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The Languages a Historian Should Learn

Updated on February 10, 2012
The original Google Translator.
The original Google Translator.
The Fathers of Western Thought.  They spoke Greek and wore dresses.
The Fathers of Western Thought. They spoke Greek and wore dresses.
The Bible in Latin.  Nothing is creepier than fire and damnation when read to you by a questionable Catholic priest.
The Bible in Latin. Nothing is creepier than fire and damnation when read to you by a questionable Catholic priest.
The Hebrew Old Testament.  Where "thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain!" really translates into "Thou shalt not say the Lord's name!"
The Hebrew Old Testament. Where "thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain!" really translates into "Thou shalt not say the Lord's name!"
French storming the Bastille. They seem only good at conquering themselves.
French storming the Bastille. They seem only good at conquering themselves.
The Germans in Versailles, doing what they're good at: conquering France.
The Germans in Versailles, doing what they're good at: conquering France.
The Spaniards: they take your land, mine your precious metals, make you speak their language, and then fall into obscurity.
The Spaniards: they take your land, mine your precious metals, make you speak their language, and then fall into obscurity.
Cheaper than going to college, more expensive than watching Telemundo.
Cheaper than going to college, more expensive than watching Telemundo.

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.

Greek

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

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).

Hebrew

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!"

French

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.

German

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.

Spanish

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)

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    • profile image

      Samuel Watkinson 5 months ago

      "...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." This parenthetical comment is very misleading. Many things did not get "lost along the way", if you know anything about the process of translation: modern biblical English translations are directly translated from the original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts; so there's nothing "lost along the way," contrary to popular (generally anti-biblical) opinion

    • profile image

      Matthew Carroll 15 months ago

      I am currently studying Spanish out of necessity (I live in the US, and we will have a growing population of Spanish speakers in the future), but I am also studying German due to its historical significance. I am considering studying Hindi in a few years due to the Harappan civilization's probable importance down the road. Is this a good idea?

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      An interesting hub. I actually agree (sort of) with your professor: translations are generally either accurate or enjoyable to read, rarely are they both. That said, though, it's possible to plow your way through documents written in different languages without becoming fluent in those languages.

      For example, I speak pretty good tourist French and German (I couldn't hold an in-depth conversation in either language, but I can generally function as a tourist) and those skills, plus a dictionary, can usually get me through a primary source in either language.

      But if you want something with an even broader application, branch out and take a linguistics course, especially one with a title like "The History of English" or "Practical Etymology." You'll learn that English is a West Germanic language like German and Dutch, but had profound influence from French, and has many words borrowed from both Latin and Greek. And you'll probably pick up a lot of German, French, Latin, and Greek vocabulary as well.

      Finally, a friendly suggestion from a word-nerd:

      In the article summary, the following passages appears: "...those of us who demote ourselves to the level of historian..."

      Do you really mean that "Historian" is necessarily a demotion from any other career path (possibly as a joke)? Or did you mean to use the word "denote" to mean "...those of us who call ourselves historians...?"

      Either way, I suggest the following edit: "...those of us who aspire to the level of historian...."

      'Cos really, historians are important, and not just anybody can do history well.

      Voted interesting and useful.

    • profile image

      InfinitaVirtus 4 years ago

      This is amazing... I am currently a European History major in university and I have been struggling with what language to take. I studied Spanish in high school (which I still remember and can read well) and French early in my higher education career. No I need to take one or two more classes but I want to choose something different. In my spare time I started learning Russian and German and even attempted Arabic (failed). I love the idea of knowing a language that will help me to relate to the topics that I will be studying. I think this article has inspired me to take up Latin. I hope to have an opportunity to work in rare books and restoration so hopefully Latin will give me an advantage in my career.

    • Brett Osteen profile image

      Brett Osteen 5 years ago

      I agree with the language choices. Eh I always find it hard going in languages. Im trying to learn Ancient Greek at the moment.

    • jtmiddleton profile image
      Author

      jtmiddleton 5 years ago from Grand Ledge, Michigan, the United State of America.

      Or if it's dem or den... or how in some senses the female die becomes der.... So difficult... and yet so much fun in how challenging it is.

    • StellaSee profile image

      StellaSee 5 years ago from California

      I know that for studying Ancient Near Eastern studies, eventually you would have to have a good command of French and German because a lot of the scholarly material is written in those languages. And if you focus on Egyptology, understanding Arabic would be helpful.

      I don't blame you, aethelthryth German is hard! I took Spanish before German so all the language rules I learned for Spanish didn't apply to German at all! And yea I never remember if its der, die or das ;D

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge jmiddleton I had fun reading this one!

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      I quit German after several years of always forgetting, is "the" for this word die, der, or das. I switched to Russian, which has no word for "the".

      I am a big fan of Rosetta Stone. It is so painless compared to the way I learned in school. My 4-year-old thinks Rosetta Stone Russian is a video game, and he is pronouncing Russian at least as well as I do.

    • jtmiddleton profile image
      Author

      jtmiddleton 5 years ago from Grand Ledge, Michigan, the United State of America.

      Many of the older languages are much more simple than our own, and contain far fewer words. Sumerian isn't too difficult, considering it's a piece together language. All words ending in -el meant God, like Gabriel and Michael (names of gods in the Babylonian religion that transferred over to the Abraham religions).

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 5 years ago

      I barely have enough time to read up on even a tiny percentage of historical topics in English. So I am left to rely on the real scholars to do the translating for me. This is part of the reason why I do not call myself a historian. As a history teacher, I view myself as a synthesizer and presenter of historical scholarship produced by others.

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 5 years ago from Pune, India

      It is a very good suggestion.

      When it is about South Asian history, the historian should learn Ancient Prakrit languages and Brahmi script, Tamil, Kannad, Sanksrit and other languages. For research of medieval history of India, learning Persian and old Hindi is must.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      What a great hub this is. I really enjoyed it.

      I speak Spanish and English and see the similarities amongst the two languages. Latin and Greek are used in both.

      It's funny how words like "hospital" and "doctor" are the same in both Spanish and English. I like to think that's probably because the Romans wanted anyone around to know when they needed medical care---my joke for the day.

      Again, great hub! Voted up and away

      John

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Great Hub- I am a historian and sadly I don't speak anything fluently but English. But various languages and the love of languages has criss-crossed the path of my life. Even if I cannot carry on a conversation, I find the knowledge of root words, prefixes and suffixes simply invaluable.

      My mother took Latin in high school, was a word freak and turned me into one as well. She married a Polish immigrant who also spoke German and later learned Russian because of his job. His mother, my Bopcia, spoke Polish, German, French and English.

      When I was 10 we moved to Greece for three years and I learned a smattering of Greek, especially root words. In high school I took two years of French. In college I took two years of German. At university while pursuing a degree in Modern European history I studied on my own and passed translation exams in German and French.

      I have now been teaching college level history courses for 16 years and I use something I learned or know about languages in my classes almost every single day. GREAT HUB! SHARING

      P.S. I probably know five words in Spanish and my students laugh about it. I let them laugh, then I make them learn ten more Greek and Latin cognates. :)

    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 5 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      As a historian I agree with everything you say here, but as a person I have not learned anything but English. It would be so helpful to speak other languages, and it is something I really need to focus on for my history to become better. Great hub, voted up and shared!

    • hrymel profile image

      Haley 5 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      Love it. I personally have taught myself a large amount of Spanish, and it helps a ton when I am listening to French, Portuguese, etc. I love the adaptability that being half-fluent in another language gives me. No doubt that having a background in the other languages discussed here could only help. Awesome hub!

    • CZCZCZ profile image

      CZCZCZ 5 years ago from Oregon

      I went with Latin, I hated having to go to language labs and since I was required to have a foreign language of two years as a History major I elected to go with Latin, it had no language lab requirements and was pure memorization and I enjoyed knowing tid bits of Latin. It made ancient history classes much more enjoyable.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Akkkk! I could never learn a language...I got trouble with one language. It’s great to see a new HUBBER and welcome to HUB writing. I found I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I must give this an “Up ONE and awesome.” I'm always your fan! RJ

      Based upon your HUB, you might enjoy this HUB written today…

      https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Is-Giving...