Quote of the Day: Dead Languages

To call Greek a dead language is to take a narrow-minded, exclusively pragmatic view of time and of life and death (at least of the life and death of languages). A language is only dead when it has passed from human memory, leaving no literature or descendants. Perhaps we could say that Hittite and Tocharian are dead langauges, because their literatures are scanty and they are known by few, though even they life for ardent Indo-European philologists, after their fashion. The life of a language is a relative thing. To call Greek a dead language is to admit that one knows no Greek and to imagine that it cannot be known and , indeed, is not worth knowing.

Greek is a living language not only because it never died but continues to develop and change and can still be heard in its heir, Modern Greek, but also because it has left us a literature that is part of our common heritage and that continues to influence the way we think, speak, and write.

This is what I’ve been trying to say all along!

4 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: Dead Languages

  1. Well, although the locution, “dead language,” is used commonly enough, it is, of course, a metaphor. The question begged, perhaps, is in what sense the language is dead. One might ask whether ancient Greek is dead in the way that a corpse is the dead body of one who was once alive, or whether one can speak to and read and understand and even respond verbally in their language to those who, now long dead, once spoke and wrote the language. Can the language be used as a full vehicle of communication as it was used of yore by whole populations? To the extent that an ancient language that is no longer spoken aloud and heard aloud is simply “translated” into one’s native tongue or (even worse!) “decoded” as a cryptographic puzzle to be solved, it isn’t really a “living language,” even if there is some animating breath to be perceived, however faintly.

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