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What Is a Sacred Language?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A sacred language typically refers to a language used almost exclusively for religious purposes within a particular religion or culture. Within Catholicism, for example, the Latin language is often used for liturgical purposes to refer to written religious works without translation into the local language. There are a number of similar languages for other religions, such as Sanskrit for some Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and older dialects of Hebrew that may be used in Jewish services. A sacred language can also be incorrectly used to refer to a divine language, which is a language or words said to be used by a divine being such as a deity.

Many different languages can be called a sacred language, usually depending on a particular religion or culture. The primary purpose of such a language is to express certain sacred ideas within a religion, which are not or should not be expressed in another language. These languages are commonly those in which religious texts were originally written or in which ancient religious leaders spoke. In Catholicism, for example, Latin is often used as a sacred language and though a priest might speak in English or another language, hymns and ceremonies often include quotation and recital in Latin.

Sanskrit is often seen as a sacred language in a number of religions, as many of their original texts utilized this language. Hinduism, for example, includes a number of ancient texts that were originally written in Sanskrit, and the language remains meaningful for many Hindus. Sanskrit was also used to write documents in some forms of Buddhism, though the language itself is not necessarily considered as important as the concepts within the language. Older forms of Hebrew may be seen as a sacred language in Jewish observances, even though Modern Hebrew may still be spoken at services as well.

It is important to maintain a distinction between the idea of a sacred language and that of a divine language. Even though a sacred language may be seen as something holy or religious, it is still a language created and utilized by people. A divine language, on the other hand, typically refers to a language that is believed to have been created or used by a divine entity. Different religions and belief systems can include these kinds of divine languages, often spoken by angels or similar beings, and these languages may be incomprehensible to humans or may be believed to have given people specific words with divine meanings.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Dec 10, 2014

I guess it's kind of like having to study the Q'uran in Arabic if one wants to say one has really studied it. That's considered the appropriate and sacred language for it.

I have to wonder how the Reformation, and indeed the Renaissance, would have progressed if not for the widespread influence of the English Bible. It would have been a different world, certainly.

Latin is still wonderful for musical settings, like Vivaldi's "Gloria" in D minor. It wouldn't be the same piece in English. A cultural notion of what constitutes sacred language makes something in that language "feel" more sacred, as if you're singing or speaking what has been spoken by many before you.

By Scrbblchick — On Dec 09, 2014

It was always a head-scratcher for me why the Catholic Church got so torqued out of shape about translating the Bible into English. After all, the Bible wasn't originally written in Latin, either! It was written in Hebrew, Greek and a smattering of Aramaic.

Granted, Latin does make for beautiful chants and liturgies, but by the 12th century, Latin was pretty much a dead language. No one actually spoke it in conversation, although it was the official language of the church itself. Why, I don't know, since the Romans were not exactly kind to Christians. I've always wondered why Greek didn't become the language of the church. That would have certainly made more sense in my opinion.

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