Cover Page

Sacred Languages of the World

An Introduction


Brian P. Bennett










What are the most important languages in the world? The answer depends in part on one’s location:

The relative importance of … languages currently alternates during the course of each day. When the sun is over the western Pacific, the national language of China is the most in use, but when the sun is over the Atlantic and China sleeps, English takes the lead. The world’s second most spoken language also alternates daily, between Hindi + Urdu and Spanish respectively.

(Dalby 2001, 24)

Yet other languages, ancient consecrated codes, which can still be seen and heard across the globe, also merit consideration. Five times a day, millions of Muslims stop what they are doing, face Mecca, and recite their prayers in Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition rise at the crack of dawn and begin a chanting session in Pali, said to be the language of Gautama Buddha himself, who lived 2500 years ago. Scriptores in Vatican City work on translating the pope’s words into Latin. Russian Orthodox priests from Moscow to Bellingshausen Station in Antarctica celebrate the liturgy in Church Slavonic. Ultra‐Orthodox Jews utter blessings in Hebrew throughout the day, while at the other end of the ideological spectrum so‐called Jubus (Jewish Buddhists) meditate using Hebraic mantras. Coptic Christians in Egypt and the diaspora sing hymns in a language that can be traced back some five millennia to the time of the pharaohs. In gyms and studios across America, practitioners try to master Sanskrit names for yoga poses at the same time as enthusiasts in India trumpet Sanskrit as a symbol of the nation’s spiritual and technological prowess. When the sun rises the next day, it happens all over again.

Around the world, in temples, monasteries, synagogues, and mosques – but also in tattoo studios and concert halls – people interact with these allegedly dead languages in a variety of ways and for a host of different reasons. These are not the major languages that confidently bestride the globe, though some of them did so in their heyday. Rather, these are conserved languages, precious symbolic resources, utilized for scriptures, rituals, chants, and amulets. Ancient? Yes. Dead? No. In fact, many devotees would insist that these are truly the most significant languages in the world.

This book offers a kind of guided tour of these sacred languages and locales. Drawing upon the academic disciplines of comparative religion and sociolinguistics, it is neither a narrow treatise in linguistics nor a comprehensive global history (see, for example, Ostler 2005). We are interested in the “outside,” not the “inside,” of sacred languages. That is to say, instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of the language (grammar, morphology, phonology, etc.), we will be looking at languages as a social and religious phenomenon. Though sacred languages are typically used for worship and scripture, this is not the place to find a rundown of all the rituals and canons of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and so on, as there are plenty of handbooks and websites that provide such information. Instead, we are interested in the following questions:

Why do some religions conserve these ancient languages? What mythic conceptions exalt them above regular vernaculars?
How are sacred languages used? And if adherents do not actually understand what they read or chant, what is the point?
Since no one grows up speaking Latin or Pali or the rest, how do people actually go about learning a sacred language?
Why is it that sacred languages seem uniquely qualified to foster a sense of collective identity – yet also be so divisive?
Finally, what place do these hallowed languages have at a time of rapid cultural change, globalization, and fundamentalism?

Despite the fact that sacred languages are still vital to different branches of Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, the phenomenon is not particularly well understood. Excellent histories penned by experts are available for individual languages – Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and especially Latin (e.g., Versteegh 2014; Spolsky 2014; Pollock 2006; Leonhardt 2013). But those admirable studies tend to focus on the ancient and medieval periods, giving the impression that the recent history of sacred languages is somehow less interesting or authentic. Moreover, they provide few details about the various and sundry ways that sacred languages figure in the lives of believers. By contrast, this book is comparative in scope and is intended for those unfamiliar with the global phenomenon of sacred languages. It concentrates on recent times, tracing the myths and mysteries that surround these ancient tongues, the diverse practices they are used for, the distinctive methods employed for teaching them, and the ways they can unite – and divide – international faith communities. This is a vast terrain. Our survey is far from complete. We will not be able to see everything and many important locations (e.g., Ecclesiastical Greek, Classical Tibetan) have been left off the itinerary altogether.

Instead of simply describing the sacred languages in serial fashion (Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, and so on), we take a more structural and thematic approach. With the exception of the first, each chapter starts with one sacred language to illustrate a particular aspect of the phenomenon, but is broadly comparative in approach, noting various points of similarity and difference between the specimens. This strategy makes it possible to learn something about the individual languages while at the same time to acquire a conceptual framework that can be applied to other examples and help guide further research and investigation. Chapter 1 discusses what makes a sacred language, and considers alternative classifications, such as dead or classical. Chapter 2 looks at Arabic – to many, the sacred language par excellence – as a way to sketch the emergence of sacred languages in world history and locate their current position in the “linguasphere,” the network of languages that encircles the planet. In Chapter 3 we lay out our conceptual framework for sacred languages and introduce Ecclesiastical Latin as a test case. This framework starts with four main factors or components: beliefs, practices, institutions, and communities. Based on the example of Latin, we also argue that sacred languages should be considered fixed or conserved, not dead or extinct. The next four chapters zoom in to explore in more detail the four components, while also adding further distinctions and sub‐types. The case of Pali, a Buddhist language, illustrates the myths and beliefs that accompany sacred languages. Following that, Hebrew showcases the surprising range of practices – not only religious, but political and artistic – that a single sacred language can be deployed for. Coptic leads off our discussion of why and how people learn these ancient idioms. Next the example of Church Slavonic demonstrates the fact that sacred languages can provide an essential fizz to social chemistry, but can also be combustible. Chapter 8 zooms back out to consider the role of sacred languages in relation to fundamentalism and globalization: Sanskrit provides a telling instance of these opposing trends. In the Conclusion we distill the key features of sacred languages in the contemporary world and ponder their fate in cyberspace.

Since it can be difficult for non‐specialists to observe or get information about how sacred languages are actually used by contemporary religious practitioners, each chapter includes a vignette of a particular language “in action,” from well‐known locales like London, Rome, Moscow, Jerusalem, and Hong Kong, to less familiar ones such as Fort Ross, California, and North Tonawanda, New York. These tableaux provide entry points for discussing different facets of the phenomenon, as well as helping to convey something of the ongoing global significance of sacred languages.

Michael Pye reminds us that, “any attempts to view religions in their plurality, in a conspectual frame of reference, involve the intellectual act of comparison” (2013, 350). Each sacred language discussed in this book has its own complex backstory and is embedded in specific places, people, practices, polemics, and paraphernalia. While remaining cognizant of history and cultural context, a comparative approach involves isolating and foregrounding certain aspects for consideration, while leaving everything else in the background. Such an artificial procedure necessarily involves a difference of perspective – even a certain tension – between the “committed insider and the observing comparativist” (Paden 2009, 236). It is important for all parties to remember that comparison is never a matter of identity: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin, and the others are not the “same” – nor are they totally dissimilar. The very format of a book seems to compel a black‐or‐white linearity that can be harmful to the comparative enterprise. It would be preferable if we could somehow present the information by means of a volvelle or kaleidoscope, each click of which would bring into focus a pattern of chromatic similarities and differences. Comparison is fraught with difficulties, yet there is no way to achieve a conspectual view of things – no way to understand the world – without it (Smith 2004).


This book is an excursion into the world of sacred languages. However, before embarking, we must recognize that certain widely accepted ideas may hinder our journey. A 2009 article in Newsweek magazine entitled “We Are All Hindus Now” claimed that many Americans have quietly, without really knowing it, absorbed a number of tenets of Hinduism, including belief in reincarnation and a tolerant all‐are‐equal religious universalism. When it comes to sacred languages, though, the headline would be: “We Are All Protestants Now.” The Protestant critique of sacred languages, which was originally aimed at the use of Latin by the Catholic Church, has been absorbed widely as if by osmosis. We now live in a vernacular age. To many, the notion of praying or reading scriptures in an archaic, unintelligible language seems utterly baffling. The Protestant ethos has been felt even in doctrinal controversies outside the orbit of Protestantism, including debates within Judaism with respect to Hebrew, within Russian Orthodoxy about Church Slavonic, within Zoroastrianism regarding Avestan, and within Catholicism during the contestation over Latin that culminated at Vatican II (some four centuries after the Protestant Reformation).

This originally theological position has been reinforced by the stirring motto of the Internet age: “information wants to be free.” By now the notion that information should be free‐flowing, readily intelligible, and available to all seems incontrovertible. Yet sacred languages would appear to represent the opposite: fixed, formal, and difficult of access, often taking years of diligent study as the price of entry. As a result, the dominant Protestant/Internet ideology can make it hard to understand a phenomenon that directly and indirectly touches the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

Similes may help us get around this mental roadblock. Throughout the book we will compare sacred languages to precious metals, vehicles, clothes, divas, and computer codes. Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and the other languages discussed in this book, may also be likened to wine. Water is essential for most things: quenching thirst, washing clothes, watering gardens. No one can deny that. Yet water is not so great for offering a toast or celebrating a victory. Many would say that wine or champagne is far preferable for such occasions, while it makes little sense to bathe with Dom Pérignon. For some religious adherents, a vernacular language is water – functional, transparent – whereas a sacred language is wine: less practical, but it gladdens the heart (Karelin 2008). (Critics would counter that it merely confuses the brain.) The religious communities discussed in this book in effect say: one language is not suitable for every occasion. Water and wine both have a place and purpose. Sancta sancte – “sacred matters should be treated in a sacred manner.” It is this elemental religious impulse that helps explain why communities around the world continue to value these centuries‐old consecrated languages.


  1. Dalby, David. 2001. “The Linguasphere: Kaleidoscope of the World’s Languages.” English Today 65, vol. 17 (1): 22–26.
  2. Karelin, Rafail Archimandrate. 2008. Appendix to Samye pervye shagi v khrame: Sovety nachinaiushchemu khristiianinu. Moscow: n.p.
  3. Leonhardt, Jürgen. 2013. Latin: Story of a World Language. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  4. Ostler, Nicholas. 2005. Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. New York: HarperCollins.
  5. Paden, William E. 2009. “Comparative Religion.” In The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, second edition, edited by John R. Hinnells, 225–242. New York: Routledge.
  6. Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  7. Pye, Michael. 2013. Strategies in the Study of Religions. Vol. 2: Exploring Religions in Motion. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.
  8. Smith, Jonathan Z. 2004. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Spolsky, Bernard. 2014. The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Versteegh, Kees. 2014. The Arabic Language. Second edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


This book is intended as a conspectus for students and the general reader. It synthesizes my own research on Church Slavonic with that of experts on other sacred languages, and attempts to fit together ideas drawn from comparative religion and from sociolinguistics. I hope that scholars in these different disciplines will find something of value here and will forgive me for believing that the end (providing an accessible introduction to an important but daunting topic) justifies the means (traversing areas of specialization where I really do not belong).

A number of individuals helped me at various points of what turned out to be a circuitous intellectual journey. Many years ago I had the privilege of studying several of the languages discussed in this book with a series of brilliant teachers: Latin with George Dunkel (then at Princeton University); Pali with Lance Cousins and Arabic with Rex Smith (both then at Manchester University); Old Church Slavonic with Victor Friedman (University of Chicago) and Church Slavonic with Fr. Paul Lazor (St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary). More recently, a number of scholars and clerics answered my email queries or allowed me to observe them in action: Aleksandr Andreev, Sharon Avni, Fr. Jason Barone (and the instructors at the Veterum Sapientia program), Steven Collins, Kate Crosby, Ven. K. Dhammasami, Fr. Mark Iskander, Grigory Kazakov, Pyi Kyaw, Alexei Krindatch, Justin McDaniel, Christian Muench, Elena Nelson, Ven. S. Nyanasamilankara, Tope Omoniyi, Rabbi Gary Pokras, Imam Syed Khalilullah Qadri, the late Martin Riesebrodt, Andrey Rosowsky, and Fisseha Tadesse. I could not have written this book without their assistance. To Msgr. Daniel Gallagher, who took time out of his busy schedule to meet with me during a whirlwind visit to the Vatican: gratias. I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with Joshua Fishman (d. 2015) when this project was in a formative stage. None of these individuals can be blamed if I was too obtuse to follow their directions and went astray.

As this book was going to press, I learned of the death of Tope Omoniyi – a tragic loss for the field of sociolinguistics. As I think back to some of the stopovers along my journey (conferences in Berlin, New York, Hong Kong, London, and Murcia where I first tried out some of the ideas developed in this book), I will always remember with gratitude Tope’s scholarly guidance and generous welcoming spirit.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Tsilli Pines for generously allowing me to use her beautiful artwork for the cover, and to René Drouyer, Peter Gottschalk, and Ori Ronen, as well as Ethiopianapps, the Saratoga Hindu Temple and Community Center, and the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, for kindly granting me permission to reproduce their images.

I am truly indebted to Rebecca Harkin of Wiley Blackwell. She saw something of value in the original prospectus and then waited patiently through several major delays for the final product to appear. Niagara University afforded me the time, travel funds, and teaching conditions needed for work on the project. A special word of appreciation goes to the staff at the NU library for handling my requests for materials in a Babel of tongues.

Finally, I wish to thank my children Camille and Jacob for their love and encouragement; and my wife Donna Delahoussaye, who, with patience and personal sacrifice, has accompanied me on the long and winding road that led to this book – it is dedicated to her.