Nosce te ipsum

Why it is worth studying dead languages

By Mattia Grimaldi

 Nosce te ipsum

Despite having been very often described as useless, time wasting and completely unrelated to any practical side of life in the XXI century, dead languages are still studied by a considerable amount of people around the world. The reasons behind it are variegated as these learners may decide (or be forced) to do it driven by an unconventional passion or simply because these idioms are mandatory subjects at the school or university they decide to attend. In Italy, my country, there are some high schools which have Latin and Ancient Greek as key subjects in their curriculum. I have personally found myself in the situation of cursing these languages, as I did not see any point in wasting my time trying to give sense to texts written centuries ago in a language that is no longer even spoken with the little support of a voluminous vocabulary.

The answers to my doubts (and curses) were always the same: they are an excellent exercise for the brain and they also help students to develop their skills in other subjects such as maths; they can be extremely useful to learn other languages; a great part of the specific lexicon of Law and Medicine come from Latin and Ancient Greek and so on.

These statements are all true in their own way: the exercise of translating texts written in Latin or Ancient Greek is very similar to a puzzle where all the words have to be put in the right place in order to get the final meaning. This exercise is very good for the development of logical skills in our brains.

Learners of Latin have a better approach to the study of some modern languages and this is true not only for Romance languages (already a huge advantage as they are the biggest system of modern idioms with a common origin in the world ) but also for German, as it has the same dynamic of inflecting words as Latin and Ancient Greek. Even in English the 65% of words comes from Latin, compared to a scarce 10% with a German origin.

In my opinion, though, the real reason why it is still worth studying dead languages (especially classic ones) in the XXI century is much deeper. It is related to the birth of our modern societies. Concepts such as republic and democracy saw their birth thanks to Ancient societies; Ancient Greek is the language which gave birth to Philosophy; pretty much all the most important literary genres have their archetypes in classic literatures and the three most known masterpieces of western literature, Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid were written in Latin and Greek thousands of years ago. The process that brought to the creation of modern western societies with its traditions and institutions all relies on the civilizations who spoke these idioms. For all these reasons the study of dead languages should not be questioned; on the contrary a good idea would be to create new methods to make their learning more amusing, especially for young generations. There are actually some new and innovative ways that are changing the approach towards dead languages: in Finland there is a radio station which broadcast entirely in Latin, whereas Latin has also be chosen as the language for some Mickey Mouse comics.

The quotation that opened this article is just one of the many expressions that come from old languages and culture but it is probably one of the most appropriated to underline the importance of studying dead idioms and, above all, the cultures related to them: they are the best way to understand and rediscover ourselves, both as a society and, sometimes, as individuals.


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