All religions have own their sacred languages

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By Harold Raley
Despite their celebrated differences, nearly all religions have a sacred or liturgical language.

A distinguishing feature of nearly all sacred languages is that they are no longer spoken, at least not in their classical form.

• Ge’ez: The ancestral language of Amharic, Ge’ez is the liturgical language of most Ethiopian Christians and Jews. Since it ceased to be a spoken language many centuries ago, I am told that congregational sermons can be delivered in either Amharic or Tigrinya, which are derived mostly from Ge’ez. Ge’ez is a Semitic language related to Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Phoenician.

• Koine Greek: Often called New Testament Greek by Protestants, Koine, or common Greek, is a simplified form of Classical Greek. Early Western Christianity contained many Greek expressions, but as time went on, Latin replaced them. Koine Greek is still a liturgical language of several Eastern churches, including the Greek Orthodox.

• Sanskrit: The ancestor of several languages of India, Sanskrit is a sacred, or liturgical, language of Hinduism, Jainism and Mahayana Buddhism.

• Ecclesiastical Latin: For centuries the exclusive liturgical language of Roman Catholicism, ecclesiastical Latin (a simpler form of classical Latin) still is the official language of the Vatican, though the Second Vatican Council allowed the use of the vernacular languages.

• Syriac: A variety of Aramaic, Syriac is used as a liturgical language by the Marionite Church as well as by certain other Christians of the Near East.

• New Testament Aramaic: It is preserved as a liturgical language by a few villages in Palestine and other Near Eastern regions.

• Classical Arabic: The language of Islam. For centuries, it was forbidden to translate the Koran — and many devout Muslims still oppose it — into what were considered to be heathen tongues, a category that included all other languages.

• Hebrew: Biblical Hebrew is the liturgical language of Orthodox branches of Judaism. As in the case of Arabic, there was initial opposition to translating the Torah into other languages.

• Coptic: Coptic is probably derived from the ancient Egyptian language, which was replaced by a variety of Arabic at the time of the Muslim conquest. Coptic is the liturgical language of the Coptic Christians of Egypt.

• Avestan: The sacred language of the Zoroastrian religion and the ancestor of Old Persian.

Does Protestant Christianity have a sacred language? Probably the closest thing to one in the English-speaking world would be the King James Bible published in 1611, the language of which already was somewhat archaic when it appeared. “Thou,” “thee” and their corresponding verb endings already were becoming obsolete and today have vanished entirely except in prayer and some forms of poetry. Yet, many of us are not comfortable addressing the deity as “you.” It seems that in every tongue and clime, the older the language the more reverent it sounds.

Harold Raley is a linguist, professor and writer who lives in Friendswood. He can be reached at haroldraley(at)sbcglobal.net.

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