Linguistic Symptoms of Shenoute’s Authorship


Shisha-Halevy, A., 2014. Linguistic Symptoms of Shenoute’s Authorship. In B. ’hors Anne, et al., ed. Coptica Argentoratensia. Conférences et documents de la 3e université d’été en papyrologie copte (Strasbourg, 18-25 juillet 2010). Paris. Paris: De Boccard, pp. 59–66.


Speaking metaphorically, the array of distinctive linguistic traits is a portrait or profile, not a check-list or catalogue. This means that we are considering, not a list but systemic co-occurrence and/or combination and/or hierarchy of features that is distinctive. This, however, is difficult or near-impossible to depict in a simple presentation, and in the following lines I will also particularize or list after all. Twenty-five years ago, in the Coptic Grammatical Categories (Rome, 1986), I attempted to present a system of systems, focusing on adverbials, that might serve as basis for identification. It goes without saying, that a precise, sensitive high-delicacy descriptive work is a sine qua non in authorship studies, with the central query being to what extent we can detect the typical, and to what extent can the typical be misleading. Authorship statements are not infallible,1 and can only be as confident as the linguistic description is sensitive and broad-based. The difficulty of authorship proof in a dead language, and, besides, one which we are still trying to get the measure of, should not be underestimated. And yet, ideally and with careful and considered application, I would suggest linguistic attribution is even more conclusive than explicit “philological” one.

Not unlike forensics in general, the logic of cumulativity is based on systemic configurativity. (This logic is exponential: the more numerous and high-ranking the symptoms, the exponentially higher the certainty of attribution.) Few of the features here presented by themselves are exclusively Shenoutean, but any of them in combination with others are conclusively so. The number of features “necessary” for establishing a Shenoutean “identikit” depends on their critical value, which is scalar (lexical features differ in indicativity from phraseology, from morphology, micro- and macro-syntax); on the other hand, the greater the number of traits, the more confident the attribution. An instance of a very high criterion is the rich syntactic range of quotation manipulations; low-value traits are morphological features, including morphophonological ones such as “Akhmimoid” (or Southern) ⲁ for “normal Sahidic” ⲉ, or unreduced prenominal infinitive allomorphs (e.g. ⲟⲩⲱⲙ-), or unreduced thematic pronouns in the Interlocutive Nominal Sentence (e.g. ⲛⲧⲱⲧⲛ-). The theoretical aspects of authorship studies (familiar especially from study of Biblical corpuses), as against the practical aspect, on which I shall focus here, regards internal relations, such as those between ϣⲁⲧⲛⲁⲩ and ϣⲁⲛⲧⲉ-ⲟⲩ ϣⲱⲡⲉ, or between the jussives ⲙⲁⲣⲉϥ- and ⲉϥⲛⲁ, the positions of ⲉⲧⲃⲉⲟⲩ and ⲛⲁϣ ⲛϩⲉ, also such issues and calculi as the cumulative probability of a specific authorship, the absence of occurrence as an identifying factor, statistical features and scales of typicality. The practical angle concerns features occurring in the texts, and aims at assessing them cumulatively, with rising confidence of attribution. While less-than-typical characteristics are ubiquitous, they are usually interspersed with features of diacritical value. A practical principle, of the type of “the dog that did not bark at night”, would conclude non-Shenoutean authorship from a consistent and total absence (in a text of considerable length) of Shenoutean traits, or absence in Shenoute of specific features (cf. Crum, Dictionary 544a, ϣⲁⲓ “festival” not found in Shenoute). Of course, this “identity kit” is as dynamic as it is systemic, in the sense that new texts introduced into the canon, texts removed from the canon, new forms and interpretations, all may modify the critical syndrome.

The stylistic tones of Shenoute’s work are familiar, mostly summed-up as passionate rhetoric, and have been pointed out in various, often (but not always) more or less derogatory descriptions, since Johannes Leipoldt, De Lacy O’Leary, K. H. Kuhn and Bell. This biased and impressionistic view of Shenoute at his most typical, which, however, is of limited use in less than typical, less rhetorical, texts or passages in texts, is simplistic;, Shenoute, who can be quite pedestrian, occasionally surprises us with gentle, emotional, even poetic turns as well as register changes. But his consummate rhetorical craftsmanship is much more sophisticated than that, and his authorial fingerprint accordingly very complicated.

See also: Coptic
Last updated on 01/18/2018