- Sacred language
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. 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
- Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur'an; it differs from the various forms of contemporary spoken Arabic in lexical and grammatical areas.
- Biblical Hebrew - the languages in which the Hebrew Bible Tanakh/Miqra has been written over time; these differ from today's spoken Hebrew in lexical and grammatical areas. Its closest living descendant is the Temani (Yemenite Hebrew).
- Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus and his Disciples. Used by the earliest Christians, the Nazarenes, together with Hebrew for writing the Gospel. Jesus' native western accent survives today in the form of Western Neo-Aramaic in a few remote villages. Aramaic, alongside Hebrew was the language of Post Babylonian Judaism, employed in the Talmud. It also appears in the later books of the Hebrew Bible. It is still used in liturgy today by conservative sects of Judaism, noticeably the Temani.
- Koine Greek, the language of early Pauline Christianity and all of its New Testament books. It is today the liturgical language of Greek Christianity. It differs markedly from Modern Greek, but still remains comprehensible for Modern Greek speakers.
- Syriac, a type 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, and Maronite Church.
- Ecclesiastical Latin is the liturgical language of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. It is also the official language of the Holy See.
- Ge'ez, the predecessor of many Ethiopian Semitic languages (e.g. Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre) used as a liturgical language by Ethiopian Jews and by Ethiopian Christians (in both the Orthodox Tewahedo and the Catholic churches).
- Coptic, a form of ancient Egyptian, is used by the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Coptic Catholic Church.
- Sanskrit, the tongue of the Vedas and other sacred texts of Hinduism as well as the original language of Mahayana Buddhism and a language of Jainism.
- Pali, the original language of Theravada Buddhism.
- Mandaic, an Aramaic language, in Mandaeanism
- Avestan, the language of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism.
- Etruscan, cultivated for religious and magical purposes in the Roman Empire.
- Early New High German is used in Amish communities for Bible readings and sermons.
- Various Native American languages are cultivated for religious and ceremonial purposes by Native Americans who no longer use them in daily life.
- Classical Chinese, the language of older Chinese literature and the Confucian, Taoist, and in East Asia also of the Mahayana Buddhist sacred texts, which also differs markedly from contemporary spoken Mandarin.
- Palaic and Luwian, cultivated as a religious language by the Hittites.
- Some Portuguese and Latin prayers are retained by the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) of Japan, who recite it without understanding the language.
- Classical Punjabi is the language of the holy scripture of Sikhism. It is different from the various dialects of Punjabi that exists today.
- Old Church Slavonic, which was the liturgical language of the Slavic Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Romanian Orthodox Church
- Church Slavonic is the current liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church, Orthodox Church of Serbia, Orthodox Church of Bulgaria and the Macedonian Orthodox Church and certain Byzantine (Ruthenian) Eastern Catholic churches.
- Old Tibetan, known as Chhokey in Bhutan, the sacred language of Tibetan Buddhism
- Sumerian, cultivated and preserved in Assyria and Babylon long after its extinction as an everyday language.
- 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.
- 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.
- Gothic, sole East Germanic language which is attested by significant texts, usually considered to have been preserved for the Arian churches, while the Goths themselves spoke vulgar Latin dialects of their areas.
- Korean is the language preferred by the Unification Church. Church founder Sun Myung Moon has instructed all Unification Church members to learn Korean because "Korean is the language closest to God's Heart, and the future world language will be Korean".
- Historian Robert Beverley, Jr., in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), wrote that the "priests and conjurers" of the Virginia Indian tribes "perform their adorations and conjurations" in the Occaneechi language, much "as the Catholics of all nations do their Mass in the Latin." He also stated the language was widely used as a lingua franca "understood by the chief men of many nations, as Latin is in many parts of Europe" — even though, as he says, the Occaneechis "have been but a small nation, ever since those parts were known to the English." Scholars believe that the Occaneechi spoke a Siouan dialect similar to Tutelo.
- Early Modern Dutch is the language of the Statenvertaling, still in use among (ultra-)orthodox Calvinist denominations in the Netherlands.
- Old Latin was used in various prayers in Roman paganism, such as the carmen Arvale, until its very end. These texts were unintelligible with classical Latin and even remain somewhat obscure to scholars today.
- Kannada is the language of Vachan Sahitya, which is a literature of Lingayatism. Linagayatism founded by Shri Basaveshwara and other sharanas. Some literature of this religion is also found in Telugu and Sanskrit.
- Kallawaya, a secret medicinal language used in the Andes
- Damin, an initiation language of the Lardil in Australia
- Eskayan in the Philippines
In various religions
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. 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.
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.
- Latin in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, still the official language of the liturgy but, in practice, largely discontinued from the 20th century Second Vatican Council
- Koine Greek in several Eastern Orthodox Churches and Greek Catholic Church
- Church Slavonic in several Eastern Orthodox Churches
- Ancient Georgian in the Georgian Orthodox Church
- Classical Armenian in the Armenian Apostolic Church
- Ge'ez in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Catholic Church and Eritrean Orthodox Church
- Coptic in Coptic Christianity
- Syriac in Syriac Christianity.
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.
The vernacular was never used in any rite of the Roman Liturgy (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) 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, 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.
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.
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).
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.
- ^ Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2003), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 1, London: Macmillan, p. 137 .
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