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Why Do Dead Languages Matter?


Thousands of languages are spoken all over the world, and thousands more have been considered extinct. Much like dinosaurs, dead languages serve an important purpose despite their being distinct. Here are five reasons why.

  1. They are the foundation of modern languages.

Many dead languages are the foundation of the languages being spoken today. Loanwords and coined phrases adapted in languages such as English often come from dead languages. Examples include pro bono (L.), ipso facto (L.), eureka (G.), and comedy (G.). Moreover, modern languages are often the “offspring” of already-extinct languages. Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese are rooted in Latin. Gaelic, Cornish, and Welsh are all rooted in Celtic. Russian, Serbian, and Polish are all rooted in Slavic.

  1. They are used to make new words.

Many words in the English language are built from extinct languages. To be more precise, 90 percent of words in English are of Greek or Latin origin. Moreover, many English affixes are also of Greek and Latin origin. Although frowned upon by many linguists, hybrid words are popular especially in English and also exists in other languages. Hybrids are words with roots from two or more languages, usually Greek and Latin. Examples include dysfunction (Greek dys meaning “bad” + Latin functio), genocide (Greek genos meaning “race/people” + Latin cidere meaning “to kill”), Minneapolis (Dakota minne meaning “water” + Greek polis meaning “city”) and neonate (Greek neo meaning “new” + Latin natus meaning birth).

  1. They connect you to the past.

Many important scriptures, literature, and other early texts are written in an already-dead language. These include the Bible, mythologies, and classic literature (think Shakespeare and Austen). Being able to understand dead languages, whether it’s Latin or Old English, connects you with these texts and allows you to better understand the context in which they were written.

  1. They allow you to understand history better.

Some things cannot be translated, such as social context and status. Being able to understand a dead language allows you to paint a better picture of the past.

  1. They shape culture.

Like tradition and values, language greatly influences a culture. Although English is the spoken language of both the United States and the UK, their cultures are very different. This is because although they have the same modern language, they hosted a variety of diverse dead languages. The UK is greatly influenced by its Celtic roots, while the United States is influence not only by old Native American language but also by the language of its immigrants.



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