Can Dead Languages Live Again?
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Given that we work with languages on a daily basis, something occurred to me recently that I thought would be wise to share with you all: the sad reality of language death and extinction.
As we know, languages are living entities that are kept alive by people and are constantly evolving. There are several reasons why a language may die, and some languages may even become extinct over time. However, before I get into reasons, let’s start with what separates dead from extinct.
The line that defines one category from the other is fuzzy, which is typical when it comes to talking about languages. A dead language is one that is no longer used as the native language of a community and it is only used in certain contexts, for example in academia or in liturgical practices. On the other hand, an extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers and is not used for any other purpose.
A lot of the dead languages we know of today are predecessors to languages that are currently in use. The most well-known dead language is Latin. Around the 6th century BC, Latin was spoken around Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Over the centuries, spoken varieties of Latin (which differed from Classical Latin used in early Latin Literature) evolved into the Romance languages: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, etc. Latin is still used to some extent in academia, and in liturgical situations—the most notable being in the Vatican City.
Another example of a well-known dead language is Sanskrit, which is the ancient Indian language and the liturgical language of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Sanskrit has been documented as early as the 2nd millennium BC and languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, etc. are descendants of the language. Like Latin, Sanskrit today is primarily used only in liturgical senses.
Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is another well-known dead language. Modern speakers of English won’t be able to understand the old language, and today the it's primarily only used in literature, such as Beowulf, or the imitation of old literature. It is also used in certain works of fiction, usually modified for a cultural context. For example, the languages created by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings series are based on Old English.
There may however be a benefit from learning a dead language. Many existing languages are predecessors, therefore learning a dead language can help speakers learn similar modern languages. Even those who speak descendants of dead languages can understand relating languages to a certain extent. For example someone who speaks Italian, can understand Spanish to a degree, because both languages derived from Latin. They share similar orthographies, or writing systems.
Languages die when one takes over another; this can happen over a long period of time or rather quickly, depending on the situation. For example: there are many indigenous languages spoken in Mexico and in parts of Guatemala. Most speakers of these languages also use Spanish, as it is the dominant language. Parents may choose not to teach their children their native language and children may not have the opportunity to learn their native language in school, depending on the region they live and the resources available. Over time as the younger generations stop using the language and the older generations disappear, the language can in part die off or even become extinct.
Similar to language death, extinct languages slowly lose speakers to another (this is where that line becomes a little fuzzy). Languages such as Eyak and Tillamook are extinct languages as there are no longer any speakers and the language is not used in any other context. These were Native American languages from tribes that resided in the United States. With some Native American languages, the language itself is not written or there is very little documentation of written text due to primarily oral language learning. Therefore, if there is no revitalization and no more speakers to pass on the language, it becomes extinct.
To top it off, a sad counterpart of language death or extinction is the death of a culture.
As with animals, there is birth, life, death, and eventually extinction and the record of their existence is only written in history books. The dead languages that exist today were once widely spoken, so it may not be far off to consider that language death can happen to the language this letter is written in, along with many others we know as being widely spoken today.
On the bright side, there are some things we can do to keep languages alive, or rather promote their existence. We can learn language acceptance in that no language is superior to another. We can allow for bilingualism in education, that way speakers don’t have to give up their native language for the common tongue when going to school. We can also create resources for endangered languages in order to gather speakers and promote the language and culture.
Languages have a lifeline: the more we use them and promote them, the longer they will be around.
As a Language Service Provider, let’s continue to promote our languages and raise awareness for the ones that may not be around for much longer. Let’s remember, it could be us in due time, who’s language needs saving.
That’s all for now,