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Sacred Language

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There are some religions (either fictitious or not) that use a liturgical 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 eachotherís 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.
  • Star Trek:
    • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel "Warchild" reveals that there are a number of Bajoran languages, some of which are used only within the Bajoran religion. Kai Opaka wrote about a prophecy about a child from the village of Bennikar in the Kaladrys Valley helping to heal Bajor after the Cardassian occupation and how the child must be found soon. She wrote that in standard modern Bajoran on a parchment decorated on the sides with what Sisko and the Temple priests assume to be decorative, and which Sisko likened it to Islamic calligraphy. It turns out to be an ancient form of the Bajoran language that very few know about, in which Opaka admitted that she hadn't received a vision about a child but felt the situation on Bajor was dire enough that she wrote the prophecy in the hopes that a child would unite the various factions on the planet.
  • 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 Policemen'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. The Book of G'Kar which was written by G'Kar over the latter seasons of the series is one such book. Due to Mr. Garibaldi leaving a coffee ring on one of its pages, the ring is faithfully reproduced on every copy of the book.
  • 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, and is the native language of spirits, gods and elementals. Only well-educated (meaning wealthy or high-status) humans know it, making it an example of high speech as well.
  • 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: While they don't hold it as sacred, Dwarves hold conversations between each other in non-Khazalid language (usually Reikspiel) if a non-dwarf is present (even if the non-dwarf can understand it), because they don't like outsiders to hear it.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: The priests of Sigmar learn the Dwarven language due to his history with them rather than holding their sermons in it.

    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.

    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.
    • Hebrew is also very commonly use as sacred or ceremonial language in many Occult and magickal circles. Particularly those that use theurgy (the invocation of angelical forces) and Kabalah. Damon Brand and Ben Woodcroft for example are Occult writers who often use words in Hebrew for their incantations. YMMV on how accurate their use of the language is, or if they just picked it because it sounded cool.
  • Zigzagged with Arabic. A common misconception among (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. Nevertheless, while translating the Qur'an into other languages is permitted in Islam, these translations are considered paraphrases or study aids, and not spiritually valid — the Qur'an is understood to be the direct word of God as dictated to Mohammed, and consequently only the original version, written in Classical Arabic, is the actual and undiluted revelation. 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.
    • Also, Arabic is very much a living language, with over thirty dialects and 300 million native speakers. The form used to write the Qur'an — Classical Arabic — is dead, however, and has been for more than a thousand years.
    • Various Muslim sects differ on whether required prayers can or should be spoken in local vernacular or only in Arabic. For example, there was a controversy when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey and a champion of secularism, demanded that the call to prayer, adhan, be broadcast in native Turkish, a decision without precedent in the Muslim world at the time (it was restored back to Arabic after his party fell from power).
  • Christianity has and has had several, with different confessions and branches tending to each use their own:
    • 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. After the legalization of Christianity by Constantine and the conversion of the Roman Empire, Latin began to supplant Greek as the sacred language due to the widespread use of Latin in the Empire.note 
    • Koine Greek for Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic Christians. It is not to be confused with Modern Greek, its much more innovative and living daughter language, though Koine Greek is closer to Modern Greek than it is to Classical Greek (the language of Ancient Greece). Koine Greek is also the language in which most of the New Testament was originally written, which largely serves as the root of its modern status.
    • Old Church Slavonic for the Russian Orthodox Church.
    • 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 Ge'ez language, the tongue of the ancient and medieval Ethiopian empires, is used as this in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. Ethiopian Jews also use Ge'ez, though with most of their population now living in Israel, some have switched to Hebrew.
    • The Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and other Christians in the Near East use Syriac, the ancient form of Neo-Aramaic, a group of actual living languages spoken by several hundred thousand Assyrian Christians in the region (most have switched to speaking Arabic or, in the case of emigrant communities, other languages).
    • 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"? Especially if you're having George Frederic Handel write an oratorio for the text.note  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.
      • Oddly enough, American English-speaking Orthodox churches also use King James English in their liturgy. It's also used by Catholic former-Anglicans.
      • 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 liturgical 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.
      • The Reina-Valera version is the Spanish equivalent of the King James Bible, and yes, as in English, some Spanish-speaking Protestants consider it to be spiritually inspired and be the best version, although the "Reina Valera only" movement is far from be as widespread as the KJV only is in English.
  • 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 a Caribbean dialect of English 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 
    • However although Pali is still the liturgical language for most Theravada schools of Buddhism, most Mahayana and Vajrayana disregard it. Tibetan is use for most ceremonies in Tibetan Buddhismnote  as is Chinese and Japanese in their respective types of Buddhism. Unorthodox Buddhist branches part of the shinshūkyō new religious movement tend to use Japanese, for example the Soka Gakkai whose ceremonies known as Gohonzon exclusively use ancient Japanese.
  • 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 was this for the Akkadians and Babylonians, long after Akkadian had established itself as the primary spoken language in Mesopotamia. 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 otherwise faded from use. There was even a (now lost) Etruscan-Latin dictionary (which is kind of a shame, given that we only partially understand Etruscan now).
  • Similarly, Lusitanian survived as such in the Iberian Peninsula post-Romanization for a while. All incriptions found thus far are prayers to the local gods, implying a ritual role after Latin became the vernacular.
  • Some branches of Voudoun use African languages most notably Swahili and some Afro-Caribbean dialects like Creole and Haitian French, for their rituals disregarding of the native tongue of the croud or the priest. Also Spanish is kind of a liturgical language for the Cuban and Caribbean Santeria as Brazilian Portugese is for Candomblé.
  • Spanish is also the liturgical language for the Santa Muerte rites.
  • Japanese is considered the "language of the gods" in Shinto and is the language in which its sacred text the Nihonji and Kojiki are written.
    • Classical Chinese also has a similar status for Taoists and Confucians.
  • Occult works may use different languages that go from Latin to Aramaic, Sumerian, Hebrew, Arabic and ancient German, to ConLangs like Enochian, this would depends on many factors including the tradition, system, entity or tradition in use.
  • Neopagans will use also (as much as they can reconstruct it) ancient languages for their rituals, ceremonies and to speak with their gods. This might include Celtic languages for Wiccans and Neo-Druids, Egyptian for Kemetics, Ancient Norse or German for Asatruar, Sumerian for Zuists, Cananean and other ancient Semitic language for Semitic Neopagans, Ancient Greek for Hellenists, Classical Latin for Nova Romans and so on.
  • Laveyan Satanists use a "demonized" version of Enochian developed by Anton LaVey in their rituals and Setians use Egyptian whilst Dragon Rouge will often use Latin.

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