The Language of Prayer
any people in the world pray in a foreign language, oftentimes in a language they might only partially or even barely understand. In fact, it’s likely that before the 1960s when the Vatican declared that Mass didn’t need to be performed in Latin, something like half the world prayed in a language other than their own. Consider Islam, for example: The liturgy is all in Arabic, which is fine if you’re a Qatari or an Egyptian, but poses a significant hurdle if you’re an Indonesian or Pakistani. Or then there’s Judaism, where the prayers are mostly in Hebrew with a little Aramaic thrown in — this isn’t much of a problem if you grew up in Israel, but it requires some language lessons if you grew up in Canada. In Hinduism, the hymns are often in Sanskrit, now a dead language. This might be less of a challenge to Hindi-speakers in the north of India (since Hindi descends in part from Sanskrit) compared to people in the south who speak Dravidian languages completely unrelated to Sanskrit and would have to read off of hymn sheets with the phonetic transcriptions of the Sanskrit words in their own, different alphabets. Buddhism also uses a lot of Sanskrit, though it conducts prayer in a wide variety of other languages as well. Christians now mostly pray in their native languages, though not always — Arabic-speaking congregants of the Coptic Church pray in Coptic, for example. n many religions, followers who aren’t fluent in the holy language can sometimes get a pass, and the intent in saying the prayer is seen as more important. But then again, some faiths make a strong effort to get everyone at least pronouncing the prayers correctly. Part of this may be to avoid saying something unintentionally blasphemous. For instance, in Islam, a word which appears in the first sentence of the Koran — and as a result comes up frequently in the regular prayer service — is: It means “the two worlds”, as in “this world and the next”, and it’s pronounced something like “Al Alamayn”. But to say it correctly, you need to include an unusual kind of throat-constricting, almost choking sound, a consonant that’s distinctive to Arabic and just a few other languages, which appears in front of the first “A” in “Alamayn”. But a lot of Muslims who don’t speak Arabic have trouble with this sound, and sometimes they end up dropping it out. As a result, when they say “Al Alamayn” in prayer, it sounds more like which in some contexts could mean “the two pains”. ven when the prayers are in a person’s own language, there can still be a language gap if the religion has its roots in a foreign culture. A good example involves English-speaking Christians. In a typical English translation of the Bible, it describes Jesus entering Jerusalem in this way: “And the multitudes that went before and that followed cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed be he who cometh in the name of the Master. Hosanna in the highest.” (Matthew 21:9) That word “hosanna” shows up five times in the Gospels, but only in reference to what people said when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. It wasn’t really English when the first English bibles were written, but because of these verses it has entered the language and means, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, a cry of acclamation and adoration. Because of the context, it seems to make sense that “hosanna” would be some kind of praise, but in fact it doesn’t mean that at all. It’s Hebrew — it’s still said in Jewish religious services today — and is pronounced something like “ho-SHEE-ah-na” Its real meaning is “Please save me” or “Please rescue me” (or it could also be “Please save us” — the preposition at the end is implied.) But in the original Greek of the New Testament, the word was left untranslated, rendered only as ΩΣΑΝΝΑ   or “(h)o-san-na”. Maybe it seemed too particular to Hebrew to translate into another language. In any case, by the time the Bible had gone from Greek to Latin and then to English, the meaning had been lost, and readers could only guess what hosanna was supposed to be.
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The Language of Prayer
any people in the world pray in a foreign language, oftentimes in a language they might only partially or even barely understand. In fact, it’s likely that before the 1960s when the Vatican declared that Mass didn’t need to be performed in Latin, something like half the world prayed in a language other than their own. Consider Islam, for example: The liturgy is all in Arabic, which is fine if you’re a Qatari or an Egyptian, but poses a significant hurdle if you’re an Indonesian or Pakistani. Or then there’s Judaism, where the prayers are mostly in Hebrew with a little Aramaic thrown in — this isn’t much of a problem if you grew up in Israel, but it requires some language lessons if you grew up in Canada. In Hinduism, the hymns are often in Sanskrit, now a dead language. This might be less of a challenge to Hindi- speakers in the north of India (since Hindi descends in part from Sanskrit) compared to people in the south who speak Dravidian languages completely unrelated to Sanskrit and would have to read off of hymn sheets with the phonetic transcriptions of the Sanskrit words in their own, different alphabets. Buddhism also uses a lot of Sanskrit, though it conducts prayer in a wide variety of other languages as well. Christians now mostly pray in their native languages, though not always — Arabic-speaking congregants of the Coptic Church pray in Coptic, for example. n many religions, followers who aren’t fluent in the holy language can sometimes get a pass, and the intent in saying the prayer is seen as more important. But then again, some faiths make a strong effort to get everyone at least pronouncing the prayers correctly. Part of this may be to avoid saying something unintentionally blasphemous. For instance, in Islam, a word which appears in the first sentence of the Koran — and as a result comes up frequently in the regular prayer service — is: It means “the two worlds”, as in “this world and the next”, and it’s pronounced something like “Al Alamayn”. But to say it correctly, you need to include an unusual kind of throat-constricting, almost choking sound, a consonant that’s distinctive to Arabic and just a few other languages, which appears in front of the first “A” in “Alamayn”. But a lot of Muslims who don’t speak Arabic have trouble with this sound, and sometimes they end up dropping it out. As a result, when they say “Al Alamayn” in prayer, it sounds more like which in some contexts could mean “the two pains”. ven when the prayers are in a person’s own language, there can still be a language gap if the religion has its roots in a foreign culture. A good example involves English-speaking Christians. In a typical English translation of the Bible, it describes Jesus entering Jerusalem in this way: “And the multitudes that went before and that followed cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed be he who cometh in the name of the Master. Hosanna in the highest.” (Matthew 21:9) That word “hosanna” shows up five times in the Gospels, but only in reference to what people said when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. It wasn’t really English when the first English bibles were written, but because of these verses it has entered the language and means, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, a cry of acclamation and adoration. Because of the context, it seems to make sense that “hosanna” would be some kind of praise, but in fact it doesn’t mean that at all. It’s Hebrew — it’s still said in Jewish religious services today — and is pronounced something like “ho-SHEE-ah-na” Its real meaning is “Please save me” or “Please rescue me” (or it could also be “Please save us” — the preposition at the end is implied.) But in the original Greek of the New Testament, the word was left untranslated, rendered only as ΩΣΑΝΝΑ   or “(h)o-san-na”. Maybe it seemed too particular to Hebrew to translate into another language. In any case, by the time the Bible had gone from Greek to Latin and then to English, the meaning had been lost, and readers could only guess what hosanna was supposed to be.
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