Between life and death

It is a remarkable fact that the Greek language hasn’t substantially changed in its 3,300 years of existence. While Latin has evolved into Romance languages, and Old English morphed into the modern variant, Greek has remained pretty much the same. The alphabet is still there. Morphology is more or less the same.

Languages change, but sometimes they don’t. It isn’t clear how or why. People talk, and write, and use a language in a certain way until they don’t. The slow shift is imperceptible, or just out of reach for us to fully grasp. Linguists and historians rely on documents to track the evolution of a language, but often the perception is one of giant leaps rather than degrees.

Latin evolved into a dozen languages, but the evolution can’t be traced in all its details. Not for all languages, at least. It’s as though Europe woke up one morning and people spoke a different language. A language lives, decays and stops being a vehicle of emotion and communication.

There are two ways to die. I’ve always felt uneasy when people say Latin is a dead language. How can it be dead when its matrix is still so alive, so fructifying, so relevant? It’s true, no child ever acquires that language by dint of imitation, as they do for the language spoken by parents and society. But that doesn’t mean Latin is dead. Umbrian, for example, is dead. The language once spoken by the peoples in the present-day region of Umbria in Italy, is now extinct. Truly dead. So dead even historians are at pains to reconstruct it. Like Proto-Indo-European, the putative language of nearly all European, Iranian and Indic languages.

To be dead is not to be extinct, of irrelevant. And there are so many dead languages still live. Haunting us for ever.

3 thoughts on “Between life and death

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    1. It changed but not to the same extent. It didn’t morph into new languages. At the same time, it reflected the social and political culture in which it operated – one of uninterrupted growth.

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