Extinct/Dead languages

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by skaught, Jan 5, 2011.

  1. skaught The field its covered in blood Valued Senior Member

    Is there a difference between an extinct language and a dead language. I'm getting the impression that "Extinct" language refers to a language that is no longer spoken, or recorded, and therefore gone for good. Whereas a "dead" language refers to a language that is no longer spoken, but is recorded, like Latin.

    Is my assumption correct? And if not, what is the correct terminology for this distinction?
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I've never encountered this interesting question before. I'll defer to anyone else's superior scholarship on the subject, but this is the answer I will give, based upon a brief internet search.

    There are two definitions of extinct.
    • 1. A language is extinct if no living people speak it. Scholars may be able to read it and perhaps even write it. Examples include Anglo-Saxon (or "Old English") and Ancient Chinese. Liturgical and scholarly languages such as Sanskrit and Old Church Slavonic stretch the definition since students and parishioners may recite passages in classes and rituals, but perhaps not with sufficient phonetic authenticity to be understood by a native speaker in the past, and not with sufficient fluency to have a meaningful conversation.
    • 2. The stricter definition of an extinct language is one that has left so few traces that we cannot reconstruct it well enough to craft even the most rudimentary dialog. Obviously the dividing line here is the invention of the technology of writing in the Bronze Age. Languages that survive in writing, even fragments, are a lot easier to reconstruct than those that do not. Proto-Indo-European is the extinct language that comes up most often in discussion on this board. We know an awful lot about it: we have reconstructed a significant volume of its vocabulary, we know its phonetic structure, we have its grammatical paradigms pretty well mapped. Yet there is no way we could step out of a time machine on the Pontic Steppe in 4000BCE and engage a tribesman in conversation; there are far too many gaps in our knowledge.
    A dead language, on the other hand, is one that has no native speakers or, in a stricter definition, no fluent speakers.
    • This is not a clear definition: Latin is almost universally regarded as a dead language, yet it is the official language of the Catholic Church and of Vatican City, where literally everyone speaks it in public. Speeches and sermons are given in Latin routinely and a mountain of Latin documents is published every year.
    • I would suggest revising this definition by contrasting a "dead" language with a living language, i.e., one that undergoes revision unconsciously, in real time, as its speakers respond to changes in the civilization they live in. By this definition, even the languages of the world's few remaining Stone Age tribes are living languages because their speakers adapt them to the concepts, activities and physical objects they acquire from external civilizations; and by the same definition Latin is dead because its caretakers strenuously resist such attempts at modernization.
    Many languages become dead or extinct because their community of speakers is absorbed by a larger, more powerful one. Hundreds of Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age languages of the Western Hemisphere vanished when the Europeans conquered the region with their Iron Age technology. Writing had been invented in Mesoamerica so a few of its ancient languages can be studied, and linguists have been interviewing the elders of the tribes in other parts of the hemisphere and frantically recording their languages; but the sad fact remains that an unknown number of the languages of the Americas have vanished without a trace and are truly extinct.

    However, another, less pitiful mechanism for the death or extinction of a language is evolution. The speakers of Proto-Indo-European did not die off and they were not conquered by outsiders; they simply wandered off in different directions and their one language evolved into the hundreds of modern Indo-European languages in several families that we have today. The same is true of the Austronesian, Afroasiatic, Dravidian, Mongolic, Finno-Ugric, Niger-Congo, and dozens (or hundreds?) of other modern language families.

    Old English and Middle English are dead languages, but English itself survives as Modern English in several dialects, such as Standard American, British and Indian, as well as Scots, Australian, South African, etc.

    Classical Greek, remarkably, is not even truly dead. Modern Greek has diverged from it so little that every educated citizen of Greece can read the original writings of the ancient scholars; it's just a mutually comprehensible dialect of the ancient language.

    And occasionally the forces of history can be reversed. Hebrew was arguably a dead language for two thousand years, used only in the liturgy and by Talmudic scholars writing on subjects concerning Jewish law. Then, during my lifetime, the modern state of Israel was created, and Hebrew was established as its official living language. Solomon or David might have a little trouble figuring out the strange accent of the modern Israelis, which is the result of their living among foreigners and speaking their languages for so long that they adopted some of their phonetics, but they'd get the hang of it within a couple of hours and start chatting.
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  5. Mircea Registered Member

    I don't know. I would consider an extinct language one that is not used in verbal or written communications.

    A dead language is a language that will become extinct, like Slavic or the Romance languages etc.

    A living language is one that can change and grow (and thus avoid extinction). In other words, a living language can form new words, a dead language cannot.

    Glyph based languages are living languages, like Chinese. If you need to form a word in Chinese, you just string some characters together.

    German is a living language. You can easily create a new word by stringing existing words together, like lebensmittelgeschaft.

    English is a living language. Dweeb! Dork! CD. Compact Disc. See it's easy in English. You can just make a up a word like "Dweeb" and it works.

    Contrast that with dead languages like French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, etc etc. They cannot form new words. Like in Romanian. We don't have a word for Compact Disc. We do have those words, but to put them together would be meaningless, so way say CD (a CD) or CD-ul (the CD) or CD-uri (CDs).

    As more and more technology comes out, dead languages have to borrow words from other languages in order incorporate them into their language. That results in the language becoming corrupted and it eventually dies.
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It's not the characters that you string together. You join individual one-syllable words together to build new compound words. Then you write the new word by using the characters for the original words because that's how you pronounce it. Dian = "lightning, electricity." Hua = "speech." Dian-hua = "telephone."
    Chinese and German are synthetic languages. A new word can be created by joining existing words together--or word components like prefixes and suffixes. Latin and Greek are both synthetic languages, that's why they're such a rich source of new vocabulary. There are many other synthetic languages, such as Finnish, Turkish, Japanese, Mohawk and Nahatual (the language of the Aztecs).
    All of these languages create new words every day. Spanish drogadicto for "drug addict," ampayer for "umpire," telecorreo for "e-mail," a parasol literally "stops (the) sun." French portmanteau, originally the person who "carries" the "cloak." These languages don't build new words by synthesis to the extent that Chinese and German do, but there are many other ways to enlarge a vocabulary. Borrowing from another language is the classic method.

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    English is in fact a highly synthetic language: doghouse, firetruck, fast-food, stay-at-home mom, four-wheel-drive, fuel-efficient. We even synthesize words using elements of other languages. Everyone recognizes "telephone" as a Greek word since it's made up of the Greek words for "distance" and "sound," yet the ancient Greeks did not have telephones! We made that word up! We even synthesize words from multiple languages: "television" and "petroleum" both contain one Greek word and one Latin word!

    There are many other ways to create new words besides synthesis. As you have pointed out, slang exists in all languages. We also have acronyms: "laser" = Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
    No, it doesn't work that way. Borrowing is not "corruption," it makes a language richer. English is one of the two or three most powerful, versatile, adaptable languages on earth. Yet if you take a page of English text and look up the origins of the words, you'll find (depending on the subject matter) that the majority of the words are of French origin, having entered our language after the Norman Invasion in 1066, when French was the official language of England for several centuries. (Just look at this paragraph: corruption, language, rich, versatile, adaptable, page, text, origin, depend, subject, matter, majority, enter, invasion, official and century are all French!)

    And I don't mean just legal or scholarly terms. Everyday words such as color, face, question, second, use and very are all French!

    BTW, Danish (like English) is closely related to German, and it is a synthetic language like English and German. They shove old words together to build new ones, just like we do.
  8. Mircea Registered Member

    That would be a matter of belief.

    But it is also the most corruptible, because it is the least precise language. That's why for the longest time diplomacy was in French and science in German, for the extreme precision of those languages with respect to those fields.

    In precision languages, there is a hard line distinction between the verbs "to murder," "to kill" and "to slay."

    English makes no such distinction and frequently uses the verbs "to murder" and "to kill" interchangeably as though they actually have the same meaning.
  9. mathman Valued Senior Member

    French was the language of diplomacy at a time when France was a superpower. German was the language of science when Germany (even before 1871) was number one in science.
  10. Mircea Registered Member

    But France wasn't a superpower in the 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s that English began to emerge as the language of diplomacy. Smith's negotiations with Khomeini's staff where in French, which was unfortunate, since that gave an edge to the DGSE who prematurely leaked word of the Shah's pending abdication in order to get the "revolution" going.
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It takes a while for people to switch to a new language. This doesn't happen overnight, especially for diplomats, who have to have a much better command of it than the rest of us. You have to train a whole new generation.
  12. rcscwc Registered Senior Member

    Fraggle, whatever definition you apply, Sanskrit is far from a dead language. If classically, the teaching of Sanskrit has always had a strong component of correct prounciation. Another major part is knowledge of Grammar, the most elaborate and codified known so far. You may not, but Rig Veda is in a language which is quite different from post Panini modern language. Even this archaic language is phonetic. RV has been passed mostly by oral traditions and was never redacted into modern Sanskrit. Oral tradition of memorising gaurantees correct prounciation, as a very slight inaccuracy would throw a metre out of sync.
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    My Indian friends insist that Sanskrit is a written language only: it is only spoken in ceremonies or in classes where students are learning it. Furthermore, no one has updated it with the addition of new words and terminology in centuries. This suggests that calling it a "dead" language may be correct.

    Does Sanskrit have words for automobile, backbeat, capitalism, chromosome, computer, petroleum, photon, placebo, radioactivity, saxophone, tectonics, virus?

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