“It’s all Greek to me!”
A lot is still relevant from Casca’s line in Julius Caesar, because very few people in this world know how to read and translate Ancient Greek. And honestly, why would they? It’s a dead language. (This is actually debatable, but that’s a topic for another day.) The only thing you would be reading is ancient texts, many of which have been tampered with, partially destroyed, or lost completely. The same is true with Latin, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and thousands of more dead languages that existed and are now lost to time.
It is important to note that of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken today, linguistics experts at Columbia University predict that by 2115, 90% of languages today will become extinct, and the existing ones will become extremely oversimplified.
Although thousands of languages have been lost to time, today I’ll be focusing on Ancient Greek and Latin, because of the cache of texts that exist and modern European impact that these two languages had/have.
Ancient Greek is a tricky one. Because Greece was made up into various independent city-states, Ancient Greek had many forms and nuances particular to its region. (Think of English in Britain vs. American English vs. Australian English.) These are usually divided up into three different categories: Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic (later called Attic Greek). Attic Greek is what Classics teachers use to teach their students, mostly because of the substantial number of works written in it, and the fact that it was the language of Athens at the height of its influence. When studying Ancient Greek, though, some people opt to start with Aeolic Greek because of the Lesbian poets, Sappho and Alcaeus.* Ancient Greek was spoken mostly from the 6th Century B.C. to the 9th Century A.D., but after the extensive conquests of Alexander the Great, “Common Greek” or Koine Greek was adopted. This is the dialect that the New Testament was originally written in, and eventually gave way into Medieval Greek ca. 1500.
You’ve heard the phrase ‘All roads lead to Rome” right? In a way, it’s kind of true. First off, Rome was around for a reaaaaaaaaaaaaally long time. The official date of the founding of Rome is April 21st, 753 B.C. and the whole Roman Empire didn’t officially fall until 1453 A.D. That is over 2,000 years of people speaking Latin. 2000 years! At the greatest extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan, 50-60 million people lived under Roman law. 50-60 million people spoke Latin. So how did it become extinct?
This one, again, is hard. The Roman Empire was a big place, and kind of like in Greece, the provinces became so isolated that different dialects became prominent. As the empire started to fall due to corrupt government and poor military, Germanic invaders known as the Visigoths and the Vandals started to attack Roman land. After Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, Germanic tribes gained even more land, and in 1453, they overthrew the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and established the Holy Roman Empire. This took a significant toll on Latin. With the immense germanic influence, the dialectic split augmented and formed primitive versions of the Romance languages today: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.
Despite being a “dead language,” Latin took its place in history as the scholar’s language. In the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras, knowledge of Latin was the mark of an educated person. Latin is still taught today, (it’s offered at TC) and while it isn’t spoken, it is imperative to understanding the landscape of the past.
Next time we’ll talk about old English and medieval languages! See ya then!
*Sappho and Alcaeus were from the island of Lesbos, and the population of the islands were called Lesbians.