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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

It’s all Greek to me!

Dead languages still have importance in the modern world

Published: November 21, 2008
Section: Features

DEAD LANGUAGE: Brandeis students study “dead languages” so they can better understand ancient texts.<br /><br /><i>PHOTO BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot</i>

DEAD LANGUAGE: Brandeis students study “dead languages” so they can better understand ancient texts.

PHOTO BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

For some people, foreign language meant the requisite Spanish or French begrudgingly taken in high school: hola and Bonjour, adios and au revoir. Special occasions are marked by tortillas and crepes courtesy of the kindly profesora or professeur.

Yet for others, language means a journey to the past, to the days where Homer orated in Athens or to the land of Mesopotamia, the site of the world’s earliest civilization.

Ancient Greek and Akkadian are referred to as dead languages; languages that are no longer spoken. Dead languages offer a lens into vanished civilizations and can literally be the voice of the ancient world. Historical and religious texts from the era illuminate the ancient world and are still studied until this day.

There’s no doubt that these languages are obscure and archaic. So what would motivate a student living in the 21st century to study ancient Greek or Akkadian? The impetus varies, attesting to the fact that they are truly interdisciplinary fields. Ancient languages appeal to students of history, classical studies, linguistics, literature biblical studies and the Near East.

First and foremost, the study of a language provides a lens into its speakers.

“I’m studying Greek so I can really understand the original text and to get a grip on ancient Greek culture in general,” Lee Marmor ’10, an Undergraduate Department Representative (UDR) for Classical Studies, explained. “You have to know the language to understand a people and their history.”

Implicit in this statement is the fact that a text is not the same in translation. To really understand the nuances and subtleties of Homer or Euripides, it must be read in the original language, explains Marmor.

Increased access to materials and texts is another benefit of studying ancient languages.

“It is particularly useful that I know the languages,” Cheryl Walker, associate professor in the Classical Studies Department explains. “A lot of the stuff doesn’t get translated; for instance, inscriptional material.”

Walker, who teaches both Latin and ancient Greek, can easily find Levi or Herodotus in English translation. However, more obscure works are found only in the original.

Another such language of a “vanished civilization” is Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language important to the study of the entire ancient Near East. Akkadian texts have been found in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, the Palestinian regions and Iran.

“Akkadian is the language of ancient Iraq and is one of the third oldest languages in the world, after Sumerian and Egyptian,” explained Kynthia Taylor, Lecturer of Akkadian, in an email. “It’s the language of a fascinating magical culture, the cultural cousins of the ancient Israelite.”

The language is linguistically related to ancient Hebrew, and so proves helpful in study of the Old Testament and the Biblical Era, explains Taylor. Parallels exist between biblical and Akkadian peoples and events, including an Akkadian flood story and an Akkadian Job.

“Akkadian literature forms an important part of the backdrop to the Bible’s composition,” Taylor said.

Although the study of ancient languages is arguably complex and fascinating, it is not a popular pursuit for students at Brandeis. Currently, there are only four students enrolled in Elementary Akkadian and one student enrolled in Cheryl Walker’s section of Continuing Ancient Greek. Walker’s primary interests are historical and she is disturbed by the ignorance of history that this creates in the long run.

“The obstacle is people look at Latin and Greek and say ‘Of what possible value can this be?’” said Walker, who in addition to being an associate professor, is the Undergraduate Advising Head of the Classical Studies Department.

“I think Akkadian’s primary value lies in knowledge for its own sake,” Taylor explains. “Even when it has no immediate practical application, knowledge enriches our view of what it means to be human and adds dimensions to our view of ourselves and our own civilizations in the very broad tableau of human history.”

Ancient Greek is foundational not only to history, but to other disciplines as well.

Philosophy, the institution of democracy, and the arts all have their origins in Greek. Having an interest in antiquity also proves helpful in understanding the basis of human life and creative thought.

Many words in English come from ancient Greek. And like Latin, it helps to increase vocabulary and verbal proficiency. Walker speculates that students of ancient languages have higher verbal GRE scores than the national norm and even the Brandeis norm, because of the vocabulary exercises and training they have received.

Studying Latin and ancient Greek also teaches meticulous attention to detail, due to the way in which they are written. The inflected language means every accent mark can be important, and a command of your breathing is crucial. Logical thinking is also


“The most difficult aspect of mastering Akkadian is by far the script,” explains Taylor.

The script uses cuneiform, wedge-shaped symbols, each of which can be reading multiple depending on the context.”

Some Brandeis students recognize the lofty goals of studying ancient languages, as well as its practical implications. The challenge of deciphering such a language can develop certain skills, while simultaneously providing a challenge for the student.

Lindsay Boesel ‘09 is a language and linguistics major who was intrigued by the fact that Akkadian was in Cuneiform. She decided to sign up for the course because she thought it would be fun.

“I’ve always liked languages, which is obvious from my major. But I like the idea of codes and other alphabets and writing systems,” explains Boesel. “I like puzzles with decoding and logic.”

In cuneiform written form, a symbol can be used flexibly to indicate either a sound or a whole word. Figuring out what is meant by a symbol can be confusing, if it is not your native language.

“From linguistics I know that anyone taking a foreign language in college is past the stage Where they can easily become fluent,” explains Boesel. “Anyone taking a language at this point is fighting an uphill battle. That just adds to the challenge.”

Whether students of ancient Greek and Akkadian become language professors, historians, lawyers or any myriad of other professions, the skills they have attained in studying avanished language will prove useful. Not to mention that they have a newfound understanding of their own culture, based on original sources.

“People have used Latin and Greek as a basis of liberal arts education for approximately 2000 years, so I think it has staying power,” explains Walker. “Frankly I think there’s something cool about knowing you’re in a long tradition like that.”