Dead Languages

How Learning Dead Languages Can Improve Language Skills

This is a guest post on dead languages is by Ofer Tirosh, CEO of Tomedes, a language service provider offering translation services in 1000 language pairs.

Dead languages aren’t usually in the list of languages that most people would consider learning. People would most certainly choose practical in-demand languages such as Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, etc. Certainly not Latin or Sanskrit. But little do people know that learning dead languages can actually help you improve your current language skills.

Indeed, people would rather learn through language apps, audiovisual foreign language media, cultural immersion, and etc. But by reading this article, you’ll understand how dead languages would bring language learners and even language professionals such as translators an enriching language-learning experience. 

Ultimately, they’ll be able to give better and quality outputs when rendering niche translation services such as creative translation, literary translation, and document translation services.  Learning a dead language perhaps isn’t for everyone but if you do try, then it will certainly level up your overall language skills and even serve as an advantageous career asset to specific careers. 

Are Dead Languages the Same as Extinct Languages? 

Dead languages, the most recognized one being Latin, are languages that are not actively spoken anymore as a mother tongue. Extinct languages are the same in that sense in which there are no living speakers that can claim the language as their mother tongue. 

However, dead languages still has pockets of speakers that use it in an academic or liturgical environment, but not in everyday use. I know, the nomenclature can get pretty confusing but to sum it up in a simpler way, extinct languages are truly extinct while dead languages can still live on in a handful of places. 

Do Dead Languages Have a Place in Professional Language Translation Services?

We most often associate translators with modern languages but there are indeed translators that specialize in dead languages. For a long time since ancient history until today, translators are keeping dead languages alive through their profession. 

As mentioned in the beginning, they’re mostly involved in specific translation work i.e. creative translation, literary translation, and document translation services. This is unsurprising since most of the materials are composed of historical archives and ancient literature. 

Essentially, if you need a document from English to ancient Latin or vice versa, then you can surely get certified translations from professional Latin translators. Instead of scouring the internet for one on your own, your best option is to find them via a professional translation agency. 

Professional translation agencies are connected with thousands of freelance translators worldwide with native language skills. They typically provide a wide range of professional translation services such as financial translation, legal translation, medical translation, etc. 

When it comes to professional translation services such as those, they are rendered by highly experienced and certified translators. With that in mind, they most certainly have within their ranks creative, literary, and document translators that do specialize in certain dead languages. 

Freelance Translators Can Enrich Their Language Skills Through Dead Languages 

Learning dead languages can definitely help translators that don’t even provide niche translation services mentioned earlier. In fact, freelance translators can learn a great deal from root languages if they share linguistic history. For example, Spanish translators can greatly enhance their Spanish translation skills by learning Latin. 

Translators are constantly looking for ways to upgrade their language skills to keep their translation game up to par and beyond. Compared to learning from traditional grammar books and even from cultural immersion, learning a dead language is a very nuanced but nonetheless a highly enriching way of improving language skills. You can see it as another avenue of language immersion for both translators and language learners. 

Keep not that when it comes to translating dead languages, you are indeed looking for accuracy but not in a way you’d expect compared to language translation for modern languages. Translation work, especially in the areas of literary and creative translation are mainly interpretations. 

One can only do so much with the historical texts that have been uncovered so far. You can say that each translation is an educated guess. We can never truly know how it ought to be truly spoken and read like without a native speaker from the actual time period. 

In fact, there are numerous translations of a single historical literary work. There isn’t exactly a finish line of when to stop. There is thriving discourse and ongoing debate as to which interpretation of a historical text is the most appropriate in terms of faithfulness to the language and setting during its time. 

Dead Languages Can Help You in Even Non-Language Related Careers

Aside from the language service industry, you might be wondering if they are any other career-relevant applications for dead languages. Can it serve as practical knowledge in non-language related careers? Of course it can! Careers such as law, medicine, and biology heavily incorporate Latin into the profession’s lexicon. 

Understanding the fundamentals of Latin and even just a small set of vocabulary can definitely help you learn easier and faster the Latin-infused terminology that confounds so many law, medicine, and biology students. But by learning Latin, they’ll be able to breeze through it faster than others. 

The other practical career application for learning dead languages is naturally in the academic field. If you’re really interested in turning your passion for dead languages into a practical career, then you can definitely instruct in a university that offers these kinds of language programs. 

They also have a strong place in academic fields, namely history, cultural studies, literature studies, and philosophy. In fact, a background in dead languages, even just one be it Latin, Ancient Greek or Sanskrit is considered a strong asset under these fields. As explained earlier, learning dead languages means heavily studying the language’s associated history and culture of its past native speakers. 

You can definitely establish yourself as a notable academic scholar under these fields if you added Latin as one of your areas of academic expertise. In fact, Latin translators are almost always associated with the academic field. They have devoted a large portion of their careers to studying Latin. 

Using Dead Languages in a Writing Career 

Another area, albeit an overlooked one are writing careers, but not exactly in the ways you might think. Naturally, you won’t be writing in your dead language of choice and publishing it for practical reasons. Rather, classical languages and its associated culture and history are rich material to draw heavy inspiration for authors. 

A quintessential example would be the authors J.K Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. Rowling studied French, minoring in Classics at the University of Exeter. Tolkien was a prominent linguist who was a renowned Old English scholar to an extent that he made his own prose translation of Beowulf.

Tolkien knew a thing about languages.

Both highly influential authors used their knowledge in dead/classical languages to give birth to the lore that others remember them for. Rowling heavily incorporated Latin and Ancient Greek to the Harry Potter universe’s lexicon through names, locations, and spells. She even used Old English to Early Modern English references. 

Tolkien, being a linguist, took his love of learning languages, dead and living alike, to create constructed languages (conlangs). The Middle Earth universe consists of cultures and races that have their own mother tongues; Elvish, Dwarvish, Rohirric, and Orcish—Elvish being the most developed.  

Tolkien even created dialects for them to further enrich his lore with more authenticity and realism. Ultimately, as with learning other languages, learning a dead language is another way of enriching your writing style as an author apart from acting as rich reference material. 

Learning Ancient History and Cultures Through Dead Languages 

Now you know that dead languages are immensely useful in a wide variety of careers. As such, you may be wondering how does it actually work? How does learning a dead language that has no practical use in modern society actually be a practical career asset apart from a linguistic context? 

You see, cultural and historical studies is an integral component of learning any language. This is a notion that’s very true when learning dead languages. You will be engrossed with thousands of years of history and literature associated with the language at hand.

Latin

If you want to learn Latin, then your learning material will mostly comprise of ecclesiastical texts and ancient Roman documents. You’ll be studying ancient Roman works from notable Roman figures, politicians, generals, and philosophers. 

You get to read the works and diary entries of Cicero, Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelis, etc. You’ll also get to read Roman literary works such as the Aeneid by Virgil and Metamorphoses by Ovid. You can imagine how exciting Latin classes can be when you’re reciting Roman greetings, historical Roman speeches, witty Roman humor, to downright destructive but eloquent insults and death threats.

Rome and dead languages
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Greek

Learning ancient Greek also means immersing yourself with great Greek works written by historical ancient Greek figures you’ve heard so much in your history classes. But the difference this time is that you’ll be learning their works in their native language. 

You’ll be revisiting the works of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Homer and many other great Greek historical figures. Learning Ancient Greek can even help you enhance your native English speaking ability. Why? Because many Ancient Greek words survived in English through loan words that we use everyday. 

Like learning how to speak Latin, you will be learning Ancient Greek works from preserved texts. You are not expected to speak Ancient Greek in the same manner as the Ancient Greeks did. We have essentially no way of knowing how they spoke. 

dead languages
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Old English

Same thing goes when learning Old English. The archaic form of English is nowhere near the English we know today. During the 1st millennium AD, its Germanic linguistic roots were still undisturbed. As such, it is a truly new language if you were to ever learn it. 

Old English texts, the most notable one being Beowulf has archaic words that are incomprehensible to any modern English speaker. If you were to go back in time during that era, you would definitely need an English to Old English interpreter. 

As go further in time reaching the Middle English (spoken during Medieval times) age, the language would still be largely unintelligible to modern English speakers’ ears. But as you continue further on to Early Modern English, the English spoken during Shakespeare’s era, then you can begin to comprehend most of it—with great difficulty. 

But wouldn’t it be fun to take your love of literature, history, and languages and try to combine them by learning to read Shakespeare’s works in the original Early Modern English form? Learning archaic forms of English is a truly unique but also an effective way of improving your reading skills as a native English speaker. 

Shakespeare and dead languages
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Learning ancient history and culture is part of the process. As such, language professionals can further expand their knowledge of cultural and social contexts to aid their work. Quality translation and interpretation consists first of stellar language translation. Second, it consists of understanding the cultural and social context to make appropriate language translations. 

Bad translators are ones that do not see the connection of their translation work to the wider picture. I’m talking about the role of culture and social norms in dictating the translation’s suitability. The best translators take all of these factors into account. They try to not only learn contemporary norms but also historical norms relevant to the language at hand. 

Learning Archaic Definitions of Historical Lexicon

As with learning ancient history and culture, you’ll understand  how contemporary languages evolved from their archaic forms. Learning the root language means the speaker can have a clearer understanding of its modern offspring languages, how they relate to each other, and how they differ.

As said earlier, learning Latin can help you enhance your skills in Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, etc.) You will understand the origins of certain words and their variation between Romance languages and their respective dialects. 

Another good example is learning the archaic forms of English. We talked about this a while ago that Old English sounds nothing like contemporary English and even early Modern English. English diverged from its Germanic linguistic roots as a result of the Norman Conquest starting from the year 1066. It was a momentous point in the English language’s history. 

Norman invaders brought with them the Norman language and integrated it in the Anglo-Saxon society of old England. The Norman language is actually an old Romance language that is very similar to Modern French. That’s why you can see many loan words from French that people use in English. 

What’s the Point of Keeping Languages “Alive”? 

As with learning any other language, people have their reasons for learning a language. For some it’s a passion. For others, a career asset. Learning a dead language falls under the same notion, but some take it even further as a social responsibility. If one language dies, cultures, societies, and entire histories die along with it. Every language is worth appreciating as an effort to preserve a distinct fingerprint of human society. 

Has Anyone Brought A Dead Language “Back To Life”?

A notable example, albeit the only example is Hebrew. Hebrew hasn’t been spoken for nearly 2 millennia as a colloquial language. During the times before A.D, the Hebrew language was already in decline amongst its native speakers. They opted to use Aramaic as it was the prevailing language in the Palestinian region during those days. 

From then on, Hebrew still managed to survive in the Jewish world but in its liturgical form as Biblical Hebrew. It was only until the later half of the 19th century that Hebrew went from being a liturgical language to a colloquial language. It now has millions of native speakers and is also the official national language of Israel. 

Bringing Hebrew ‘back to life’ as a national and colloquial language was mostly due to the efforts of Ben-Yehuda. As a linguist and Zionist, Yehuda was motivated to ‘revive’ Hebrew back as a modern language. His dream was for Jewish peoples around the world to reclaim Hebrew as their mother tongue. He wanted to bring further realization to the Zionist movement.

He needed to update the Hebrew language by adding modern vocabulary and other grammatical inclusions. This is to allow for flexible modes of expression that can accommodate the linguistic needs of the contemporary speaker. His son, Itamar Ben-Avi is the first true native speaker of Hebrew for nearly 2 millennia. 

Understanding the Past to Refine Our Present: Final Takeaway

No matter how obscure and distant in either time or contemporary relevance, there is always a benefit to learning any language. You’ll be learning an ancient and eloquent way of conveying meaning with a tongue once used the express the timeless ideas of notable figures of antiquity—an experience you can use to enrich your language skills and career opportunities.


P.S. If you want to learn more on how to become a successful freelance translator, be sure to check out my free and paid books and courses.
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