Sacred language

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

A sacred language, "holy language" (in religious context), or liturgical language, is a language that is cultivated for religious reasons by people who speak another language in their daily life.



Once a language becomes associated with religious worship, its believers often 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 justified fear of losing authenticity and accuracy by a translation or re-translation, and difficulties in getting general acceptance for a new version of a text. The sacred language is typically vested with a solemnity and dignity that the vernacular lacks. Consequently, the training of clergy in the use of the 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. In medieval Europe, the (real or putative) ability to read (see also benefit of clergy) scripture—which was in Latin—was considered a prerogative of the priesthood, and a benchmark of literacy; until near the end of the period almost all who could read and write could do so in Latin.

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, some 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.

In some instances, the sacred language may not even be (or have been) native to a local population, that is, missionaries or pilgrims may carry the sacred language to peoples who never spoke it, and to whom it is an altogether alien language.

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. The concepts may however overlap, as expressed for example in Devanāgarī, the name of a script that means "urban(e) [script] of the deities."

Sacred languages by religion

In various religions

In Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as its main liturgical language, and prefers its scriptures to be studied in the original Pali.

Mahayana Buddhism makes little use of its original language, Sanskrit. An unusual form of liturgical language is found in some Japanese rituals where Chinese texts are read out or recited with the Japanese pronunciations of their constituent characters, resulting in something unintelligible in both languages.[1] In Thailand, Pali is written using the Thai alphabet, resulting in a Thai monotone-like pronunciation of the Pali language. In Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan language is used, but mantras are in Sanskrit.

In Christianity

Christian rites, rituals, and ceremonies are not celebrated in one single sacred language. The Churches, which trace their origin to the Apostles, have continued to use the standard languages of the few centuries after Christ's Ascension.

These include:

The extensive use of the Greek in the Roman Liturgy has continued up to the present, in theory; it was used extensively on a regular basis during the Papal Mass, which has not been celebrated for some time. The continuous use of Greek in the Roman Liturgy came to be replaced in part by Latin by the reign of Pope Saint Damasus I. 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 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).

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

The vernacular was never used in any rite of the Roman Liturgy[citation needed] (the inquiry of bride and bridegroom as to whether they accepted their marriage-vows itself may be considered a non-liturgical act which occurs during the course of the liturgy, akin to the preaching of a sermon during the liturgy of Mass[citation needed]) until permission was granted, by Pope Pius XII, 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 Œcumenical Council of the Vatican ('Vatican II') accepted and promoted the use of the non-vernacular liturgical languages listed above; vernacular (ie. modern or native) languages were never used liturgically until 1964,[citation needed] when the first permissions were given for certain parts of the Roman Liturgy to be celebrated in certain approved vernacular translations. The use of vernacular language in liturgical practice created controversy for a minority of Catholics, and opposition to liturgical vernacular is a major tenet of the Catholic Traditionalist movement.

In the twentieth 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 became not only standard, but 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 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 are varied in use of liturgical languages within their Church services. Koine Greek and Church Slavonic are the main sacred languages used in the Churches of the Eastern Orthodox communion. However, The Eastern Orthodox Church permits other languages to be used for liturgical worship, and each country often will have 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. So one can attend an Orthodox service in another location and the service will be the (relatively) the same. Liturgical languages used in the Eastern Orthodox Church include (but are not limited to): Koine Greek, Church Slavonic, Romanian, Georgian, Arabic, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Moldovan, Serbian, English, Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, Albanian, Finnish, Swedish, Chinese, Estonian, Korean, Japanese, many African dialects, and many other world languages.

Oriental Orthodox Churches regularly pray in the vernacular of the community within which a Church outside of its ancestral land is located. However some clergymen and communities prefer to retain their traditional language or use a combination of languages.

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

In Hinduism

Hinduism is traditionally considered to have one liturgical language, Sanskrit. It is the language of the Vedas, Bhagavadgita and the Upanishads, and various other liturgical texts such as the Sahasranama, Chamakam and Rudram. It is also the tongue of most Hindu rituals.

The people following Kaumaram, Vainavam, Shaivam sects of Tamil Nadu use Tamil as liturgical language along with Sanskrit. Divya Prabandha is chanted in most of the South Indian Vishnu temples.

In Islam

Classical Arabic is the sacred language of Islam. It is the language of the Qur'an, and the native language of Muhammad. Like Latin in medieval Europe, Arabic shares both the role of intellectual language as well as the role of liturgical language in much of the Islamic world. Muslim history, particularly the Nizari-Ismailis of Khurasan and Badakhshan, witnessed and experienced Persian as a liturgical language during the Alamut period(1094 to 1256 CE) and post-Alamut period (1256 to present).

In Judaism

The core of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is written in Classical Hebrew, referred to by some Jews as Leshon Ha-Kodesh (לשון הקודש), "The Holy Language."

Hebrew remains the traditional language of Jewish religious services, though its usage today varies by denomination: Orthodox services are, generally, entirely in Hebrew, Reform services make more use of the national language, and Conservative services usually fall somewhere in-between.


Kannada is the language of Lingayatism founded by Shri Basaveshwara and other sharanas. Most of the literature of this religion is found in kannada. Some literature of this religion is also found in Telugu, and Sanskrit. Kudala sangama, Basava Kalyan are the holy places of this religion.


  1. ^ Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2003), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 1, London: Macmillan, p. 137 .

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