In Principio Erat Verbum: What Language Does God Speak?

There are many fields that use language distinct from that of everyday speech. Science and especially law use specialised styles and terminologies; poetry, and literature more broadly, experiment with new language or draw from the past. Cultural allusions can fossilise language that has long passed out of daily life.

This linguistic attitude is most potent in religion. The divine is, of course, outside the scope of our daily lives. It is usually associated with some amount of sacred ritual not subject to casual change. Across all the cultures of the world, it seems natural to people that religion should be conducted at least in a different register of speech, or even in a separate language.

Ironically, today’s major world religions spread based on the opposite attitude. Christ and His apostles spoke Aramaic, but the Bible was set down in common Koine Greek (as opposed to the proper, classical Greek favoured by the scholars of the age). Latin and Old Church Slavonic are the liturgical languages of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, respectively, because they were the languages of the common people. The standard Catholic Latin Bible is called the Vulgate because it was penned in Vulgar, i.e. not Classical, Latin. It is perhaps a relic of this outlook that European languages generally address God in the informal form (in English, the archaic informal pronoun “thou” survives in church).

“And thus We have revealed to you an Arabic Quran, that you may warn the mother city [Mecca] and those around it, and that you may give warning of the day of gathering wherein there is no doubt; a party shall be in the garden and a party in the burning fire.” (ash-Shura, 7).

Likewise, Islam’s holy book explains early on that “We [Allah] have made it an Arabic Quran that you might understand.” (The etymological root qur’an refers to recitation: the Quran’s poetic style would have been intimately familiar to illiterate Arabs like Muhammad). Hindus consider Vedic Sanskrit literally to be the language of the gods (rather than just the one in which God chooses to address people)- it is a convenient coincidence that it was also just the language that everyone spoke at the time the Vedas were set down.

However, as religions mature, priorities change. Preserving orthodoxy becomes vital. No translation is perfect, so even if the language spoken by the faithful shifts, the original text must remain inviolate. This issue exists in other fields- see, for example, the endless debates over the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution- but it is particularly crucial in religion.

With an established following, proselytisation is no longer the chief concern. A venerable register or an ancient language sounds august to the faithful. A cynic might point out that this gives the priestly initiated a stranglehold on the faith, but the simple emotional awe that language can produce should not be discounted.

In spite of the Vatican’s efforts, the traditional Latin Tridentine Mass is still popular among devout Catholics.

Translating scripture is often tightly regulated, and sometimes outright banned. In the High Middle Ages, Pope Innocent III compared commoners engaging directly with the Bible to “beast[s] touching the holy mount,” a threat to the integrity of the faith. His Early Medieval predecessors, scrambling to shore up Catholicism in an age of conversion, heresy, and chaos, had encouraged preaching in the vernacular. But now that things were more under control, Innocent made Latin the sole language of the Church. Centuries later, translating the Bible into the vernacular became one of the hottest (literally) issues of the Protestant Reformation.

From a Western perspective, the notion that it is heretical to translate holy books seems medieval, but that is still a core tenet of Islam. To Muslims, the Quran is the literal word of God, and any translation bastardises it. Thankfully, the Muslims do not burn people for trying, but one is not considered to have truly read the Quran unless one has done so in the original Arabic. (This gives imams, including some with rather unpleasant opinions, considerable influence over less erudite believers’ views of the holy book).

It is very telling that the region of the world with the least conception of sacred language is the Far East. China, Japan, and Korea (and to some extent Vietnam) traditionally lacked the concept of “religion” as we imagine it. Most Japanese follow both Shinto and Buddhism, and China’s census includes non-religious and traditional Chinese religion in the same category.

For thousands of years, Classical Chinese was vital for proper study of the Confucian classics and ancient poetry. Indeed, it is still part of secondary school curricula across the region. But its significance, while great, was and is cultural rather than religious, something like Latin in Protestant Britain. The socio-political philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism were canonical, but East Asians were traditionally pretty laissez-faire about the supernatural. The sovereign was a divine figure (some in Japan still hold this belief), and indeed the closest thing any East Asian country has to a sacred language is the incomprehensibly archaic “jewel speech” used by the emperor of Japan. But for the most part, the divine is closer to the hearth. It would be strange to address one’s departed ancestors or the local gods of the forest in a language they themselves do not speak.

In his address to the nation in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Emperor Akihito shocked Japan by briefly speaking in a language modern people could understand.

East Asians’ firm grounding in natural reality is perhaps best seen in the way they practice Buddhism: only the Chinese would reimagine a figure who devoted himself to fasting and casting off worldly things as fat and wealthy. Accordingly, although Chinese and Japanese Buddhists may be aware of the existence of Sanskrit, they pray in their own tongues.

Elsewhere in Asia, the situation is diametrically different. Those devoted to breaking free of the world really go in for sacred languages. Theravada Buddhists across Southeast Asia learn Pali, a language entirely alien to their own, just because it was Siddhartha’s native tongue. But the Buddhist art of esotericism reaches its zenith in the high Himalayas, where monks pray in a mysterious “twilight language” totally alien to any other human being.

It is only appropriate that such a faith should be an export of the world’s most mystical nation. Indians go in for sacred languages like no one else. Even uneducated Indians are often quite familiar with Sanskrit. The script used to write Hindi is called Devanagari, meaning “of the city of the gods.” The holy texts of Jainism are so esoteric that the faithful do not even agree what they are, and some South Indian tribes conduct rituals with primordial utterances that apparently predate modern human speech.

The importance of sacred language is so ingrained in cultures around the world that even newer religions try to emulate it. Sikhism is pretty young, especially compared to its peers in India. But converts could not imagine praying in their vulgar daily dialects, so they took Sant Bhasa, a medieval Punjabi lingua franca, and made it their sacred language. Pentecostals in America make do with English most of the time, but sometimes are possessed to “speak in tongues” that no one south of Heaven can understand. Joseph Smith was a 19th Century New Yorker who supposedly discovered the Book of Mormon in a totally unknown ancient language, yet he inexplicably translated it to sound like the King James Bible. Translators of the Quran and other religions’ sacred texts felt (and feel) the same inclination to archaic-sounding language. Pagan revivalists in Scandinavia study Old Norse, which would seem weird to their Viking ancestors who simply talked to the gods in their native tongue.

As with so much else, there was a widespread effort to shed the cultural baggage of incomprehensible ancient languages in the immediate postwar era. In 1962, the Second Vatican Council authorised, and indeed all but mandated, mass in the vernacular. Translations of the Bible into contemporary language abounded. In a parallel trend, fewer and fewer non-Arab Muslims bothered to learn Arabic. Many even preferred English, French, or German.

But as with so much else, the trend snapped back. Even to non-believers who rarely go to church, hearing Bible verses in modern English just sounds wrong. Traditional translations like the King James Version in English and the Dutch Statenvertaling remain the gold standard of scripture. Many devout Catholics prefer Latin mass, even if they do not understand most of it. I know several American and British Jews who are not particularly religious, yet still have an impressive command of Hebrew. As discussed earlier, linguistic reactionism is even stronger among Muslims: even those who speak little Arabic agree that a non-Arabic Quran is no true Quran at all.

Texts in their original languages are critical bases for objective interpretation. Each translation, no matter how good, is a slight turn of the kaleidoscope. But however arbitrary their roots, traditional languages have an ineradicable cultural significance. In China, a revival in pride in ancient traditions, including religious ones, has come hand-in-hand with a resurgence of the Traditional versions of characters Mao tried to toss out. Chinese people are perhaps less inclined than anyone else to linguistic nostalgia. Few are really religious. Simplified characters are clear, convenient, and modern. But they are also soulless. For some ineffable reason, they would look wrong in a temple.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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