- 1 Concept
- 2 Languages classified as sacred
- 3 In various religions
- 4 References
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. 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.
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."
Languages classified as sacred
A number of languages have been used as sacred languages. They include:
- Ecclesiastical Latin is the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.
- Syriac, 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 Arabic, for Muslims the only true language of the Qur'an; it differs markedly from the various forms of contemporary spoken Arabic.
- 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, which also differs markedly from contemporary spoken Mandarin.
- Coptic, a form of ancient Egyptian, is used by the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Coptic Catholic Church.
- 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 Christians (in both the Orthodox Tewahedo and the Catholic churches).
- Early New High German is used in Amish communities for Bible readings and sermons.
- Hebrew, the language of the Torah used in the liturgy of Judaism.
- Koine Greek, which plays a similar role in Greek Christianity. It differs markedly from Modern Greek, but still remains comprehensible for Modern Greek speakers.
- Ladino, as a form of Judeo-Spanish closer to the original Hebrew syntax, was reserved for Bible translations by Sephardis.
- Mandaic, an Aramaic language, in Mandaeanism
- Various Native American languages are cultivated for religious and ceremonial purposes by Native Americans who no longer use them in daily life.
- 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.
- Classical Punjabi is the language of the holy scripture of Sikhism. It is different from the various dialects of Punjabi that exists today.
- 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.
- 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 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, the language of the Yoruba people, brought to the New World by African slaves, and preserved in Santería, Candomblé, and other transplanted African religions.
- Gothic, only East Germanic language with substantial texts.
- Korean is the language preferred by the Unification Church of the Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon and the Providence Church of Pastor Jung Myeong Seok. Rev. Moon has instructed all Unification Church (Family Federation) members to learn Korean because Korean is the language closest to God's Heart, and the future world language will be Korean.
In various religions
The core of the Tenach (the Hebrew Bible) is written in Classical Hebrew, and much of its present form is specifically the dialect of Biblical Hebrew, referred to by 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 a much lesser use of the language, and Conservative services usually fall somewhere between.
Christianity does not have a single sacred language. Those denominations that trace their origin to the early centuries of Christianity have often continued to utilize the standard languages of the day. These include:
- Latin in the Roman Catholic Church
- Greek in the Greek Orthodox Church and Greek Catholic Church
- Church Slavonic in several Eastern Orthodox Churches
- Ge'ez in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Ethiopian Catholic Church Eritrean Orthodox Church
- Coptic in Coptic Christianity
- Syriac in Syriac Christianity.
The Western (Roman) Church seems to have continued to use Greek in its liturgy until the mid fourth century AD. By the reign of pope Saint Damasus I Latin had been introduced into the liturgy at Rome. [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, especially as there were no standardized vernaculars throughout the Middle Ages.
Aside from brief acceptance of Church Slavonic in the 9th century (twice, 867-873 and 880-885), the vernacular was not considered acceptable to the Vatican until the 1960s. In the Middle Ages it was supposed that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alone were suitable for the sacred liturgy since these were the languages inscribed upon the titulus on Jesus' cross at His crucifixion. The mid-16th century Council of Trent rejected a proposal to introduce national languages as this was seen as potentially divisive to Catholic unity. Although use of locals language continued in remote mission territories (for example, in the 17th century Jesuit China missions), but especially for sacramental rites, it was not until the second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that greater use of the vernacular—while respecting Latin as the language of the Roman Church—was officially permitted. To a large degree, the Council's prescription was initially disregarded and the vernacular became not only standard, but exclusively utilized in the liturgy. Latin remains the language of the Roman Rite and its use 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, although many make wide use of the vernacular. However, the Eastern Code of Canon Law, for the sake of convenience, has been promulgated in Latin.
Classical Arabic is the sacred language of Islam. It is the language of the Qur'an, and the native language of the prophet Muhammad. Like Latin in medieval Europe, classical Arabic shares both the role of an intellectual language as well as a liturgical language in much of the Islamic world.
Hinduism is traditionally considered to have one liturgical language "samskrita" (that is, Sanskrit). It is the language of the Vedas, Bhagavadgita and the Upanishads, and various other liturgical texts such as the Sahasranama, Chama and Rudra. It is also the tongue of most Hindu rituals.
Notwithstanding the separation of Religion and State guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, the issue of the use of Sanskrit (a north Indian language) has been politicized in recent decades, and some Tamil-speaking Hindus now insist that their language (a south Indian tongue) is equally sacred and divine, observing that many religious texts were also written in Tamil. At least one parliamentarian of the south-Indian state of Tamil Nadu has demanded that Tamil-language archanai to be made compulsory in all temples in the state. The demand prompted a cabinet minister to remark that the choice of Tamil or Sanskrit archanai is left to the discretion of the temple congregations.
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.
- ^ Tamil Protection Movement, <http://tamilinfoservice.com/exclusive/org/tpm/>
- ^ Tamil Archanai Movement gathers momentum in Tamil Nadu, <http://members.tripod.com/~saiva/archana/ar_co.htm>
- ^ “Trained women can become priests”, The Hindu (online edition), March 09, 2005, <http://www.hinduonnet.com/2005/03/09/stories/2005030910520400.htm> .
- ^ Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2003), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol. 1, London: Macmillan, p. 137 .
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