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Many of us learn languages for travel, love, adventure, curiosity, or career reasons, but when we think about ‘learning a language’, we usually think of living languages. In this post we’ll look at what are referred to as ‘dead’ and ‘extinct’ languages and share some of the reasons they might be worth learning. 

 

Firstly, there’s the intrigue factor. Learning a dead or extinct language can give us a tantalising window into a time that’s now literally been consigned to the history books, and can give an unusual insight into the lives of people many hundreds or thousands of years behind us. And since dead and extinct languages have often acted as the forerunners of today’s living languages, studying an ancient language can give us a greater appreciation of how contemporary languages developed - and make these easier for us to learn. 

 

From a more practical point of view, those of us who are normally shy about speaking in foreign languages can hide behind the fact that nobody is ever going to spark up a conversation with us in Latin or Sumerian. If you’re a literature fan then you can enjoy feeling immersed in the language without having to depend on it to overcome real-life challenges. And you’ll never be stuck with learning cliché holiday phrases, because knowing how to ask where the beach is will be largely redundant in a language you aren’t likely to be speaking. 

 

Finally, there’s the pull of the unusual. Studying an ancient language can mean feeling part of a small community of people who value a vanishing language. It can mean using our spare time to pursue an activity that few people would think of getting involved in. It can mean using our imagination to learn something cool just because we can, just for the enjoyment or the intellectual challenge of it. 

 

What’s your take on archaic languages? Would you like to learn a historical language, or are you more focused on those that are spoken today? We’d really like to hear your thoughts on this topic, and to find out whether there are any secret ancient language fans among you! Feel free to share your ideas below.

10 comments

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    sigfrid.ostberg

    I never learnt a fully extinct language, but I do have a background in history research, which has allowed me to study classical Japanese and Chinese as well as a bit of Middle Korean. I also dabble in medical Latin. In the same way that studying a foreign culture usually gives you access to new ways of thinking and cultures that you wouldn't be able to access otherwise, old languages let you 'travel back in time' as it were. I always found reading Japanese, Korean, and Chinese premodern sources as they were written to provide valuable and exciting insights that would otherwise be lost in translation (even if it's to the modern equivalents of those languages).

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    aunvasaparar

    Hi! I took two subjects on Latin and ancient Greek during my high school years and, what's more, I had the honor of being the ONLY student in Greek. We focused almost entirely on syntactic aspects of the language and less on history and culture and I keep an amazing memories of these subjects. That's why I took again a subject on ancient Greek later on my degree on English language and culture. Apart from those contacts, I no longer studied it, probably because of the frenetic rhythm in our everyday routines and maybe also due to the fact that I am studying German (B1 level) as well and I'm thinking of ancient languages as a project to concentrate on in a future time, when I have nothing else to study or a more pleasant schedule.

    Edited by aunvasaparar
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    Katrina Paterson

    Hello sigfrid.ostberg and aunvasaparar, thanks for contributing to the discussion. I'm happy to see that there are some fans of dead and extinct languages on this forum! 

    sigfrid.ostberg - I really liked your point about ideas being lost in translation from ancient languages to their modern equivalents, since I guess I'd never really thought of 'translating', for example, Latin to Italian (or to any of the other Romance languages as they exist today). But you're right that we can translate from an ancient to a modern version of a language in the same way that we can translate from one modern language to another. I guess I'd always thought of the ancient and modern versions of a language as being two parts of the same continuum, and that's why it surprised me to think of translating from one to the other, even though of course that's what you would have to do, once the modern version of the language had diverged so far as to no longer be mutually intelligible with the ancient version.

    I wonder at what point a language crosses that threshold? I remember hearing that the Spanish used in Don Quixote is surprisingly easy for modern Spanish speakers to understand, despite the two volumes of the novel being written more than four hundred years ago. Shakespeare's plays, on the other hand, were written at a similar time but are difficult to read in English (I think) without extensive footnotes. And that's just looking back four hundred years!

    Interestingly, for anyone who's interested in reading more about how languages change (or don't), I would really recommend reading Gaston Dorren's chapter on Icelandic in the book 'Lingo: A language-spotter's guide to Europe' - it has a lot of curious hints as to why Icelandic has stayed comparatively similar where other languages have changed. sigfrid.ostberg, I'm glad you enjoyed insights that the premodern sources in other languages provided. I always think that that's a fascinating thing about ANY material from the past (writing, art, monuments, or all other things ancient), that they can provide us something of a window into a different world and a different mindset. I've sometimes wondered whether language/translator people are more drawn towards history and archaeology as well. 

    aunvasaparar - I also had the experience of being the only student in a language class; it was great! I'm happy to hear that you were able to pursue the Ancient Greek studies in both your school and university studies and I hope that you find time in the future to study Ancient Greek (or Latin) again. I really feel what you're saying about finding time to study more than one language, and wondering which one to prioritise. I guess the classic language-learner problem is that there are just so many amazing languages to learn! I hope the German studies are going well. 

    Thanks to both of you for leaving your thoughts, and to you guys and everyone else reading this - don't hesitate to chip in to the discussion! 

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    Kathleen

    I studied one of the less popular dead languages, Gothic (along with some historical versions of German, Old High German and Middle High German). That was long ago, when I was in grad school studying "Germanic Languages and Literature." 

    To this day, I remember the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in Gothic:

    "atta unsar þu in himinam weihnai namo þein" ("Father our, thou in heaven, hallowed name thine")

    This was part of a translation of the Bible (from Greek into Gothic) commissioned by Bishop Ulfilas, a leader of Gothic Christians, in the fourth century. Virtually all that survived of written Gothic is religious in nature, save for a handful of documents such as deeds and a calendar.

    It was great fun learning Gothic, although I can't say I've had much use for it since then!

     

     

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    Katrina Paterson

    Hello Kathleen, thanks for joining the discussion! I must confess that before I read your comment, I didn't even realise that there HAD been a language called 'Gothic'. I could not resist looking it up on Google (that source of all wisdom) and I found a really interesting page about it here which shows how the alphabet looks, and also has the Lord's Prayer in Gothic, as you described it. Wow! I've always felt a little bit 'shivery' looking at ancient alphabets and imagining a faraway time when they were actually the everyday currency of a language. If any of you ever go to Ankara, I can recommend the 'Museum of Anatolian Civilisations' as an absolute must for anyone interested in ancient languages. I went there years ago and I was mesmerised by all of the Sumerian tablets and other things written in amazing languages of years gone by.

    Kathleen, I'm intrigued by what you say about some ancient languages being more popular than others. I do feel that this seems to be the case somehow. I guess it depends on where we come from and where we studied, but for me if I think of dead or extinct languages, it's always Latin and Ancient Greek that come to my mind. I don't know whether they seem to be more popular than others because of their impact on many of the modern languages that are frequently studied (particularly in the case of Latin), or because of their impact on the development of science and technology, or because of their respective nations' influence on the history of the Western world (or some other reason altogether). In any case, I'm curious that everybody that has contributed to this conversation so far has mentioned a different language. Lots of interesting things to think about here!

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    smeeko

    This is an interesting topic... Thanks Katrina.

    I grew up in Italy and studied Latin in high school for 5 years. Students of scientific high schools in Italy learn Latin and those attending classical high schools learn both Latin and Greek. 

    It was hard at the time and I could not quite understand the reason for it as a student, but it has helped immensely with grammar and I have to say with writing and editing work. My daily, non-Gengo job includes editing engineering and scientific documentation and I am amazed often how much Latin helps with scientific words as well as grammar.

    I also now realize the importance of staying connected with my cultural past. We cannot forget the past as it teaches about who we are. We can learn from the mistakes of those that came before us and we can better understand why they did certain things, if we understand how they communicated. I read an interesting article recently that talked about "cursive" and how it is no longer taught in most schools here in the US. While this may seem to many like an insignificant problem, there are many old manuscripts and books written only in cursive. Among them the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents of this country. Young generations may never be able to read those documents, if they don't how to read cursive. If they can't read them themselves, they could be mislead by others, as to what they really say.

    Another important aspect of learning Latin is that, for Christians, it is the original language of the Church. Again, that helps us read many of the ancient documents in their original language, without the "localization" and "interpretation" of (multiple) translations. 

    So, once in a while I still take a Latin lesson on "Duolingo". While 40 years have passed since high school, it is fun to challenge my brain to read what once seemed silly sentences.

    Carpe diem!  

    Amor vincit omnia!

     

    Enrico

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    pilvenhattara

    One dead language I'd like to study is/are Tocharian(s), but I'm not sure there is much in the way of literature there, except for Buddhist texts. But still, it's fascinating: the second Indo-European branch to split off, located far away from the others, and it flourished until about a mere twelve hundred years ago.

    More on Tocharian

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    Katrina Paterson

    Hello Enrico and pilvenhattara, thanks for leaving your comments. 

    Enrico - I'm glad you're finding the topic interesting! I also learned Latin in school and although I'm not Italian, I liked the idea that the language connects us with our universal past (in fact, my own home city of Manchester, England, has Roman connections and that is why to this day, inhabitants of the city are called 'Mancunians', from the old Roman name for the city). I also liked the fact that our Latin textbooks at school were all about forums and gladiators and volcanic eruptions and so many dramatic occurrences that don't really make it into the textbooks we study modern languages from. I liked the idea of having a connection to this colourful, mysterious past, and I also liked imagining a time when Latin would have been the everyday language of conversation in marketplaces and taverns and what have you. It's always interesting to reminisce about when languages that are now considered 'ancient' were vibrant and living - and I think it's also a timely reminder that not all languages remain 'alive' forever, sadly. I'm glad that Latin helped you in your work, and I also wanted to ask - what's 'cursive' writing? Is that the so-called 'joined-up' kind?

    pilvenhattara - As was the case when Kathleen mentioned Gothic earlier on in the conversation, I have to confess that I hadn't heard of Tocharian (either A or B). Again as with Gothic, even the name of the 'Tocharian' language sounds amazing. You raise an interesting point, which is how to study a language (or how to even be able to decipher an ancient language) without having access to that many source texts, and particularly when many of the source texts revolve around a small number of topics, as you mention in relation to the Buddhist texts and as is also alluded to in the article that you link to. But I guess that with determination, we can always get somewhere. In any case, it's amazing to think of just how many ancient languages there are out there, quite apart from the well-known ones. Thanks for sharing the article - it's been very interesting to learn about a language that I, and I'm sure many of us, had literally no knowledge of, and of course if anyone else has interesting articles to share with all of us, it would be great to read them. 

    Thanks again to everyone who has commented so far! Carpe diem and amor vincit omnia indeed!

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    smeeko

    Thank you Katrina. Interesting information about Manchester.   You confirmed my statement about "cursive" with your questions. LOL. I imagine you do know what it is... maybe by another name. See here for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursive 

    I never heard the term "joined-up", but I think it may refer to the same style. This was taught in schools when I was younger. :)

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    Katrina Paterson

    I laughed a little at your comment, Enrico. Yes, 'joined-up writing' is something that we used to say when I was at school in England in the nineties. I always assumed that 'cursive writing' was the American way of saying the same thing, but then I was confused on two counts. Firstly, I don't personally think that handwriting 'with the letters joined together', for lack of a better expression, is necessarily that much harder to read, at least when writing in English. I know that some alphabets look different depending on whether they're printed or hand-written, like Russian, but I felt like I could read the 1884 English text in the article that you linked to without too much difficulty (thanks for the link, by the way!) Secondly, surely writing with spaces in between the letters is more time-consuming and tiring than joining them up? If people aren't writing in cursive any more, does that mean that they're starting a new pen stroke for every letter?

    Perhaps this is a bit of a side topic, but I've always wondered why certain alphabets don't, to my knowledge, have a way of joining letters together. As far as I understand, there's no way of joining up Hebrew letters, for example. I also find it interesting that not all alphabets have lower- and upper-case letters (which I think is again true of Hebrew). 

    I'm going to have a better read of the article on cursive now, because I feel that this very interesting topic is raising more questions than it's answering, at least in my mind. Thanks for sharing, Enrico! I'm more than curious to learn more about this topic. 

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