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Where Do Languages Go When They Die?

We’ve spoken on other occasions about how certain dead languages, such as Latin, actually aren’t so dead after all, and in fact have continued to develop even after having been declared vanished. However, there is a group of languages that have effectively disappeared from the face of the Earth, and in this post we’ll briefly take a look at two such examples: Hunnic and Etruscan.

Despite having conquered almost all of Europe and a good part of Asia, there are practically no traces left of the language of the Huns. Currently the Hunnic language is considered to be unclassifiable and there is no consensus regarding its affinity with other languages. Certain contemporaries preserved a select few words, and though their tribal names seem to be of Turkic origin, the only three words that are known other than proper nouns (medos, a type of beverage similar to mead; kamos, a beverage made from barley; and strava, a funeral banquet) appear to derive from non-Turkic languages. Thus, these days it is still debated whether Hunnic was a Turkic, Altaic or Indo-European language, or perhaps a language that developed in isolation.

Another well-known people of which few if any linguistic traces remain are the Etruscans. It is believed that the last speaker of this language, which competed with Latin over centuries to be the dominant language of the region today representing central Italy, was Caesar Claudius, whose compilation on Etruscan history was lost, thus depriving humanity of a very valuable source of knowledge about this people. Today the references that remain of their language, which apparently is not related to the Indo-European languages, are mainly epitaphs or brief, repetitive votive formulas. Beyond these, among the few, more extensive records remaining, the most curious are the Liber Linteus, an Etruscan text of some 1,300 words that has the peculiarity of having been cut into strips and used to wrap a mummy, and the Pyrgi inscription, a bilingual text in Etruscan and Punic-Phoenician written on gold tablets. The latter record has offered the greatest insight into the study of Etruscan since the Punic-Phoenician text can easily be translated due to the fact that more is known about this language.

Beyond these records and the fact that Etruscan was written with a variant of the Greek alphabet (which makes it legible though not intelligible), just as with Hunnic, it is a language whose development was fully cut off and it ceased to be used many centuries ago, which makes it practically impossible to reach a clear, refined idea as to how these peoples spoke and communicated.

That’s all for today. We invite you to add other examples of such languages in the comments section below.