A sacred language is a language, frequently a dead language, that is cultivated for religious reasons by people who speak another language in their daily life. In particular, a liturgical language is a sacred language.
The use of a sacred language represents a further development of this practice. Here, language has changed so far from the language of the sacred texts that the language of the old liturgy is no longer comprehensible without special training. Missionary and pilgrim faiths may then spread the old language to populations which never spoke it, and to whom it is yet another foreign 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. The sacred language is typically vested with a solemnity and dignity that speech in the vernacular lacks. The enterprise of training clergy to use and understand the sacred language becomes an important cultural investment. Their use of the tongue gives them access to a body of knowledge that untrained lay people cannot access.
A number of languages have been used as sacred languages. They include:
Classical Arabic, for Muslims the only true language of the Qur'an; it differs markedly from the various forms of contemporary spoken Arabic.
Classical Chinese, the language of older Chinese literature and the Confucian, Taoist, and in East Asia also of the Buddhist sacred texts, which also differs markedly from contemporary spoken Mandarin.
Hebrew, the language of the Hebrew Bible used in the liturgy of Judaism
First, the Psalms were written in Hebrew, and the study of the Hebrewlanguage and the textual problems of the Old Testament has advanced considerably in the past century, and even in recent years.
In September 1970 the Church of England Liturgical Commission invited one of its members, Dr (now Professor) David Frost, to begin work on a liturgical Psalter suitable for use in the services in modern English that the Commission was in process of preparing.
The Englishlanguage has been regularly refreshed by the importation of elements from foreign cultures, not least from Hebraic culture through the wisdom of early translators of the Bible into English; and we have thought lively expressions modelled on the Hebrew to be poetically preferable to tired expressions and clichés drawn from the vernacular.
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