Sacrifice UNDERSTANDING for TRADITION/CULTURE? (Tasbeha in Coptic or Eng?)

edited December 1969 in Random Issues
Well here is the thing tasbeha, asheya, doxologies etc., all sound great in coptic and i personally love it, but to be honest 90- 95% of the time i don't understand each coptic word.

So am wondering whats the point of doing tasbeha entirely in coptic if half the people (maybe even more) do not understand the meaning of the words?

I don't think it even possible to learn the meaning of every coptic word, even then majority of the congregation would still not understand. Thus the we lose the spirituality of the words

I know we can not stop using some coptic in tasbeha because it is tradition, so what do we do sacrifice understanding  for tradition/culture?



  • i have exactly the same problem, thank u !
  • If I may offer an outsider's perspective:

    There are Coptic people who object, just as Catholics objected, to praying in a language which they do not understand. But the Coptic monks are insisting, and so apparently is the hierarchy of this Church, that understanding the words of a prayer is the least important part of the meaning and the value of prayer. The monks remind me that "the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words" (cf. Romans 8:26), and therefore when you are aching, when you are too tired to participate intellectually in the psalmody, you are still praying. (From Mark Gruber's Journey Back to Eden)

    Without getting too high up on my not-even-Coptic high horse, I agree with Mr. Gruber and the Coptic monks and Church hierarchy he references in the passage. I will gladly learn Coptic to pray the liturgy, because that is the tradition of the Church. It is not something to be jettisoned or considered alterable by the protests of anyone. Too many Eastern Christian communities found out too late that once you switch the liturgy to the vernacular, you don't switch back and you do lose your identity. The Maronite Catholics of Lebanon, who kept their Syriac language as their native language for a long time, found that out and now they are in a pitiful liturgical state, constantly fighting to recover lost heritage, and not really able to do so. This is exactly the situation the Coptic Church will find itself in if Coptic is abandoned.

    Your forefathers had their tongues cut out by the Arab Muslim invaders when they spoke this language, yet the Church kept it because it really is that important. That's something that everyone can understand.
  • we do 1 verse in coptic, one in english, one in coptic, one in arabic, one in coptic, one in english etc. etc. so eventually (after several weeks), we will have heard all of them in english, and all in coptic and arabic.
  • What we really need is Coptic EDUCATION - give people an easy way to LEARN IT. If the Church insists on using Coptic then every Church ought to have Coptic Classes to teach basic liturgical Coptic. It's not hard to learn at all - one of the simplest languages I have ever attempted to learn, and the liturgical vocabulary is very limited, since the subject matter for the entire liturgy is the same.

    If we want to TRULY keep it, not just as a bunch of sounds with no spiritual benefit but as an actual LANGUAGE, then we need to learn it. Education is the key.
  • well said epchois,
    I never understood how people could say that "because we dont understand it we need to get rid of it" Should the solution be to learn it?
    I think its a very poor attitude to have in life.
  • Sorry, I don't agree. No one should have to learn another language to worship God. Copts didn't so why make others.

    This has nothing to do with the many positive reasons for learning Coptic. Indeed I am learning Coptic. But not primarily to be able to worship God.
  • I agree with Father Peter, language should NEVER be a barrier for worship.
    We have so many hymns (especially in midnight praises) that have two groups of people responding. The least you could do is alternate between coptic and English (or whatever language your country speaks). Translations should be available and priests should have a good balance in their usage of different languages within the liturgy, according to the needs of the people. After all the liturgy is the work of the people.
  • If we lose the Coptic language, what other thing are we going to attribute back to our mother church in Egypt?  The Coptic Language is an important part of the Coptic identity...if we stop praying in Coptic, it's like losing a part of who you are.  I agree with Fr. Peter that it should never be for the sole reason of prayer, you can pray in any language you like, God understands all languages...but Coptic is nevertheless important to us.  And like dzheremi said, some of the Copts had their tongues cut out just so their descendants can continue speaking Coptic, refusing to let go of their beautiful language in place for a foreign language.
  • But if you have chosen to come and live in the UK or the US or CA or NZ or AU then English is your language now. Everyone is free to live where they like, but English IS the language of the West and English MUST be the langauge which becomes predominant in worship.

    Copts who settle in the West must become missionaries sooner or later. It is a command of our Lord, and those they reach will need to worship God in their own language, English, this is also a necessary aspect of Orthodoxy.

    This is not a reason to cease learning Coptic. But Coptic as a language is later than the beginnings of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The Liturgies were composed in Greek. Greek was the language of the Patriarchate, of scholarship and of theology. Even now there are relatively few theological manuscripts in Coptic, they are rather in Greek. Coptic was the native language of the ordinary people and it began to predominate so they could participate. It is practical texts like lives of the saints and prayers and liturgies which are the majority of Coptic texts.

    There were certainly those I do not doubt who said, 'We must preserve Greek at all costs even if none of the people understand it, or they must learn Greek'. But this view did not prevail. Nor has it elsewhere. It was understood that the worship of the people must be in their own language. And the language of those who live in the West, and who choose to come and live in the West, is English.

    We must be Orthodox before all else. This is not a matter of language. Language is only sounds. It is the substance of our Faith which matters more than anything. We learn Coptic, and Syriac, and Greek, and Armenian because much of the content of our faith is still trapped in those languages, and because we want an aural connection with those who lived in earlier times. But the Fathers DELIGHTED that people in Britain worshipped God in their own language, and Pentecost is all about people worshipping God in their own language.

    Our language now, for better or worse, is English (or Dutch, or French, or German). If we do not want it to be then we should not move to a country that speaks such languages. If I lived in Finland, where I might have done, I would worship in Finnish, and occasionally English. I would not insist that Finnish people speak English. I would not cease to be English because I worshipped in Finnish, and I would certainly not cease to be Orthodox because I worshipped in Finnish.

    That which is most precious from the past millenia is not the Coptic language - which it seems we are not even pronouncing correctly - but the theological, spiritual, doctrinal, hagiographical, liturgical treasures of Orthodoxy which are available to us always in all languages.

    Father Peter
  • Fr. Peter, I agree with you that English should be the predominant language...LOL it already is...the second generation who has come here barely even speaks Arabic anymore...and while spirituality is important, I don't think we should try to wipe out the Coptic language entirely, as some people would like us to do :(
  • Also, if I'm not mistaken, wasn't Greek only spoken by educated people?  The rest of Egypt spoke Coptic, not Greek...Coptic can be traced back to hieroglyphics...
  • Father Peter, I definitely agree with you on this. However, the issue here lies in the older generations not willing to give up arabic and the younger refusing(rightly) to be praying in Arabic a language they have absolutely no tie to. So what ends up happening is Coptic gets shafted and we lose it. I think more or less, in the lands of immigration, there should be a fight against arabic, not coptic. It is a great language to know and understand and is truly an asset to have, but if a language must be taken out, it should be arabic, not coptic for sure. The issue of the pronunciation has been debated and hashed out many times on this forum so I don't wish to turn this thread into a debate about pronunciations as a reason to abandon coptic.
  • As far as my limited understandin goes, Greek was the lingua franca, everyone who was not a peasant farmer in a remote village had some Greek. Alexandria was a Greek city. The Jews there had all spoken Greek for hundreds of years before Christ. It was not just the very well educated who spoke Greek. It was everyone who was engaged in and with the world in any way. Just as a very wide range of people in Egypt today will have some grasp of some Western European languages if only to be able to sell things more easily to tourists.

    St Mark would have spoken Greek when he evangelised, and many of the Fathers in Alexandria and even in the monasteries had no knowledge of Coptic.

    It is a little like Welsh in the UK. The Welsh preserve the ancient British language but it is not spoken in the great cities, and even where it is most well known and is the native tongue, still people speak English when they have to.
  • Fr. Peter,

    There is a huge difference between knowing a language enough to be able to communicate and knowing a language fluently.  I doubt the majority of the Egyptian population spoke Greek fluently.  I was told that St. Mark did not speak Greek when he went to Egypt, he rather spoke Coptic.  During this time, the Greeks had not conquered Egypt yet, so what would have been the use of learning Greek?  Again, I think the people who knew Greek well were the educated scholars.  I believe most of Egypt at this time was made up of farmers and peasants.  Also, before St. Mark, the School of Alexandria did not exist.
  • GODlovesme, I have to disagree with what you have been taught.

    There is no evidence that St Mark spoke any Coptic. Indeed we know that when he converted Anianus, who became the first indigenous bishop, Anianus spoke to him in Greek.

    The people who knew Greek were not scholars. Anianus was a cobbler. Alexandria was established as a Greek city in 331BC, absorbing the older settlement of Rakotis. Egypt had been conquered by the Greeks at this time. So the Greeks had been established as the rulers of Egypt for 380 years by the time that St Mark arrived.

    Everyone spoke Greek in Alexandria. This is where the famous Library was built, where the Pharos was built. It was a Greek city. The Jews there spoke Greek, which is why the Bible was translated into Greek for them.

    In this Greek city the Church was founded, and the liturgies were written in Greek, theology was written in Greek, doctrine was discussed in Greek. The names of the Church Fathers for centuries were all Greek. The population of Alexandria at the time of St Mark was over a million people, and almost all of them would have spoken Greek to some extent. It was not a matter only of the very highly educated. Greek was spoken throughout the Mediterranean, even in Italy.

    I would imagine that with the restricted language of the Liturgy most people could follow most of the Liturgy in Alexandria, and many could follow it without ay difficulty at all.

    When St Anianius cut his finger he cried out in Greek, 'Heis ho Theos'. Not in Coptic.

    It would be interesting to know when the Church of Alexandria was first described as the Coptic Orthodox? I have to imagine that it would have been after the Arabic invasion. Before that it was only ever known, I imagine, as the Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The same thing entirely happened in Syria. At first the language used everywhere was Greek, even though the native language was forms of Aramaic. It was not until the 5th century and later that works were translated into Syriac and then that Syriac texts themselves were produced. But for the first centuries there was never a Syrian Orthodox Church, it was always just the Orthodox Church of Antioch.

    It was the Islamic invasions, and their consequences, which tended to reduce the sense of universality in each Orthodox community, and to narrow the identity to a single ethnicity and culture. In the first centuries there was no contradiction in having a Syrian Patriarch of Alexandria, but later, it would seem unusual to have a Syrian Patriarch of the Coptic Church.

    Father Peter
  • Father Peter, what are your sources for this?  I do not doubt what you are saying but if you have sources I'd like to read up more on the topic...if this is so...then what about Coptic and its descent from the hieroglyphic form down to the one we have today (which was influenced by Greek)?  Where would it fall into all this?  Just the fact that there is a dialect of Coptic that is influenced by Greek, does that not point to the fact that Coptic was in fact the language of the Egyptians for a long time before the Greeks came in?
  • Godlovesme,

    There are numerous sources. Everything Fr Peter said is accurate. The main source about St Mark's first encounter with Ananius is from the "History of the Patriarchs of Egypt". I'll find you an exact reference if you want it.

    The history of Alexandria as a Greek city has been documented by many historians. And Greek was the spoken language everywhere.

    Coptic language, contrary to what people may think, evolved over centuries. From numerous epigraphs in Egypt, ranging from Pagan monuments to funerary stellae, Greek letters were also used to transcribe Demotic before Coptic used Greek letters.

    I don't understand what you're trying to say in your last sentence.
  • Well it seems to me that it is just a fact that the Greeks invaded Egypt in the 4th century BC, and that they established a Greek civilization in Egypt, which sat on top of the local Egyptian culture. Alexandria became one of the great cities of the world, and it was Greek city. Greek was spoken all around the Mediterranean.

    This doesn't mean that Coptic was not used or spoken, but it was not used in merchant trading, it was not used in government, it was not used in the Church, it was not used by the very large Jewish community in Egypt. It was used in the Temples, together with Greek, it was used by peasants, it was used in people's homes.

    Just as I understand immediately what eshlil means, so an Egyptian would understand the same instruction in Greek.

    Any of the major liturgical scholars, such as Dom Gregory Dix, show that all the Alexandrian liturgies were composed in Greek. Indeed as far as I am aware, it was not until the writings of St Shenoute of the White Monastery in the 5th century that Coptic became a literary language rather than just a domestic and commercial one.

    A similar thing can be seen in any culture subject to invasion. In India, with so many different local languages, English can be used by almost anyone, often to a very high standard. The local languages have not disappeared. When the Romans invaded Britain Latin became the language which every used to get by, and became the language of worship. Yet the local languages had not disappeared either. All of the Christian documents from this early period of Britain, and for centuries after, are in Latin. This doesn't mean I am not proud of being English and speaking English, but I recognise that for hundreds of years Latin was the language used by the Church, by Government, by commerce, and in inter-communal dialogue. It is just a matter of fact that the first liturgies in Britain were Latin not English, or one of the local British languages. This is part of my history, it does not diminish or deny my history.

    Father Peter
  • Remnkemi, do you have any idea when the Church of Alexandria was first described as 'Coptic Orthodox'?

    Would the use of the word 'Coptic' point to a period after the Muslim invasion?

    Father Peter
  • Father Peter, the term Coptic originates from Greek word Aigyptos meaning Egyptian, it doesn't simply refer to a language. So when we say the Coptic church-We are saying the Egyptian Church.
  • jydeacon, thanks. Yes I appreciate that.

    But I can't recall coming across any Father speaking of the Coptic Orthodox Church, or the Egyptian Orthodox Church. I am interested in when the Church of Alexandria began to describe itself in national and ethnic terms, rather than as part of the organisation of the universal Church.

    Father Peter
  • I think the arab conquest did have affect on the church being known as the Coptic church, but I also think that came with the splits in Chalcedon and the other splits that occurred in the churches history. Since we were not technically one universal church anymore there had to be a distinction I suppose from then on? I have nothing to back this up but simply my take on it.
  • BTW, the Liturgies we have now were written in Greek and later translated in Coptic and than to Arabic.

    Saint Mark, wrote his gospel in Greek.
  • After Chalcedon we considered ourselves to be THE Orthodox Church.

    When St Severus wrote and spoke of our Churches he always described us just as the Orthodox and when he spoke of the Church in Alexandria, that is what he called it, the Church in Alexandria, not the Alexandrian Orthodox Church.

    And when he spoke to and of bishops he described them as bishop or archbishop of Alexandria.

    So as far as I can see the sense of speaking of an Egyptian/Coptic Orthodox Church was not current in his time c.535 AD. He still had the sense of speaking of THE CHURCH WHICH IS IN X, just as St Paul did. The Church was universal, and was local in the sense that it was the community of those members of the universal Church in that place.

    Father Peter

  • [quote author=Father Peter link=topic=10602.msg129262#msg129262 date=1296591454]
    Remnkemi, do you have any idea when the Church of Alexandria was first described as 'Coptic Orthodox'?

    Would the use of the word 'Coptic' point to a period after the Muslim invasion?

    Father Peter

    Good question Fr. Peter,
    As far as I can tell there is no record in antiquity. It must have been late in the Arab rule. Even in the History of the Patriarchs, which is an 11th century document, I don't see it. I'd have to look through Abu Al-Barakat, or Ibn Al-Asaal. And since I don't know Arabic well, it might take a long time. If there is no reference, I would have to say that my best guess would be 19th or 20th century. It could have started with the Anglican and Catholic evangelism in the 17th and 18th century. Or it could have started with reforms of Pope Cyril IV and the Sunday School movement by Deacon Habib Guirgis in the 19th century. That's the best time frame I can think of. I'll see if I can find any references

    Regarding the second question, it all depends on how you define Coptic. Most people believe it refers to the sons of the pharoh, not the foreign ruling body. Many believe it just means Egyptian. So Catholics and some Muslims use this term. However, many more conservative Muslims take this to mean Egyptian Christians exclusively.
  • [quote author=Remnkemi link=topic=10602.msg129277#msg129277 date=1296596700]
    Good question Fr. Peter,
    As far as I can tell there is no record in antiquity. It must have been late in the Arab rule. Even in the History of the Patriarchs, which is an 11th century document, I don't see it. I'd have to look through Abu Al-Barakat, or Ibn Al-Asaal. And since I don't know Arabic well, it might take a long time. If there is no reference, I would have to say that my best guess would be 19th or 20th century. It could have started with the Anglican and Catholic evangelism in the 17th and 18th century. Or it could have started with reforms of Pope Cyril IV and the Sunday School movement by Deacon Habib Guirgis in the 19th century. That's the best time frame I can think of. I'll see if I can find any references

    Hey George, do you have digital form os Abou Al-barakt or Ibn Al-'asal books?
  • This is quite an interesting topic and I'm wondering Fr. Peter, if I could get your opinion on something. You alluded to evangelism being a future need in the west. What form do you think this must take? What I mean is, when we have people come to visit our church, they are often turned off by the hymns that they are unaccustomed to and the language which they do not understand, even though they might be intrigued by the faith we have kept unchanged since the time of Christ. We know that when the church in Egypt was established, they kept not only their own language, but even their pharonic music. They simply changed the words to fit Orthodox theology. Do you think the same must be done here?

    I personally feel that the ministry of the church will not be successful until westerners are given their own liturgical worship that, while of course based on our current worship, is specifically tailored to their culture. There are things commanded of us by Christ and the Fathers that we can not, nor should we, change (fasting, sacraments, psalm based prayers, etc). However, in terms of Coptic Language or even our beautiful hymns...they are beautiful to US because they are OURS. They do not appeal to most Westerners and there is nothing wrong with that. Culture does not equal religion. I know many might take offense to this and say that we cannot lose our rich heritage, but I feel that at times we forget the culture and language mean nothing when compared to the truth of the Gospel.

    Sorry my question was a little long, but I'd be very interesting in hearing your and everyone else's opinions.

  • Thank You aiernovi! Thats exactly what i was thinking, u read my mind.

    Romans 8:26 is a very interesting verse. H.H Pope Shenouda III says to "pray with understanding, with depth, with zeal...", so shouldn't this also be applied to praising God. Shouldn't we also praise with understanding.

  • [quote author=Chirsts' servant link=topic=10602.msg129291#msg129291 date=1296602262]
    Romans 8:26 is a very interesting verse. H.H Pope Shenouda III says to "pray with understanding, with depth, with zeal...", so shouldn't this also be applied to praising God. Shouldn't we also praise with understanding.


    This is true. Think about the hymns we say everyday. Do you know what they mean? But even more than that, think about inquirers of the is not fair to make them learn a language and culture in addition to a faith
  • You guys, our history is not the same as the Catholic church's when it comes to the language thing.

    You see, after the arab invasions of Egypt, the arabs forced the Egyptians stop speaking coptic by cutting out their tounges and taught their children arabic. When copts realized what was happening, they wrote down all the coptic letters with their arabic counter part, so that one day, when it was safe for christians in Egypt again, their great....grandchildren would be able to revive their language. The coptic church, from about 1100 on, became a largely arabic church.

    As you all know, after the arabs came the ottomans, and after them, the french, then the british, and then finally, in the 1950s, the egyptian revolution came about, and there was a very nationalist sentiment amoung all egyptians.

    it was during this period of nationalism, that our parents tried to revive the coptic language. thats why we use it in our churches
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