Study of Ancient Languages


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Study of Ancient Languages
  STUDY OF ANCIENT LANGUAGES THE MAIN REASON FOR STUDYING ANCIENT LANGUAGES  The Linguist Westview High School  STUDY OF ANCIENT LANGUAGES Studying an ancient language such as Latin, Sanskrit, or Sumerian is not a very common hobby. An extremely small number of people in the world still speak these languages, so knowing them will not greatly aid one‟s communicative abilities with any one group.  Nevertheless, there are those in the world today who freely choose to study not only Latin or Ancient Egyptian, but many other dead languages from around the world. There are multiple motives for doing this, but the main reason for studying the languages of the Old World is major archaeological finds which spark interest in long-past civilizations and influence intellectuals to study these languages. Other researchers may argue differently. According to   Anna Tagliabue (1998), there exist three main reasons for studying ancient languages: Firstly, Tagliabue argues that “ancient writings are infinitely more valuable in their srcinal form” due  to translation taking away some of the srcinal meaning. It is for this reason that many Christian scholars choose to read the Bible in the srcinal Koine (Ancient Greek) or Hebrew. Secondly, Tagliabue points out that ancient languages are still widely represented in international scientific terms (this is also true for terms in politics, economics, etc.). By studying Latin and Greek especially, one can learn the true, literal meanings of these terms, in lieu of merely their connotations, and thereby speak more effectively in debate and discussion with one‟s peers.  Thirdly, in relation to the second reason, Tagliabue claims that studying the mother language(s) of one‟s own language can help one to comprehend one‟s own language more effectively. This method is sometimes employed by high school students wishing to achieve higher scores on the SAT; by learning Greek and Latin roots, the students can derive the meaning of a word that would otherwise have been completely foreign to them (William Harris, p. 1). 2  STUDY OF ANCIENT LANGUAGES In addition, one may take a formal class in Latin or Greek in school, but such classes have become increasingly rare and many students do not continue their language studies after they leave the class. For those that do continue their studies, the reason is very likely not simply  because they feel obligated to do so, because they did not become fluent during the class. A much more meaningful explanation must exist.   The vast majority of those that study these languages are those who do so for their career, such as linguists (specifically those who specialize in ancient languages) and archaeologists. Experts in these two fields of study can, through discussion of important issues and discoveries with other experts, make a difference in increasing knowledge of historical truth among the general public. They normally accomplish this via language-related journals, online forums, and conferences with fellow experts. These intellectuals generally choose to “access the history that can enrich their values and knowledge” (Lacandazo, pg. 1). But how can this history “enrich [one‟s] values and knowledge”? To study ancient languages is to study the past. In studying the language o f one‟s ancestors , one develops a deeper sense of their own identity. Many people today acquire this sense through family history work, researching family lines and royalty they may be related to. However, in knowing an ancestor‟s language, “ specifically human forms of mental activity arise in the interactions we enter into with other members of our culture and with the specific experiences we have with the artefacts produced by our ancestors …” ( Teaching and  Learning Languages: A Guide,  2005-2008, p. 26). Thus , culture is central to one‟s identity and development as a human being.   Example of language and culture being inseparably connected can be found all over the world. The Arabic language is full of references to Islam, such as the phrase insha’Allah, m eaning “God willing,” or the greeting assalamu alaykum , “peace be unto you.”  In the Eskimo language of Yupik, there are many 3  STUDY OF ANCIENT LANGUAGES different words or terms for snow, due to its importance in the Native Alaskan culture (Woodbury, 1991,  p. 1). Lastly, Chinese, Luxembourgish, and Finnish people tend to be more inclined to save money than Americans, Brits, or Koreans. Why is this? According to Keith Chen, a behavioral economist, it is  because the languages spoken in China, Luxembourg, Finland, and other areas in Asia and Europe do not specifically indicate the future tense. Those who speak a language that does indicate the future tense tend to not save as much, due to the language one speaks subconsciously changing the way one thinks about time (Chen, TEDGlobal, 2012).  Now that it has been established that language and culture are bonded together, one must make the connection between archaeology and culture. Archaeology is a study of the cultures of ancient peoples. Every civilization in recorded history has had at least one spoken language (though some have had two or more) and many have communicated their language and ideas through writing (Parsons, 2003, p. 1). Therefore, archaeology is directly related to linguistics, namely extinct/dead languages, due to a civilization‟s language being so central to its culture. Because language is connected to culture and culture is connected to archaeology, one must complete the triangle and reason that language is connected to archaeology. Indeed, one could hardly be closer to the truth. According to Maciej Wencel (2011), “Archaeology‟s affair with linguistics can be traced back to the very beginning of the former. ”  This quote from Wencel is all too true, as some of the most exciting archaeological finds are those that have a written language on them. These fragments of  pottery, papyrus scrolls, or stone tablets give extremely concentrated chunks of information to the reader, helping linguists and archaeologists create a clearer picture of how the world once was. As the linguist translates, the archaeologist makes inferences about a civilization‟s culture based on new information and  prior knowledge. The linguist also gains experience in translating, perhaps gleaning a new word or nuance of the language and bettering his or her abilities at translating. The next time ancient writing is found, the cycle repeats. I realize that the scenario described above is possible only in regions of the world in which old civilizations had a defined writing system, but I use it for the sake of the argument. 4  STUDY OF ANCIENT LANGUAGES This process of studying archaeology and ancient languages is detailed in the following passage  by Wencel: What is more, language often seems to be an important factor in maintaining demographic and cultural barriers (Nichols 1990). How does that relate to archaeology? Despite the strong opposition of researchers that favour internal changes as the main motor for cultural change (Sherrat 1997; Whittle 1996), a drastic change observable in archaeological deposits is usually treated as a sign of advent of a new „people‟, with their cultural, ethnic and –   most importantly  –    linguistic baggage (Godłowski & Kozłowski  1983: 51; although see: Zilhao 1998). Should one accept this approach, the big question remains: how can archaeological and linguistic cultures be linked in the absence of written accounts and how reliable would the links be? One approach is to look for continuities in material culture between a population with known language with an archaeological culture (Kozłowski 1989: 485).   Wencel affirms that linguistic discoveries are vitally important in understanding the workings of a given civilization. He states that changes in the type of material found by archaeologists generally means a new group of people began to occupy that area. If this material includes artifacts with a written language on them, the language can be analyzed and used to track not only movement patterns of civilizations over time, but also linguistic changes, how a language used by a certain group has evolved over time. By studying “continuities in material culture,” or artifacts that different dig sites have in common, one can map out a civilization‟s  boundaries and once again increase one‟s understanding of the ancient world.   Archaeological discoveries have captivated the world‟s attention time and again. Finds such as the Rosetta Stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the tomb of King Tutankhamun intrigued other archaeologists, journalists, businessmen, and linguists. Keith Schoville, a professor of Semitic studies, 5
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