On the importance of dead languages

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian.

Here's an article on a subject you don't see that often, the importance of learning dead languages. Not just Latin but languages as far back as Akkadian.

When it comes to dead languages that don't have as large a corpus as languages such as Latin, it might be better to think of it more as deciphering and understanding than learning as one would do with other languages, because even though in the end it's the same thing, "learning a language" is something that involves a lot of practice back and forth, time abroad, watching news and reading and so on, whereas studying an ancient language is more about deciphering texts that have already been written, and if it is presented in this matter it may be easier to find people willing to learn them. A lot of people tend to assume that there is a limited amount of space for learning languages, and that doing any work on a dead language like Akkadian will cause one to forget French or German for example.

Here's what the article says on Akkadian:

Another such language of a “vanished civilization” is Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language important to the study of the entire ancient Near East. Akkadian texts have been found in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, the Palestinian regions and Iran.

“Akkadian is the language of ancient Iraq and is one of the third oldest languages in the world, after Sumerian and Egyptian,” explained Kynthia Taylor, Lecturer of Akkadian, in an email. “It’s the language of a fascinating magical culture, the cultural cousins of the ancient Israelite.”

The language is linguistically related to ancient Hebrew, and so proves helpful in study of the Old Testament and the Biblical Era, explains Taylor. Parallels exist between biblical and Akkadian peoples and events, including an Akkadian flood story and an Akkadian Job.

One other positive aspect of knowing a language as old as Akkadian that the article didn't mention is actually the opposite of what is usually touted by those who believe them to be worthwhile: ancient languages are often the base for a lot of the knowledge we still use today, such as Latin and Greek scientific terms, ideas about democracy / society / war etc. But what isn't mentioned is that the older you get the more likely you are to stumble upon ideas that were once thought of as common sense but have since completely disappeared. There's a definite value there, especially to those in disciplines that require creativity, and that includes comedians as well (take a look at Eddie Izzard and Stephen Colbert for two examples of comedians that talk about some pretty esoteric subjects).

What's a good example of that? Well, not knowing any Akkadian I can't give any examples of where knowing the language provides a boost to creativity, but when you get back to the very basic foundations of concepts that we take for granted you are often able to see things from a new point of view. One simple example might be from The Dark Crystal:

Kira: What's writing?
Jen: Words that stay. My master taught me.

Words that stay. There's no better way to explain it than that.


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