A sacred language, "holy language" (in religious context) or liturgical language is any language that is cultivated and used primarily in religious service or for other religious reasons by people who speak another, primary language in their daily life.
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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; however, 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. 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. 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 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 derive from mainly Sarvastivada (originally written in Sanskrit). However, only fragments of the original Sanskrit remain. The texts were translated into Chinese and Tibetan.
Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as its main liturgical language and prefers its scriptures to be studied in the original Pali. Pali is derived from one of the Indian Prakrits, which are closely related to Sanskrit. In Thailand, Pali is written using the Thai alphabet, resulting in a Thai pronunciation of the Pali language.
Mahayana Buddhism makes little use of its original language, Sanskrit. Instead in East Asia, Chinese is mainly used. 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.
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. However, 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 Buddhism 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. 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. 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. St. Augustine defined these languages as "having precedence above all others.
- Ecclesiastical Latin in the Latin liturgical rites of the Catholic Church
- Koine Greek, the language the New Testament of the Christian Bible was originally written in, the Septuagint (a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), as well as the liturgical language of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church.
- Hebrew and Aramaic were the two original languages the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) of the Christian Bible was written in. Hebrew's inscription upon the cross makes it one of the three sacred languages. Some religious nomenclature was borrowed from these languages.
Liturgical languages are those languages 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.
- Church Slavonic in several of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches and sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches
- 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
- Ge'ez in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Catholic Church and Eritrean Orthodox Church
- Coptic in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and Coptic 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
- King James English in the Orthodox Church in America, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, English-speaking parishes of ROCOR, and popularly among English-language parishes of other Orthodox jurisdictions
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).
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.
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. 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). However, ultimately permission was revoked. Among the Algonquin and Iroquois, they received permission to translate the propers 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. 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 in 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 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. So one can attend an Orthodox service in another location and the service will be (relatively) the same.
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 Sanskrit and Old Tamil as its principal liturgical languages. 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. Hinduism finds its earliest literary mention in the ancient Tamil Sangam literature dated to the 5th century BCE. Tamil has huge of literature in Hinduism and Ayyavazhi, an ancient non-vedic form of Hinduism.
Most of the Inscriptions in ancient temples across the Indian subcontinent are in Tamil. Tamil prayers widely used in temples in South India, Sri Lanka, 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. Tamil is also the oldest language of the world.
Sanskrit is also the tongue of most 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, Assamese, Bengali, Odia, Maithili, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tulu, Old Javanese and Balinese.
Classical Arabic, or Qur'anic Arabic, is the language of the Qur'an. Muslims understand the Qur'an as divine revelation—it is a sacred and eternal document, as it is the direct word of God. As such, 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. 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.
List of sacred languages
- Sadhu bhasha (Bengali) and Middle Bengali: The sacred language, besides Sanskrit, of the Gaudiya or Chaitanya Vaishnava Spiritual Tradition. Spiritual classics written in the above mentioned two variants include Chaitanya Charitamrita, Vaishnava Padavali , Jaiva Dharma (জৈব ধর্ম) etc.
- 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.
- 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 Mandarin Chinese
- 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.
- 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 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.
- Early Middle Japanese is chanted in Shinto rituals.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Mongolian was used alongside Classical Tibetan as sacred languages of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.
- 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.
- 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, and the Romanian Orthodox Church
- 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 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.
- Classical Tibetan, known as Chhokey in Bhutan, the sacred language of Tibetan Buddhism
- Various Native American languages are cultivated for religious and ceremonial purposes by Native Americans who no longer use them in daily life.
- 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.
- 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.
- King James English is the primary Liturgical Language of the Orthodox Church in America, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and ROCOR dioceses of America, and is used popularly among English-language parishes of other Orthodox jurisdictions
- "What Language Did the Buddha Speak?". www.hinduwebsite.com. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- "Language in India". www.languageinindia.com. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- Hahn, Thich Nhat (2015). The Heart of Buddha's Teachings. Harmony. p. 16.
- Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2003), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 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.
- Lama, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai (1979). "Sanskrit in Tibetan Literature". The Tibet Journal. 4 (2): 3–5. JSTOR 43299940.
- 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.
- 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.
- Raffles, Thomas Stamford (1817). "The History of Java: In Two Volumes".
- 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.