The Languages a Historian Should Learn
Six Languages Every American Historian Should Learn
Off the beaten path and out of order of my thrice weekly, the feeling of inadequacy while reading my latest history book purchase made me remember something an old professor of mine once told me: Don't believe translations, learn to speak the languages.
Being an American, there seems to always be one language that many can't seem to master (English), and another language that we have a need to learn, especially in the Southwest region (Spanish). But Historians have that calling where they need to learn more than just English in order to get by.
That old professor of mine was a nutjob. We're talking certifiable. Between rants on how the government was a bunch of liars (now I'm a Libertarian, I believe him to be right on that... but the image of an old man saying that is far too cliché) and how his wife died in a car crash (never have I seen a room full of sixty people feel so uncomfortable), he went on and on about how translations are almost always wrong. Literal translations, as he said, were very unpoetic. They just didn't sound enjoyable to read. So translators embellish words, they used words that sound better, but have an almost completely different meaning. So he told us to learn the language and translate it ourselves.
Keep in mind, this was the last Freshman class I had to take. I was in a room full of people taking the class because they needed credit in a humanities course. There was only one other History major in the room, and he smelled strongly of pot. A professor that makes you uncomfortable with his rants about his dead wife is telling you to learn not one, but many languages. He even wrote Sanskrit and Sumerian on the board so we would learn a bit (ironically, I still remember a lot of it). Learning one language was hard, learning two would be easier, and learning three would be simple. Or so he said.... I doubt anybody in the class learned any languages he suggested, mostly because he required fourteen full novels to be read by the end of the semester, and nobody had time to learn anything else.
Six Languages (That Really Should Have Been Taught to You in Grade School)
If you're reading this, you already know English. And you're probably mad at me for not using it as well as I should. So I won't include that in the six. But these six aren't just for Historians, they're for people who want a better understanding of English. English, as it is now, is just a hodge podge of several languages.
The language of the classics. The first language the Bible was translated into. Hell, it's the Greek translation of his name that Christians call their savior. (I know I'm going to get crap for this, but Jesus's real name was Ieshua. How many Jews do you know have Greek names?) Greek is used, along with Latin, for the prefixes and the suffixes of many of our words. It also has a unique alphabet (alphabet: a combination of Greek words) that will help expand your knowledge.
Latin is the "dead" language that is used far too much to be dead. The language of the Catholic church (which is important in history because they dominated life before the Reformation and held power in much of Europe until the French Revolution), the language most governments used, the language of law, the language of the Roman Empire, and the language of science. It is the most useful language you could learn, and the language that should have been taught to you while you were in school, even if people complained that it's the language of Catholicism (I went to Catholic school as a boy... they never taught me Latin).
The Bible was written in Hebrew. That's the most important book in all of Western history. In English, the Bible is incredibly different than what it is in Hebrew (mostly because it was translated from Hebrew to Greek, Greek to Latin, Latin to German, and German to English... many things got lost along the way). Get past the very cool looking alphabet and embellish the fact that there is a small vocabulary, and you could read the Bible in its original form, something that will put you far ahead of most who quote it to make you feel bad for saying "God dammit!"
Later along in this article, I'll point out where you can learn these languages, and will make a good point to promote Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone's program for most languages is either three or four levels, but French has five. Why? Because no matter how fluent you get with French, or how well you nail the accent and pronunciation, you will never be good enough at speaking French to satisfy a Parisian. Perhaps that's why many of the American populace detest the French. We may be arrogant and think American Policy should be World Policy, but we did save the French from speaking German...twice.
Ok, rant over. You should learn French because it's the language of love, the primary language of the Romantic Era (my favorite era, even if I don't speak a word of French...yet), and after the conquest of England in 1066, Norman French was the language of the English. The French Revolution, being by far one of the most interesting times in Western history, is all written in French. You can believe the translations of Dr.I Have a Ph.D and You Don't, or you could read them on your own.
A rather insignificant country until the Nineteenth Century, it is still spoken causally in much of the Holy Roman Empire (though Latin was the official government language), and before those Norman conquerors invaded England, the Angles and Saxons spoke an early version of German. It is also, along with English, the language of business in Europe (I do hope Germany reaps much of the reward after the crises in Europe subside and good economics returns, because they're paying for most of it) . There is a lot to learn in German, but the grammar structure is far easier than French or English. Probably because the Germans are so anal about rules that their sentences must follow a rigid structure.
Outside of learning it to better communicate in the Southwest of America, Spain conquered and colonized much of the Americas. Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, who speak a very similar language to Spanish. They were a dominant superpower before France and Britain, and their language is highly important in the history of Imperialism.
Perhaps the smartest person I know (and definitely one of the hardest working), speaks Spanish fluently, along with great knowledge in French, and apparently she knows some Russian and Arabic (I said hard working, I wasn't lying). She's also off to get those fancy letters after her name.
How to Learn Them
There's a language section of every bookstore you go to. Many of them will have books that will teach you the basics. And the basics are very good to learn. However, nothing is better than learning to speak them at an intermediate to fluent level.
Rosetta Stone offers a very wide selection of languages to learn. Many people tell me that they're not cheap, to which I say "neither is twelve classes at college to learn the language." Looking at my student loans, I could have learned every language Rosetta Stone has and still have saved enough to get an Associates in History. Plus Rosetta Stone is on sale now. (I should get paid for that plug in... but alas, few people read this enough for it to matter)