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   Liturgical Language

The language of any Church or rite, as distinct from the vulgar tongue, is that used in the official services and may or may not be the common language. For instance the Rumanian Church uses liturgically the ordinary language of the country, while Latin is used by the Latin Church for her Liturgy without regard to the mother tongue of the clergy or congregation. There are many cases of an intermediate state between these extremes, in which the liturgical language is an older form of the vulgar tongue, sometimes easily, sometimes hardly at all, understood by people who have not studied it specially. Language is not rite. Theoretically any rite may exist in any language. Thus the Armenian, Coptic, and East Syrian Rites are celebrated always in one language, the Byzantine Rite is used in a great number of tongues, and in other rites one language sometimes enormously preponderates but is not used exclusively. This is determined by church discipline. The Roman Liturgy is generally celebrated in Latin. The reason why a liturgical language began to be used and is still retained must be distinguished in liturgical science from certain theological or mystic considerations by which its use may be explained or justified. Each liturgical language was first chosen because it was the natural language of the people. But languages change and the Faith spreads into countries where other tongues are spoken. Then either the authorities are of a more practical mind and simply translate the prayers into the new language, or the conservative instinct, always strong in religion, retains for the liturgy an older language no longer used in common life. The Jews showed this instinct, when, though Hebrew was a dead language after the Captivity, they continued to use it in the Temple and the synagogues in the time of Christ, and still retain it in their services. The Moslem, also conservative, reads the Koran in classical Arabic, whether he be Turk, Persian, or Afghan. The translation of the church service is complicated by the difficulty of determining when the language in which it is written, as Latin in the West and Hellenistic Greek in the East, has ceased to be the vulgar tongue. Though the Byzantine services were translated into the common language of the Slavonic people that they might be understood, this form of the language (Church-Slavonic) is no longer spoken, but is gradually becoming as unintelligible as the original Greek. Protestants make a great point of using languages "understanded of the people", yet the language of Luther's Bible and the Anglican Prayerbook is already archaic.


When Christianity appeared Hellenistic Greek was the common language spoken around the Mediterranean. St. Paul writes to people in Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy in Greek. When the parent rites were finally written down in the fourth and fifth centuries Eastern liturgical language had slightly changed. The Greek of these liturgies (Apost. Const. VIII, St. James, St. Mark, the Byzantine Liturgy) was that of the Fathers of the time, strongly coloured by the Septuagint and the New Testament. These liturgies remained in this form and have never been recast in any modern Greek dialect. Like the text of the Bible, that of a liturgy once fixed becomes sacred. The formulæ used Sunday after Sunday are hallowed by too sacred associations to be changed as long as more or less the same language is used. The common tongue drifts and develops, but the liturgical forms are stereotyped. In the East and West, however, there existed different principles in this matter. Whereas in the West there was no literary language but Latin till far into the Middle Ages, in the East there were such languages, totally unlike Greek, that had a position, a literature, a dignity of their own hardly inferior to that of Greek itself. In the West every educated man spoke and wrote Latin almost to the Renaissance. To translate the Liturgy into a Celtic or Teutonic language would have seemed as absurd as to write a prayerbook now in some vulgar slang. The East was never hellenized as the West was latinized. Great nations, primarily Egypt and Syria, kept their own languages and literatures as part of their national inheritance. The people, owing no allegiance to the Greek language, had no reason to say their prayers in it, and the Liturgy was translated into Coptic in Egypt, into Syriac in Syria and Palestine. So the principle of a uniform liturgical language was broken in the East and people were accustomed to hear the church service in different languages in different places. This uniformity once broken never became an ideal to Eastern Christians and the way was opened for an indefinite multiplication of liturgical tongues.

In the fourth and fifth centuries the Rites of Antioch and Alexandria were used in Greek in the great towns where people spoke Greek, in Coptic or Syriac among peasants in the country. The Rite of Asia Minor and Constantinople was always in Greek, because here there was no rival tongue. But when the Faith was preached in Armenia (from Cæsarea) the Armenians in taking over the Cæsarean Rite translated it of course into their own language. And the great Nestorian Church in East Syria, evolving her own literature in Syriac, naturally used that language for her church services too. This diversity of tongues was by no means parallel to diversity of sect or religion. People who agreed entirely in faith, who were separated by no schism, nevertheless said their prayers in different languages. Melchites in Syria clung entirely to the Orthodox faith of Constantinople and used the Byzantine Rite, yet used it translated into Syriac. The process of translating the Liturgy continued later.. After the Schism of the eleventh century, the Orthodox Church, unlike Rome, insisted on uniformity of rite among her members. All the Orthodox use the Byzantine Rite, yet have no idea of one language. When the Slavs were converted the Byzantine Rite was put into Old Slavonic for them; when Arabic became the only language spoken in Egypt And Syria, it became the language of the Liturgy in those countries. For a long time all the people north of Constantinople used Old Slavonic in church, although the dialects they spoke gradually drifted away from it. Only the Georgians, who are Slavs in no sense at all, used their own language. In the seventeenth century as part of the growth of Rumanian national feeling came a great insistence on the fact that they were not Slavs either. They Wished to be counted among Western, Latin races, so they translated their liturgical books into their own Romance language. These represent the old classical liturgical languages in the East.

The Monophysite Churches have kept the old tongues even when no longer spoken; thus they use Coptic in Egypt, Syriac in Syria, Armenian in Armenia. The Nestorians and their daughter-Church in India (Malabar) also use Syriac. The Orthodox have four or five chief liturgical languages: Greek, Arabic, Church-Slavonic, and Rumanian. Georgian has almost died out. Later Russian missions have very much increased the number. They have translated the same Byzantine Rite into German, Esthonian, and Lettish for the Baltic provinces Finnish and Tartar for converts in Finland and Siberia, Eskimo, a North American Indian dialect, Chinese, and Japanese. Hence no general principle of liturgical language can be established for Eastern Churches, though the Nestorians and Monophysites have evolved something like the Roman principle and kept their old languages in the liturgy, in spite of change in common talk. The Orthodox services are not, however, everywhere understood by the people, for since these older versions were made language has gone on developing. In the case of converts of a totally different race, such as Chinese or Red Indians, there is an obvious line to cross at once and there is no difficulty about translating what would otherwise be totally unintelligible to them. At home the spoken language gradually drifts away from the form stereotyped in the Liturgy, and it is difficult to determine when the Liturgy ceases to be understood. In more modern times with the growth of new sects the conservative instinct of the old Churches has grown. The Greek, Arabic, and Church-Slavonic texts are jealously kept unchanged though in all cases they have become archaic and difficult to follow by uneducated people. Lately the question of liturgical language has become one of the chief difficulties in Macedonia. Especially since the Bulgarian Schism the Phanar at Constantinople insists on Greek in church as a sign of Hellenism, while the people clamour for Old-Slavonic or Rumanian.

In the West the whole situation is different. Greek was first used at Rome, too. About the third century the services were translated into the vulgar tongue, Latin (see MASS, LITURGY OF THE), which has remained ever since. There was no possible rival language for many centuries. As the Western barbarians became civilized they accepted a Latin culture in everything, having no literatures of their own. Latin was the language of all educated people, so it was used in church, as it was for books or even letter-writing. The Romance people drifted from Latin to Italian, Spanish, French, etc., so gradually that no one can say when Latin became a dead language. The vulgar tongue was used by peasants and ignorant people only; but all books were written, lectures given, and solemn speeches made in Latin. Even Dante (d. 1321) thought it necessary to write an apology for Italian (De vulgari eloquentia). So for centuries the Latin language was that, not of the Catholic Church, but of the Roman patriarchate. When people at last realized that it was dead, it was too late to change it. Around it had gathered the associations of Western Christendom; the music of the Roman Rite was composed and sung only to a Latin text; and it is even now the official tongue of he Roman Court. The ideal of uniformity in rite extended to language also, so when the rebels of the, sixteenth century threw over the old language, sacred from its long use, as they threw over the old rite and Id laws, the Catholic Church, conservative in all these things, would not give way to them. As a bond of union among the many nations who make up he Latin patriarchate, she retains the old Latin tongue with one or two small exceptions. Along he Eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea the Roman Rite has been used in Slavonic (with the Glagolitic letters) since the eleventh century, and the Roman Mass is said in Greek on rare occasions at Rome.

It is a question how far one may speak of a special liturgical Latin language. The writers of our Collects, hymns, Prefaces, etc., wrote simply in the language of their time. The style of the various elements of the Mass and Divine Office varies greatly according to the time at which they were written. We have texts from the fourth or fifth to the twentieth century. Liturgical Latin then is simply late Christian Latin of various periods. On the other hand the Liturgy had an influence on the style of Christian Latin writers second only to that of the Bible. First we notice Hebraisms (per omnia soecula soeculorum), many Greek constructions (per Dominum nostrum, meaning" for the sake of", dia) and words (Eucharistia, litania, episcopus), expressions borrowed from Biblical metaphors (pastor, liber proedestinationis, crucifigere carnem, lux, vita, Agnus Dei), and words in a new Christian sense (humilitas, compunctio, caritas). St. Jerome in his Vulgate more than any one else helped to form liturgical style. His constructions and phrases occur repeatedly in the non-Biblical parts of the Mass and Office. The style of the fifth and sixth centuries (St. Leo I, Celestine I, Gregory I) forms perhaps the main stock of our services. The mediæval Schoolmen (St. Thomas Aquinas) and their technical terminology have influenced much of the later parts, and the Latin of the Renaissance is an important element that in many cases overlays the ruder forms of earlier times. Of this Renaissance Latin many of the Breviary lessons are typical examples; a comparison of the earlier forms of the hymns with the improved forms drawn up by order of Urban VIII (1623-44) will convince any one how disastrous its influence was. The tendency to write inflated phrases has not yet stopped: almost any modern Collect compared with the old ones in the "Gelasian Sacramentary" will show how much we have lost of style in our liturgical prayers.

Use of Latin

The principle of using Latin in church is in no way fundamental. It is a question of discipline that evolved differently in East and West, and may not be defended as either primitive or universal. The authority of the Church could change the liturgical language at any time without sacrificing any important principle. The idea of a universal tongue may seem attractive, but is contradicted by the fact that the Catholic Church uses eight or nine different liturgical languages. Latin preponderates as a result of the greater influence of the Roman patriarchate and its rite, caused by the spread of Western Europeans into new lands and the unhappy schism of so many Easterns (see Fortescue, "Orthodox Eastern Church", 431). Uniformity of rite or liturgical language has never been a Catholic ideal, nor was Latin chosen deliberately as a sacred language. Had there been any such idea the language would have been Hebrew or Greek.

The objections of Protestants to a Latin Liturgy can be answered easily enough. An argument often made from I Cor., xiv, 4-18, is of no value. The whole passage treats of quite another thing, prophesying in tongues that no one understands, not even the speaker (see 14: "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth but my understanding is without fruit"). The other argument, from practical convenience, from the loss to the people who do not understand what is being said, has some value. The Church has never set up a mysterious unintelligible language as an ideal. There is no principle of sacerdotal mysteries from which the layman is shut out. In spite of the use of Latin the people have means of understanding the service. That they might do so still better if everything were in the vulgar tongue may be admitted, but in making this change the loss would probably be greater than the gain.

By changing the language of the Liturgy we should lose the principle of uniformity in the Roman patriarchate. According to the ancient principle that rite follows patriarchate, the Western rite should be that of the Western patriarch, the Roman Bishop, who uses the local rite of the city of Rome. There is a further advantage in using it in his language, so the use of Latin in the West came about naturally and is retained through conservative instinct. It is not so in the East. There is a great practical advantage to travellers, whether priests or laymen, in finding their rite exactly the same everywhere. An English priest in Poland or Portugal could not say his Mass unless he and the server had a common language. The use of Latin all over the Roman patriarchate is a very obvious and splendid witness of unity. Every Catholic traveller in a country of which he does not know the language has felt the comfort of finding that in church at least everything is familiar and knows that in a Catholic church of his own rite he is at home anywhere. Moreover, the change of liturgical language would be a break with the past. It is a witness of antiquity of which a Catholic may well be proud that in Mass to-day we are still used to the very words that Anselm, Gregory, Leo sang in their cathedrals. A change of language would also abolish Latin chant. Plainsong, as venerable a relic of antiquity as any part of the ritual, is composed for the Latin text only, supposes always the Latin syllables and the Latin accent, and becomes a caricature when it is forced into another language with different rules of accent.

These considerations of antiquity and universal use always made proportionately (since there are the Eastern Uniat rites) but valid for the Roman patriarchate may well outweigh the practical convenience of using the chaos of modern languages in the liturgy. There is also an æsthetic advantage in Latin. The splendid dignity of the short phrases with their rhythmical accent and terse style redolent of the great Latin Fathers, the strange beauty of the old Latin hymns, the sonorous majesty of the Vulgate, all these things that make the Roman Rite so dignified, so characteristic of the old Imperial City where the Prince of the Apostles set up his throne, would be lost altogether in modern English or French translations. The impossibility of understanding Latin is not so great. It is not a secret, unknown tongue, and till quite lately every educated person understood it. It is still taught in every school. The Church does not clothe her prayers in a secret language, but rather takes it for granted that people understand Latin. If Catholics learned enough Latin to follow the very easy style of the Church language all difficulty would be solved. For those who cannot take even this trouble there is the obvious solution of a translation. The Missal in English is one of the easiest books to procure; the ignorant may follow in that the prayers that lack of education prevents their understanding without it.

The liturgical languages used by Catholics are:
1. Latin in the Roman, Milanese, and Mozarabic Rites (except in parts of Dalmatia).
2. Greek in the Byzantine Rite (not exclusively).
3. Syriac in the Syrian, Maronite, Chaldean, and Malabar Rites.
4. Coptic in the Coptic Rite.
5. Armenian by all the Churches of that rite.
6. Arabic by the Melchites (Byzantine Rite).
7. Slavonic by Slavs of the Byzantine Rite and (in Glagolitic letters) in the Roman Rite in Dalmatia.
8. Georgian (Byzantine Rite).
9. Rumanian (Byzantine Rite).

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII
Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York