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. (An exception to this is Lucumí, a ritual lexicon of the Cuban strain of the Santería religion, with no standardized form.)
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. 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 laypeople cannot (or should not) access.
Because sacred languages are ascribed with virtues that the vernacular is not seen to have, these typically preserve characteristics lost in the course of language development. In some cases, the sacred language is a dead language, while in others, 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 from 1611, 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 barely 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 incomprehensible to speakers of modern Slavic languages, unless they study it.
Sacred languages are distinct from divine languages, which are languages ascribed to the divine (i.e. God or gods) and may not necessarily be natural languages. 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.
When the Buddha's sutras were first written down in Pali, there were around 20 schools, each with their own version derived from the original. The present Pāli 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.
Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as its main liturgical language and prefers that scripture be studied in the original Pali. Pali is derived from Sanskrit In Thailand, Pali is transliterated into the Thai alphabet, resulting in a Thai pronunciation of the Pali language. Something similar also happens in Myanmar, where Pali is also transliterated into the Burmese alphabet, also resulting in a Burmese pronunciation of Pali.
Mahayana Buddhism makes little use of its original language, Sanskrit. In East Asia, Classical Chinese is mainly used. In Japan, texts are written in Chinese characters and read out or recited with the Japanese pronunciations of their constituent characters, resulting in something unintelligible in both languages.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism is the main school, and Classical Tibetan is the main language used for study, although the Tibetan Buddhist canon was also translated into other languages, such as Mongolian and Manchu. 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. Sanskrit was valued in Tibet as “the elegant language of the gods”. 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.
In Nepal, the Newar Buddhist form of Vajrayana is a storehouse of ancient Sanskrit Buddhist texts, many of which are now only extant in Nepal. 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.
Christian rites, rituals, and ceremonies are not celebrated in one single sacred language. Most churches which trace their origin to the Apostles continue to use the standard languages of the first few centuries AD. Many Christian churches make a distinction between a sacred language, a liturgical language, and a vernacular language. The three most important languages in the early Christian era were Latin, Greek, and Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic).
Sacred language is often defined as those languages which were present at the crucifixion. The phrase "Jesus, King of the Jews" is reported in the Gospel of John as having been inscribed upon the cross in three different languages, thereby sanctifying them as the first languages to proclaim Christ's divinity. These are:
- Greek, the language in which the New Testament of the Christian Bible was originally written, as well as the Septuagint (a pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible).
- Hebrew, the dominant language of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible).
- Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, which soon became a very important language of the Christian Church, especially in the western provinces of the Roman Empire.
Liturgical languages are those which hold precedence within liturgy due to tradition and dispensation. Many of these languages have evolved from languages which were at one point vernacular, while some are intentional constructions by ecclesial authorities.
- Ecclesiastical Latin in the Latin liturgical rites of the Catholic Church.
- (Old) Church Slavonic in several of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches and sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches
- Koine Greek as well as the liturgical language of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church.
- Old Georgian in the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Georgian Byzantine-Rite Catholic Church.
- Classical Armenian in the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church.
- Bohairic Coptic in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and Coptic Catholic Church.
- Geʽez in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Eritrean Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Catholic Church and Eritrean Catholic Church.
- Syriac in Syriac Christianity represented by the Syriac Orthodox Church, Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Maronite Church and Saint Thomas Christian Churches.
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 (e.g. Dominus Deus sabaoth) and Greek (e.g. Kyrie eleison) 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.
During the Reformation in England, when the Protestant authorities banned the use of Latin liturgy, various schools obtained a dispensation 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 linguistic 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.
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.
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 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, but the use of liturgical Latin is now discouraged. The use of vernacular language in liturgical practice after 1964 created controversy, and opposition to liturgical vernacular is a major tenet of the Catholic Traditionalist movement. 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.
Liturgical languages used in the Eastern Orthodox Church include (but are not limited to): Koine Greek, Church Slavonic, Romanian, Georgian, Arabic, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, English, German, Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, Italian, Albanian, Finnish, Swedish, Chinese, Estonian, Korean, Japanese, and multiple African 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.
Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas like the Bhagavatam, the Upanishads, the epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, and various other liturgical texts such as the Sahasranama, Chamakam, and Rudram.
Sanskrit is also the tongue of Hindu rituals. 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. Sanskrit 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 Southeast Asia.
Apart from Sanskrit, several Hindu spiritual works were composed in the various regional languages of India such as Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Odia, Maithili, Punjabi, Telugu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tulu, as well as Old Javanese, and Balinese of Southeast Asia.
Classical Arabic, or Qur'anic Arabic, is the language of the Quran. 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 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. 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 American Jews, the Torah may also be translated into King James English which may be used in liturgy alongside Hebrew.
Among the Sephardim, Ladino 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.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (December 2011)
- Classical Arabic, the language of the Quran; it differs from the various forms of contemporary spoken Arabic in lexical and grammatical areas.
- Aramaic, used in some later books of the Tanakh, some Jewish prayers, and the Talmud.
- Avestan, the language of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism.
- Bahasa Tana is a sacred language used in special traditional ceremonies of the Alfur people in Maluku and is generally written using the Alifuru script
- Balaibalan was invented in the context of Sufi devotion, although it was only briefly used.
- Christian Bengali, the language of Christian worship and Bengali Christian literature restricted to the Anglo-Bengali Christian community
- Classical Chinese, the language of older Chinese literature and the Confucian, Taoist, and in East Asia also of the Mahayana Buddhist sacred texts. The current pronunciation of Chinese characters is based on local pronunciation, for example Japanese Buddhists read Buddhist texts in Japanese Kanji pronunciation.
- Coptic, a form of ancient Egyptian, is used by the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the Coptic Catholic Church.
- Old Czech is used by the Moravian Church.
- Damin, an initiation language of the Lardil people in Australia.
- Early Modern Dutch is the language of the Statenvertaling, still in use among orthodox Calvinist denominations in the Netherlands.
- Early Modern English is used in some parts of the Anglican Communion and by the Continuing Anglican movement, as well as by a variety of English-speaking Protestants.
- Eskayan in the Philippines.
- Etruscan, cultivated for religious and magical purposes in the Roman Empire.
- Geʽez, the predecessor of many Ethiopian Semitic languages (e.g. Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre) used as a liturgical language by Ethiopian Jews and by Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians (in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Roman Catholic Church).
- Early New High German is used in Amish communities for Bible readings and sermons.
- Gothic, the sole East Germanic language which is attested by significant texts, is usually considered to have been preserved by the Arian churches, while the Goths themselves spoke vulgar Latin dialects of their areas.
- Koine Greek, the language of early Pauline Christianity and all of its New Testament books. It is today the liturgical language of Greek Orthodox Christianity and several other directly Greek connected Eastern Orthodox Churches. It differs markedly from Modern Greek but remains comprehensible for Modern Greek speakers.
- Habla Congo (or Habla Bantu) is a Kongo-based liturgical language of the Palo religion with origins in Cuba, later spreading to other countries in the Caribbean Basin.
- Biblical Hebrew – the languages in which the Hebrew Bible has been written over time; these differ from today's spoken Hebrew in lexical and grammatical areas.
- Jamaican Maroon Spirit Possession Language, spoken by Jamaican Maroons, the descendants of runaway slaves in the mountains of Jamaica, during their "Kromanti Play", a ceremony in which the participants are said to be possessed by their ancestors and to speak as their ancestors did centuries ago.
- Early Middle Japanese is chanted in Shinto rituals.
- Judeo-Arabic, spoken by Jews living in the Arab world. Religious works were translated into it, and some religious works, such as those by Maimonides, were written in it.
- Kallawaya, a secret medicinal language used in the Andes.
- Ladino, used in translations of the Hebrew Bible and some Sephardic Jewish communities.
- Ecclesiastical Latin is the liturgical language of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. It is based on the Italian pronunciation. It is also the official language of the Holy See.
- Old Latin was used in various prayers in Roman paganism, such as the Carmen Arvale and Carmen Saliare. These texts were unintelligible to classical Latin speakers and remain somewhat obscure to scholars even today.
- Manchu was the language used in Manchu shamanic rituals.
- Mandaic, an Aramaic language, in Mandaeanism.
- Classical Meitei, the holy language of Sanamahism (Meitei religion).
- Classical Mongolian was used alongside Classical Tibetan as sacred languages of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.
- Palaic and Luwian, cultivated as a religious language by the Hittites.
- Pali, the original language of Theravada Buddhism.
- Some Portuguese and Latin prayers are retained by the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) of Japan, who recite it without understanding the language.
- Sant Bhasha, a mélange of archaic Punjabi and several other languages, is the language of the Sikh holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib. It is different from the various dialects of Punjabi that exist today.
- Vedic & Classical Sanskrit, the dialects of the Vedas and other sacred texts of Hinduism as well as the original language of several sects of early Buddhism and a language of Jainism.
- Old Church Slavonic, also called Old Bulgarian, the liturgical language of the Slavic Eastern Orthodoxy
- Church Slavonic is the current liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church, Serbian Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church and certain Byzantine (Ruthenian) Eastern Catholic churches.
- Sumerian, cultivated and preserved in Assyria and Babylon long after its extinction as an everyday language.
- Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, is used as a liturgical language by Syriac Christians who belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Syro Malabar Catholic Church and Maronite Church.
- Old Tamil is the language of the Shaiva (Devaram) and Vaishnava (Divya Prabhandham) scriptures. 
- Classical Tibetan, known as Chhokey in Bhutan, the sacred language of Tibetan Buddhism.
- Yoruba (known as Lucumi in Cuba), the language of the Yoruba people, brought to the New World by African slaves, and preserved in Santería, Candomblé, and other transplanted African religions. The Yoruba descendants in these communities, as well as non-descendants that have adopted one of the Yoruba-based religions in the diaspora, no longer speak any of the Yoruba dialects with any level of fluency. And the liturgical usage also reflects the compromise of the language whereby there isn't an understanding of correct grammar nor proper intonation. Spirit possession by the Yoruba deities in Cuba shows that the deity manifested in the devotee at a Cuban orisa ceremony delivers messages to the faithful in Bozal, a type of Spanish-based creole with some words of Yoruba language as well as those of Bantu origin with an inflection similar to the way Africans would speak as they were learning Spanish during enslavement.
- Hahn, Thich Nhat (2015). The Heart of Buddha's Teachings. Harmony. p. 16.
- Norman, Kenneth Roy (1983). Pali Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. pp. 2–3. ISBN 3-447-02285-X.
- Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2003), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol. 1, London: Macmillan, p. 137.
- "What is Tibetan Buddhism?". Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Gothenburg. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
- Orzech, Charles D. (general editor), 2011. Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia. Brill, p. 540.
- "The lost Sanskrit treasures of Tibet".
- Lama, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai (1979). "Sanskrit in Tibetan Literature". The Tibet Journal. 4 (2): 3–5. JSTOR 43299940.
- "Mantras – FPMT". 27 April 2017.
- Gutschow, Niels (November 2011). Architecture of the Newars: A History of Building Typologies and Details in Nepal. Chicago: Serindia Publications. p. 707. ISBN 978-1-932476-54-5.
- Simmer-Brown, Judith (2002). Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications. p. 169. ISBN 978-1-57062-920-4.
- Buck, Christopher (1999). Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Baha'i Faith. State University of New York Press. p. 6. ISBN 9780791440629.
- Nakashima Brock, Rita (2008). Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire. Beacon Press. p. 446. ISBN 9780807067505.
the ancient church had three important languages: Greek, Latin, and Syriac.
- A. Lamport, Mark (2020). The Rowman & Littlefield Handbook of Christianity in the Middle East. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 135. ISBN 9780807067505.
the ancient church had three important languages: Greek, Latin, and Syriac.
- Salvucci, Claudio R. 2008. The Roman Rite in the Algonquian and Iroquoian Missions Archived 2012-10-08 at the Wayback Machine. Merchantville, NJ:Evolution Publishing. See also
- "Library : Liturgical Languages". www.catholicculture.org.
- Frost, Christine Mangala (2017-05-25). The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs. ISD LLC. p. 317. ISBN 978-0-227-90612-5.
- Flood, Gavin (2022-05-13). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-119-14488-5.
- "The Tamil Buddhists of the Past and the Future". sangam.org. Retrieved 2021-07-27.
- Raffles, Thomas Stamford (1817). "The History of Java: In Two Volumes".
- Acri, Andrea (2013). "Modern Hindu Intellectuals and Ancient Texts: Reforming Śaiva Yoga in Bali". Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. 169: 68–103. doi:10.1163/22134379-12340023. S2CID 170982790.
- EL LADINO: Lengua litúrgica de los judíos españoles, Haim Vidal Sephiha, Sorbona (París), Historia 16 – AÑO 1978:
- "Clearing up Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Sephardic Music" Archived 2008-04-16 at the Wayback Machine Judith Cohen, HaLapid, winter 2001; Sephardic Song Judith Cohen, Midstream July/August 2003
- 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.
- "The Tamil Buddhists of the Past and the Future". sangam.org. Retrieved 2021-07-27.