Lingua mortua sola lingua bona est?

There seem to be many arguments for and against learning classical languages, such as Latin and Ancient Greek, and other dead languages. Some people claim that learning these languages gives you a better understanding modern languages. Others claim that learning Latin gives you a good understanding of grammar and can make you more disciplined in your studies.

To date I’ve only dipped my toe into the ocean of Latin scholarship. All the languages I’ve studied are modern ones spoken by people on a daily basis. This is not the case for Latin or other dead languages. Courses in dead languages tend to focus on grammar and translation. This approach puts many people off, myself included.

A major reason for learning classical languages is to read the wealth of literature written in them. This is especially true for Latin. If you want to be able to read Latin though, is it really necessary to learn how to conjugate verbs, inflect nouns and how to translate from your language into Latin? The ability to recognise what the inflections signify when you encounter them would seem to be more useful.

There are even people who view Latin as a living language. For example, there’s an organisation in Germany that organises Septimanae Latinae Europaeae (European Latin Weeks) at which Latin students and scholars can get together and speak to each other in Latin. Roman food is also available at these gatherings.

Have you studied any dead languages? What are your thoughts on the utility or otherwise of such study?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Latin.

32 Responses to Lingua mortua sola lingua bona est?

  1. gee says:

    Do you really mean translating something from your language into Latin? At school we only did the opposite.

    The inflections are very important in Latin and this is also what makes that language that difficult. Most of the time you know what all the words mean but you have no idea how they relate to each other.

    Btw it was very interesting to read Ceasar or Plinius, but for me the best thing was getting a great deal of information on just how most European languages work. It also made Spanish a lot easier for me to learn.

  2. Weili says:

    Does “Ancient Chinese” 文言文 count as a dead language?

  3. pg says:

    At the moment, I’m too consumed by ‘living’ languages to study either ‘dead’ or ‘artificial’ ones. However, I’ve got no problem with people who do. The way I see it, the more languages we preserve, the better.

  4. Tomensnaben says:

    I’ve always had an inclination toward dead languages. I started with Gothic, then Anglo-Saxon (Old English), Now Latin. I’m actually sticking with that. There’s just some sort of allure to languages that people don’t use that much. And it clears so much jargon up.

  5. Steve M says:

    I (try to) study Latin because the history of Western Europe up until a few centuries ago is primarily written in the language. The extensive Latin literature is reason enough.

  6. Jared says:

    Classical Hebrew; I guess Hebrew counts as a dead language, because it had to be dead before it was resurrected in the 50s. I also dabbled in Latin and Old English. I think learning a dead alnguage is a valuable skill, especially if you like poetry. If you can read Latin or Greek or any of the dead literary languages (like Ancient Chinese!), then you can understand the great classics so much better than in a translation into your native language. A translation by somebody else will usually be colored by their personal experiences. That’s not a bad thing, but if you want it to be meaningful to yourself you sort of have to find your own meaning from the particular choices of words and phrases. I guess what I mean is the only real reason to learn a dead language is for the entertainment value, since most things that are important to your daily life or hobbies (unless you’re rather unique) are not going to be written in Attic Greek.

  7. Honoratus says:

    lingua Latina et lingua Graeca sunt linguae bonae, quod aliae linguae multam vocabulam grammaticamque dant.

    Latein und Griechen sind guten Sprachen, denn sie geben viele Vokabeln und Grammatik zu andere Sprachen. (for those of you that don’t know Latin)

    I study Latin and Ancient Greek among other languages and find that they really do help me in those other languages (and English). I also find that it is helpful to really know noun inflections, verb conjugations, et cetera because without any hard and fast rules about word order (that I know of) you need to be able to easily recognize the cases and verb forms to tell where each word fits in the sentence. Word order is mainly used for emphasis (like German, but to a greater extent).

  8. Will says:

    I don’t know how much they do compared to learning other languages, but they are useful to learn given that there are so many documents in dead languages (not all of them, granted). I like learning dead languages anyway, because they’re personally interesting, and it’s interesting to see older reflexes with modern cognates, and the changes that history has wrought in the language (not that linguistic change is necessarily a bad thing.

  9. Simon says:

    gee – in my Latin textbook, Learn Latin by Peter Jones, there are exercises in which you translate from English into Latin, and vice versa. I assumed this was common to most Latin courses/textbooks, but I’ve never actually studied Latin formally, so can’t be sure.

    Weili – I think 文言文 / Classical Chinese certainly does count as a dead language. I studied it for a couple of semesters in Taiwan, and would need to study it a lot longer before I could read Classical Chinese texts with any confidence.

    As far as I can discover, 文言文 was never actually a spoken language, but it was the standard written form of Chinese for millenia, during which time it evolved to some extent. Much like Latin, in fact.

  10. P Terry Hunt says:

    I studied classical Latin from 1968 to 1971 for UK GCE ‘O’ Level, and although I comfortably failed the exam, I nevertheless feel it was one of most valuable subjects I took.

    As others have suggested, Latin provides underpinnings for learning, or at least dabbling with, the living ‘Romance’ languages, which are locally variant “evolved Latin”.

    It also provides a grammatical model with which to analyse English. This may not be the best model, as it does not wholly fit the devolved germanic creole that is modern English, nevertheless it’s a lot better than no model at all (our English (and French) lessons’ grammatical instruction leaned heavily on our parallel Latin studies). My ability to write and edit English (which I’ve done professionally) would otherwise be considerably poorer.

    Leaving aside grammar, a good deal of English vocabulary is of course drawn indirectly (via French and Italian) or directly (due to scholastic introduction) from Latin.

    Finally, a moderate grasp of Latin (and at one remove, Greek) vocabulary and elementary grammar (plural forms, etc) has proved invaluable to me in understanding specialist tems in Sciences such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Astronomy, as well as helping with readings in History, not to mention the legal terms even non-lawyers encounter from time to time (one of A.P. Herbert’s humorous legal stories makes this point rather well).

    I have been planning to resume actively studying Latin ‘real soon now’ for some time.

    (Love your Site, by the way. I’ve been keeping up with it for over 4 years. Many thanks for the hours of enjoyment and instruction.)


  11. Stuart says:

    I’ve never understood the assertion that learning Latin helped with learning about English grammar, as Latin is a Latinate language whereas English is Germanic with very different grammars. There is some cross-over with some of the terminology but I cannot see any more than that. Knowing Latin certainly does help though if you are learning other Romance languages.

    The reason why we had this assertion about Latin helping with English grammar was because of the prescriptivist way English grammar was taught from about the 17th century onwards, when some like-minded people obsessed with Latin tried to impose Latin grammar rules onto English. That’s why even now we have some people who think it’s wrong to split the infinitive, or to end sentences with prepositions (preposition is a Latin term coined by the Romans to relate to Latin grammar, not to English or Germanic grammars).

  12. Honoratus says:

    I don’t know if anybody noticed (or cares) but I was in a hurry and it should be:

    lingua Latina et lingua Graeca sunt linguae bonae, quod aliis linguis multa vocabula et multam grammaticam dant.

    Latein und Griechen sind guten Sprachen, denn sie geben anderen Sprachen viele Vokabeln und Grammatik.

    Stuart – German is a germanic language and it has a lot of grammar that it borrowed or changed to reflect Latin and Ancient Greek.

  13. Alex says:

    Jared – Hebrew was revived beginning in the 1880s, not the 1950s.

    Anyway, though, while it’s true that Hebrew was not used as a spoken language for hundreds of years before that – it was used for roughly the same purposes as Latin was used during the Middle Ages – the fact is that classical Hebrew is (for the most part) intelligible to a modern Hebrew speaker, so I’m not sure that it can be classed as a dead language. (By contrast, for example, Latin is unintelligible to most speakers of modern Romance languages.)

    The test might be whether we think of Ancient Greek as a dead language. Somewhere or other I’ve read that it’s largely intelligible to a speaker of modern Greek; if that’s true, then it would probably have to be considered a living language, as much as Shakespeare’s English.

  14. Podolsky says:

    First of all we have to distinguish between dead languages like Etruscan which nobody knows or Egyptian which has been decifered but nobody can use, and languages like Latin, Sanskrit and Hebrew which, although not used in speech, were well known. They were not entirely dead, I would say. Hundreds, if not thousands of people still read Latin and Sanskrit. Have a look into Wikipedia and you will find not only Latin and Sanskrit pages but also Gothic and Old English – evidently there are some crazy people which want to use these dead languages.
    You can also read Harry Potter in Latin!

  15. Honestly, the most useful thing I ever encountered for understanding English grammar was German. Sure, German has certain aspects that are more Latin-like, but there’s enough of the general structure that was kept by English that it’s useful. As a literature buff, I also found that I had an easier time with Middle English because of my two years of German; the reasons behind the word order, verb forms, and other things made a lot more sense and made reading it far less painful than it would’ve been otherwise. 😉

    Now here’s a question, since people are saying Latin was never (or rarely?) spoken in the form in which it was written. What WAS the spoken dialect of the Romans? Are there any websites that explain that? If so, I would be very interested in seeing that. As a Spanish-speaker, it might help explain more clearly how that language formed.

  16. I must say that the way I see it, languages such as Latin and ancient Greek (both of which I am studying) are not truly dead. Greek is still spoken today in Greece (though it has changed, of course) and the descendants of Latin are spoken around the world. You could even say that Spanish, Italian, etc. are ‘modern Latin’. On the other hand, as mentioned above, some languages have entirely died out, such as Egyptian and Etruscan, and never developed into modern languages.

    In reply to Minstrel: Who says Latin was never spoken the way it was written? True, in later years when it had branched into the Romance languages it was still written in classical style, but in Ancient Rome I do believe they spoke it like they wrote it, more or less.

    Also I believe it would be good to point out that not all modern languages are simplified to the point of the modern Romance and Germanic languages. Finnish has 16 noun cases, many more than Classical Latin! This clearly shows that people do still speak complicated languages, however amazing it may seem!

    —– Vox linguae Latinae non mortua est!

  17. Polly says:

    Perhaps all the emphasis on Latin was due to teachers of yesteryear conflating the benefits of learning Latin with the benefits of studying a foreign lang. in general. Much of English vocabulary DOES come from Latin and Greek. So, there is some added benefit to studying those lang’s in particular.

    But, why should schools teach a language just to improve the native tongue? There are many better reasons. That kind of reasoning seems a bit ethnocentric, не так ли? I agree with the literary motives, mentioned above. Someday, I may get around to learning to read Ancient Hebrew or Greek so I can read the Bible in its original languages. I feel like I may be missing a lot of the subtleties.

  18. Aeneas says:

    I studied both Latin and ancient Greek, and I honestly think that doing so has helped me greatly with my more modern language skills, as well as making it easier to learn new languages. I would wholeheartedly recommend learning these langages, as well others like Sanskrit, Hittite, etc. Plus, there’s nothing more satisfying than reading The Odyssey, The Illiad, and, of course, The Aeneid, in their original glory.

    As for the common speech of ancient Rome, I learned that it was most definitely not the same as the written Latin that remains today. What they spoke was sort of halfway between Renaissance Italian (Florentine) and classical Latin, which explains why some words are different in Italian that they were in Latin; for example, “head” in Latin is CAPVT, similar to Spanish “cabeza,” while in Italian it changed to “testa”. But “testo” in the vulgar Latin was the word for pot, so in effect Italians and French (tête) are actually referring to the round pots above their shoulders when talking about their heads.

    Besides, I think it’s hardly surprising that the speech of Rome or Athens would be different from the literary standard, since it seems that languages that were fossilized in this manner are the ones that survive the longest, even after their speakers are long gone.

  19. Jared says:

    Alex- my mistake. I was thinking of its position as one of the official languages of the state of Israel.
    Stuart- it’s funny, but studying Latin grammar actually did help me in a weird sort of way with English grammar. I don’t know why, but it did. Maybe because having to think about grammar in Latin carries over to writing in English (it didn’t change my spoken English much!) So it is a little bit true that it helps, but maybe this depends on the temperament of the learner.

  20. This discussion about dead languages reminds me of a burning question I had: what would it take to make English a dead language? I’ve been wondering this, because now not only can we preserve the written word as Latin was preserved–we have the technology to preserve the spoken word from generation to generation as well. Have we halted linguistic drift in its tracks, relatively speaking? How long will English (and other modern languages) be frozen pretty much as-is? Opinions? New blog entry? 😉

  21. SamD says:

    I’ve tried studying Latin on my own. It seems practical for understanding legal and medical vocabulary, and the similarities to other languages I’ve studied (French, Spanish, Italian) add to its appeal.

  22. renato says:

    First of all I would like to congratulate Podolski, for his correct analisis about dead languages. I always hated this term “dead” reffering to languages which are stil being spoken, even if, for only one person. So Latin, Sankrit, Old English, Sanskrit, Greek, anciet Chinese, and other with few people talking are not “dead” languages. Let’us remind that Irish was considered a Dead language, ’cause Irish people didn’t want to talk it, prefering English: But Irish is Still alive. Dead language is Hitite, Mayan, Etruscan, ’cause these ones you can’t find a single person who still knows how to talk or write them correctly.

  23. Miach says:

    I know from my own studies that the grammer of Hebrew as written in the Old Testament (not to mention talmud) is much more elaborate and idosyncratic. When they revived Hebrew as a spoken tounge, the grammer was heavily simplified, and many existing words had additional meanings tacked onto them. Modern hebrew as spoken on the streets of israel has a huge number of loanwords from every possilbe language (french,english,russian,arabic,polish,german,persian,amharic) and plenty of idioms that cannot be found in any phrasebook, as I learned to my chagrin when I visited.
    That said, reading the Old Testament in Hebrew really gives you a much deeper understanding of the text — much of nuance and voice is usually lost in translation, and the poetry (like the Song of Solomon or Ezekiel), losses the intentinally ambiguous metaphors that are so important, not to mention rhyme or meter.
    I’ve always felt that translating poetry is impossible to accomplish satisfactorily.

  24. P Terry Hunt says:

    Renato said above “. . . Irish was considered a Dead language, ’cause Irish people didn’t want to talk it, prefering English . . .”

    Alas, a major reason for Irish falling into disuse was – I have been given to understand – that during the centuries-long English occupation its use in schools and in any non-private circumstances was forbidden, and for a period anyone found in possession of a book (or other record) written in Irish was hanged: in parallel, native Irish people were confined to the western 1/3 of the island of Ireland, “beyond the Pale.” Naturally, most Irish-language books etc were also destroyed in these periods. Much irreplaceble history was thus lost since, almost uniquely in western Europe, 1st-millennium Ireland had not undergone a largely illiterate ‘dark age’ period.

    Welsh was – I have been told – similarly forbidden in Welsh schools in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, and at one point all Welsh-speaking schoolteachers were replaced by monolingual English speakers at a stroke. British historical studies to this day are hobbled by a widespread avoidance, or ignorance, of Welsh-language manuscripts and printed texts on the part of English-speaking researchers.

    Unlike the earlier Irish repressions, this ‘anti-Welshness’ was allegedly motivated less by naked domination than by a desire to promote a positive attitude to the British Empire by, in turn, pushing a particular and distorted view of early British Isles history – making ‘King Arthur’ (Owain Ddantgwyne, aka ‘Artursus’?) less overtly ‘Welsh’, for example. I’m not sure how much of this is ‘conspiracy theory’ rather than fact.

    I should mention that I myself am ‘English’ in the conventional sense
    (that is, culturally English, with known or presumed Danish, Scottish, Cornish, and probably some Jewish ancestry a century or more back),
    with little or no known Welsh or Irish ancestry, so I have no particular anti-English axe to grind. However, I also have no illusions that we English are somehow morally superior to other races/cultures/whatever.

    Apologies for drifting somewhat off the point, but I felt I had to emphasise to Renato and others that the Irish didn’t abandon their language merely out of personal preference.

  25. … and of course there are the long-dead – but nonetheless very beautiful – languages Quenya and Sindarin, to say nothing of Telerin etc., spoken today only by a handful of scholars…
    😉 😉

  26. Alexandra says:

    Latin has helped me greatly to truly understand grammar. Despite having studied grammar all my life and having easily learned two foreign languages before Latin, I never really understood grammar… And I think it would be useful no matter what other language you learned afterwards.

    The reason Latin can help even with a seemingly unrelated language such as English, is that to be able to read Latin, you need to really understand the grammatical function of every word in the sentence. As others mentioned here, Latin had no real word-order rule other than style and emphasis. So Maria amat Josephum means exactly the same thing as Josephum amat Maria and Josephum Maria amat. It was only then that I really learned – other than simply memorized – what an adverb, preposition, conjunction, adjective, etc mean… And I think knowing those things would help with any language.

    Btw, our class had to constantly translate from English to Latin, which isn’t very easy to do well!!

  27. James says:

    prose composition (into the language studied) is a standard tool in older language teaching. I have done it in Latin, Attic Greek, Classical Hebrew, French and Spanish. One of my most embarassing language experiences happened in a (1 on 1!) Hebrew prose composition class in Cambridge. I had tried to find a hiphil form of some verb and managed to come up with the word for ´sinew´. My teacher looked at me and said “What have you translated it like this? It means ´sinew´” i think that he was personally offended by my mistake. Well it was mortifying at the time. Worse than the time I brought back some washing powder for the chef in a restaurant I was working in in France who asked me to get some Persil …


  28. Phil says:

    ‘Dead’ languages excite me more than ‘living’ languages do, and I find living languages pretty exciting. The real draw I find with languages like Latin, Old Norse and Old English is it really is the closest we have yet to time travel. It really is exciting reading words that were written 1000 years ago and older. I’d love to learn Akkadian and read Gilgamesh in the original.

    There is so much literature and thought from Latin, greek and other languages that underpins and has defined modern western civilization and this recommends these languages. I believe that a sense of philistine utilitarianism has claimed educational institutions – and culture as a whole – in the west; “we shan’t learn about that because it won’t get us jobs.”

    As has been said in the comments, learning Latin to know more about English is a very silly reason to learn a language. Knowledge of one’s own language is always increased when one learns a new language.

    Isn’t Manx a ‘dead’ language?

  29. Simon says:

    Phil – while the last native speaker of Manx died in 1974, there was a revival of interest in the language in the 1930s and since then many people have learnt Manx as a second language. Today some families are bringing up their children with Manx as their first language, and there’s a number of nursery schools and one primary school that teach everything through the medium of Manx.

  30. Evan says:

    There is a wealth of Latin audio material on the Latinum podcast, including Latin poetry (contemporary) read aloud by the poet, many readings of a variety of ancient Latin texts, and a course in spoken Latin, all for download for free to your MP3 player. The pronunciation used on this site is for the most part that called “Restored Classical”.

  31. Roland says:

    And speaking about latin, one does not forget that till XIXth century juridic texts were in latin in Hungary, some university still spoke in latin around 1900, and the catholic church theorically stil function in latin, the las concile of Vatican for instance.
    And pupils of colleges (in France, so secondary schools) towards 1800 (the epoch of Chateaubriand), not only translated from latin, and to latin, but were obliged to compose poems in latin! and pronouce speeches in latin.

    Now there are the news in latin on the site of the Finland presidency of Europe:
    YLE Radio 1 – Nuntii Latini

  32. Galhen says:

    There is also a possibility to speak in Latin! There are some dash boards in the internet where you can write in Latin. An example is above (I do not know how to put it into the comment). Maybe it is not very big one, but it is an example that Latin is still alive.

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