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Why Study a Dead Language?

Josephine Livingstone argues her case for studying ancient languages in modern times

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 civilizations 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….

Fragment of hieratic text

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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About Kelly M (396 Articles)
A Gibraltarian-born blogger, gamer, and archaeology enthusiast with a passion for languages and wildlife conservation. Tweets under the username @TombRaiderArch and runs the official fansite, The Archaeology of Tomb Raider.

8 Comments on Why Study a Dead Language?

  1. They are not dead languages…merely immortal. They are no more dead languages as Chaucer or Shakespeare is dead literature

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    • I agree. I only stuck with the term “dead language” as it was the term used in the original article. 😉

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      • Forgive me, I did not mean to aim the statement at you-or your use of the term ‘dead language’ I go into default mode whenever I see the phrase ‘dead language’. I love your work!

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        • No offence taken. It’s not a term I particularly enjoy using, especially since some of them live on in other forms and some, such as Sanskrit, are still spoken.

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  2. 1createblogs // September 17, 2013 at 17:55 //

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

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  3. I think studying a dead language can be useful. For one thing, any type of learning is good for our brains. It helps us develop as people. You can learn about a cultures–as well as humanity in general–by studying languages. The importance of etiquette (to the Japanese) is very obvious when you study their language. I learned a lot about my own language by teaching it. I never realized how many words have stigmas associated with them until I started teaching non-natives. These prejudices are not always written in definitions about the word in a dictionary, and it is often a problem for non-natives because they use the word and inadvertently cause offense.

    I found studying dead languages helpful in learning currently used languages. My brief exposure to Egyptian hieroglyphs made me comfortable with Japanese, which is another phonetic symbol language. Latin gave me a base education for languages like Spanish. Of course, a currently used language may be more helpful in jobs than learning an obscure one. However, I hope that there will be people who will continue to learn obscure languages, for the day that these die out truly–we lose a part of our history…just like we almost lost Egyptian history. Think of how many things we would not know about if the Rosetta Stone had never been deciphered!

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  4. I studied Latin to university level – when people see Latin BA (hons) on my CV/resume they often ask me why I chose it and what it involved. I think it’s a good idea for children to learn some Latin as a way of understanding English grammar – which doesn’t generally get taught in English lessons here in the UK. Latin is less dead than other dead languages, and I can see why some adults try teaching themselves the language – it offers an insight into Western literature and culture.

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    • Latin is certainly a useful language to know and I’m still disappointed that I never got the chance to learn it at school (it wasn’t offered).

      Do you use Latin in your current job/studies?

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