Sacred language

For the concept of a "Heavenly" language, see Divine language.
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The oldest surviving manuscript in the sacred Sanskrit language: Devi Māhātmya, on palm-leaf, in an early Bhujimol script, Bihar or Nepal, 11th century.
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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 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. In medieval Europe, the (real or putative) ability to read (see also benefit of clergy) scripturewhich was in Latinwas 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, 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 concept, as expressed by the name of a script, for example in Devanāgarī, the name of a script that means "of city of deities (/Gods)".


Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as its main liturgical language, and prefers its scriptures to be studied in the original Pali. 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. 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.[1] In Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan language is used, but mantras are in Sanskrit.


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

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.

These include:

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. 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-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.

From the end of 16th century, in coastal Croatia, the vernacular was gradually replacing Church Slavonic as liturgical language. It was being 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 os Church Slavonic of Russian recension. For example, vernacular was used in the inquiry of bride and bridegroom as to whether they accepted their marriage-vows itself.

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.[2]

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 Ecumenical Council of the Vatican ('Vatican II') accepted and promoted the use of the non-vernacular liturgical languages listed above; vernacular (i.e. 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 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 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 vary in their use of liturgical languages within 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, English, Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, Albanian, Finnish, Swedish, Chinese, Estonian, Korean, Japanese, several African languages, and 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, use High German in their worship despite not speaking it amongst themselves.


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

Tamil is the language of the 12 Tirumurais (which consists of the great devotional hymns of Tevaram, Tiruvacakam etc.,) and the Nalayira Divya Prabandham (considered to be the essence of the Vedas, in Tamil, and all in praise of Lord Vishnu). These devotional hymns, which were sung in almost every Shiva and Vishnu temple of the South India, the then Tamil country and even North Indian temples like Badrinath Temple, are considered to be the basis for the Bhakti movement.[3]
The people following Kaumaram, Vainavam, Shaivam sects of South India and use Tamil as liturgical language along with Sanskrit. Divya Prabandha is chanted in most of the South Indian Vishnu temples like Tirupati.Indian literature . Dravidian people considered their language Tamil to be sacred and divine with equal status to Sanskrit within temple rituals, which is still being followed even by some temples in present-day non-Tamil speaking areas. The Divya Prabhandams and Devarams are referred to as Dravida Vedam (Tamil Veda).

A long-standing myth states that Sanskrit and Tamil emerged from either side of Lord Shiva's divine drum of creation as he danced the dance of creation as Nataraja or sound of cosmic force.


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 is both the spoken and the liturgical language in the Arab World. Some minor Muslim affiliates, particularly the Nizaris of Khorasan 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).

The spread of Islam throughout Maritime Southeast Asia witnessed and experienced Malay as a liturgical language.


Main article: Lashon Hakodesh

The core of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is written in Biblical Hebrew, referred to by some Jews as Leshon Ha-Kodesh (לשון הקודש), "The Holy Language". Hebrew (and, in the case of a few texts such as the Kaddish, Aramaic) remains the traditional language of Jewish religious services, although its usage today varies by denomination: Orthodox services are almost entirely in Hebrew, Reform services make more use of the national language and only use Hebrew for a few prayers and hymns, and Conservative services usually fall somewhere in-between. Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic are used extensively by the Orthodox for writing religious texts. Among many segments of the Ultra-Orthodox, Yiddish, although not used in liturgy, is used for religious purposes, such as for Torah study.

Among the Sephardim Ladino, a calque 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.[5][6]


The Donmeh, the descendants of Sephardic followers of Sabbatai Tsevi who converted to Islam, used Judeo-Spanish in some of their prayers, but this seems limited nowadays to the older generations.


Kannada is the language of Lingayatism. Most of the literature of this Shaivite tradition is in Kannada, but some literature is also found in Telugu and Sanskrit.

Listing of sacred languages


  1. Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2003), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 1, London: Macmillan, p. 137.
  2. Salvucci, Claudio R. 2008. The Roman Rite in the Algonquian and Iroquoian Missions. Merchantville, NJ:Evolution Publishing. See also
  3. Cutler, Norman (1987). Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion. Indiana University Press.
  4. Kanchan Sinha, Kartikeya in Indian art and literature, 1979,Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.
  5. 1 2 EL LADINO: Lengua litúrgica de los judíos españoles, Haim Vidal Sephiha, Sorbona (París), Historia 16 - AÑO 1978:
  6. "Clearing up Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Sephardic Music" Judith Cohen, HaLapid, winter 2001; Sephardic Song Judith Cohen, Midstream July/August 2003
  7. 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.
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