Why do we still study dead languages?

As someone who studies Latin and Ancient Greek for A Level, this is a question I have often been asked. I also study French, and although learning how to find ‘la cathédrale’ from ‘le théâtre’ seems a little tedious at the time, I will be well equipped if I need to ask for directions in France in the future. There is an obvious purpose to learning modern languages, as they are exactly that – modern and relevant.

Why, then, learn languages from 2,000 years ago which nobody today speaks? Evidently not for conversation. And not even to learn about the history and culture of the ancient world, another important aspect in studying modern languages, as that would come under the subject of Classical Civilisation.

A common argument is that knowing Latin/Greek is helpful for learning modern languages, as much of their grammar and vocabulary is descended from ancient vernaculars. As a result, in Latin lessons we often draw on links to English and French, while German grammar often reflects that of Greek. There is, in fact, a whole section in both the Latin and Greek GCSE exams where the student has to explain English derivatives of these languages, proof of their relevance today. However, despite these links between classical and modern languages, if I wanted to learn, say, Spanish, it would probably be better just to crack on with it rather than to learn Latin first so that I had a good grasp of the grammar and could recognise the occasional word derived from it.

No, I think the strongest argument for learning dead languages is to be able to read some of the extraordinary literature written over two millennia ago. Latin and Greek are the only foreign language GCSEs where you actually read books in their original language, and get to discover some of the literary tradition that our Western culture is rooted in; just look at how often Latin is used for scientific, political and religious terminology. True, there are thousands of modern translations of classical works which make them available to the wider public, but literature can’t survive purely in translation. Just imagine if the only version of The Odyssey we had was a Victorian translation – I’m not sure that people would still enjoy studying it in so much depth today. Furthermore, one of my favourite facts is that Virgil composed the Aeneid at an incredible rate of roughly two and a half lines per day; with so much time and work put into the original, I doubt that any modern translation could perfectly reflect the little nuances that make ancient literature so brilliant.

Of course, there are many other reasons for learning dead languages, such as to be able to properly appreciate all the spells in Harry Potter and understand the difference between eg and ie, although these may not be quite so life-changing!

Hannah, Head Girl (new Head Girl’s Team, 2018-2019)

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