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Career Profile: Dead Language Linguist
Bringing People Back from the Dead Through Language
By Brianna Duff
Today it seems that language has taken on an entirely new face. Not only are we speaking differently than we did ten or twenty years ago, but we are also Tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, and blogging on a number of other vast social media sites. Our language has become digitized, and it is always transforming thanks to these dashing new mediums.
But language did not, of course, start out multiplying and dividing on computer screens. It has as complex a history as the human race itself. This history is studied by linguists, who work to determine the whys and wherefores of language and who attempt to define how we use it, why we use it, and the factors that make one language different from the rest.
Not all the languages that linguists study have survived the transfer to modern day. These “dead” languages are no longer used by any population in everyday speech and are usually just remembered as being the parent language to many of modern languages. Though pieces of them still float around, their overall usage is nearly nonexistent. Most recognizable of these are Ancient Greek, Latin, and Old English. Though it is possible to learn these in classrooms (and perhaps many of you took Latin in high school or through college), they are mostly academic languages. You can’t walk down the street and hear anyone speaking them fluently! You know about them, have perhaps seen them written, but that’s about it.
So why are dead languages really that important if no one even really remembers they exist? Why should we care? Anthropological linguist Gonzalo Rubio, who studies the first two written languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, which were used in ancient Mesopotamia and were written using reeds on clay, has a very good reason for why he studies dead languages and for why they should matter to us. Studying these languages is not just academic, he argues. It is a way of resurrecting dead civilizations, of revealing people who lived thousands of years ago, people who have been forgotten until modern scholars bright them back to life through their papers and books. Linguists like Rubio are rendering pictures of society and determining our own histories. As to why he studies them, Rubio says, “I felt that I needed to work in a field in which I could not only say new things but also see new things.” These dead languages allow the people who study them, like Rubio, to see history in an entirely new light.
In honor of these dead languages, which have no native speakers, and other languages that are in danger of losing their native population, National Geographic has developed a project called Enduring Voices that seeks to preserve languages before they can go extinct. This project is vastly important because of the 6,000 languages now in existence, it is estimated that only 200 to 600 of those will remain by the end of the next century. When language dies, its culture dies too. That is why linguists take such pain to study the old languages, the way English once was or the orinigal Latin so many famous texts came to us as, so they can preserve them and the people who knew them intimately before they are lost forever.
It is beautiful work, a kind of time-travel, to think that a whole world of people can exist in the words they once spoke and wrote. And though we cannot always hear those languages today, lost in translation as they are, we can imagine the place where they were prolific and remember the people who once knew them so well.
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