Sacred language

  (Redirected from Liturgical language)

A sacred language, holy language or liturgical language is any language that is cultivated and used primarily in church service or for other religious reasons by people who speak another, primary language in their daily lives.


A sacred language is often the language which was spoken and written in the society in which a religion's sacred texts were first set down; these texts thereafter become fixed and holy, remaining frozen and immune to later linguistic developments. Once a language becomes associated with religious worship, its believers may ascribe virtues to the language of worship that they would not give to their native tongues.[citation needed] In the case of sacred texts, there is a fear of losing authenticity and accuracy by a translation or re-translation, and difficulties in achieving acceptance for a new version of a text. A sacred language is typically vested with a solemnity and dignity that the vernacular lacks. Consequently, the training of clergy in the use of a sacred language becomes an important cultural investment, and their use of the tongue is perceived to give them access to a body of knowledge that untrained lay people cannot (or should not) access.

Because sacred languages are ascribed with virtues that the vernacular is not perceived to have, the sacred languages typically preserve characteristics that would have been lost in the course of language development. In some cases, the sacred language is a dead language. In other cases, it may simply reflect archaic forms of a living language. For instance, 17th-century elements of the English language remain current in Protestant Christian worship through the use of the King James Bible or older versions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In more extreme cases, the language has changed so much from the language of the sacred texts that the liturgy is no longer comprehensible without special training. For example, the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church remained in Latin after the Council of Tours in 813 ordered preaching in local Romance or German because Latin was no longer understood. Similarly, Old Church Slavonic is not comprehensible to speakers of modern Slavic languages, unless they study it especially. The concept of sacred languages is distinct from that of divine languages, which are languages ascribed to the divine (i.e. God or gods) and may not necessarily be natural languages.[citation needed] The concept, as expressed by the name of a script, for example in Devanāgarī, the name of a script that roughly means "[script] of the city of gods”, and is used to write many Indian languages.


Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan are the main sacred languages of Buddhism.[1][2]

When Buddha's sutras were first written down in Pali, there were around 20 schools, each with their own version derived from the original. The Pali canon originates from the Tamrashatiya school. The Chinese and Tibetan canons mainly derive from the Sarvastivada (originally written in Sanskrit, of which fragments remain). The texts were translated into Chinese and Tibetan.[3]

Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as its main liturgical language and prefers its scriptures to be studied in the original Pali.[citation needed] Pali is derived from one of[specify] the Indian Prakrits, which are closely related to Sanskrit. In Thailand, Pali is written using the Thai alphabet,[citation needed] resulting in a Thai pronunciation of the Pali language.

Mahayana Buddhism makes little use of its original language, Sanskrit.[citation needed] Instead in East Asia, Chinese is mainly used.[citation needed] In some Japanese rituals, Chinese texts are read out or recited with the Japanese pronunciations of their constituent characters, resulting in something unintelligible in both languages.[4]

In Vajrayana Buddhism Tibetan Buddhism is the main school, and Classical Tibetan is the main language used for study,[5] although the Tibetan Buddhist canon was also translated into other languages, such as Mongolian and Manchu.[6] Many items of Sanskrit Buddhist literature have been preserved because they were exported to Tibet, with copies of unknown ancient Sanskrit texts surfacing in Tibet as recently as 2003.[7] Sanskrit was valued in Tibet as “the elegant language of the gods”.[8] Although in Tibetan Buddhist deity yoga the rest of the sadhana is generally recited in Tibetan, the mantra portion of the practice is usually retained in its original Sanskrit.[9]

In Nepal the Newar Buddhism form of Vajrayana is a storehouse of ancient Sanskrit Buddhist texts, many of which are now only extant in Nepal.[10] Whatever language is used, Judith Simmer-Brown explains that a tantric Vajrayana text is often written in an obscure twilight language so that it cannot be understood by anyone without the verbal explanation of a qualified teacher.[11]


Navy Chaplain Milton Gianulis conducts an Easter morning Orthodox Liturgy candlelight service aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75)

Christian rites, rituals, and ceremonies are not celebrated in one single sacred language. The Churches which trace their origin to the Apostles continued to use the standard languages of the first few centuries AD. Many ritualistic Christian churches make a distinction between sacred language, liturgical language and vernacular language.

Sacred language is often defined as those languages which were present at the crucifixion.[citation needed] The phrase "Jesus, King of the Jews" is reported by St. Luke as having been inscribed upon the cross in three different languages, thereby sanctifing them as the first languages to proclaim Christ's divinity.

These include:

Liturgical languages are those which hold precedence within liturgy due to tradition and dispensation. many of these languages are evolutions of languages which were at one point vernacular, while some are intentional constructions by ecclessial authorities. liturgical language differs from Vernacular language in that it is often no longer the tongue of the common man, but retains a place of honor due to tradition.

These include:

The extensive use of Greek in the Roman Liturgy has continued, in theory; it was used extensively on a regular basis during the Papal Mass, which has not been celebrated for some time. By the reign of Pope Damasus I, the continuous use of Greek in the Roman Liturgy had come to be replaced in part by Latin. Gradually, the Roman Liturgy took on more and more Latin until, generally, only a few words of Hebrew and Greek remained. The adoption of Latin was further fostered when the Vetus Latina (old latin) version of the Bible was edited and parts retranslated from the original Hebrew and Greek by Saint Jerome in his Vulgate. Latin continued as the Western Church's language of liturgy and communication. One simply practical reason for this may be that there were no standardized vernaculars throughout the Middle Ages. Church Slavonic was used for the celebration of the Roman Liturgy in the 9th century (twice, 867-873 and 880-885).[citation needed]

In the mid-16th century the Council of Trent rejected a proposal to introduce national languages as this was seen, among other reasons, as potentially divisive to Catholic unity.[citation needed]

During the Reformation in England, when the Protestant authorities banned the use of Latin liturgy, various schools obtained a dispension to continue to use Latin, for educational purposes.

From the end of 16th century, in coastal Croatia, the vernacular was gradually replacing Church Slavonic as the liturgical language. It was introduced in the rite of the Roman Liturgy, after the Church Slavonic language of glagolitic liturgical books, published in Rome, was becoming increasingly unintelligible due to linguistical reforms, namely, adapting Church Slavonic of Croatian recension by the norms of Church Slavonic of Russian recension.[clarification needed] For example, the vernacular was used to enquire of the bride and bridegroom whether they accepted their marriage vows.

Jesuit missionaries to China had sought, and for a short time received permission, to translate the Roman Missal into scholarly Classical Chinese. (See Chinese Rites controversy). Ultimately, this was revoked. Among the Algonquin and Iroquois, they received permission to translate the propers[clarification needed] of the Mass into the vernacular.[12]

In the 20th century, Pope Pius XII granted permission for a few vernaculars to be used in a few rites, rituals, and ceremonies. This did not include the Roman Liturgy of the Mass.

The Catholic Church, long before the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), had accepted and promoted the use of the non-vernacular liturgical languages listed above; while vernacular (i.e. modern or native) languages were also used liturgically throughout history; usually as a special concession given to religious orders conducting missionary activity.[13] The use of vernacular language in liturgical practice after 1964 created controversy for a minority of Catholics, and opposition to liturgical vernacular is a major tenet of the Catholic Traditionalist movement.

In the 20th century, Vatican II set out to protect the use of Latin as a liturgical language. To a large degree, its prescription was initially disregarded and the vernacular not only became standard, but was generally used exclusively in the liturgy. Latin, which remains the chief language of the Roman Rite, is the main language of the Roman Missal (the official book of liturgy for the Latin Rite) and of the Code of Canon Law, and the use of liturgical Latin is still encouraged. Large-scale papal ceremonies often make use of it. Meanwhile, the numerous Eastern Catholic Churches in union with Rome each have their own respective "parent-language". As a subsidiary issue, unrelated to liturgy, the Eastern Code of Canon Law, for the sake of convenience, has been promulgated in Latin.

Eastern Orthodox churches vary in their use of liturgical languages. Koine Greek and Church Slavonic are the main sacred languages used in communion. Other languages are also permitted for liturgical worship, and each country often has the liturgical services in their own language. This has led to a wide variety of languages used for liturgical worship, but there is still uniformity in the liturgical worship itself.[citation needed]

Liturgical languages used in the Eastern Orthodox Church include: Koine Greek, Church Slavonic, Romanian, Georgian, Arabic, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, Albanian, Finnish, Swedish, Chinese, Estonian, Korean, Japanese, King James English, several African languages and other world languages.

Oriental Orthodox churches outside their ancestral lands regularly pray in the local vernacular, but some clergymen and communities prefer to retain their traditional language or use a combination of languages.

Many Anabaptist groups, such as the Amish, use High German in their worship despite not speaking it amongst themselves.


Hinduism is traditionally considered to have Old Tamil and Sanskrit as its principal liturgical languages.[14] Hinduism finds its earliest literary mention in the ancient Tamil Sangam literature dated to the 5th - 10th century BCE.[15][16] Tamil has huge volume of literature in Hinduism especially Saivism and Vainavism.[17][18] Origin of Hinduism is based on Dravidian folk religion, an ancient non-vedic form of Hinduism.[19][20][21]Shaivism developed based on pre-Vedic religions and traditions derived from the southern Tamil Dravidian Shaiva Siddhanta traditions and philosophies.[22][23]

Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, Bhagavadgita, Puranas like Bhagavatam, the Upanishads, the Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata and various other liturgical texts such as the Sahasranama, Chamakam and Rudram. Agamas, the scriptures chiefly constituting the methods of temple construction and creation of murti, worship means of deities, philosophical doctrines, meditative practices, attainment of sixfold desires and four kinds of yoga are in Tamil and Sanskrit.[24]

Most of the Inscriptions in ancient temples across the Indian subcontinent are in Tamil.[25][26]Tamil archanas and prayers widely used in temples in South India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The twelve Azhwars (saint poets of Vaishnavite tradition) and sixty-three Nayanars (saint poets of Shaivite tradition) are regarded as exponents of the bhakti tradition of Hinduism in South India.[27] Tamil is also one of the oldest continuously used languages in the world.[28][29][30][31]

Sanskrit is also the tongue of most Indian Hindu rituals. It is an Indo-Aryan language and therefore a member of the Indo-European language family. It therefore has some similarities with Greek and Latin, as well as with many vernacular languages of Europe and south Asia. Like Latin and Greek, it also has secular literature along with its religious canon. Most Hindu theologians of later centuries continued to prefer to write in Sanskrit even when it was no longer spoken as a day-to-day language.

While Sanskrit has often been associated with Brahmanism, it remains as the only liturgical link language which connects the different strains of Hinduism that are present across India. The de facto position that Sanskrit enjoyed, as the principal language of Hinduism, enabled its survival not only in India but also in other areas where Hinduism thrived like South East Asia. Apart from Sanskrit and Tamil, several Hindu spiritual works were composed in the various regional languages of India such as Hindi (incl. Awadhi and Braj Bhasha dialects), Assamese, Bengali, Odia, Maithili, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tulu, Old Javanese[32] and Balinese.[33]


Classical Arabic, or Qur'anic Arabic, is the language of the Qur'an. Muslims believe the Qur'an as divine revelation—it is a sacred and eternal document, and as such it is believed to be the direct word of God. Thus Muslims hold that the Qur'an is only truly the Qur'an if it is precisely as it was revealed—i.e., in Classical Arabic. Translations of the Qur'an into other languages are therefore not treated as the Qur'an itself; rather, they are seen as interpretive texts, which attempt to communicate a translation of the Qur'an's message. Salah and other rituals are also conducted in Classical Arabic for this reason. Scholars of Islam must learn and interpret the Qur'an in classical Arabic. Islamic Friday sermons are delivered mainly in Modern Standard Arabic in all Arabic-speaking countries and are sometimes mixed with local Arabic vernaculars or other native non-Arabic languages like Berber or Kurdish. In non-Arabic speaking countries the Friday sermons are delivered in a mix of local languages and Classical Arabic Qur'anic verses.


The core of the Hebrew Bible is written in Biblical Hebrew, referred to by some Jews as Lashon Hakodesh (לשון הקודש, "Language of Holiness"). Hebrew (and in the case of a few texts such as the Kaddish, Aramaic) remains the traditional language of Jewish religious services. Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic are used extensively by the Orthodox for writing religious texts.

Among many segments of the Haredi, Yiddish, although not used in liturgy, is used for religious purposes, such as for Torah study. In contemporary Israel, where Yiddish has virtually disappeared as a spoken language among the general public, it is cultivated and extensively used by some Haredi groups - partly in protest against Hebrew, the traditional sacred language they see having been profaned by Zionism, making it the main language of modern secular Israeli society.[citation needed] Moreover, in these circles Yiddish is associated with the memory of the great Torah sages of Eastern Europe, who spoke it and whose communities were destroyed in the Holocaust.

Among the Sephardim, Ladino, a creole of Hebrew or Aramaic syntax and Castilian words, was used for sacred translations such as the Ferrara Bible. It was also used during the Sephardi liturgy. Note that the name Ladino is also used for Judeo-Spanish, a dialect of Castilian used by Sephardim as an everyday language until the 20th century.[34][35]



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  37. ^ Nirmal Dass (2000). Songs of Saints from Adi Granth. SUNY Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-7914-4684-3. Retrieved 29 November 2012. Any attempt at translating songs from the Adi Granth certainly involves working not with one language, but several, along with dialectical differences. The languages used by the saints range from Sanskrit; regional Prakrits; western, eastern and southern Apabhramsa; and Sahaskrit. More particularly, we find sant bhasha, Marathi, Old Hindi, central and Lehndi Panjabi, Sindhi and Persian. There are also many dialects deployed, such as Purbi Marwari, Bangru, Dakhni, Malwai, and Awadhi.