Claudius Labib – short biography and bibliography

A photograph of Claudius Labib (1868-1918). Image from The Lexicon of the Egyptian Language, 1895-1915.

Claudius Labib (1868-1918, Arabic إقلاديوس لبيب, Coptic ⲕⲗⲁⲩⲇⲓⲟⲥ ⲗⲁⲃⲓⲃ or ⲗⲁⲡⲓⲡ, variously rendered as Cladius, Iqladiyus, Iqladyus, Klaudios, etc) was born to a Coptic family in the village of Meir in Upper Egypt in the province of Asyut. From an early age, he accompanied his family to the nearby monastery, Dayr al-Muḥarraq in al-Qusiyyah, where he first became acquainted with the Coptic language (Basta, 1991). An early interest would later flourish into a love for the Coptic language, which would last a lifetime and produce the most determined effort to revive Coptic as a spoken language in the modern era.

Labib studied Coptic systematically at the Patriarchal School in Cairo. The Patriarchal School had recently been founded by Pope Cyril IV and would later boast some of the most influential Copts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among its alumni (Reid 2002). Pope Cyril V allowed him access to the Patriarchal Library, which enabled him to consult invaluable Coptic manuscripts (Basta, 1991). Labib also learned to read hieroglyphs while working in the Antiquities Service (Reid, 2002) becoming, according to his grandson Ahmes Pahor Labib, only the second Egyptian in modern times to do so after Ahmed Kamal (b. 1851). In addition he became fluent in English and French, publishing in both these languages. In 1892, he began teaching Coptic at the Clerical College.

Labib insisted that Arabic-speaking Coptic families use Coptic as the language of everyday life. He succeeded within his own family, but very few other families could follow (Basta, 1991). Nevertheless, he succeeded in teaching a number of young people to use Coptic as a school vernacular and in everyday life (Prince, 1902). In order to aid the revival of Coptic as a spoken language Labib realised the need to produce Coptic teaching and reading materials. To this end, in the 1890s he imported a specialised printing press from Germany capable of printing both Coptic type and hierogylphs (Roper & Tait, 2002). Under the imprints Al-Matb’a al-Wataniya (‘National Press’) and Matba’at ‘Ayn Shams (‘Heliopolis Press’), he produced a series of mainly Coptic-Arabic linguistic and liturgical works. In 1900, for the promotion of his ideas he established a periodical called ‘Ayn Shams (‘Heliopolis’, or by its Coptic title ⲱⲛ), which although short-lived was the first Coptic language periodical (Roper & Tait, 2002; Boutros Ghali, 1991).

However, Labib’s opus magnum was his Coptic-Arabic dictionary (ⲡⲓⲗⲉⲝⲓⲕⲟⲛ ⲛϯⲁⲥⲡⲓ ⲛⲧⲉ ⲛⲓⲣⲉⲙⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ, 1895-1915), of which he completed five parts (letters ⲁ to ϧ) before his death. In his eulogy for Claudius Labib, Walter Crum (1918) suggested that the remaining four letters would be completed by another Coptic Egyptologist Dr Georgy Sobhy, although it isn’t clear whether this actually happened. Labib’s dictionary was the first modern Coptic-Arabic dictionary to be produced. Prior to this, Copts had to consult either the bilingual and trilingual Coptic word-lists (called scalae) that had existed since the early middle ages or refer to Western dictionaries. Western scholars acknowledged the value of Labib’s dictionary as it contained lexical information unavailable elsewhere until the excellent dictionary of Walter Crum, completed in 1939 (Gaselee, 1929).

Labib was a proponent of the Graeco-Bohairic pronunciation of Coptic, which departed from the traditional (or Old Bohairic) pronunciation (Worrell, 1937). He must have become acquainted with the modified pronunciation as a student of Muallim ‘Iryan Jirjis Muftaḥ (d. 1888), who was teacher of Coptic at the Clerical College (Ishaq, 1991). Muftaḥ promoted the pronunciation of Coptic letters according to their modern Greek phonetic equivalents in an attempt to bring the Greek and Coptic Churches closer together. Although widely respected as a great champion of the Coptic language, Labib is criticised by some for his promotion of the modified pronunciation, use of non-standard words, substitution of standard Coptic words of Greek origin (ⲡⲓⲛⲓϥⲓ instead of the standard Greek ⲡⲓⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ, the spirit) and adoption of words of unclear etymology (Bashandy).

Claudius Labib had produced two dozen, mainly linguistic and liturgical, works on or in the Coptic language by the time of his death at the age of 49/50 (Crum, 1918). His enthusiasm for the Coptic language and his zeal for promoting it as the revival of Coptic as the vernacular of the Coptic people was noticed by both his countrymen and Western scholars. There were those who were cynical that his efforts toward revitalisation would succeed (Prince, 1902; Crum, 1918), but his efforts were not in vain. He inspired a generation of Copts and has left an impressive written legacy for those that have followed.

A selected bibliography for Claudius Labib

I have here collected a bibliography of Claudius Labib’s linguistic works according to Kammerer (1969), Basta (1991), Crum (1918), MacCoull (1985). Many of these publications have been scanned and uploaded onto the internet by various people. I have attempted to collate the available scans, which unfortunately are sometimes of poor quality or deficient.

References

  • Bashandy. Claudian dialect, unknown publication date. Accessed 10 June 2012 from http://www.coptic.org/language/claudian.pdf.
  • Basta M (1991). “Iqladiyus Labib”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. NY: Macmillan). Vol IV, p 1302.
  • Boutros Ghali M (1991). “Press, Coptic”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. NY: Macmillan). Vol VI, p 2010-2013.
  • Crum WE (1918). Bibliography: Christian Egypt. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 5(3), pp. 201-215, especially p. 215.
  • Gaselee S (1929). A Coptic Dictionary (Part 1: ⲁ-ⲉⲓϣⲉ). Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 5(3), pp. 611-614.
  • Kammerer W (1969). A Coptic Bibliography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950; Reprint New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969.
  • MacCoull LSB (1985). Egyptian Coptic Language Pamphlets: The challenge of a typology of errors. Coptic Church Review 6(1), Spring 1985, pp. 17-21.
  • Ishaq EM (1991). “Coptic language spoken”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. NY: Macmillan). Vol II, p 604-607.
  • Reid DM (2002). Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, museums, and Egyptian national identity from Napoleon to World War I. California: University of California Press. Especially, Chapter 7: Modern Sons of the Pharaohs?, pp. 258-285 and n. 79.
  • Roper G, Tait J (2002). Coptic typography: a brief sketch = Koptische Typographie: eine kurze Skizze. In: Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Ed. E Hanebutt-Benz, D Glaß, G Roper. Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: Skulima, pp.117-121.
  • Prince JD (1902). The modern pronunciation of Coptic in the Mass. Journal of the American Oriental Society 23, pp. 289-306, especially pp. 290-291.
  • Worrell WD (1937). Popular traditions of the Coptic language. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 54(1), pp. 1-11.

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