Greek Usage in the Liturgy

Hello everyone!

Does anyone know why during mass, we continuously switch from Coptic to Greek? For example, during the 7 short litanies, the priest only uses Coptic but all the deacon responses (except for the one for the air and heaven...) is in Greek. Or during the Confession, the deacon's reply (Amin, amin, amin, tinati, tinati, tinati...) is in Coptic and then switches at the middle to Greek. There are countless other examples during mass and I don't really see a pattern for the switching.

Why are there these switches and why do they occur specifically at these spots? Are they vestiges that were kept from the Egyptian era of Greek-Coptic bilingualism?



  • For most parts the priest originally prayed in Coptic and the People and Deacons in Greek ( usually with Coptic mixed in whether by grammar or vocabulary). Greek was the universal language of the world so the deacon would recite the key parts of what the priest said in the language of the people and in turn the people responded in the Greco Coptic Mix.
  • May I add that St. Basil and Gregory (and just maybe St Cyril) were all originally written in Greek, then translated to coptic and then arabic.
  • Hi Pharoh123,

    It's quite possible that it IS Coptic, but the words are Greek loanwords; words that were adopted into the Coptic vocabulary through contact with the Greek language and culture.

    There are lots of words known to be borrowed, and it's an active area of scholarly research:

    Could you be more specific which words or sections you're speaking about?

  • [quote author=St. Pachom link=topic=14673.msg166269#msg166269 date=1381777929]
    For most parts the priest originally prayed in Coptic and the People and Deacons in Greek ( usually with Coptic mixed in whether by grammar or vocabulary). Greek was the universal language of the world so the deacon would recite the key parts of what the priest said in the language of the people and in turn the people responded in the Greco Coptic Mix.

    Cool! So it is a vestige of an era of bilingualism. But why was it conserved afterwards? After the end Byzantine rule, why didn't they make it all in Coptic as Greek was no longer spoken in Egypt meaning that segments of the congregation would no longer need a Greek translation?

    [quote author=blessedtobeawitness link=topic=14673.msg166274#msg166274 date=1381793123]
    Hi Pharoh123,

    It's quite possible that it IS Coptic, but the words are Greek loanwords; words that were adopted into the Coptic vocabulary through contact with the Greek language and culture.

    There are lots of words known to be borrowed, and it's an active area of scholarly research:

    Could you be more specific which words or sections you're speaking about?

    Hi blessed. Yeah I'm aware of the many Greek loanwords in Coptic that are often inserted in normal Coptic dialogue (angelos, paradisos, kosmos, etc.) but I was specifically talking about parts of the liturgy where the language switches. Example: During the "Procession of the Lamb" before the thanksgiving prayer, the deacon's reply "Amen. Amen. Amen. Ic patir agios..." The first paragraph is fully Greek but the second paragraph (Nee-ethnos tiro esmo epchoic...) is fully Coptic. There are countless examples in the liturgy where this happens. All the deacon replies during the seven litanies (except for one) are fully in Greek (Proseveksate...). Even the most simple priest-deacon reply (Eshlil (Coptic)->Epi eprosvki stathite(Greek)) shows this pattern. The deacon reply: "Greet one another with a holy kiss" starts in Greek, switches to Coptic then immediately back to Greek. Overall, the pattern I'm noticing is the priest uses Coptic almost exclusively but deacon and congregation responses regularly switch constantly even within the same reply between full Greek and full Coptic.
  • Bilingualism has occurred in Egypt before Alexander the Great was victorious over the Ptolymies. There is papyrological evidence that thousands of years before there was a Greece, a community called Hellenomemphites (literally "Greeks in Memphis") lived in Egypt. Greek-Egyptian bilingualism occurred throughout Egypt's history from Ancient Egypt all the way to the 19th century. There is also Sahidic Bohairic bilingualism, and Arabic Coptic bilingualism for hundreds of years. And it still occurs. So there was no vestige of an era of bilingualism. Bilingualism is completely intertwined with Coptic culture and Coptic Christianity. This includes Greek, Arabic, English, French, and so on. As long as multiple cultures have some form of contact, plurilingualism will occur. Liturgical services is no exemption.

  • Hey,

    I thought I would add my 2 cents worth and summarise what everyone else is saying but also add some minor details.

    As mentioned in an earlier reply, the Three Divine Liturgies used in our church all began life as greek texts. This includes the Liturgy of St. Mark, which was written by him in greek but translated into coptic by St. Cyril I.

    You also mentioned that in the Seven Minor Litanies there is a lot of 'back-and-forth' between coptic and greek. This was done, as mentioned before, to accommodate for those in the congregation who were non-indigenous to Egypt. Also, in the older centuries, many priests weren't necessary educated enough to speak greek, whereas the deacons were. So it was the deacons job to instruct the people who couldn't understand the coptic. This however is only 'mostly' true. If you look at the litany for the seasons, it stands out as the only one with a coptic response from the deacon. This was done to accommodate for the less educated 'farmer' population who would have been more inclined to pray for such things as temperate seasons, lush soil, plentiful harvest etc.

    Referring to the point on loanwords, I wish to demonstrate why we have such loanwords. Many of the central teachings of the church were initially taught and written in greek - the lingua franca of the era. When it came time for greek to move aside from centre-stage it was difficult to accurately translate certain terms in their full glory. A good example of this is the term 'Theotokos' (which has also been appropriated into english ecclesiastical jargon). This word has been, on occasion, translated into 'Mother-of-God'. Although it sounds beautiful, it does not quite capture the essence of the word 'Theotokos'. A more correct translation would be 'She-who-gave-birth-to-God'. Because this would be to long, and still only defines to word to a 95% accuracy it would be better to appropriate the word Theotokos. It also stands as an answer to those who would otherwise be condemned as heretics as per the instructions of the Council of Ephesus (431).

    Hope that helps
  • Hello,

    Allow me just to nuance some of the responses presented here so far.

    We cannot assert that the three liturgies we now pray started out as Greek texts that were translated to Coptic. As with any science, all we have is the evidence. The evidence in this case is that we have fragments of what seems to resemble the liturgy of Mark from the 4th and 5th cent, we have a Sahidic version of Basil from the 7th (from the White Monastery) and we have Greek and Coptic Gregory, for which the earliest evidence I am not entirely sure. I believe the earliest complete manuscript of the 3 liturgies in Greek is perhaps the Kacmarcik Codex from the 14th cent. Yes, the 14th cent, copied at a time when common knowledge would have you believe that even Coptic was on its way out the door as a spoken language. The earliest manuscripts I've seen referenced to the Bohairic text are somewhere around the 10th or 11th cent. None of this means these anaphoras did not exist in all three idioms earlier than that. It simply means we have the 3 texts coexisting and we can't assert if they are translations from one another, or have their own independent sources.

    I believe the solution lies more in the area Remenkimi touched upon. As he mentioned, biblingualism in Egypt is much more complex than is commonly thought on internet forums. It is not simply that Greek was the spoken language, the Byzantines were conquered by the Arabs, then suddenly Greek is eliminated and is replaced by Coptic and Arabic. We have manuscripts copied for liturgical purposes with only Greek and Arabic until the 17th cent. We also see clear indications in The History of the Patriarchs that in Alexandria, many people continued to speak Greek well into the Arab era. All the way in the 10th cent we find references to monks chosen to become papal secretaries and are made to learn Greek; or indications that Greek was the liturgical language of Alexandria well into the 13th cent...etc. Even during the classical age of Coptic Sahidic literature (5th cent) you would have still found at least some monks in the monasteries who spoke only Greek, who came from Alexandria or even from abroad, attracted by the reputation of Egyptian monasticism.

    The examples are endless of the interplay between Sahidic, Bohairic and Greek even before Arabic makes its slow appearance. I don't think all this info makes it easier to answer the main question: Why some parts are Greek and others Coptic. At any rate, it is good to keep in mind the complexity of the subject rather than defer to simplistic answers.

    A few more nuances: The litany of nature always in Coptic? I have seen the response in Greek in some early printed Euchologia, perhaps to keep things consistent. Was it made up at the time the book was published, or taken from an older manuscript? I don't know. As a general word of advice, the uniformity in what you see today in printed service books is mostly arbitrary. The right book, by the right authority, at the right time strikes gold and becomes the standard from which everyone else one sat and collected all the manuscripts out there to decide on these small decisions, simply because the goal of accessing all or even a huge portion of our liturgical manuscripts would be very difficult to attain.

    Finally, another thing going on here regarding the responses mentioned where there is a switch between Greek and Coptic within the same response: These are not single responses at all, but were combined in printed books for convenience and as a result of ritual development. Take for example "Greet one another": in older manuscripts (forgive me for not listing exact references now) you see the ritual as follows:

    1- Prayer of Reconciliation
    2- Command to Greet one another
    3- Greeting accompanied by the Aspasmos (later shortened to the quickest aspasmos available, Hiten nipresvia)
    4- Offer in order, stand with trembling, let us attend
    5- A Mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.

    Same with the confession response, where the command to "pray for the worthy partaking" would come between the clergy/servants communion, and the people's communion, separate from the "Amen Amen...etc". This is not mere conjecture based on the content of the responses, you can actually see this separation by pages even in early printed books such as Raphael Tuki (18th cent) and Abdel Messih (1902). On that note, the Euchologion published by Heg. Abdel Messih Albaramousi is by far the best and most "scholarly" publication of our liturgies made for popular reveals a lot about the rite in the early 20th cent.
  • Hi RamezM,

    Thank you for your very thorough response.

    Do you know where I might be able to track down copies of the Euchologion you mentioned; either in print or digital format?

    Thank you in advance.
  • Hello all,

    Sorry for bumping this back up. I found some PDFs of Raphael Tuki's Euchologion Publication and I thought I'd add them here.

    Here's one from Google Books:

    Here's another scan in better quality, but which isn't easily downloaded. Click "overview" to see individual page scans:

    I've also seen it listed under the longer title: Pi jom nte pishomt Nanaphora: ete nai ne mpi agios Basilios nem pi agios Gregorios pi Theologos nem pi agios Kyrillos nem nike euxe ethouab. by Coptic Church. Euchologion & Anaphora. Coptic & Arabic.

    I couldn't find the one from Heg. Abdel Messih Albaramousi. If anyone can point me towards it, I would appreciate it. Also does anyone know where I could find the Euchologion edited by Claudius Labib?

    @pharoah123, I took a closer look at the sections you were speaking of and I began to see what you were talking about. Parts of the Liturgy definitely retain Greek; the end of the Fraction in St. Basil's Anaphora was where it became really obvious to me. 

    When I mentioned the loanwords however, I meant to ask whether it's an intentional carry-over of Greek or whether these are simply loanwords that were imported for theological context. Basically I'm not sure whether the compiler was intentionally keeping Greek in Greek, or simply using the Greek Loanwords that had become a commonly accepted feature of liturgical Coptic. Any idea how to tell the difference?

  • These texts are not simple Greek loan words.

    1. Following accepted bilingualism theories of morphosyntax, bilingual switching between Language 1 (L1) to Language 2 (L2) must occur in recognized points that allow for "islands" of bilingualism. In other words, one may find the following acceptable sentence, "Baba ga' and gave me a gift. Wa ana farhan." You can see that L1 is Arabic (the dominant language) and L2 is English. The switch must happen at certain points. You probably will not find "Baba came wa gave ana a hadaya." This second scenario does not create islands of L1 and L2. Instead it forces a code switching that violates morphosyntax. The use of loan words, no longer involves code switching. One can say "I saw the connection" and it is not code switching. ("connection" is a French loanword). By definition, loan words incorporate entirely into L2 code. It has now become entirely monolingual. Loan words do not involve code switching bilingualism. 

    Why do I bring this up? Because there is code switching between proper (Ancient) Greek and the Coptic texts mentioned here. It is very, very subtle. The code that is being switched has to do with morphology, not vocabulary. Greek uses diactrics (accent marks) and many diphthongs (two vowels together). Coptic uses neither. So complete Greek texts like "ke nyn ke ai" in Greek is καὶ νῦν καὶ ἀεὶ καὶ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων.  But Coptic texts write, ⲕⲉ ⲛⲩⲛ ⲕⲉ ⲁⲓ ⲕⲉ ⲓⲥⲧⲟⲩⲥ ⲉⲱⲛⲁⲥ ⲧⲱⲛ ⲉⲱⲛⲱⲛ. No accent marks in Coptic. kai becomes ke, aei becomes ai, in Coptic. So there is consistent code switching in the Coptic texts and therefore cannot be loan words.

    We cannot claim these texts are an intentional carry-over of the (original) Greek because these texts are not purely Greek. If it was intended to be a carry-over, it would have remained Greek proper - which is what the Byzantines did. If we allow for some cultural influences, then we can allow for a Copticized Greek in order to keep the theological importance of the original Greek. However, theological affinity was not the only reason to use Copticized Greek. 

    The only question that remains is whether it was an intentional or a normal, acceptable, unintentional, progressive liturgical language use. This is impossible to tell. We have examples where it was intentional and examples where it was not. Shenoutean Sahidic Coptic is heavily Greek but it was predominantly unintentional. On the other hand, Raphael Tuki intentionally changed texts. As did Paul Legrade and likely many Coptic copyists of ancient manuscripts. 

    The answer to your question, therefore, is these are Copticized Greek texts, "a common accepted feature of liturgical Coptic", pure bilingualism.

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