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Why Study a Dead Language?

In her article “Why You Should Learn a Dead Language”, academic Josephine Livingstone argues that there is still some value in learning dead (or extinct) languages such as Latin, Old English, and Sanskrit as they allow us access to a vast body of ancient literature and can even make it easier for people to acquire other modern languages.

Sometimes we need to remember, however, that there are reasons for learning extinct languages beyond boarding-school nostalgia or a burning desire to get into the Tory cabinet.

Considering that Arabic or German could be your ticket straight out of the jobcentre, the suggestion to learn a dead language might sound insane….

But all sorts of “dead” languages enjoy important existences today, albeit in quieter, more subtle ways. They’re threaded almost invisibly through contemporary culture, kept in shape by a combination of tradition and devotion, like good hand-stitching.

There are practical reasons for learning an extinct language. It can make acquiring second, third, even fourth languages easier. Linguists map languages on to family trees. In the Indo-European language family, groups as seemingly disparate as Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic descend from a lost parent language called Proto-Indo-European. So, according to the same principle that your great-grandfather had children and grand-children and great-grandchildren, learning a language that occupies a place farther up the family tree will mean that younger languages will have grown up out of it.

This argument is often used in defence of learning Latin, which is parent to French and Spanish, among others (it doesn’t apply to Ancient Greek, however, whose offspring are few).

Some dead languages are more dead than others. Languages whose writings are beloved never really die. Old English will be with us as long as we treasure Beowulf. While our fascination with King Arthur rumbles on, Old English’s inheritor, Middle English, survives. Middle English romance tales of the kings, queens and chivalric heroes of Britain are woven into the stories we still tell our children, while film studios seemingly never tire of adapting them. Show me a lover of televised dragons and I will show you a fan of medieval literature.

There are a number of reasons why people study (or should consider studying) a dead language, especially if they’re interested in pursuing a career as an archaeologist or historian.

Any language, dead or living, provides an insight into a different culture to our own and, as Ms Livingstone points, ancient languages and civilisations continue to make their presence felt in contemporary culture and in modern-day speech. Just think of all the Greek and Latin terms used in the sciences and law. A little knowledge of Latin or Ancient Greek can help us understand English vocabulary and that of many other modern European languages. Likewise, languages like Sanskrit and Classical Chinese can prove useful to students of modern Indo-Iranian languages and Mandarin.

And it’s hard to deny that there’s a certain pleasure to be had from being able to read centuries-old texts. Not to mention the academic value of studying historical linguistics and documents. If Champollion and his contemporaries had felt that studying Coptic or other dead or dying languages was a waste of time, perhaps we’d still be wondering what the curious little pictures on Egyptian monuments were trying to tell us….

A fragment of Ancient Egyptian hieratic text (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If you’d like to take your first steps in learning a dead language, why not check out these 10 fantastic free resources for learning Egyptian hieroglyphs? Or these resources for learning Maya glyphs?

Are you studying any ancient languages? And do you think that studying a dead language is worthwhile? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!


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