Heavenly Words: Liturgical or Sacred Languages

My language learning journey actually started with a liturgical language. From age three until age thirteen, I attended Jewish preschool (only until I started kindergarten, just to clarify) and extracurricular Hebrew School, where I learned to chant and, to a certain extent, read and understand Biblical Hebrew. Even though I didn’t start learning another foreign language until I was eleven (when I started to learn Spanish), I had a sense that learning a liturgical language was different from learning, say, French or German. Yes, we’d learn what the words we sang and read meant, but we weren’t learning to make very many sentences of our own. The language was, now that I think about it, “set”. If you refer back to an older post of mine, it was almost like a series of chunks than something mutable and fluid. This isn’t an indictment or criticism of Biblical Hebrew, of course; its set-in-stone nature is a reflection of its current function in the world today: a special language we use to communicate with the divine (not really with each other) and express a communal identity. Many other liturgical languages have this function, though this blog post would be very short and boring if everything was that simple.

What is a liturgical language? A liturgical language can actually encompass a lot of different things. It may be an ancient or more archaic version of a language used for everyday speech (Classical Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, Church Latin in the period when Latin was used as a spoken language, Classical Tibetan), or it may be a language that is no longer used at all in everyday speech, or used very sparingly or by a minority population (Pali, Sanskrit, Syriac, Ge’ez). Even religious texts, rites, and traditions that use vernacular languages do not generally use vernacular languages in the way they are used for general communication. Even the English-language King James Bible uses more formal (though interestingly enough, God is addressed with “thou”, which is equivalent to “tu” in Spanish or French) language than you’d hear out on the street.

The common thread among liturgical languages is their difference from the way we normally communicate and express ourselves. Religious speech is special, and is an example of the ways we separate religious rituals from our daily lives: using liturgical languages for rites, prayers, inscriptions, study or Scripture is not unlike setting aside Friday, Saturday, or Sunday for prayer and family time, or taking off shoes before entering a place of worship, or making a celebratory feast different from all other nights — why is this language different from our other languages?

One important feature of this distinctness is that in many cases, those who want to read and understand a liturgical language need special training or status to do so. I needed to attend extracurricular classes to be able to read and chant Biblical Hebrew. Madrassahs teach young Muslims how to read and interpret the Arabic of the Quran. Many Buddhists from monastic traditions must study Pali or Sanskrit in order to understand the mantras and sacred texts. In the Western Christian tradition, seminaries and divinity schools offer classes in Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Latin for aspiring members of the clergy. An ordinary person with no special training may be able to say a mantra, chant a prayer, or sing a song, but might not necessarily understand it. Not only are liturgical languages a form of speech separated from the everyday, but they are a separate and special form of knowledge. And as the old saying goes, knowledge is power.

So ingrained is this need to separate the sacred from the profane or preserve the legitimacy or exclusivity of the clergy, that attempts to reform liturgical languages or use vernacular languages for religious rites are often extremely controversial. Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers triggered deep religious divides when they stated that rites should be held and Scripture should be written in languages that ordinary people could understand. The wave of reforms in the Vatican in the 1960s (Vatican II) has caused schisms in the Catholic Church that remain to this day — one of the most contentious schisms pertains to Masses in the vernacular rather than Latin. Some adherents to Ultra-Orthodox sects of Judaism refuse to learn Modern Hebrew (spoken as an everyday language in Israel) because they believe that Hebrew should remain a purely sacred language; they generally speak Yiddish for everyday communication.

So far, I’ve focused a lot on liturgical languages in Western traditions of Abrahamic religions, but let’s take a look at the ways liturgical languages are used outside of Europe and North America and by non-Abrahamic religions.

In my effort to break out of my East Asia specialty and learn about the rest of the world, I’ve become quite interested in Ethiopia, particularly its religious, cultural, and linguistic history. In Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the liturgical language is Ge’ez. Ge’ez was historically the language of the royal elite in Ethiopia, and survives today as the liturgical language of many Ethiopian Christian and Jewish sects. Its script is also used to write the two main spoken languages of Ethiopia: Amharic and Tigrinya. The Wikipedia article on Ge’ez compares the language to Medieval Latin — its primary functions were/are courtly and ecclesiastical.  And speaking of Medieval times, some of the oldest illuminated manuscripts in the world were written in Ge’ez; one that was studied in 2010 may be the oldest ever.

One thing I find especially interesting about Ge’ez is that it’s used as a liturgical language in several religions. Now, this is not unique to some extent — after all, English, various forms/derivatives of German, Arabic, and Sanskrit (among others) are used in or associated with multiple religions. Ge’ez is used as a liturgical language by (per Wikipedia) the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, and Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community.

Moving into South/Southeast/East Asia (again), Sanskrit is a liturgical language with a unique history and widespread influence. Like Ge’ez, Sanskrit is sometimes compared to Latin (and incidentally, it’s an Indo-European language, so Latin and Sanskrit are distant cousins, if you will). Sanskrit’s name means “refined speech”, and is used in the religious and philosophical texts of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. You’ve probably heard some Sanskrit words if you’ve ever practiced yoga or learned about Buddhist or Hindu religious practices. It is also a root language for many modern languages in South Asia, such as Hindi and Telugu; in addition, there is currently a movement in India to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language; in the 2001 census, about 14,000 Indians listed Sanskrit as their mother tongue.

Sanskrit’s influence on one of India’s co-official languages, Hindi, also reveals a great deal about religious divisions in South Asia. Hindi and Urdu, two major South Asian languages, are very, very similar — some would argue that they are the same language. However, Hindi’s vocabulary and script come from Sanskrit, while Urdu’s vocabulary and script come from Persian and Arabic. Now, this doesn’t mean that only Hindus speak Hindi and only Muslims speak Urdu, but the differences between Hindi and Urdu are rooted in the influences from liturgical languages. If you’re really interested in this, I highly recommend LangFocus’s video on the subject (in fact, watch all of his videos because he’s really informative and does great work).

Even if you’re not religious, knowing the impact liturgical languages have had on our civilizations and societies gives you great insights on sociolinguistics, history, etymology, language and culture, and language and politics. What do you think the continued role of liturgical languages should be in our society? How do you think the roles they have will evolve as languages evolve due to globalization and mass media?


Census of India. (2001). Statement 5: Comparative Speakers’ Strength of Scheduled Languages – 1971, 1981, 1991, AND 2001. https://web.archive.org/web/20090411183701/http://www.censusindia.gov.in/Census_Data_2001/Census_Data_Online/Language/Statement5.htm

“Ge’ez” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ge%27ez_language

Roberts, Laura. (2010) Manuscript found in Ethiopian monastery could be world’s oldest illustrated Christian work. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/7872496/Manuscript-found-in-Ethiopian-monastery-could-be-worlds-oldest-illustrated-Christian-work.html

“Sanskrit” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit



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