How many times have you heard “Why do you study it if no one speaks it anymore?” when referring to a person who studies Latin or Greek? These languages have often been labelled as boring and useless even though they are as important as modern languages. In this article I am going to explain what dead languages are and why it is so important to learn them.
WHAT IS A ‘DEAD’ LANGUAGE?
Dead languages are often confused with extinct languages, so let’s take a moment to explain the difference between them.
A dead language is a language that is not the native language of a community any more, regardless of whether it is used in some other situations. It is used normally in specific circumstances, for instance, the use of Latin in the Vatican City.
Conversely, extinct languages are those that are no longer in current use and that don’t have any speakers.
Nevertheless, these languages have some things in common: they both went through the same process and no longer have any native speakers.
HOW CAN A LANGUAGE DIE?
Language death occurs when a language is either absorbed from another language or the last native speaker is lost. This usually happens over a long period of time although there are some exceptions in which native speakers stop speaking the language either by force or by choice.
THE INFLUENCE OF A ‘DEAD’ LANGUAGE
Latin is one of the most influential ‘dead’ languages. In fact, there are around 42 languages that take some influence from this language. Moreover, Ancient Greek also caused a great impact in modern languages.
Latin, because it is the root of some Modern Languages but also because of its importance in the Christian church and because it is the ‘lingua franca’ in science, medicine, philosophy and political situations, is the most studied language. Nowadays, it is still taught in high schools across the world.
This language dominated parts of Europe from the 9th century BC to the 6th century AD. In addition, it is a language of intellectuals since it was the language of Aristotle, Socrates and Homer. This language is nowadays used as the ‘lingua franca’ in scientific fields.
WHY IS IMPORTANT TO LEARN ‘DEAD’ LANGUAGES?
Firstly, because it opens the door to a past and history that many modern languages cannot offer. It helps you to understand the historical and cultural environment from which modern languages come.
Secondly, because learning ‘dead’ languages also give us some cognitive benefits as for instance to improve memory and decision-making skills or a decreased risk of dementia.
Thirdly, since ‘dead’ languages are the base and the roots of many modern languages, learning them will help you to learn many modern languages more easily.
Finally, Learning ‘dead’ languages as for instance Latin will help you to increase your vocabulary. Both Latin and ancient Greek were accepted as the ‘lingua franca’ in science, medicine and philosophy. In fact, almost the 60% of all English words and 90% of technical and scientific terms are derived from ancient Greek and Latin. For this reason, learning both Latin of ancient Greek will help you to expand your vocabulary.
GREEK AND LATIN ROOTS IN MODERN ENGLISH
To demonstrate the influence of Greek and Latin in Modern English, here are some examples of some common words that are used every day:
- The word telephone comes from ‘-tele-’ meaning ‘far off’ and ‘-phon-’ meaning ‘sound’ in Greek.
- The ‘-cras-’ in procrastinate comes from Latin and means ‘tomorrow’.
- The word empathy has its roots in Greek in which ‘-path-’ means ‘feel’.
- Also ‘Phobia’ comes from the Greek ‘phobos’ meaning ‘fear’.
- Democracy comes from ‘demos’ meaning ‘people’, and ‘kratos’ meaning ‘rule’ in Greek.
- ‘-omni-’ as in omnivorous, omnipotence, omniscient, means ‘all’ in Latin.
In a nutshell, it is important to learn dead languages since, being the roots of modern languages, they will help you to understand and to learn them faster. In addition, by learning dead languages you can improve your vocabulary and learn about the history and culture of older civilisations.