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Should ‘dead’ languages be kept alive in modern day A-level and GCSE curricular?

For many, any mention of the classical world triggers the conjuring up of scenes from the current HBO cable network series, ‘Game of Thrones’. However, the fictional world inhabited by John Snow, Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen couldn’t be further from the real ancient world, that boasts its own group of notable individuals, which, although some might argue they do not possess the same modern romantic appeal, certainly have a charm all of their own. Another detail is, of course, the language spoken by the protagonists in such TV programmes. If it were a true representation of the era then the native tongue would not be English of course, a Western Germanic language, but a ‘dead’ language such as Sanskrit, Latin, or Akkadian. However, we can not blame the producers for not achieving this level of authenticity, for who would understand what was being said? Many dead languages, such as Akkadian, are nigh on impossible to learn, let alone draft into a film script.

So are they dead?

Whether or not dead languages have a place in education systems in the 21st century has been hotly debated, with many arguing that they are both irrelevant and a reminder of the class divides that have plagued our social system for more centuries that one might wish. But, of course, there is no excuse why anyone in this day and age should not be able to learn a dead language, even if they are obliged to learn it themselves, from a book.

There are significant advantages of studying a dead language which are often overlooked. The pre-occupation in today’s world is, ‘What can you do with it?’ In other words, can you get a job where it is useful. That may be the level of comprehension for some, but for others it goes deeper than that. For example, by learning a dead language (i.e one no longer spoken), you can learn the roots of many modern languages, therefore making modern languages easier to comprehend. More than 70% of English words have a Latin root. With Latin as a base, this could lead to the acquisition of a number of European languages that came under its influence, such as French, and this could stand a budding employee in good stead when applying for a job in marketing, business or even the Foreign Office.

But learning a language is hard, especially a ‘dead’ one.

The arduous task of learning Akkadian or Sumerian demands the student to learn over a 1000 different signs, with signs often standing for a number of different phonetic sounds or whole words. Not surprisingly, such difficulty is off-putting to all but the most dedicated. It is for this reason that these niche dead languages are only available at the most prestigious UK universities such as London, Cambridge and Oxford. Other dead languages such as Ancient Greek and Latin are more widely available. However, the social stigma that is attached often causes controversy in these politically correct times.

The study of classics was originally reserved for the social elite, therefore isolating any which didn’t fit the necessary requirement of being wealthy. The study of Latin and Greek is still rarely seen in many state schools today because, one imagines, they have little to offer the State, but what about the individual? Public and private schools traditionally hold up the tradition and, no doubt, find much to recommend them.

Another reason for pursuing the study of dead languages is the body of literature that it enables you to connect with the past in an intimate way. There is an indisputable beauty in reading original texts in their native tongue, for it allows for a deeper understanding of the text which is otherwise lost in translation. Looking for similarities, for example, gives a surprisingly humanistic touch. In Akkadian, Sennacherib, writing an account in the 7th century BC, about his campaigns, talks about pitching his camp at ‘the foot of the mountain’ and strange clauses ‘he came into contact with his mountain’ (i.e. he disappeared), add a further depth. More recently, if one wanted to experience such phenomena, then one might turn to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Middle English), Beowulf (Old English), Plato’s Apology (Ancient Greek) or The Vedas (Sanskrit). Additionally, the learning of a language allows for the opportunity to explore an ancient culture, and how the language and philosophy have affected civilization up to the present day. The information gained could be used when studying other subjects such as history or anthropology, giving both a deeper and broader subject knowledge.

Another reason for learning a ‘dead’ language is the many cognitive benefits that it offers, with the practice leading to improved decision making skills, an enhanced memory, and a decreased risk of dementia.  But for the practical reader who thinks dead languages have no value in the modern world, one is reminded of a CEO of a large multi-national company who was once asked why he employed so many Oxbridge Classics graduates, his answer is a gem: ‘Because they sell more oil’.

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