Tag Archives: liturgical language

Is any language truly “dead”?

You may guess from the title of my blog that I don’t agree with calling any language “dead.”  Of course I admit that Latin is no longer spoken on street corners.  It no longer has the native speakers requisite for a linguist to deem it a living language.  I just don’t like the word “dead.”

The Ancient Bookshelf links to this great documentary on Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian Christian Church:

Around 4:30 the narrator, Ge’ez speaker Fisseha Tadesse, addresses the question of whether or not Ge’ez is a dead language.  He admits that yes, nobody is conducting business in it.  But it is used in chant, prayer, and theological discourse by a living religious tradition.  Is it truly dead, he asks?  Not really.

There are some ancient languages, such as Greek and Hebrew, that are by no means dead, though they (at least Greek) may be unrecognizable.  But I don’t even want to call Latin or Sumerian dead.  These languages live on in the scholars who are passionate about their lives and literatures.  They live on every time someone reads about Inanna and Dumuzi, or every time someone opens Wheelock’s Latin.

For a living perspective on another ancient biblical language, check out the Smithsonian’s profile of modern Aramaic, which may lose all its native speakers within decades.