With such a diversity of languages around the world, it’s easy to forget that a few centuries, or many centuries, ago everything was very different. There are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken today – that’s an overwhelming thought, without taking into account everyone who came before us. Below are some late, great languages that had their day, but are now mostly relegated to the history books (save a few language-savvy academics).
There are still a few Aramaic speaking communities, so it hasn’t died out completely, but it was once the main language of much of the Middle East for centuries. You’ll have heard Aramaic if you’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’, where all the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin. If Jesus existed, Aramaic would probably have been the language he spoke most. It’s similar to biblical Hebrew, so if you speak Hebrew already it could be fairly easy for you to pick up.
2. Ancient Greek
No surprise here, Ancient Greek was the language spoken by the Greeks, from the 9th century BC, to the 6th century AD. It was written using the Greek alphabet and a form of Greek called Koiné was used to write the New Testament of the Bible. As with Latin, it’s not uncommon to study Ancient Greek in schools or colleges. It’s important in literary, theatrical and historical contexts and has had a large influence on English. Ancient Greek is often used to coin new words in English and other European languages, especially technical and scientific terms. The term phobia, for example, comes from the Greek phóbos, meaning fear or morbid fear.
These are two different languages, but they’re both part of the history of the English language and precursors to Modern English, so I’ve lumped them in together. We progressed to Middle English in the 12th century, after around 700 years of Old English. While you can read a piece of text in Middle English and understand most of the words, or at least get a general feeling for it, Old English is a whole different kettle of fish. Read a work by Chaucer and, though it’s a bit of a struggle, you should be okay; but try to read the oldest surviving piece of Old English literature, a poem called ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ and you’re sure to be utterly baffled. The alphabet is the same, from the 9th century anyway, but to me it looks like a spilled bag of Scrabble tiles.
4. Old Norse
Old Norse was the language spoken by the Vikings and gave English such fun words as berserk and awkward (yes, we can blame the Vikings for the teenage obsession with that word). Like Old English, Old Norse was first written down using runes, before it switched to the Latin alphabet. You could have a go at learning Old Norse, although I don’t know who’d you would speak it with, but if you want something a bit more up to date you might want to try Icelandic. Old Norse is a kind of precursor to Modern Icelandic and is also related to Faroese (the language of the Faroe Islands) and Swedish.
Would you ever learn a dead language? Is it a pointless pursuit or relevant to learning modern languages?