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Language of Religion: What does it inform the field of Linguistics?

  • Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Thursday 22 November 2018
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


Language of religion has been studied from diverse perspectives of theology, philosophy, and sociology. While Philosophers’ and theologians’ primary focus has been on the logical analysis of religious belief, and its epistemological status (Ayer 1946), sociological perspective on religious language concentrates on functions(s) of religious language in the religious as well as secular domains (Fishman 2006, Pandharipande 2010). Contributions of language of religion are well recognized for the emergence of Sanskrit (Paniniyan linguistics (see Kiparsky 2001), Arabic (Suleiman 2001), Hebrew grammatical traditions (Tene 2001) among others. Similarly, the theories of production and cognition of language evolved from the study of religion and religious language (Kunjuni Raja1963). Religious language has also contributed to the development of prosody, literary genres. This paper will assume these contributions of religious language to linguistics but not focus on them but rather, concentrate on the questions about language of religion as a register of a natural language.

Current research in linguistics treats language of religion as a register of language used in the domain of religion and primarily aims at identifying those structures and functions of religious language (lexicon, syntax, phonology, morphology, prosody etc.), which differentiate it from its non-religious counterpart. Samarin (1976:5) succinctly summarizes linguists’ functional approach to religious language, “Sociolinguistic studies of religion seek to determine the way in which language is exploited for religious ends.”
While scholars recognize distinctiveness of religious language, they also articulate limitations of current research. Crystal (1981) claims that “theolinguistics” at present lacks the appropriate linguistic techniques (standardization of lexicon, for example) for analyzing religious language. Holt (2006: 13) argues for the need to explore variation in language of religion “in terms of its function, style, historical context, mode, its interrelation with other texts, mode and language variable.” Fishman (2006) claims the lack of theoretical rigor in the research on religious language.

The research does not adequately discuss the following questions:

  1. Can we define the differentia of religious language cross-linguistically and cross-culturally? Furthermore, can we define it exclusively in terms of its linguistic structures and functions? ,
  2. How do we define “competence” in religious language within speech communities,
  3. How do we account for the variation in features of religious language across space and time in multilingual speech communities, and finally,
  4. What is the rationale for the difference between religious and non- religious language?

In this presentation, I argue that we cannot determine the differentia of language of religion exclusively in terms of its structural or functional features since structurally mutually exclusive languages can qualify as languages of a religion within speech communities. The differentia of language of religion is its underlying system of thought (Barr1979:435) or framework/conceptualization of absolute/ non-contingent reality determined by the religious beliefs, which differs from its counterpart underlying the non-religious registers of a natural language. I further claim that the linguistic features of religious language derive their meaning/function with reference to the underlying conceptualization of reality defined within religion. For example, a statement, “It (the transcendent Divine) is far as well as it is near” (Isa Upanishad: 5) expresses all-pervasiveness of the Divine and is meaningful/does not present contradiction in the context of conceptualization of the Divine and in Hinduism. Thus, the religious language may share the linguistic structures with the non-religious registers but their meaning/semantics differs in religious and non-religious registers due to the difference in their underlying systems of beliefs.

I argue that the “competence in religious language” necessarily includes the understanding of the underlying framework of religion. Finally, I point out the need to recognize that the speech community’s repertoire can include more than one conceptualizations of reality (a counterpart of diglossia) which speakers can use alternatively in religious and non–religious contexts respectively. I call this a Di-system. I will show that above hypothesis is applicable to language of religion across religions, and it is useful to answer the above questions in a straightforward fashion.

I will discuss the theoretical and empirical significance of the proposal presented above. In this context, I will discuss the issue of inter-translatability of languages of religion. This discussion is particularly relevant in the 21st century diasporas of cultures and speech communities are adopting language of the new homeland for the expression and communication of their religion.


A.J. Ayer. 1946. Language, Truth, and Logic. London: Gollancz

Crystal, D. 1981. “Generating Theological Language”. In J.P. van Noppen (ed), Theolinguistics(Free University, Brussels), Studiereeks Tijdschrift VUB, Niuwe Serie 8, 265-81.

Fishman, J. 2006. “A Decalogue of basic theoretical perspectives for Sociology of language and Religion”. In: Omoniyi/Fishman (eds) 13-25.

Holt, R. 2006. “A Sociolinguistic Approach to Religious Language”. In Australian Journal of Theology 6.1-14.

Kiparsky, P. 2001. “Sanskrit (Paninian) Linguistics”. In Sawyer, J.A., Simpson, J.M. and Asher, R.E. (eds). Concise Encyclopedia of language of Religion. Elsevier. 384-390.

Kunjuni Raja. 1963. Indian Theories of Meaning. Madras, India: The Adyar Library and Research Center.

Pandharipande, R. 2010. “Ideology, Authority and Language Choice: Language of religion in South Asia”. In Ominiyi/Fishman (eds) Explorations in Sociology of language of Religion. 141-164.

Samarin, W.J. (ed) 1976 Language in Religious practice: Introduction. Rowley: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.

Suleiman, M.Y.I.H. 2001. “Arabic Linguistic Tradition”. In Sawyer, J.A., Simpson, J.M. and Asher, R.E. (eds). Concise Encyclopedia of language of Religion. Elsevier. 326-335.

Tene,D. “Hebrew Grammarians”. 2001. In Sawyer, J.A., Simpson, J.M. and Asher, R.E. (eds).Concise Encyclopedia of Language of Religion. Elsevier. 348-354.

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