century, where events took place prior to CIrian's era.

  9. Live evidence from a very few churches in Upper Egypt, that do not accept outsiders priests.

  10. Research and academic papers done by Georgy Sobhy, Worrell, Vischyl, Emile Maher, Hany Takla, Joseph Sedrak.

  11. Colloquial pronunciation of the Arabic language. e.g.: letters as thaa, dhal, are always replaced by taa, and dal.

  12. Ancient Greek pronunciation clarifying differences between it and modern Greek borrowed by CIrian G. Moftah}.

  13. Various records by CIrian's contemporary Copts, who recorded the changes and commented about it.

  14. Musicality and tonality of the Old pronunciation as compared to the new one proving its superiority and its matching with spoken languages.

  15. The Coptic words that still survive in colloquial Egyptian dialect of Arabic, matches with Old Bohairic, but has nothing to do with GB.

  16. Other languages that borrowed the Coptic alphabet either completely or partially including Nubian and Russian. Nubian borrowed almost all the alphabet and Russian borrowed 2 letters. They both have pronunciation matching with Old Bohairic.

All above evidences match with each other, making it a perfect close towards a real, authentic, living heritage named Bohairic pronunciation, that in addition to its being backed up with all these scientific researches, evidences and findings, it's a living heritage that could be traced in Egyptian colloquial dialect of Arabic and in the churches that preserved this oral tradition, as well as its support by historical evidence describing the whole situation denoting a name of a person who did that and the year he did it, and the social circumstances for it. It's an unbroken chain, that can not be accused. Though scientific research knows no shore as meteorology or weather but it is like Anatomy or Geography, where you can't miss the arm or the presence of a mountain, sea shore, rivers, etc.

There's no point of suspecting defects with all above mentioned outlines. Moreover, GB is not supported by any evidence. Instead it's accused not only by Coptologists and Coptic linguists but also by amateurs, and lay men who spend some time reading about Coptic or meditating in the names of people, food, villages and animal in colloquial Egyptian dialect of Arabic.

Recent History of Coptic pronunciation (19th-20th Century)

Since the very early introduction of Greco-Bohairic pronunciation in 1858-1860 A.D. it was met by severe resistance that faded gradually due to Papal patronage of this pronunciation considering it (wrongfully) as thought to be the sound one as followed by CIrian G. Moftah}

  • Up to 1918, the new pronunciation was not that common in the Coptic Church.

  • In 1938 it was spreading heavily when Coptologists were tracing the remnants of the Old Bohairic.

  • By the 1950's it became almost the one and the only used in Coptic Church (except for a very small minority).

  • In the 1960's Dr. Emile Maher Ishak (now Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak) appeared in the scene as a teacher of the Greco-Bohairic pronunciation who has no idea about Old Bohairic.

  • A few years later, Dr. Emile was shown a manuscript by a priest in Damanhour that was preserved in his family for many generations. This manuscript presented changes in pronunciation from the then known GB pronunciation. The details of this manuscript were presented to Abba Shenouda, the Bishop of Education (currently Pope Shenouda III) who encouraged Dr. Emile Maher in studying these differences in pronunciation. The same study of phonetics was highly recommended by Shakir Basilios, the main teacher of Coptic at the Klirikia.

  • Dr. Emile Maher started conducting this study which was sponsored by Bishop Shenouda. He reviewed all available documents, books and manuscripts related to the subjects that are present in Coptic Monasteries of Egypt, the Old Patriarchate manuscript Library, the Klirikia Library, the Societe d'archeologie Copte, other important Catholic libraries, in addition to audio recordings from the very few churches preserving this same heritage including a very rare recording of a 102 year-old man called Abadir who was born in 1860 and witnessed all the changes himself, still keeping by heart the old authentic pronunciation.

  • In 1968, Dr. Emile Maher announced his rediscovery of the authentic Bohairic pronunciation.

  • The results were shocking to almost all, esp. because it's hard for older Coptic teachers and heads of Coptic institutes to re-learn this pronunciation, so if they admitted it they would have to lose their positions or spend an effort to learn it.

  • Envy, fear to lose positions (as told by eye witnesses, who refused to mention his name) were amongst the main causes towards a vigorous attack towards this pronunciation, but, this led to no more than more enthusiasm to Dr. Emile to spread the re-discovery of the authentic pronunciation.

  • 1972, two British Coptologists were on a visit to Egypt, they reviewed the works of Dr. Emile Maher, they offered him a post at Oxford, UK, to accomplish his studies. The post was accepted, sponsored and encouraged by Pope Shenouda III, and Dr. Emile Maher traveled to spend 3 years in the United Kingdom.

  • 1975, Dr. Emile Maher returned to Egypt with a Ph.D from Oxford University about the Old Bohairic pronunciation.

  • 1976, Dr. Emile Maher starts a massive education of Old Bohairic pronunciation for many churches.

  • 1976, the opening of the Institute of the Coptic Language for the Old authentic Bohairic pronunciation beside the Cathedral and Papal residence at the Abba Ruweis building which covers a space almost equal to the Institute of Coptic Studies which includes Coptic Language, Coptic Music, African Studies, Coptic History, Coptic Art, Coptic Textiles and Coptic Theology.

  • 1976, Pope Shenouda III, Abba Maximos Bishop of Qaliubeyya, Abba Bishoy, Abba Timotheos attended special party congratulating hundreds of students for their mastery of Coptic in the Old Bohairic (OB) pronunciation.

  • 1979-1981, Institute of Coptic Language for Old authentic Bohairic pronunciation continues teaching Coptic depending on its scientific superiority, without religious interference or supervision. It continues in its same place at the heart of the Abba Ruweis Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, which includes the Patriarchate building, the Klirikia, Bishopric of Social Services, etc.

  • On January 21, 1998, Pope Shenouda III ordained Dr. Emile Maher Ishak as a priest by the name Shenouda which in turn shut down any person yelling he's a heretic.

  • Recent years, Fr. Shenouda Maher prays in Old Bohairic, teaches Old Bohairic, even the Church Chorus sings in Old Bohairic at the Church he serves in Rochester, NY, USA.