How do linguists understand ancient/dead languages?


How do linguists understand ancient/dead languages?

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Through living languages that relate to them and writings. If there are living related languages, they can reconstruct some basic words of the language.

There’s a difference between written and spoken language. So long as teachers exist to continue the tradition of written language, people will understand it even after the language has left the vernacular, or common spoken language.

In some cases this is true, like Latin and ancient Greek, where individuals have learned it from teachers for thousands of years.

In others it is not true, and only through archaeological discovery like the Rosetta Stone (where the same message was inscribed in ancient Greek, Hiroglyphs, and demotic scrypt) scholars can decipher dead written language.

For some like Latin while the native populations stopped using it as their primary tongues, thus causing it to be classified as a dead language, specific groups continued to use it. For Latin these groups were the Catholic Church, and Academic Scholars.

For others like Ancient Greek they utilize modern variants to reconstruct how the ancient language functioned.

For those like Egyptian Hieroglyphics they use writings such as the Roseta Stone that have the same information in multiple languages, at least one of which they already know to decipher those that they do not.

It’s sort of a sliding scale really. On it’s own a dead language is simply a language that no longer has a community that uses it as their primary language. That doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about it.

For instance, nobody speaks Latin as their primary language. We know perfectly well how to read and write Latin and we still teach it. On top of that, many modern languages like French, Italian and Spanish have their roots in Latin.

The fact that languages relate to each other also means that we can often work backwards from contemporary languages. After all, languages are systems for communication. They have patterns, rules, structure. Linguists can work backwards from what we know to try and figure out the rules for what we don’t know.

Biblical Hebrew is closely related to modern Hebrew for instance. It was relatively easy for scholars to work backwards and figure out ancient Hebrew.

For the really ancient stuff, we often discovered a jumping point that helped us. The famous Rosetta stone was engraved with the same text in Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphics. Since we knew Greek, this stone was incredibly helpful in figuring out how Demotic and Hieroglyphics could be deciphered.

Along the same lines, the Behistun Inscription depicted the same text in old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. This inscription helped us make a massive leap in understanding cuniform writing.

Learning dead languages is basically a decoding challenge. You work from what you have to decipher what you don’t know. It’s extremely difficult if you don’t have a starting point but for many languages, we either have contemporary descending languages or helpful touchstones like the Rosetta stone or the Behistun inscription.