What Are Dead Languages?

“Latin is a language as dead as dead can be,” runs an old schoolroom verse, “it killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me!” Humor aside, this student jingle speaks eloquently to those of us who encountered “dead languages” during hours of studying vocabulary lists and diagramming sentences.

But what are dead languages, really? In this post, we explore the definition of a dead language and why dead languages remain so important today, plus the latest methods for deciphering and revitalizing them.

What is a dead language?

From a linguistic point of view, a dead language is no longer the native language of any speech community. Although it is still used in specific contexts, you won’t find it learned or spoken in ordinary, everyday communications.

Among the most famous dead languages, for example, we have Latin. This tongue is still used as the official language of the Vatican City and is pored over by students in classes around the world, but it doesn’t have any native speakers alive today. Other dead languages, such as Sanskrit and Coptic, are found exclusively in religious contexts.

You might ask, what’s the difference between a dead language and an extinct language? An extinct language no longer has any living speakers at all.

Why are dead languages important?

Some languages may have died, but their impact lives on. Many people study Latin because of its significant use in the terminology of fields like law or medicine. Others find that studying Latin makes it easier to grasp the grammar and syntax of romance languages like Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, or Romanian. And, as mentioned above, languages like Sanskrit play an important role in religious communities.

Dead languages also serve as gateways to key works of literature—Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example, or the Sanskrit Mahabharata—and thus to understanding not only ancient cultures, histories, and philosophies, but also their influence on the modern world. Moreover, these languages shed light on how the processes of language growth, change, and decay take place, which can help inform ongoing efforts to save hundreds of endangered languages from extinction.

How do we decipher dead languages?

When it comes to dead languages, their “afterlife” usually depends on careful decipherment and study. Linguistics has come a long way since the Rosetta Stone, which enabled 19th-century scholars to crack the code to Egyptian hieroglyphics; the stone was written in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Egyptian, and knowledge of the first two allowed the decipherment of the third.

Today, powerful advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence may become a detective’s newest tools. Earlier this year, a team of researchers at the Electronic Babylonian Project (LMU Munich) developed a database that uses AI to digitize thousands of lines of cuneiform originally written on clay tablets. Elsewhere, researchers have also used natural language processing to translate the extinct Babylonian language Akkadian into English.

Can dead languages live again?

Will technology enable us not just to decipher, but even to resurrect dead languages? As it turns out, it’s not impossible to wake the dead. Although the process of language revitalization or language revival is difficult, with only one truly successful case in history—the revival of the Hebrew language—many other dedicated attempts are underway, such as with the Ainu language in Japan, Manx on the Isle of Man, and Tlingit in Alaska.

In all these cases, highly skilled translators collaborating with local language communities are just as important as technological tools. Whether you’re working with a dead language or one of the world’s vast array of still-thriving languages, Trusted Translations’ professional translators can help you bring your translation to vivid life.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash