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The Coptic alphabet is the script used for writing the Coptic language. The repertoire of glyphs is based on the Greek alphabet augmented by letters borrowed from the Demotic and is first Alphabetic Script used for the Egyptian Language. There are in fact several Coptic alphabets as the Coptic writing system may vary greatly among the various dialects and subdialects of the Coptic language.


Coptic letters in a florid Bohairic script

The Coptic alphabet has a long history, going back to the Hellenistic period, of using the Greek alphabet to transcribe Demotic texts, with the aim of recording the correct pronunciation of Demotic. During the first two centuries of the Common Era, an entire series of magical texts were written in what scholars term Old Coptic, Egyptian language texts written in the Greek alphabet. A number of letters, however, were derived from Demotic, and many of these (though not all) are used in "true" Coptic writing. With the spread of Christianity in Egypt, by the late 3rd century CE knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost, as well as Demotic slightly later, making way for a writing system more closely associated with the Christian church. By the 4th century the Coptic alphabet was "standardised", particularly for the Sahidic dialect. (It should be noted that there are a number of differences between the alphabets as used in the various dialects in Coptic.) Coptic is not generally used today except by the members of the Coptic Church to write their religious texts. All the Gnostic codices found in Nag Hammadimarker used the Coptic alphabet.

The Old Nubian alphabet—used to write Old Nubian, a Nilo-Saharan language —is written mainly in an uncial Greek alphabet, which borrows Coptic and Meroitic letters of Demotic origin into its inventory.


The Coptic alphabet was the first Egyptian writing system to indicate vowels, making Coptic documents invaluable for the interpretation of earlier Egyptian texts. Some Egyptian syllables had sonorants but no vowels; in Sahidic, these were written in Coptic with a line above the entire syllable. Various scribal schools made limited use of diacritics: some used an apostrophe as a word divider and to mark clitics, a function of determinatives in logographic Egyptian; others used diereses over ⲓ and ⲩ to show that these started a new syllable, others a circumflex over any vowel for the same purpose.Ritner, Robert Kriech. 1996. "The Coptic Alphabet". In The World's Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 1994:287–290.

Coptic is largely based on the Greek alphabet, another help in interpreting older Egyptian texts, with 24 letters of Greek origin; 6 or 7 more were retained from Demotic, depending on the dialect (6 in Sahidic, another each in Bohairic and Akhmimic). The Coptic alphabet is more obviously Greek-based than the Cyrillic alphabet, and may be compared to, say, the Latin-based Icelandic alphabet (which also has special letters at the end which are not in the original Latin alphabet). The Coptic alphabet in turn had a strong influence on the Cyrillic alphabet.

Alphabet table

image maj. image min. majuscule minuscule numeric value name Greek
translit. (IPA)
1 alpha Α, α
2 bēta Β, β
3 gamma Γ, γ
4 dalda Δ, δ
5 ei Ε, ε
6 sou ϛ (stigma)
7 zēta Ζ, ζ
8 ēta Η, η
9 thēta Θ, θ
10 iōta Ι, ι
20 kappa Κ, κ
30 laula Λ, λ
40 Μ, μ
50 Ν, ν
60 ksi Ξ, ξ
70 ou Ο, ο
80 pi Π, π
100 Ρ, ρ
200 sēmma Σ, σ, ς
300 tau Τ, τ
400 he Υ, υ
500 phi Φ, φ
600 khi Χ, χ
700 psi Ψ, ψ
800 ō Ω, ω
šai (none)
90 fai (none)
xai (none)
hori (none)
qima Ϙ, ϙ
ti (none)
900 psis ənše (none)

Letters derived from the demotic:
hieroglyph   demotic   coptic
SA š
f f
M12 x
F18:Y1 h
k q
D37:t ti

The additional letter xai is Ⳉ ⳉ in Akhmimic and Ⳋ ⳋ in Bohairic, both for a velar fricative .


In Unicode, most Coptic letters formerly shared codepoints with similar Greek letters, but a disunification has been accepted for version 4.1, which appeared in 2005. The new Coptic block is U+2C80 to U+2CFF. The Greek block includes seven Coptic letters derived from Demotic, and need to be included in any complete implementation of Coptic.

See also


  • Quaegebeur, Jan. 1982. "De la préhistoire de l'écriture copte." Orientalia lovaniensia analecta 13:125–136.
  • Kasser, Rodolphe. 1991. "Alphabet in Coptic, Greek". In The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by Aziz S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Volume 8. 30–32.
  • Kasser, Rodolphe. 1991. "Alphabets, Coptic". In The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by Aziz S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Volume 8. 32–41.
  • Kasser, Rodolphe. 1991. "Alphabets, Old Coptic". In The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by Aziz S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Volume 8. 41–45.

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