In Memoriam: Dead Languages

Lots of things can die – a car, a cell phone battery, skin cells – but did you know that a language can also die? A dead language is a language that is no longer spoken in everyday use. It may, however, still be read or spoken by those who study it. Some scholars will also refer to dead languages as “extinct,” although, technically, extinct languages no longer have any speakers.

Why Do Languages Die?

Languages can die for a variety of reasons. When a language dies, it is replaced by another language as the lingua franca (common tongue) of a people or region. This can happen if one nation conquers another. For example, when Rome was conquered, Latin slowly declined in use as the official language of the nation.

Another reason that a language can die is if a people become bilingual but slowly decide to give preference to one language over another; or, if a people are bilingual but are culturally repressed by a government who wants a certain language spoken over another. Over time, the second language could die out.

If a smaller population were to suffer a large population decrease due to disease, famine, war, genocide, or natural disaster, this can decrease the number of native speakers of a language, which can lead to its death.


Examples of Dead Languages

Latin: Perhaps the most famous of the dead languages, Latin was once the official language of the Roman Empire. It is still studied in some high schools and universities around the world, and many English words have Latin roots. Fun fact: Latin is still spoken in the Vatican, and is even a language option on the city’s ATM machines!

Aramaic: Aramaic belongs to the Semitic family of languages and enjoyed about 3000 years of written history before dying out. The earliest Aramaic alphabet was based on the Phoenician alphabet and first appeared around 1100 B.C. Aramaic is very similar to Hebrew. Fun fact: Some portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in Aramaic!

Old English: You may think that Shakespeare’s plays were written in “Old English” because of the outdated vernacular, but his works are actually written in modern English. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, was the language of Anglo-Saxon peoples in England and Scotland. It is a West Germanic; as such, Old English resembles both modern English as well as German. The language was used over a period of 700 years, from approximately the 5th century up until the Norman invasion of the Anglos in 1066. Old English developed into Middle English, then into the modern English which we use today. Old English is still taught in universities across the world, but is mostly read and not spoken. Fun fact: The epic poem Beowulf was originally written in Old English!

Sanskrit: Sanskrit is part of the Indo-European language family and was the common language of India for 3000 years. Sanskrit’s alphabet contains 49 characters – nearly double that of the English alphabet. Today, Sanskrit is considered a liturgical (holy) language in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Since its foundation in 1947, the Republic of India has taken steps to revive the language. Fun fact: St. James Junior School (for children aged 4-18) in London, England offers a course in Sanskrit!

Ancient Egyptian: Egyptian is part of the Afroasiatic language family and is the oldest known language of Egypt, dating all the way back to 2690 B.C. Until the 17th century A.D., Egyptian was spoken in the form of Coptic. Coptic was replaced by Egyptian Arabic, but remains a liturgical (holy) language in Egypt. Fun fact: Ancient Egyptian scripts are hieroglyphics!

Endangered Languages

An endangered language is a language that could potentially die out and become a dead language, for any number of reasons. Typically, the same reasons which cause a disease to die also cause the language to become endangered.

The list of endangered languages is lengthy. Some endangered languages include: Yiddish (Europe), Romani (Europe), Western Armenian (Asia), Pawnee (U.S.), and Domari (Asia and Africa).

The Alliance for Linguistic Diversity has launched The Endangered Languages project to study and help save endangered languages.

Benefits of Learning a Dead or Endangered Language

The benefits of learning an endangered language are two-fold – you get to learn another language (put that on your resume!), while helping to keep the endangered language from biting the dust. It can be a win/win situation. Inevitably, some of the many endangered languages will die, but perhaps some can be saved.

There are also some upsides to learning a dead language. As always, learning another language can make you more marketable to employers because it shows aptitude and a capacity for hard work. Learning a dead language can also make it easier to learn another (living) language, as many dead languages serve as the root for modern languages. Lastly, reading materials such as books or poems in a dead language can help one to really get the feel of the text by reading it in its natural, unfiltered state.

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