Christianity and language

A phase of the influence of Christianity, although only in part in contrast with the culture in which the faith was set, was its effects on language. This was seen in a variety of ways.

One which was little short of revolutionary was the new meaning which Christianity gave to certain words, some of them in familiar use. In attempts to express their deepest convictions and central beliefs, Christians sometimes coined new terms. Often, however, they took over existing words, such as deus in Latin and theos (6so^) in Greek, and endeavoured to fill them with distinctively Christian content. They were not entirely successful, for many of the terms carried over with them to those who employed them something of their pre-Christian and even anti-Christian connotations. Yet in varying degrees Christians gave peculiarly Christian meanings to the words which they adopted.

In some regions Christianity assisted in the spread of a language or creating for it literary form. In Asia Minor Christianity was probably responsible for the supplanting of the numerous local tongues by Greek, and in Gaul the disappearance of the Celtic vernaculars and the triumph of Latin seem to have been closely associated with the spread of Christianity. Yet in Armenia the golden age of native literature came through the translation and composition of Christian books through an alphabet formed for that purpose. In Egypt it was the successful effort to provide the masses of the population with a literature in the speech of everyday life which halted the exclusive use of the alien Greek for the written page and which stimulated the development of an alphabet which could be quickly and easily learned by the multitude in place of the ancient hieroglyphics which could be the property only of the few. Through this medium Coptic Christian literature came into being, largely the work of monks. Its major creative period was in the latter part of the fourth and in the fifth century. Similarly, the use of Syriac in literature which had been cramped by the spread of Greek through the Hellenizing of Syria after the conquests of Alexander the Great was stimulated by the conversion of Syriac-speaking peoples to the Christian faith. The flowering of Syriac literature went hand in hand with the spread of Christianity among those for whom Syriac was the vernacular and was a concomitant to the effort to make Christian literature accessible to the rank and file. Gothic was first: given a written form, so far as we know, by the Christian missionary, Ulfilas, and the Georgians owed at least two alphabets to Christians.

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