Language: Sacred Language

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Language, as a fundamental form of human expression, is a central element in every religious tradition and can be examined from a variety of perspectives. This article will not be concerned with the theological issue of how to assess the truth of religious statements; that is, rather than dealing with language's function of making propositions about a sacred reality, the focus will be on the kinds of sacral functions to which language has been put, such as consecration and prayer, and on the ways in which language itself has been regarded as a manifestation of the sacred.

The enormous advances made in the disciplines of linguistics and the philosophy of language over the last few decades have provided the scholar of religion with the means for more precise characterization of sacred language and its functions. Traditional terms used to describe the forms of sacred languagesuch as prayer, praise, and magic spell though they stand for important thematic concerns, are too broad and imprecise by themselves to express adequately the rich variety of religious functions performed by language and the complexities involved in accomplishing those ends. The key to the modern understanding of language is to see it as an integrated system of components that are concerned with form and purpose, as well as with meaning. Spoken language manifests itself in the speech act, a type of purposeful human activity that can be analyzed in terms of its intended effect within a social context. A speech act involves (1) a language in which to embody a message, (2) a speaker to send the message, (3) a hearer to receive it, (4) a medium by which it is transmitted, and (5) a context to which it makes reference. Sacred language can be examined in terms of how it gives distinctive treatment, in turn, to each of these elements of a speech act situation. Then we will see how these components are combined to achieve the various goals of sacred speech acts.

Language as a Manifestation of the Sacred

Perhaps the most interesting examples of the intersection of religion and language are those cases in which language has been viewed not just as a means for referring to or communicating with the sacred realm but as an actual manifestation of a sacred power. Some of the most sophisticated understandings of language as a sacred power entail the belief that it was a fundamental force in the creation of the cosmos. Such ideas are widespread.

Language and creation

The Karadjeri of Australia, for example, say that it was only from the moment that the first two humans gave names to all the plants and animals, on the first day of creation, that those things really began to exist. The texts of ancient Sumer provide the first example of the commonly found Near Eastern doctrine of the creative power of the divine word. The major deities of the Sumerian pantheon first plan creation by thinking, then utter the command and pronounce the name, and the object comes into being. Well-known is the biblical version of this same theme, in which God brings order out of chaos by simply speaking ("Let there be light," Gn. 1:3) and by naming ("God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night," Gn. 1:5). Adam's giving of names to the plants and animals in the second chapter of Genesis, like the Australian example above, confirms mere physical existence with linguistic existence.

The religions of India, extending back into the earliest recorded forms of Hinduism in the Vedic period (c. 1000 bce), contain the most developed speculations about the cosmic role of language. Several of the Vedic texts record the story of a primordial contest between speech and mind to see which is the most fundamental and essential force. While mind always wins, there is still the acknowledgement that speech is a basic cosmic force. One Vedic god, Prajāpati, who in the Brāhmaas (c. 800 bce) figures most prominently as the god of creation, speaks the primal syllables bhūr, bhuva, svar to create the earth, atmosphere, and heaven. He is said to give order to the world through name and form (nāmarūpa ), which are elsewhere called his manifest aspects. These two terms are key elements in much of later Hindu philosophy, standing for the two basic dimensions of reality. The single most important term from this earliest stratum of Indian thought on language is vāc. Meaning "speech," it has been personified as an independent deity, the goddess who is Prajāpati's wife and who is, in some places, given the role of the true active agent in creating or, more accurately, becoming the universe.

Among the Western religious traditions, a comparable idea has been expressed in the doctrine of the logos. It was developed in the ancient world through a combination of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic ideas. Logos was viewed as the rational principle that pervaded and gave order to nature. It was a demiurge that mediated between the created cosmos and the transcendent god, in whose mind existed the eternal forms. This idea was taken over by Hellenistic Judaism (in the writings of Philo Judaeus, 30 bce50 ce), where logos was identified with the biblical "Word of God"; from there it came to influence Christianity, which around 150 ce began to refer to Jesus as the Logos. The Christian view of the Logos seems to stress its quality as language, word, and message, rather than as mere thought; and besides the world-ordering function, there is the idea that the Logos is a principle of salvation as well, delivering the message that shows the way to return to the condition of original cosmic purity. Such a conception of the double movement of creative language is found within the Indian Tantric system also.

The widely influential Tantric philosophy (which began to reach its classical articulation around 1000 ce) developed earlier strands of Indian speculation on language into a full-blown cosmogonic and soteriological system. The supreme deity of Hindu Tantrism, Śiva, is pure consciousness and thus silent. But in his first manifest form he unites with his consort, Vāc ("speech"), who is also termed Śiva's śakti ("power"), the female agency through which the process of creation will proceed. Creation begins with a subtle vibration that develops into the "mothers of the letters" of the Sanskrit alphabet, then into the words of speech, and finally into the referents of those words, namely, the concrete objects of the world. Certain monosyllabic vocables, called bīja mantra s (mantra s are syllables, words, or whole sentences that serve as both liturgical utterances and meditational devices), are regarded as the primordial forms of this linguistic evolution and, therefore, as sonic manifestations of basic cosmic powers: literally "seeds" of the fundamental constituents of the universe. For example, yā is equivalent to wind, rā to fire. Importantly, the Tantric adept who masters the use of mantra s is felt to know how to control the process of cosmic evolution, and to be able to reverse that process to take himself back to the condition of primordial unity and silence that constitutes the goal of Tantric practice.

A very similar conception of cosmic evolution as identical with linguistic evolution was developed in Qabbalah, the medieval tradition of Jewish mysticism. The main idea here was that God himself was totally transcendent, but flowing forth from him were a series of ten emanations of light (sefirot ) that were his manifest and knowable aspects. However, parallel to the emanation doctrine existed the conception of creation as the unfolding of the divine language. Instead of realms of light, there issued forth a succession of divine names and letters, namely, the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. As in Indian Tantrism, such a belief led to a tradition of powerful word-magic; the initiate into the practices of Qabbalah was supposedly capable of repeating acts of cosmic creation through proper combination of the Hebrew letters.

Language as a sacred substance

A hallmark of the modern understanding of language is the realization that meaning rests on a conventional relationship between the signified and the signifier. The latter (e.g., a word) is comprised of both form (e.g., phonological and grammatical rules of proper formation) and substance (e.g., its sounds, if a spoken word). The meaning of a word, however, is not inherent in either its form or substance. In premodern attitudes toward language, such distinctions were not usually made. In particular, to regard some linguistic manifestation as sacred did not imply that it was exclusively, or even primarily, the meaning that was taken to be holy. More often it was the exact form or even the veritable substance in which it was expressed that was felt to be the locus of the sacrality. This is seen most clearly in the reluctance or refusal to allow translation of certain religious expressions into equivalent statements. Religious traditions have often held the position that synonymy does not preserve sacrality. After a brief look at some examples of language substance that are regarded as sacred, we will turn to some of the important ways in which language form has taken precedence over meaning in various religions.

The Dogon of Africa believe that the speech used by the priest during ritual action contains a life force, or nyama, that is conveyed by his breath and becomes mixed with the life force of the invoked gods and the sacrificial offerings that are to be redistributed for the benefit of all the people. The nyama is given to the priest by a snake deity who appears at night and licks his body, thereby conveying the moisture of the wordthe same creative power used by God at the beginning of the world to fertilize the cosmic egg. The Chamula, a Maya community of Mexico, have a similar notion of the useful power inherent in the substance of sacred speech used in ritual, believing that this more formal and redundant language contains a "heat" that is consumed by the gods along with the other offered substances.

Sacred languages

It is well known that many religions have developed the idea that an entire language, usually other than the vernacular, is sacred. Such languages are then often reserved for liturgical or for other functions conveying sacred power, such as healing or magic. A sacred language usually begins as a vernacular through which a revelation is believed to have been received. This can lead to the belief that that language is particularly suited for revelationthat it is superior to other languages and thus inherently sacred. For example, Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, the earliest sacred scriptures of Hinduism, means literally "perfected," or "refined" (saskta ). In Islam, the Arabic wording of the Qurʾān is regarded as essential to its holiness; as is said in many passages of the book itself, "we have sent it down as an Arabic Qurʾān." This has sometimes led to the inference that translations of the Qurʾān are not themselves sacred scriptures, but more like mere commentaries. Such belief in the sacrality of what originally was a vernacular seem to be special cases of the widespread idea that one's people and culture are the best, superior to others by virtue of a special closeness to the gods. For example, the Chamula of Mexico say that the sun deity gave them the best of all the languages of mankind; thus they call it "true language."

Furthermore, the Chamula distinguish three different forms of their own language, the most important of which is "ancient words," those which were given to their ancestors during the first stages of world creation. These are the formal phrases used in ritual. This example well illustrates a general principle. Many traditional peoples, as well as high cultures, recite sacred doctrines and rituals in an archaic form of speech that is only barely comprehensible to contemporary speakers. But the language is regarded as sacred, not primarily because it is different from the vernacular, but because it contains the doctrines of revered figures from the past, such as gods, prophets, or ancestors. The desire to express the unchanging, eternal validity of some scripture or liturgy by not allowing any change over time in its language will necessarily result in the language becoming largely unintelligible to those without special training. Such is the case for many of the prayers (norito ) that are spoken by the priests in Shintō shrines, having been preserved in their original classical Japanese of the tenth century ce. The further passage of time can yield a fully distinct, now "sacred," language, as the offspring vernaculars develop into independent forms. Such was the case for Sanskrit in relation to its vernacular offshoots, the Prakrits, as well as for Latin in relation to the Romance languages.

The most prominent place a sacred language will be found, aside from in the scriptures, is in the cult. Here the preservation of archaic forms of language is part of the general conservatism of liturgical practice. The inclusion in the Latin Mass of such ancient and foreign-sounding elements as the Hebrew and Aramaic formulas "Halleluja," "Amen," and "Maranatha" and the Greek prayer "Kyrie eleison" added an element of mystery and sense of connectedness to a religiously significant past, which even the Latin phraseology would eventually come to represent.

Whenever language has become mere form to the common person, having lost the ability to convey any message beyond its symbolic representation of a particular manifestation of sacrality, there will be a reaction by those who see a need for a scripture or liturgy that can once again speak and teach. Many religious movements have begun on this note, railing against frozen formalism and demandingand usually producingvernacular expressions of their religious feelings. Buddhism began in this manner, as did many bhakti movements in medieval India. The latter stressed vernacular compositionsdevotional poetrythat often became the foundation for the flowering of literature in the regional language. In the West, Luther's insistence on hearing, understanding, and responding to the divine word led to the Protestant use of vernaculars and to the elevation of liturgical practices, such as the sermon, that stressed not just presentation of the scriptural forms but interpretation of the scriptural message.

Sets of sacred words

While not every religion develops the idea of an entire language as sacred, manyperhaps mostdo regard some special subset of speech as an embodiment of the sacred. The mere uttering or hearing of words from this set, which usually takes the form of a collection of sacred scriptures, will be believed efficacious, whether or not the meaning is understood. This emphasis on formulaic, as opposed to spontaneous, language brings with it a stress on techniques of preservation and precise recitation of the given texts, rather than on methods for inspiration and creation of new expressions. The sacred words of scripture are a divine gift to man, which relieve him of the burden of inventing his own, merely human, response to the sacred.

Within the set of sacred scriptures, a single passage may stand out as the holiest of all, and therefore the most efficacious. Hinduism recognizes the mystic syllable o as the essence of all the Vedas, and the hymn known as the Gāyatrī (gveda 3.62.10), has achieved a place of preeminence among all mantra s. The smallest unit of sacred language is the single word, and there have been many candidates for the one that should be regarded as the holiest. However, the most widely recognized sacred word is the name of a god. This stems from a common association of the name of someone with that person's soul. Utterance of the name was felt to give power over the being. So the name of God in various religions has alternately been tabooto be avoided because likely to incite the awesome power of the deityand a focal point of prayer, meditation, or magic. The Igbo of Africa try to avoid using the names of gods they consider particularly capricious, employing instead such circumlocutions as "The One Whose Name Is Not Spoken." On the other hand, for the ūfīs, the mystics of Islam, the intense repetition of the divine name over and over again in the practice of dhikr is regarded as one of the most effective means of achieving the highest state of pure, undivided consciousness of God.

The Speaker

Just as form may take precedence over content, so too the messenger may be a more important determinant of the sacrality of language than the message. Certainly the characteristics possessed by the speaker have often been regarded as significant factors contributing to, or detracting from, the sacral impact of the words uttered. The greatest impact comes when the speaker is regarded, in effect, as being a god. Very dramatic are those cases where a god is believed to talk directly and immediately through a person in the present. Here we have what has been called prophetic or charismatic speech, which stands in contrast to liturgical speech by representing a fresh and instantaneous infusion of sacrality. It may take such forms as speaking in tongues (glossolalia), or acting as a medium, oracle, or prophet.

For human speakers, in any case, their status will affect the sacrality attributed to their words; particular status may even be a necessary precondition for the use of sacred words. Priests, for example, may have exclusive rights to the use of liturgical utterances. In India, only the three upper classes were allowed to perform rites with Vedic mantra s. Certainly high status will enhance the effectiveness of one's speech. Thus the Dinka of Africa believe that their priests' words are more effective in invoking, praying, and cursing because they have within themselves the power of the deity Flesh, who manifests himself in their trembling while they speak.

At some point in their history, most religions have struggled with the problem of keeping their tradition of rites and prayers from becoming an empty formalism. One approach has been to insist that a certain quality of heart or mind accompany the recitation of the sacred formulas. This usually involves a greater attention to the meaning of the language and requires a different attitude on the part of the speaker than does mere exactness in the repetition of the forms. In Vedic India, where precise articulation of the mantra s became an essential ingredient of an effective ritual, there also developed the idea that the priest who had esoteric knowledge of the symbolic import of the ritual, and who silently rehearsed that knowledge during the performance, had the most effective ritual of all. In Indian Tantrism, the mantra became a meditational device that had to be uttered with the proper consciousness to be effective. The goal was to have the worshiper's consciousness blend with the thought-power represented by the mantra. A final example is the Jewish concept of kavvanah. In Talmudic writings, this was a state of mental concentration appropriate for prayer. But in the system of the Qabbalah, this became, during the recitation of a prayer, a form of single-minded meditation on the cosmic power to which the prayer was addressed. This gave one power over that cosmic element or allowed one's soul to ascend to that cosmic realm.

The Hearer

There may be a great difference in perspective on the issue of the sacrality of language between the speaker and the hearer or audience. The characterization of a sacred language as unintelligible and valued only for its form, discussed above, would apply, then, only to the untutored audience, and not to the priestly speaker who had been taught that language. Often, however, even a priest will be ignorant of the meaning of the words he uses, as is the case today, for example, among many of the Hindu brahmans who use Sanskrit recitations in their rituals, or the Buddhist monks who chant the Pali scriptures.

In many applications of sacred language, the intended hearer is a god. However, unlike the addressee in ordinary conversational situations, the addressed gods seldom speak back. The pattern of use most typical for sacred languageas in ritual or prayeris not dialogue, with responsive exchanges between a speaker and hearer who alternate roles, but monologue. Or, in a ritual, there may be multiple speakers, but seldom are they responding to or addressing one another; rather they are prompted by cues of form to utter what the text calls for next, in a pattern that could be called orchestrated.

The Medium

The spoken word uses the medium of sound for its transmission. This gives it qualities that make it quite distinct from the written word, conveyed through the medium of print. This article focuses on sacred language as spoken, leaving to others the discussion of sacred forms of written language.

Many scholars in the past few decades have come to understand and emphasize the numerous differences between oral cultures and literate cultures. One key difference is that preliterate peoples regard the speaking of an utterance as an act that manifests power; the word is viewed as an active force that is immediately involved in shaping the world. In contrast, the written word comes to stand for lifeless abstraction from the world.

The medium of sound has a number of flexible qualities that can be manipulated to express nuances of power and sacrality in ways that go beyond the meaning of the words. These range from variation in tone and speed to the use of sound patterns such as rhythm and rhyme. The simplest of these vocal but nonverbal (or paralinguistic) features is variation in loudness. In the high cult of Vedic India, for example, three major variations were used for the mantras: (1) aloud, for the priest who recited the hymns of praise; (2) muttered, for the priest who performed most of the physical handiwork; and (3) silent, for the priest who sat and watched for errors in the performance. The loud recitations of praise were further divided into high, medium, and low tones, with the louder portions also spoken at a faster pace. The instructions for the traditional (Tridentine) Mass of Catholicism also called for three different tones, from aloud to inaudible.

While heightened sacrality, as in a liturgical climax, is sometimes marked by the loudest dynamic, often it is just the opposite. Silent speech or pure silence have often been regarded as the highest forms of religious expression. Thus, many times in the history of the Mass, the Canonthe climactic hallowing and offering of the sacramentshas been recited inaudibly, or so softly that only those immediately around the celebrant can hear. In Indian Tantra an explicit doctrine developed according to which "prayer without sound is recommended as the most excellent of all." Among the Zuni of North America, a person's most prized prayers are said only "with the heart."

Other modifications of sound may be used to set off some speech as particularly sacred. For example, the Zuni have another category of nonordinary language, used primarily in ritual, that they say is "raised right up." In this form they give strong stress and high pitch to ordinarily weak and low syllables. The most refined way of giving form to the sounds of language is to craft them into poetry or song. Adherents of many religions have felt that these forms possessed more magical power than prose or are more fitting modes of expression for the very solemn. For example, the traditional distinction between low and high Mass is based primarily on the use in the latter of a sung or chanted liturgy. In the Vedic high cult, the more lavish and important rituals were marked by the addition of a sung portion taken from the Sāmaveda.

The Context

Full understanding of any speech act requires knowledge of the context in which it occurs. Language regarded as sacred quite often has for its context a ritual setting. In that case, the intended effects of the speech acts are largely confined to the domain of the ritual. Some rituals do, of course, intend their effects to carry over into the nonritual environment as, for example, when the priest says "I now pronounce you man and wife." Sacred language may also find expression in settings other than ritual, in the case of spontaneous prayers or the occasional use of magic spells, for example.

The relationship between ritual language and its context is much different from that between ordinary language and its context. Since ritual language is, for the most part, the repetition of a fixed text, it precedes and, in effect, creates its context rather than reflecting and representing in speech a context regarded as prior and already defined. Therefore, much ritual language is directed toward defining the characteristics of the participants and the nature of the ritual situation. The rich symbolism of both object and action that marks off ritual behavior from ordinary behavior will add yet another distinctive trait to ritual language. Its message is often paralleled in the symbolic systems of those other mediathe visual and tactile properties of the physical objects, the kinesthetic sensibilities of gesture and movementwhich then serve to reinforce, enhance, or even complete the verbal meaning. For example, as the Dinka priest recites an invocation over the animal victim during a sacrifice, he accompanies each phrase with a thrust of his sacred spear to ensure that his words "hit the mark" and weaken the beast for the final physical act of killing. During the reciting of the Institution in the Mass, the priest breaks bread and offers the cup of wine to reenact the Last Supper and, thus, give parallel reinforcement to the words that make reference to the same event.

Language in Sacred Function

The several speech act components just surveyed, from language itself to the context in which it is spoken, combine to achieve the final product of the sacred utterance. There has been a wide variety of terms used to describe the possible intended effects (or, in linguistic terminology, illocutionary forces) of words used in the service of religious ends. However, it seems possible to reduce this multiplicity to two basic categories of purpose: (1) transforming some object or state of affairs and (2) worshiping spiritual beings. These categories correspond, in some measure, to the traditional views of sacred language as either magic spell, the self-effective word of power, or prayer, the petitionary communication with a god. That phrasing, however, overstates the dichotomy. It is all too customary to regard the formulas in one's own religion as prayers and those of another's as spells.

There is, in fact, an important trait held in common by both transforming and worshiping forms of language when they are employed in the context of ritual. As remarked earlier, most ritual language comes from a preexisting text and is repeated verbatim during the performance. It conveys little or no information to any of the ritual participants, since nothing new is being said. Therefore, it might be best to characterize the overall purpose of ritual language as creating and allowing participation in a valorized situation, rather than communicating information.

Language and transformation

It has already been noted above that there is a significant difference between sacred language uttered within the context of a ritual and that spoken outside of such a setting. A ritual is a self-contained and idealized situation in which the participants and objects momentarily take on changed identities in order to play out sacred roles. The words of the liturgy are the chief instruments by which these transformations take place.

The human participants

First of all, the human observants need to express their pious qualifications for undertaking the ritual. First-person indicative utterances are most frequently used to accomplish this task. In Christianity, for example, the proper identity of a repentant sinner and believer in the correct doctrine becomes manifest through the recitation of the Confession, "I confess to almighty God that I have sinned," and the Creed, "I believe in one God "

Some ritual traditions involve transforming the human into a divine being, in many cases by using language that states an identity between parts of their bodies. This is a common theme in Navajo healing rites. One prayer, for example, describes the deeds of two Holy People at the time of creation, and then continues: "With their feet I shall walk about; with their torso I shall walk about." The priest in a Vedic ritual must also establish his partial identity with the gods, using such mantra s as, "I pick you [grass bundle] up with the arms of Indra."

The ritual objects

The transmundane character of the ritual objects is, in a parallel fashion, often conferred or made explicit by indicative phrases. Most of the implements at a Vedic sacrifice are addressed by the priest with second-person utterances, such as this one to a wooden sword: "You are the right arm of Indra." The words spoken over the sacraments of the Christian Eucharist ("This is my body") also typify utterances of this category, whose function could appropriately be labeled consecration.

The ritual goals

Once the ritual setting has been transformed into an assemblage of divine or cosmic personages and forces, the transforming language of the liturgy will be directed to the task of prompting those powers to bring about some desired end. At the simplest level, there are the wishes that the ritual will produce a positive result. These may be first-person optatives (the optative is the grammatical mood for expressing a wish) of a condition one desires for oneself, as in this mantra said by the patron of a Vedic sacrifice: "By the sacrifice to the gods for Agni may I be food-eating." The patron will utter a wish in the same form after each offering is poured onto the fire. A similar connection between ritual activity and desired end is expressed in the Catholic Mass by a third-person optative: "May the body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve my soul for everlasting life." This is said by the priest when he takes communion himself. But when he offers the sacrament to others he turns the wish into a blessing: "May the body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul for everlasting life." When one utters a wish that some negative condition may come about for another, it is a curse.

One may also direct the ritual objects to bring about a goal, as when the Vedic priest calls on the firmly fixed baking tile: "You are firm. Make the earth firm. Make life firm. Make the offspring firm." Or, finally, past-tense indicative utterances may be used simply to declare that the wished-for state of affairs has indeed come about. Navajo blessing prayers regularly conclude on such a note of verbal accomplishment.

There are some transformations that are supposed to carry over into, or take place in, nonritual settings. The marriage pronouncement is one such instance. These verbally accomplished acts that bring about a change in status were closely studied first by the philosopher J. L. Austin, who called them "performative utterances." Following his lead, some scholars have interpreted the magic spell as a simple case of a performative act that is felt to bring about a change in condition through the proper application of wholly conventional rulesjust as turning two single people into a married couple requires only the recitation of the correct set of words under stipulated circumstances. Others, however, have pointed out that there is a difference between the conventional, socially recognized condition of being married and the brute, physical facts of illness or even death, which magic spells have regularly been employed to bring about. Thus when the priest at a Vedic sacrifice thrusts a wooden sword into the ground and says "O gods, he who hates me his head I cut off with Indra's thunderbolt," words are being used to connect a ritual or magical action with a desired end that is more than just a conventional reality.

Language and worship

The most prominent sacred task to which language is put is the worship of the gods. The transformation of the ritual setting is usually an activity preparatory to the climactic offering of praise. The service of the gods demands a complex verbal etiquette. Interaction with the gods cannot be a matter of simple manipulation; instead, every act must be cushioned with words of explanation and concern. Furthermore, the intangible nature of the gods demands a linguistic means to make their presence take on a more concrete reality.

Most religious traditions have decided that worship of the gods must follow a particular form. The topics of the liturgy have a proper order. In Judaism there is the principle enunciated by the rabbis: "A man should always utter the praises of God before he offers his petitions." The opening lines of the official worship service dedicated to the Chinese earth god display a typical pattern: "She [the earth god] defends the nation and shelters the people. Now during the mid-spring, we respectfully offer animals and sweet wine in this ordinary sacrifice. Deign to accept them." Indicative statements of the god's praiseworthy activity are followed by a first-person announcement of the act and objects of offering. Last comes the request to the god to accept the sacrifice. Most of the fundamental themes of worship will be found within the structure: invocation, praise, offering, and petition.


Logically the first topic of any service of worship, securing the gods' presence at the riteusually with second-person imperatives requesting them to comewill form an elaborate early portion of many liturgies. Hindu Tantric ritual, for example, uses an invocation to bring about the presence of the god in the concrete image that is the focus of worship: "O Lord who protects the world, graciously be present in this lingam [phallic image of Śiva] until the end of worship."


Essentially to praise means to pronounce publicly and thereby acknowledge recognition of a god's praiseworthy characteristics. If these involve deeds accomplished in the past that were of benefit, one expresses thanksgiving. There is always the hope, and probably expectation, that mentioning such deeds of benevolence will prompt the deity to act again on the celebrant's behalf. Certainly uttering praise is intended to make the god favorably disposed, or even to fill the god with renewed energy.

The simplest way to give linguistic expression to praise is to say "I praise," as in the Christian Gloria: "We praise thee, we bless thee, we adore thee, we glorify thee." Also typical are optative phrases, hoping that praise will become the universal response to the god. There is, for example, the Lesser Doxology: "Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." That is a common form for Hindu mantra s of praise as well. The most basic verbal expression of piety for followers of Śiva is the "root mantra " (mūlamantra ), "Namo Śivāya," meaning "[Let there be] reverence to Śiva." This Sanskrit form was carried by Buddhism all the way to Japan, where the favorite way of showing devotion in the Pure Land sects became the constant repetition of "Namu Amida Butsu," meaning "[Let there be] reverence to Amida Buddha."

A further development of the theme of praise comes through indicative statements of a god's praiseworthy characteristics, either present-tense declarations of constant attributes or past-tense statements of a god's great deeds. Both help to give a vivid sense of the god's actual presence, especially when made in the intimate form of second-person direct address. The Jewish berakhot ("blessings") combine the two methods of praise just presented. They usually have the form "Blessed are You O Lord, who has done [or does] such-and-such." The phrase "Blessed are You O Lord" ("Barukh attah Adonai") is equivalent to the optative expression "Let there be reverence (or glory) to you."


The high point of many worship services is the act of offering some gift to the invoked and praised gods. Words are necessary accompaniments to the physical act to define it as an act of offering, motivated by the appropriate intention on the part of the worshiper. There must also be statements expressing the proper concern for the god's feelings. Again, the simplest way to establish an act as one of offering is to say "I offer." This is usually accompanied by an enumeration and description of the objects offered. Almost always there will be a request that the god accept the offerings. In the Mass one finds "Holy Father accept this unblemished sacrificial offering." Hindu worship includes such phrasing as "What has been given with complete devotion, do accept these out of compassion for me."


The logically final act of worship, petition is in many cases the motive force behind the entire service. There are religious traditions, however, that downplay this goal. The worship service (pūjā ) of Hindu Tantra, for example, is intended primarily as a spiritual discipline to be valued in its own right, rather than for any boon that might be obtained by prayer to the worshiped deity. The liturgy of Islam also has little in the way of petition. However, in the standard weekday service of rabbinic Judaism, the central element, the Amidah, contains a set of twelve supplications, the tefillot, accompanied by praise. And in the traditional Mass, the most prominent single type of utterance is a second-person imperative addressed to God the Fatherfor example, "Deliver us from every evil" or "Grant us this day our daily bread." The term prayer, though often used in the widest sense to refer to almost any form of language used in dealing with the gods, might best be restricted to this function of petition.

See Also

Alphabets; Calligraphy; Glossolalia; Incantation; Logos; Magic; Mantra; Names and Naming; Oracles; Prayer.


General Works

Still the only major general and cross-cultural treatment of forms of sacred language is Friedrich Heiler's Prayer: A Study in the History of Psychology and Religion (London, 1932). Its usefulness is limited, however, because it gives primary emphasis to the psychology of spontaneous prayers and downplays the worth of liturgical compositions. Overviews of the traditional ways of characterizing religious conceptions and uses of language, with examples drawn from around the world, can be found in Heiler's Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion (Stuttgart, 1961), chap. 7, "Das Heilige Wort"; and in a number of chapters in Gerardus van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Gloucester, 1967).

Theoretical Studies

In order to appreciate the newer studies of sacred language that employ the insight of modern linguistics, it would be useful to consult the seminal work on speech acts by J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), or the sophisticated development of his ideas in John Searle's Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (London, 1969). One of the first and most successful attempts to clarify the category of prayer, using contemporary linguistic tools, is Antti Alhonsaari's Prayer: An Analysis of Theological Terminology (Helsinki, 1973). Some of the most insightful applications of speech act theory to religious language have come from anthropologists. Of particular significance is the work being done by Stanley J. Tambiah, particularly his article "The Magical Power of Words," Man, n. s. 3 (June 1968): 175208, and chapter 12, "Liberation through Hearing," in Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, 1970). The former gives some important new discussion to the concept of the magic spell, and the latter proposes useful ways for understanding sacred languages and sacred scriptures. The relevance of much linguistic theory to the understanding of ritual language is summarized in Wade T. Wheelock's "The Problem of Ritual Language: From Information to Situation," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 50 (March 1982): 4971. Groundbreaking work in examining the factors that make sacred language distinctive in its actual context of use, in both tribal societies and high cultures, has been done in the several fine studies in Language in Religious Practice, edited by William Samarin (Rowley, Mass., 1976).

Studies of Specific Traditions

Sam D. Gill's Sacred Words: A Study of Navajo Religion and Prayer (Westport, Conn., 1981) represents both an important theoretical study on methods for the thematic analysis of liturgical texts and a fine introduction to Navajo religious practices. The fascinating and complex theory of sacred language of the Dogon of West Africa is presented in Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli (London, 1965). Pedro Laín Entralgo's The Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity, edited and translated by L. J. Rather and John M. Sharp (New Haven, 1970), gives a comprehensive discussion of the views on the power of charms and prayers in ancient Greece and Rome. The language theory of the Jewish mystical tradition is best presented in Gershom G. Scholem's On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York, 1965). The best discussion of the difficult philosophy of language of Indian Tantrism, as well as a useful overview of other Indian speculations on language, is André Padoux's Recherches sur la symbolique et l'énergie de la parole dans certaines textes tantriques (Paris, 1963).

Wade T. Wheelock (1987)