Did you study a classical language in high school or university? Each year, a small but significant number of language students across the world pick up or continue their study of a “dead language” such as Latin or Ancient Greek. Although the chances of being able to converse in these languages with a mother-tongue speaker are non-existent, students of the classics gain direct access to the rich body of classical literature which forms the basis of much of our modern-day civilization.
Latin is certainly the most famous of the classical languages and continues to be studied regularly at public high schools all across Europe and at many high schools in the United States as well. Ancient Greek is also taught in many more “classical” type high schools in Europe, while its presence at that level of education in the U.S. is very limited. It is interesting to note that although Modern Greek is markedly different from Ancient Greek, thus requiring it to be studied as a separate subject at school even in Greece, it has been discovered that a small community of about 5,000 people in Trabzon, Turkey speaks a dialect which shows many affinities with the ancient tongue.
Europe is home to many other ancient, defunct languages such as Old English, which despite having produced monumental sagas such as Beowulf, never reached the literary glory of Latin and Greek, and so are not always considered classical. In his 1921 book Language, anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir identified only 5 classical languages in the world: Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek and Latin.
Sapir’s work was fundamental in opening the perspective of European-centric scholarship to the rest of the world. India, therefore, in addition to boasting a rich diversity of modern languages, is a possessor of one of the great linguistic pillars of world civilization – Sanskrit. Like Latin and Greek, Sanskrit possesses a formidable literature, which began with the spoken or sung Vedas of the 2nd millennium BC, formulated the grammatical, phonetic, religious and philosophical treatises of the Sutra, and produced two great epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – before flourishing in its classical phase. A comparison between Sanskrit and Greek is particular proficuous at this point, as both of the aforementioned Indian epics were handed down orally for several centuries before being set in writing – just like the Iliad and the Odyssey which, daunting as they may appear to overworked high school students, when combined are not as long as the Ramayana, the shorter of the two Sanskrit epics.
During the classical period which would follow (roughly from the 3rd to the 8th century AD), Sanskrit authors churned out scholarly treatises, poetry, stories, drama, and the Puranas, literature fundamental to the development of Hinduism. Today, Sanskrit continues to be used as a ritual language in religious celebrations in both Hinduism and Buddhism. It is interesting to note that Latin was used in a very similar way in the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council of 1962 opened the mass up to the use of the vernacular (although Latin can still be found in certain Mass celebrations).
Ancient Greek makes a cameo appearance in some instances of the Roman Catholic Mass as well – the kyrie eleison (God, have mercy) is a remnant of an even more ancient time when Greek, not Latin, was the language of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Greek Orthodox Church continues to be an antiquated form of the Greek language in its celebrations (and it uses the kyrie eleison extensively), the substance of this language is a form of Medieval Greek dating back to the time of the Byzantine Empire and not the tongue studied by students of the classics.
Sanskrit, aside from its religious usage, is the subject of study at all levels, all across the world. Many Western scholars learn it not only for its cultural weight, but also for its importance in understanding the Indo-European language group. In India, Sanskrit is a common subject at high school, and its revival is often tied up with political movements.
Interestingly enough, the student of Sanskrit who does his or her homework well might actually have the possibility of conversing with a mother-tongue Sanskrit speaker. Among the 780 plus modern languages of India, this classical language boasts 14,000 people who describe it as their primary language. That’s an opportunity which even the most diligent student of Latin could only dream of having.