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Language birth and language death in a multicultural Context: The Case of Coptic


The ways in which languages interact, live and die, in political contexts that impose one or two dominant languages are today a central question for Europe. This project aims to address it through the study of a medieval Middle Eastern society with similar characteristics (multicultural, multilingual, religiously diverse, loosely unified politically, with strong local historical traditions), but remote enough as to enable a dispassionate analysis.

The project will focus on the social history of the Coptic language from its birth in the third century to its death around the eleventh century. Linguistically, Coptic is the continuation of ancient Egyptian. It acquired its own identity through attribution of a new social value, association with Christianity, notation in the Greek script, and massive use of Greek vocabulary. For almost a millennium, its interaction with two successive language French (Greek, Arabic) within an evolving historical context yielded varying results, from boosting its status as communal identity marker in times of tension to making it totally obsolete in social terms and leading to its death.

I shall study why Coptic evolved in the way it did, how it was used by centres of power, the role it played as a vector of Egyptian identity, and ultimately the reasons for its demise. I shall compare Coptic with the parallel but very different case of Syriac, which arose in similar conditions in the Roman East. The realisation of this interdisciplinary project requires mastery of a number of disciplines and their methods, in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, and competence in numerous ancient and modern languages.

It also requires the collaboration of specialists and exceptional documentary resources; such as the University of Oxford is one of the rare establishments worldwide to offer. It is hoped that this joint undertaking will foster much-needed collaboration between France and the United Kingdom, both leaders in many of the fields involved.

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University Offices, Wellington Square
United Kingdom

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