Dead Languages?… Maybe Because We Helped Killed Them

You have heard the phrase “dead languages”, but what killed them and are they now indeed nonexistent? Let’s find out.

Dead languages are dialects that we no longer used. They are associated with religion, history, and ancient cultures. Many people can tell you about a language that was once a part of their ancestors’ daily life but is now nonexistent. The once familiar and frequently-heard language is that is now considered a small part of their heritage and might be given a small reference in a history book.

Those languages are dead because of social, economic or political circumstances, all human causes, which is why we helped kill these languages. Let’s take a look at how the crime took place. Read on.

What Happened?

  • The deaths of Radical language native speakers, like the Ancient Egyptian language. How is this a human cause? Even though the native speakers were few and ultimately died like humans are known to do, there must have been some speakers of the language left to pass it on. We have some evidence of attempts of language preservation that seem to stop short.


  • Alternatively, being replaced by another language as a result of colonization. Politics and power played a huge role in the crime against language (maybe this continues today…maybe not). A people’s language is a major point of pride and something that colonizing world powers taught (read: drilled into) their newly acquired territories.


  • Mobility is a double-edged sword where ancient languages were concerned. Colonizing powers had access to better means of transportation that gave them better mobility. This allowed them to spread their language, gain more native speakers, and strengthen the language. Some languages, like Latin, were well preserved but contained to be used as a foundation for the medical, scientific, pharmaceutical, and other modern industries and languages, like romance languages. The language Latin is still used in Vatican City.


Languages Fall Victim to the Passage of Time


With the passage of time, some languages started to disappear, many became extinct, others died and many are still in use.


Several languages became extinct in Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, North America, and South America. Follow this link for a list of extinct languages.


Extinct Languages are Not Dead… Not Really, Anyway

‘’Dead” languages and ‘’Extinct” languages’’ are not the same thing. Dead languages are those that have no communities left with people who can speak it or (young) native speakers. However, these languages are still used in specific circumstances. In contrast, extinct languages are no longer used in any circumstances and have no native speakers or speaking communities.


Which of These “Dead Languages” do You Recognize?


One of the most known dead languages, Latin is associated with industries that require higher-level education, like medicine and science fields. The language still has a stronghold in the education system of many schools across the globe. You can see the evergreen value of the beautiful language highlighted in Christian churches. Latin serves as a foundation of several well-known languages, including Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Italian.

Coptic (Ancient Egyptian)

Sometimes referred to as Coptic. The Coptic language may only be alive and well for scholars of dead languages who have studied its history and foundation. Still, the language can be seen and heard in the Coptic Church in Egypt as a liturgical language. The Orthodox Church of Alexandria holds the beautiful language in high regard and sees it as a rich part of its history and future. Learning about the history of Christianity will definitely include the Coptic language and its origins (Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Hieratic languages).


The Akkadian language of the Akkadian’s empire. The empire took hold of the entire area from the Mediterranean Sea and extended to the Persian Gulf. The language shares the alphabet with Sumerian.  There is evidence that the grammar rules of Akkadian have a lot in common with classical Arabic. Unfortunately, the language has been dying for centuries. Despite linguistic scientists’ best efforts to revive the language, Akkadian is no longer used.


Biblical Hebrew

Originally a language of the ancient Israelites, Biblical Hebrew is currently found in literature and remains liturgical of the Jewish religion. The language is associated with the Jewish faith and is understood by leaders of the faith. Because of its importance to the religion and traditions of its people, Biblical Hebrew is taught in the typical curriculum of public schools in Israel.


Sanskrit is the foundation language of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It was originally spoken by people in the Indian subcontinent.  The language is fundamental to the area’s education system that puts a value on the study of ancient texts and traditional literature. A single thing has several words to describe it making the 49-letter-alphabet language more complicated than it seems. Priests and residents of Nepal, as well as other small villages in the area, continue to use Sanskrit.


The beginning of a civilized people is to have a common language and this is how Sumerian came into existence. The language was invented in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) using mud tablets where the residents of the area would scratch shapes and symbols into the soft surface to document their laws, fables, stories, myths, and even rich artwork and pictures. This “documentation” serves as a reminder of how Sumerian society lived and is studied by scholars around the world.


Aramaic identified as the language of Jesus and still speaking by a few modern Aramaic communities. It has been the lingua franca, served as a common language of different groups who originally used different native languages.  This happened in the Near East for centuries. Aramaic is a lot like Biblical Hebrew. Both languages value religion and a person’s holy role and can be seen in the biblical Book of David and the Book of Ezra.


Old Norse

Old Norse is a highly valued language of the ancestor that is related to modern Icelandic. Speakers were native to Iceland, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Greenland, and in parts of Russia and France. The language continues to be associated with Vikings and referred to as a “Viking language”. Old Norse was widely used in areas across North-Western Europe during the Viking age.

Ancient Greek

The Ancient Greek language is derived from Phoenician and is studied by historians interested in ancient civilizations with rich popular cultures. When studying the origin of the language, you will come across the three main tribes of the Greeks which are ‘’the Aeolians, onians, and the Dorians that contributed to the creation of Aeolic, Ionic, and Doric, three dialects of the Greek language.


Will More Languages Die? Yes

Over the next few decades, many languages will become endangered of partial or complete extinction. One thing we can do is try to appreciate our current languages, take steps to learn new languages, and encourage each other to use native as well as newly-mastered languages and dialects. Languages that are confined to smaller areas are in greater danger of dying. A possible solution: When you visit an exotic part of the world, try to bring the language back with you. Read about its origin, talk to people about it, and teach yourself some phrases and vocabulary words in that language.

This world is huge and its languages are just one of its treasures. Thanks to the World Wide Web and the internet, these languages and exotic destinations are more accessible than ever. Do not be afraid to access them! Go ahead…Discover!

Only then will we be helping dying languages survive.

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