Dead Languages: How (and Why) to Learn a Dead Language
Why learn a dead language? This is the question I’ll answer in today’s post.
What is your “why” for learning a new language? Maybe it’s because you want to feel a greater connection with people around the world. To have improved travel experiences or immerse yourself in a different culture different from your own.
But what if you find yourself looking for a greater connection to history? To a religion or your heritage? Or even a desire to better understand the languages that you currently speak? You’re looking for the type of connection that you just can’t get with a modern language.
Latin, Ancient Greek, Old Viking runes and Egyptian hieroglyphs call to you and you feel it’s time to answer.
These are dead languages – those that no longer have a native speaking community. How do you learn a language without native speakers?
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Before we get into how to learn a dead language, or even an extinct language, let’s take a step back and talk about what they are.
Many often confuse dead languages with extinct languages, so I think it’s worth spending a moment to differentiate the two.
A dead language is a language that is no longer the native language of a community, even if it is still used in other contexts. Its uses tend to only exist in specific situations – perhaps academia or amongst individuals or in special circumstances – such as the use of Latin in the Vatican City.
In contrast, extinct languages are those that are no longer in current use and that do not have any speakers.
While scholars have tried to draw a clear line between the two, the division is still a little fuzzy.
Because both languages underwent the same process and no longer have any native speakers. The difference is that dead languages may still have communities that speak the language.
According to various sources, there are thousands of dead languages. Maybe as many as hundreds of thousands. There’s a lot of history on that list.
What caused so many of the languages once spoken around the world to die? Turns out, there are a lot of factors that can lead to the end of a language.
Language death happens either when a language absorbs another language – usually a major language absorbing a minor – or the language loses its last native speaker.
This typically happens over a long period of time, but there are exceptions. Sometimes there are radical language deaths where the native speakers stop speaking the language, whether by force or choice.
As I mentioned before, there are thousands of dead or extinct languages that I could feature on this list. Here are seven:
As far as dead languages go, Latin is the most studied. It’s also one of the most famous dead languages.This is because it was (and is) taught in schools, because of its importance in the Christian church, and because of its use in legal or political situations.
Latin’s death happened through the natural process of language change, meaning it was gradual. Latin became Vulgar Latin which then led to the splitting up of the language into the various Romance languages. The result? Latin fell out of use.
If you’re interested in learning any of the Latin languages, like Portuguese, French, Spanish, or Romanian, it would be a great asset to you as a learner.
Some of the famous writers in the language include Ovid, Julius Caesar, and Cicero. More modern material is now available in the language, so fans of The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Tintin, Le Petit Prince or even The Cat in the Hat have learning materials to enjoy.
Recommended Latin Resources
Ancient Egyptian is one of the earliest known written languages, and it was spoken until the late 17th century in the form of Coptic.
If you’re into hieroglyphics or different writing systems, Ancient Egyptian would be a fun language to learn.
Like Latin, Coptic is still a language of religion (in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria) and today, there are several hundred fluent speakers. Many learners use hymns to study the language, but there are a few additional resources available for those interested in learning the language.
Recommended Coptic Resources
Mandan is a Siouan language from the North Dakota area. It was one of about three languages to die in 2016 with the passing of Dr. Edwin Benson.
The language is currently taught in schools, and there are extensive materials available for the language at the North Dakota Heritage Center. There are two main dialects: Nuptare and Nuetare. The latter fell out of use, and only Nuptare survived into the 20th century.
The Mandan language has some similarities to the Welsh language and at one point, scholars even believed the language to be displaced Welsh. In the 1830s, Prince Maximilian of Wied created a comparison list of Mandan and Welsh words, but there is a debate about the validity of these origins.
Recommended Mandan Resources
Sanskrit is an ancient Indian language and the liturgical language of Hinduism. It was the lingua franca of much of the east for more than three thousand years.
If languages like Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, or Bengali, among others, catch your attention, Sanskrit could help you learn them. It’s essentially the Eastern equivalent of Latin in the West and many languages in the modern world have Sanskrit roots.
Recommended Sanskrit Resources
The Gothic language is an extinct language that is from the Germanic language family. The Codex Argenteus, a translation of the Bible produced in the 6th century (but copied from a 4th century version), is the most well-known source for Gothic, but the language has a significant body of texts in comparison with other Eastern Germanic languages.
The language began to decline for a variety of reasons during the 6th century including geographic isolation and a defeat by the Franks. By the 9th century, it fell out of use. There may be evidence, however, that it was in use until the 18th century.
However, the versions of the language that survived past the 9th century are significantly different. Many argue that they may, in fact, be different languages.
Recommended Gothic Resources
- An Introduction to the Gothic Language by William H. Bennett
- Grammar of the Gothic Language by Joseph Wright
Scandinavians spoke the North Germanic language, Old Norse, between the 9th and 13th centuries. During the 10th century, Old Norse was the most widely spoken European language. It reached from settlements in North America (Vinland) all the way to Volga, in present-day Russia.
Modern descendants of the language include Icelandic and Norwegian, so learning Old Norse would give you a leg up if either interests you. It would help with Faroese, Danish and Swedish as well.
Recommended Old Norse Resources
Ancient Greek, the language of Homer, Aristotle, and Socrates, is a language of intellect (it has been the subject of scholarly studies since the Renaissance). It dominated parts of Europe from the 9th century BCE to 6th century CE.
Many of the words used in scientific fields come from Ancient Greek, and tech industries are following suit. If you work in these industries, studying the language would be an interesting way to further explore your field and understand the origins of the terms you use each day.
Learning Ancient Greek would also help you with modern languages such as modern Greek or Crimean. As with Latin, texts such as Harry Potter and Asterix are translated into the language.
Recommended Ancient Greek Resources:
Why should you learn a dead language, or even an extinct language? If you can’t use the language to communicate with other people, is there any point?
Yes, and here are just a few reasons you might benefit from learning a dead language:
- Like Esperanto, learning a dead language like Latin or Ancient Greek could help you learn other languages more easily
- Learning a dead language gives you a window into history that you just don’t get from modern languages
- You still get all of the cognitive benefits you would get from learning any language – modern or not
- Academic or professional benefits, meaning you can advance your career
- You can read ancient texts the way they were intended to be read – in their original language
- Not a lot of people are doing it, so it sets you apart
- You gain a greater connection to history and different cultures
Ideally, to learn a language, you’d want a course book to explain the grammar, a dictionary for vocabulary, audio to work with, literature, and speakers to practice with.
Unfortunately, in the cases of most dead languages, these are all things you’d be counted lucky to have. So what happens when resources like this don’t exist for the language? How can anyone learn the language?
Linguists often work to reconstruct languages based on fragments of writing – letters, documents, or records – they come across. They patch these together to estimate what the language sounds like and what the missing pieces might be.
You can see an excellent example of how this is done in Tim Doner’s talk at the 2014 Polyglot Conference.
Thankfully, as a learner, you don’t necessarily need to do this.
Today, many of the dead languages that learners are most interested in have grammar or course books readily available. They’re often the result of the work done by those who reconstructed the languages, or by those who got their hands on those reconstructions and primary sources.
When this isn’t the case, there are often archives that include texts originally written in the language. Learners then use the text in the target language and a translation of the same work, using the two to study the language.
For more recent dead languages, audio often exists. A language like Eyak, an Alaskan language, has audio, a dictionary, collections of folktales, and grammar.
The Internet is another incredible resource for those interested in dead languages. Before, finding others who shared your passion for say Old English or Biblical Hebrew was difficult if not impossible. Nowadays, however, a quick Google search changes this.
While dead languages don’t have native speakers, you are still likely to find other learners. Some of these will be better than you at speaking or understanding the dead language you’re learning. As a learner, these people are an invaluable resource.
To practise speaking a dead language, you just need one person, one speaker or fellow learner who is just a little bit better than you. They don’t have to have mastered the language as long as they are a decent speaker. Try to create a structured learning process with them. If they are a teacher, that’s even better. Some teachers can definitely be worth any price. If they are a fellow learner who just wants to help you, it puts a little bit more of the lesson structure preparation on you.
When you think of dead languages, it’s easy to forget that they were living languages. Much like English, French, Korean or Arabic, people once loved, laughed and experienced life through languages like Hunnic, Rumsen, or Norn. Reading and learning these languages offers you the chance to connect with those who cursed, philosophized or debated in them and grow more deeply connected with history.
And who knows? Perhaps languages that are extinct today may regain a place in modern society.
Hebrew was extinct for around two millennia, but a nationalist movement in the 19th century revived the language. Today, there are millions of speakers.
Cornish, a language spoken in Cornwall, England, is headed along a similar path.