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Importance of Studying Dead Languages

Updated on July 14, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

What is a Dead Language?

Why on earth would we want to learn and study “dead” languages? If they are dead, shouldn’t we give them respect by leaving them alone and letting them rest in peace? That could easily be the reaction any of us give when we hear that learning “dead” languages can be very beneficial. But the understanding of what a dead language is needs to be obtained before giving any answer to these questions.

A dead language is one that is no longer used in everyday speech in today’s world. It is usually a language that can be called a mother to many of our modern languages and pieces of them still float around, but the overall usage of it is not present. Today that would include Coptic (which gave us Arabic), Ancient Greek, Latin (which gave us Spanish, French, Italian, English, and others), Sanskrit (which gave us Indian), Native American, and Old/Middle English. You can still learn them and even get degrees in them. They are not truly “dead” but could be considered more like dormant.

An extinct language is one in which there is no one left that can speak the language. We might have hard copy evidence of it, but the actual pronunciation and interpretation of it is lost for all time. When a language goes extinct, the world loses something. There is no longer any way to totally understand the culture of that language and what it gave the world. It is lost for all time. At one time, Egyptian hieroglyphics were considered extinct because no one could interpret any of the writings. Thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, we can today understand the written language. Without the ability to literally read the writings on the wall, we would not know three-fourths of what we know today about ancient Egypt.

Latin Spoken in The Passon of the Christ

Death Causes

What causes a language to become extinct or even dead? Mostly it is the advancement of civilization and the globalization of the world. Most of it began as far back as the Roman Empire. Though the Romans did not make conquered countries use only Latin or Greek (which became popular for trade), they did make it pretty hard not to have to use them in everyday language to conduct business. Centuries later the English and Spanish helped push many languages into the abyss by their explorations and colonization. They made their languages the official language of all conquered cultures. In fact, native languages were usually deemed pagan and therefore banned. Old cultures disappeared forever. Today, languages are vanishing due to the shrinking of our world. You do not have to travel thousands of miles to visit someone on the other side of the world. All you have to do is click a button on your computer. The world is narrowing its language usages to just a few so that communication and commerce can run more smoothly.

At this moment there are about 300 extinct languages and around 7,000 living languages in the world. This does not include any of the “classical” or “dead” languages that are still studied in some educational systems. Latin and Greek were widely taught in schools until the 1960’s when they were slowed phased out. It was considered unnecessary to learn them, but a few decades later many discovered that that was not so. So much of what we speak today comes from these languages. If you major in biology, chemistry, medicine, law, or theology, you will come across an abundance of Latin and Greek words. Knowledge of these languages would make understanding of these subjects much smoother. In fact a 1997 study showed that the SAT average scores for those that learned the dead languages were about 150 points higher than their peers that did not follow a more “classical” learning style.

Having 7,000 languages in use today sounds like a lot, but that is just a small amount of the languages that once existed. At the speed that we are developing and growing as a society, it is feared that the living languages will dwindle to as little 200 in usage. Why so fast? Surely our computer world would actually do the opposite! Not really. Look at your community. Odds are that there are many people around you from other cultures. The older people in the family might cling to their native languages, but the young ones that are born in your country will naturally pick up the new “native” language and in just one generation the tongue of their ancestors will be forgotten.

Learning these languages and keeping them alive is very important. Cultures are preserved and history is better understood. During archeological digs, pottery or tablets could be found in exotic languages that we have no idea what is being communicated. We could find the answer to many of history’s questions but without the knowledge of the language there is only a continued mystery.

Finding of the Rosetta stone in 1799 was one of the greatest historical and archeological finds ever. Many Egyptian artifacts and sites had been discovered but one could only conjure up stories to interpret the symbols. Most of the interpretation attempts were more than likely way off base. Having the Rosetta stone with its message written in three languages (hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Ancient Greek) was the key to breaking the code. Knowledge of Ancient Greek was not uncommon at that time. If that language had been allowed to become extinct, we would still have no knowledge of what is written on the artifacts found in Egypt.

In order to preserve this knowledge and aid in understand our world, the Rosetta Project was created. To date they have documented over 4,000 languages so that they will not be lost forever. They are working hard to get the remaining living ones in their database before it is too late.

In conclusion, learning these “dead” languages is vital to our culture. Only through them can history be viewed accurately, understanding of our modern languages accomplished, and can we truly appreciate the cultures that came before us.

So how can we help prevent the extinction of these languages? There are many ways that you can participate. One is to give donations to the Rosetta Project to get the remaining living languages documented before they disappear. You can also petition your schools to bring back the classical languages into the educational system. If you cannot get the system to listen and you want your children to learn, try using the Rosetta Stone software which is world-renowned. You can also find help in these links:

Examples of the dead languages:

Latin examples in math from

ad infinitum(AHD-in-fin-ITE-um) Literally, “to infinity,” indicates that a process or operation is to be carried out endlessly.

a fortiori(ah-FOR-tee-OHR-ee) “With stronger reason.” If every multiple of two is even, then a fortiori every multiple of four is even.

a posteriori(AH-paws-TEER-ee-OHR-ee) “From effect to cause.” A thing is known a posteriori if it is known from evidence or empirical reasoning.

a priori(AH-pree-OHR-ee) A thing is known a priori if it is evident by logic alone from what is already known.


Ancient Greek examples in literature from

The following polytonic Greek text is from the Apology by Plato:

Ὅτι μὲν ὑμεῖς, ὦ ἄνδρες Άθηναῖοι, πεπόνθατε ὑπὸ τῶν ἐμῶν κατηγόρων, οὐκ οἶδα: ἐγὼ δ' οὖν καὶ αὐτὸς ὑπ' αὐτῶν ὀλίγου ἐμαυτοῦ ἐπελαθόμην, οὕτω πιθανῶς ἔλεγον. Καίτοι ἀληθές γε ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν οὐδὲν εἰρήκασιν.

Transliterated into the Latin alphabet using a modern version of the Erasmian scheme:

Hóti mèn humeîs, ô ándres Athēnaîoi, pepónthate hupò tôn emôn katēgórōn, ouk oîda: egṑ d' oûn kaì autòs hup' autōn olígou emautoû epelathómēn, hoútō pithanôs élegon. Kaítoi alēthés ge hōs épos eipeîn oudèn eirḗkasin.

Translated into English:

What you, men of Athens, have learned from my accusers, I do not know: but I, for my part, nearly forgot who I was thanks to them since they spoke so persuasively. And yet, of the truth, they have spoken, one might say, nothing at all.


Middle English used in The Canterbury Tales from

Whan that Aprill,

with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

5Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heath

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

10That slepen al the nyght with open eye- (

So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

15And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke

That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Middle English


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    • minnow profile image


      9 years ago from Seattle

      wonderful hub! I studied Latin and enjoyed it so much.


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