Language and time travel

A recent commenter on my post about learning Latin, Ancient Greek and other ancient/dead languages has suggested an interesting reason for learning such languages – it’s the closest thing we have to time travel. A knowledge of these languages enables you to explore ancient civilisations and gain insights into the thoughts and lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.

If you want to learn an ancient/dead language, do you think it’s better to learn its modern descendants first, or to jump straight in with the ancient language?

I suspect it’s probably easier to learn the modern languages first.

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

12 Responses to Language and time travel

  1. Colm says:

    The modern language will always be less complex than what went before. However as regards whether knowledge of the modern language helps learning and understanding the older language that depends on the language and how different the two forms are. For me speaking English fluently doesn’t much help me learn Anglo-Saxon/Old-English but speaking French and Irish would certainly help me somewhat should I ever wish to study Old French or Latin and Old Irish respectively.

  2. d.m.falk says:

    A great way to help learn the ancient languages is to make them reasonably relevant to the modern student/hobbyist- There has been some effort with Englisc (Old English), but I guess my favourite is with Latin, particularly with weekly news programmes and modern music performed in Latin. (Someone has done Elvis and The Beatles in Latin, for example.)

    The best-known example of “modern” Latin has to be the translations of the first two Harry Potter books, followed by Finnis Radio YLE’s Nunti Latinii weekly news programme.

    As there have been secular revivals for what have been litugical languages, such as the aforementioned Latin as well as Sanskrit, it would be nice to see such a revival for Coptic, or have a “modern” Ancient Egyptian…. I have heard some Mayans have revived use of the Mayan glyphs, but I’ve found very little on that- Would be interesting if someone actually reverse-transliterated the Popol Vuh back into glyphs! 🙂

    But enough of my rambling.. 😉


  3. James says:

    depends very much what sort of linguist you are. I have several friends who know half a dozen ancient languages (hebrew, Greek, Akkadian, middle Egyptian etc) but can barely string a sentance together in any modern languages. I, however, would have benefited learning modern Hebrew and Greek during my PhD as i can only be bothered to learn the grammar properly when I have a modern form to tie it to.

  4. SamD says:

    Perhaps it depends on what your purpose is for learning the language. If you specifically want to learn Ancient Greek and have no real interest in Modern Greek, you are probably best served by learning Ancient Greek.

    If you are curious about language change and you might want to apply what you learn to change in other languages, it could be helpful to study both Ancient and Modern Greek.

    Modern languages may be easier to learn. At least for me, there’s a different sort of motivation. There is always a chance that I could go to a place where there are native speakers around who are using the language.

  5. newark1988 says:

    I would think that it would depend on what language it is, and its relatives. If, for the most common part you say Latin, which by itself for monoligual english speakers is tough, I would go for a more easier romance language like Itallian or Spanish. Latin would be easier for any fluent speakers of these languages, expesually if your bilingual, which gives picking up a third language, easier.

  6. renato says:

    In Greek case, I think is better to learn modern Greek first, because Greek did’nt change too much, and didn’t transform itself in other languages.
    In Latin case, jump direct to this language, because modern version as Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian and others changed a lot the ancient Latin. Latin kept the language cases, nominative, genitive, acusative, dative, prepositional. The modern languages abolished this by using much more prepositions than Latin, so its difficult to understand Latin through its modern daughters.

  7. doctrellor says:

    I would say it’s up to which preference you have…

    I personally would rather speak Old Kingdom Egyptian or Akkadian or Feudal Era Japanese than modern languages. One gets a better understanding of the thinking processes and cultural views (to a degree) when speaking the languages of then

  8. Josh says:

    Interesting points….

    One thing that I find myself thinking about when I hear of people learning ancient languages, especially Latin, is how easy it is for these languages to lose their “human touch” and turn into “ornamental” languages, if that makes sense. Back in the day, when they were spoken, they were like today’s langauges in that they had slang, curses, “low” speak, etc. Today, they are preserved only in their most proper forms- probably nothing like the average person back then would have spoken them. They can be cleaned up and twisted into however linguists and educators today want to portray them. In my experience studying Spanish, I have been amazed at the differences between what they taught in school and how it’s actually spoken by Latinos. But with Latin, there are no native speakers to refute the proper way that it’s taught today. These ancient languages have lost their human touch, because they’ve become nothing more than decorations, really. When the “low” aspect of a language disappears, it loses the fingerprints of the humans that created it.

  9. BG says:

    @Josh: There is Vulgar Latin (think all the modern Romance languages mushed together with Classical Latin.) While it is rarely learned, compared to Classical Latin at least, it has been studied (it explains many of the changes between Latin and the modern Romance languages.) Check out the Wikipedia article on it if you’re interested. I have also heard of Latin slang.

  10. Adam says:

    I studied biblical Hebrew prior to studying Modern Hebrew. I have to say that I’m very glad I did it that way. It gave the modern language a very ancient feel. In biblical hebrew, the word “הנה” means “behold”. And that’s the meaning I associate with this word, even though it’s used commonly in Modern Hebrew as “here is/are”.

  11. Evan says:

    Similarly to Adam, I studied Biblical Hebrew and mediaeval Hebrew, before learning Modern Hebrew – however, the two are still very similar. I can also read and translate Aramaic, but I could not hold a conversation in it. I was taught modern Hebrew in an immersive environment or “ulpan”. I also learned mediaeval and modern French at Uni, and these would both have been a lot easier if I had studied Latin first, not afterwards.

    I have set up a virtual immersive environment for learning Latin – using mp3 players and a podcast to disseminate the material. I don’t think learning Latin was any more difficult than learning French or Hebrew – what gives it a reputation as such a toothbreakingly difficult language is that it is usually taught as a mathematical puzzle, not as a language. After a few days of French lessons, you are already encouraged to speak aloud. How many first year Latin students can utter more than a few coherent sentences?
    The Latinum podcast takes the “ulpan” approach.

  12. elisabeth says:

    @ renato
    I think it is the other way around. Latin didn’t change too much into Italian, in fact, if you know Latin you can almost read Italian books. But Ancient Greek did change a lot to Modern Greek. If you want to learn Ancient Greek, I don’t think knowing Modern Greek will help you, except maybe the writing system. And what you say about Latin having cases, and modern languages not, that is also true for Ancient and Modern Greek. Ancient Greek has a lot of synthetic grammar, Modern Greek more analytic.
    (I know Ancient Greek, Latin, French, a little Italian and a little Modern Greek)

    @ SamD: That’s what I also think.

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