Holy Tongue

Book with Ethiopian religious textWhence hast thou come to sit before thy computer?

Most English speakers will recognize the dialect I’ve used there as an older form of English, creating a strange effect in using it to refer to a computer. In fact, most English speakers recognize that I’ve used the same language as the King James Bible, published in 1611 (and also the dialect used by Shakespeare, who died 1615).

There are even modern writings or translations that use this dialect, or some imitation of it, in creating religious texts. Here is an example from Bahai religious writings, listed online as the 2002 edition: “O thou who treadest the path of justice and beholdest the countenance of mercy!”

The sentence is harder to read than it would be if it used normal modern English, so why make people stumble clumsily through a more difficult language? Because, for people who absorbed the older dialect of English as the language of the Bible, that language “sounds religious”. And for some people, adding that religious feeling to a piece of writing becomes more important than making sure people can understand it.

A far more extreme example exists in Islam with the Arabic language. Although the Quran has been translated into many languages, there are people who claim that since the Quran was given to Mohammad in Arabic (by now, ancient Arabic), that language is the only true version. Such an argument has been influential, and throughout the world there are people who learn to read the sounds of the Arabic letters, and who thus “read” the Quran, without understanding the words.

In a previous blog I talked about the fact that human beings are superstitious about language, believing in many cases that words have a kind of magical power, as in curses, blessings, or magical spells. Perhaps it’s that unconscious belief in the magic of language that causes us to attach religious significance to a particular language. After all, if the words of a single phrase can carry supernatural power, how much more powerful is an entire language devoted to religion?

With both the King James Bible and the Quran, the language has acquired a religious aura because it was used to write a religious text. I find this especially interesting, that writing can give a language special power. It’s certainly not just these two cases were we find this. Far from it. There is an example from the ancient Egyptians, who had three methods of writing. The oldest form, and the only one most people know about, was hieroglyphics. Over the course of two thousand years, both the language and the writing system changed, but for the most serious religious writing, such as carvings on a temple wall, the Egyptians continued to use hieroglyphics, in spite of the fact that this had become an antiquated method of writing.

By the way, the ancient language of the pharaohs still exists. It has changed a great deal, no one speaks it in daily life, and it’s written in Greek letters, but it’s a direct descendent. It’s now the language of the Coptic Christian church in Egypt. A holy language.

Other religious languages (all connected with writing) are:

  • Geez—Ethiopian Christian church
  • Sanscrit—Hindu texts
  • Hebrew—ancient Jewish texts
  • Koine (early Greek)—Greek churches
  • Old Church Slavonic (basically early Bulgarian)—Russian Bible
  • Pali—Buddhist texts

If you want to see a longer list, check the Wikipedia article on sacred languages.

One of the more interesting cases of a religious language involves Latin. The fact that it has religious significance is illustrated by an article from the New York Times just yesterday. English-speaking Catholics throughout the world are now having to get used to new words for the mass, as a new translation has been made from Latin.

How seriously the Catholic church has regarded the use of Latin was illustrated in 1535, when William Tyndale was killed for translating parts of the Bible into English. What makes this story more interesting is not just another case of a religion butchering people who disagree with it. What is interesting is that the Latin Bible was not the original, but was itself a translation from the original Hebrew and Greek.

Human nature being what it is, we’re probably not done. Maybe someone somewhere is standing in line at McDonalds using a language that will someday be holy.


Filed under Language

5 responses to “Holy Tongue

  1. The original Latin Bible wasn’t the original, indeed. I wonder how many people are aware that the Savior himself, whether you believe he was man or the son of God, spoke as a mother tongue a language that was more similar to Arabic than anything else.

  2. My guess is that very few people know what language Jesus spoke, and that they would guess Hebrew. It sounds like you must already know that Aramaic is still spoken in parts of Syria.

    • If they’ve seen the Passion of the Christ, then maybe, ha. It was kind of an odd feeling understanding bits and pieces of it through my limited knowledge of Arabic. Actually, I won’t lie, I’d kind of “forgotten” that Aramaic is still spoken in parts of Syria. It’s one of those facts that tends not to come up in a typical conversation.

      Speaking of the language Jesus spoke, one of my favorite quotes on the topic has always been “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” I can’t remember who first said it, but it’s a popular one, and clear proof that few people actually know what language he spoke.

  3. I’ve heard that quote about Jesus speaking English before, but I still laughed out loud to hear it again. I always thought it was more compelling to know that Jesus spoke like Shakespeare. How much better could it get? He’s Jesus AND he sounds like Hamlet? Whoa!

    • True indeed. Still, I like to think that if Jesus were alive today he’d speak English with a Middle Eastern accent. Wouldn’t that blow people’s minds? 🙂

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