Contact us

The English Language in the Coptic Church
by Ihab Fanous
Last update on January 23, 2011

I attended the mass in English for the first time eight years ago when I left Egypt and came to Canada. My first response was hysterical laugh. I couldn't hold myself and had to step outside the church for a minute. This was because it just sounded funny listening to the words that I use to say in Arabic now translated to English even though I graduated from all English schools. However, I decided I have to accept it as part of my bigger decision to live in an English speaking community. On the other hand, it sounded so familiar because, during secondary school education, I read a lot of English poems, classical and modern. It was part of the English literature studies. I started serving in the church as a deacon. Noticing a lot of mistakes in the translation, I learned a little Coptic in order to know the correct translation. Then I started to look into the English service books of the other Coptic churches when I had my big SHOCK. The language that we used in our church was the "old" English. I am using the word "old" the same way as you did in this thread as I learned that it is not the right word to use as I will explain later. I found that a lot of churches are using a different translation. The bigger shock is that they are all different from each other. I talked with my fellow servants and realized they don't appreciate the old English. Continuing my search I found that the major Catholic churches use the old language in their services. In addition, many British and French literature scholars had interests in the Coptic services and translated some of them to the English and French languages few years ago. You can find these books in many Libraries in the universities. By default, these translators used a poetic style in their language which also uses the old English. I realized that the present books that we have in hand evolved from these old versions. The people changed the language to what they say to be modern English that we use today. In my opinion, the old English was not appealing to the youth who started to protest against the toughness of the language. The church at that time was very lenient with the congregation as the priests and other leaders were having a hard time bringing the people to church. It is even during the present day that I heard many people would threaten the priests that they will not come to church again if they did not do what they ask. The habit of doing what the people want went as far as changing the service books. I picked up an Agpeya from church and compared the Psalms with those in the KJV, NKJV, DR and NIV bible translations. I realized that they don't match. I checked some more English bibles, but I couldn't find any that match our English Agpeya. The same applies to the Gospels. It is evident that our translators went a bit too far, in my opinion, by translating the psalms from the Arabic Agpeya instead of copying them from one of the English Bibles.

Looking at the Arabic service books, we observe two main features: they hardly change and they are the same in all churches (northern and southern). There are two main reasons for that. The first reason is that the Arabic translation was handed down by our elders a long time ago and documented in manuscripts. Hence, it is the leaders of the church that assumes the role of revising and updating the books of the church, if needed. Any change in the context of the Arabic translation is subject for approval by to the patriarchate and thus, if approved, applies to the services in all the Coptic churches inside and outside Egypt. The second reason is that the people understand and appreciate the Arabic translation even though, as opposed to some opinions, it is not a simple Arabic translation. Our appreciation of the Arabic language comes from the fact that the Egyptians learn in their schools in deep details as language and literature.

In this article, I am addressing two peoples: the church leaders and the congregation. The churches in the lands immigration must be united instead of competing for who is right or wrong. In my opinion, something like the service books must be handed down from our leaders as one big church. In the past, the church might have allowed the people to make their own books since there was no other source for such material. However, at the present day, we have a lot of resources to build a single source for the context of the service books and the church can make its own books as long as it complies with the main source. Having the English translation as a contribution from the congregation to the church gives the chance for everyone to express his/her opinion, but it also creates diversity among the Coptic people. After all, what we say in our prayers is much more important than how we say it. Therefore, no matter what language we use, we must be all the same. However, for some reason, whenever someone says "Let us unite", the listener would say "Yes. Let us unite all of us and do as I say." Uniting is not an easy task. It takes a lot of effort as well as open mind. It requires extreme humility. It will take more than an article to talk about church unity.

As for the language to use in the English translation, I would like to start with a little correction to a common minor mistake. The word "old" English refers to a language that was used from the 5th to the 12th century. It is not commonly used anywhere today in our communities up to my knowledge. The old English that the Coptic community is referring to is actually called the "Modern" English. The English language referred to as being that of the present day is called "Contemporary" English. Modern English is the language used in King James Bible and Douay Rheims versions of the Bible.

The complaint of the people against the language comes entirely from the fact that they don't appreciate it. In addition, I believe that they also lack a lot of English literature background. If it was explained to them what it means and how it is more formal than the contemporary English, it would have much more respect. It must be noted that people should differentiate between the modern English and the style in which the text is written. Just like in the Coptic Psalmody where, in some praises, the verses are written in way that they would be sorted alphabetically. In some verses, the last phrase in a verse will be the first phrase in the next verse. Creating such poetic style in the text requires a kind of uncommon use of the language yet acceptable. Same applies to the English language.

I really resent the comment that the modern poetic English language is incomprehensible and that it takes a long time to understand the meaning. The service books are there in the church and online, and the people have all the time they need to understand everything in them. Once they understand it, they will know what is being said during service all the time. They don't need to paraphrase or anything of this sort every time they read the books.

To be updated soon...

Send your comments to