Vernacular in Byzantium and the East

Should the Liturgy be in vernacular or hieratic language?  Should it be done in the tongue of the people or in an ancient language that gives it an air of mysticism and other-worldliness?

The trend in the Byzantine Catholic churches in the United States has been decidedly towards vernacular.  The Ruthenians have holdouts where Old Slavonic is still in use, but have largely embraced English.  The Ukrainians have left Old Slavonic by the wayside to distance themselves from the creeping spectre of Moscow and thus use Ukrainian, English, or (like my parish) a combination.  The Melkites will use anything from English to Classical (ie. Quranic) Arabic.  Unlike the West’s history of a common language, the Byzantine Christian lands had no such bond and it has resulted in the high number of languages in use today (even Spanish in Latin America, where both Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics have made some inroads among the disaffected populace).  The closest things to hieratic languages are Old Slavonic, Greek, Aramaic (in the few places it can be found), and Classical Arabic among the Catholic and Orthodox Antiochian Melkites.

Byzantine Georgians singing in haunting Aramaic chant

Among the the Christians of Africa and the Orient, the old languages have served as a way to preserve both faith and culture in the face of bondage and persecution.  Coptic is still universally  used, though often mixed with Arabic and English.  Classical Armenian remains as do the people who have continued to use it.  The Ethiopians still pray in the Semitic Ge’ez tongue, though it has little to do with the Amharic language in the modern nation.

The case of Syriac, though is a thorny one for the Indian churches.  The Malankara (Catholic and Orthodox) use it rarely in favor of the Malayalam tongue of Kerala.  The Malabar did the same, but have recently veered in the direction of Syriac restoration.  This is likely a part of a complicated effort to restore the Liturgy to the spirit of its Syriac roots which have been attacked by everyone from Portugeuse latinizers to 1960’s modernizers. While the Malankara churches hold to a fully traditional liturgy, the Malabar are in the middle of a search for their identity (there have been four versions of their Qurbana since 1962, ranging from a genuine restoration to a disastrous modernized 1968 missal).  Hopefully, they can sort it out as I find the Malabar Liturgy quite beautiful when done truer to its traditional form.

If you’re wondering what my point or argument is in this post, don’t worry because there isn’t one.  The Trad’s question about vernacular drove me to present you with an informative and educational post on how the “East” views the issue.  For my part, I tend to favor vernacular for readings and most hymns but hieratic languages for the most solemn parts (like the Anaphora).



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