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Sacred Language

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There are some religions (either fictitious or not) that use a liturgic language for their rites and ceremonies. That language must be learned by all of their adepts, and sometimes it is even forbidden to translate the holy books to another language, mainly because it is said to have been created by God (or the gods), or to preserve its sacred euphony (good-sounding-ness).

See also Language of Magic and Black Speech. Truth in Television, as The Other Wiki can attest to, along with a non-exhaustive list of real-life examples in their own folder.



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  • Acorna Series: One planet considers Acorna a god because she speaks the native tongue of her people. They had been visited many many years ago by Aari and Grimalken, and their priests had miraculously picked up the language in a single visit.
  • The Belgariad: The language of the deeply religious Ulgo people. It's the only exception to the Common Tongue spoken by everyone else on the planet.
  • Captive of the Orcs: Language is a major source of spiritual power. Dallet develops spiritual powers as he analyzes the holy name, one letter at a time.
  • In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler speculates that in the Stone Age, language (as in, speaking) may have been restricted to the priests, just as was the case with writing in some cultures.
  • Destroyermen: The fact that the Lemurians use Latin as their ecclesiastical language becomes a significant plot point, as it simplifies the process of learning eachother’s languages and also proves that other humans have come to the altEarth in the past. They soon discover that the Grik also use a human language, though they use it as the "Scientific Tongue" rather than for religious purposes. English.
  • In Elantris, the Derethi religion has Fjordell, language of the Empire where the Derethi church is centered, as its official language. At one point, Derethi high priest and Anti-Villain Hrathen debates with himself whether or not it's right to preach the religion to new converts in their native tongue, since Jaddeth (the Derethi god) revealed himself in Fjordell.note  Being the Magnificent Bastard that he is, Hrathen comes up with an elegant solution: Preach to people in their native language, then teach them Fjordell once they're converted. This trope is parodied in another of Brandon Sanderson's works, The Alloy of Law, with "High Imperial" which the readers will recognize as the rather ridiculous sounding thieves' cant from the Mistborn trilogy.
  • Empire from the Ashes: This becomes a plot point in the third novel. The church that runs Pardal has (mostly) preserved the language of the Fourth Empire. Calling it the Holy Tongue, knowledge of it is limited to the priesthood. Several native characters have freakouts when the protagonists prove to be fully fluent in that language, which according to their religion should be completely impossible for "demons" to speak.
  • Firebird Trilogy: The Sentinels use Ehretan, the language of the world they originally came from, for their religious ceremonies, and one of their holy books is forbidden from being translated out of Ehretan.
  • The Lord of the Rings:
    • Quenya appears to have been this for the Númenoreans. Downplayed, since from the perspective of other less powerful nations, especially after Numenor's corruption by Sauron, it was merely a "What rich people spoke" Classical Tongue.
    • The dwarven language, Khuzdul, is a sacred tongue that's also in common use. As it was gifted to them by Aulë, the Physical God who created the dwarves, they treat it as holy and never teach it to outsiders.
  • The Three Musketeers: Alluded to when D'Artagnan and his friends summarize the reason for the siege of the Huguenot-held La Rochelle in which they're taking part is that the Huguenots pray in French while most Frenchmen, being Catholic, pray in Latin.
  • In The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Landsman believes that Yiddish is for speaking to people, and that Hebrew is for talking to God.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Babylon 5 Narn religious books must be read in Narn or not at all. This is because they insist that every copy of them must be exactly like the original; a book written over the course of the series ended up with a coffee ring being reproduced on every copy thanks to a moment of inattention.
  • Farscape: This is discussed in "Jeremiah Crichton" with a long-lost colony of Sebaciens loyal to the Hynerian throne. Over time, one family was able to take the role of priests simply by being the only members who could read the Hynerian language, elevating the royal family from sovereigns to a god complete with a messianic prophecy of his return. When an actual Hynerian royal stumbled on the place centuries later he read their sacred texts, which they had been so confident nobody else could read that they stated all of this outright in them. Needless to say, he was pissed.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • Celestial is the native tongue of the heavenly planes, and is used a sacred language by the worshippers of good deities. For evil cultists there are Abyssal and Infernal, the languages of demons and devils, respectively.
    • Druidic is the sacred, secret language of the druids: all druids know Druidic, and if a druid teaches Druidic to a non-druid they lose all their druid powers.
  • Exalted has a Zigzagged example. The Old Realm is the language of the creators of the world (called primordials), but in the distant past, the gods rebelled against said creators. The creators were defeated, and imprisoned in Another Dimension called Hell. Therefore, the Old Realm turned from Sacred Language into Black Speech in the perception of most of the world. It remains Sacred for the cultists who worship the defeated creators.
  • Ironclaw: Magniloquentia, the Classical Tongue of the city of Triskellion, is the Church of S'allumer's holy language, and required to cast Sacerdotal magic (but not the White Magic most priests cast). Though most of their scripture is written in modern Calabrese and few priests know how to speak or read the old tongue.
  • Warhammer 40,000 has Binary for tech priests. It's literally binary; their various implants include an audio modem so they can transfer information faster than speaking.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: The priests of Sigmar learn the Dwarven language.

    Video Games 
  • Blood has the cultists speaking in "Domus Durbendia", a constructed language similar to Sanskrit and Latin.
  • Dept. Heaven: Asgard has a special classical language that's referred to as the Sacred Tongue. While all characters from Asgard conveniently speak Japanese(/English) for the sake of the players and other characters, someone's fluency in the Sacred Tongue (which is rendered in Greek letters) is incontrovertible evidence that they are from Asgard. This is an early plot point in Riviera: The Promised Land, where Ursula's knowledge of the Sacred Tongue doesn't quite match up with the image Hector wants the main characters to have of her.
  • Nexus War: Every one of the Elder Power cults has a cultic language that only members of the cult can understand. A few of the Religion of Evil cults were too insane and disorganized to come up with their own language and hijacked a dead language from somewhere else.

    Real Life 
  • Hebrew for Jews — though the language has been updated for common speech in Israel, and a number of important Jewish texts are written in contemporary languages.

    The Jews are by far the most serious about maintaining the sanctity of their religious language. A small but significant minority of Ultra-Orthodox Jews — particularly Hasids — regard the use of Hebrew for day-to-day conversation as blasphemous; even the ones who live in Israel refuse to learn Modern Hebrew and continue to communicate exclusively in Yiddish.
  • Arabic for Muslims. The translation of the Qur'an into other languages is permitted in Islam, but these translations are considered paraphrases or study aids, and not spiritually valid. This is related to its roots as an oral tradition and Arabic's nature as a phonetic language. In fact, the written form of Arabic was originally formalized in part due to the need to record the sacred verses of the Qur'an permanently and all together.
    • Various sects differ on whether required prayers can or should be spoken in local vernacular or only in Arabic.
    • A common misconception of (non-Arab) Muslims and non-Muslims alike is that the Arabic language is sacred. It is not — only the Qur'an is sacred. Just because you say something in Arabic won't make a (learned) Muslim agree more with you.
  • For over a thousand years (~500-1517 AD) Latin was the Sacred Language for Western Christians, and remained so for Catholics up until the 1960s, and until 2014 it was still the language in which all official Papal edicts and other high-level Vatican documents were written. It is still used in some ceremonies and masses.
  • Greek for Greek Orthodox Christians. Note that Liturgical Greek is rather archaic and not entirely the same thing as Modern Greek—although it's closer to Modern Greek than it is to Classical Greek.
  • Old Church Slavonic for the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • Similarly, the Coptic language (the late form of the ancient Egyptian language) for both the Coptic Orthodox (Egyptian Eastern Orthodox Christian) Church and Coptic Catholic Church
  • The same applies for the Ge'ez language (the tongue of the ancient and medieval Ethiopian empires) in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches.
  • The Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and other Christians in the Near East use different versions of Syriac (which were divided into dialects from separate usage) or languages derived from them.
  • Classical Armenian is used by Armenian Apostolic Christians and Armenian Catholics.
  • Most varieties of Protestant Christianity avert this, holding that the right language for the Gospel to be spoken in is whatever the listener will understand. Thus, as living languages change, the Bible regularly needs to be re-translated from the original Hebrew (in the Old Testament) and Greek (in the New Testament). However, "most" here by no means means "all" ...
    • Elizabethan English almost manages that in some Protestant circles simply because when well done, King James English sounds cool. After all, would you rather your Bible said, "For unto us a child is born", or "We're gonna have a kid"? A small subset of fundamentalist Protestants, the King James Only movement, holds that the King James Bible is the best Bible; depending on which flavor of King-James-Onlyism you follow, the KJV derives its authority either from the truest Hebrew and Greek sources or from God's re-revelation of the Bible to the KJV translators. Unsurprisingly, King-James-Onlyism is associated with Anglophone countries.
    • Interestingly, some Anabaptist congregations—particularly Old Order Amish—in America still use Alemannic High German in church even though they speak English in their daily lives.
    • Double Subverted by the Finnish Lutheran Church. While the official liturgic language is Finnish, the priests and clergy are required to also know Hebrew, Greek and Latin in order to be able to understand and interpret the original scriptures in the original languages.
  • Hinduism: the old Hindu vedas (scriptures) are written in Sanskrit. Pāṇini wrote on Sanskrit morphology and syntax for the sake of preserving the language as it was intended by the gods. He lived during the 4th century BC and is considered to be the first linguist. Since Sanskrit is one of the oldest known Indo-European languages and therefore very similar to ancestral forms of Latin, Greek, Russian, Persian, and even English, this work is one of the most important in the history of linguistics, up there with the Rosetta Stone. Ironically, Paninian Sanskrit was actually a modest simplification of the older forms used in the Rig-Veda, making Sanskrit in a sense one of the earliest recorded ConLangs.
    • Modern Hindi is this to Indo-Caribbean people in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. To clarify, the Indo-Caribbean people are descendants of indentured servants brought over by the British from India to the Caribbean. Over the years, Hindi stopped being the primary language, and everyone now speaks English (albeit a Caribbean dialect of it) as the primary language. Hindi only survives in religious texts and among the priesthood and temple singing groups, and your average Hindu in the Caribbean thinks of Hindi as a liturgical language, not something that one would speak in everyday life. People in India, of course, still speak Hindi as their most common language, and the linguistic differences between the Indians and the English-speaking Indo-Caribbeans often results in massive backlash today when Indians accuse Indo-Caribbeans of "acting white" by speaking English as their primary language. The Indo-Caribbean people, for their part, retort that even though their ancestors were Indian, they now consider themselves to be a different—albeit related—culture.
  • The original Buddhist scriptures (sutras) were written in Pali/Maghadi, which is referred to in linguistics as a Prakrit ("common speech", compared to Sanskrit, which literally meant "refined speech" and approximates rather closely to the fictional use of "high speech"). Pali in turn may be ancestral to Sinhala, the most common native tongue in Sri Lanka.note 
  • Similarly, although Zoroastrian is very much a minority faith in its traditional Iranian homelands, Zoroastrians still preserve Avestan, a language closely related to but distinctly separate from Old Persian (and, slightly further afield, Sanskrit) in a liturgical function, although most speak other languages (particularly the Parsis, an Iranian ethnic minority and Zoroastrian remnant most closely associated with India, and speaking local languages or English rather than their ancestral Iranian languages).
  • Sumerian for the Akkadians and Babylonians. Historians record that the Akkadians, always fond of oddball religious practices, had at least one ritual involving two people whispering the same prayer into a bull's ears — Sumerian in one ear, Akkadian in the other.
  • Etruscan survived for some time as a ritual language after the language had "died". There was even a (now lost) Etruscan-Latin dictionary (which is kind of a shame, given that we only partially understand Etruscan now).

Alternative Title(s): Divine Language, Holy Language, Liturgical Language


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