Who's Behind Listverse?
Jamie founded Listverse due to an insatiable desire to share fascinating, obscure, and bizarre facts. He has been a guest speaker on numerous national radio and television stations and is a five time published author.More About Us
10 Long-Dead Languages Still Affecting Society Today
There are literally thousands of languages spoken all over the world today—and thousands more long-dead languages that were spoken by small (or large) groups in the past and are no longer used. Communities and empires die out, languages fall out of use in favor of other more popular languages that surge ahead, and native tongues from all corners of the globe sadly go extinct as the people who grew up speaking them fail to pass on the vocabulary and grammar before slowly dying off.
The idea of a dead language is a sad one. A dialect spoken by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people is just up and gone forever, never to be used again. Nobody will hear the lilt of its pronunciations or enjoy the accent with which its speakers projected. But not every dead language goes extinct without leaving a significant impact on the world and the future. In this list today, we’ll take a look at ten dead languages that—while gone for good—are still affecting the modern world and inspiring the way we speak.
How could we start this list off without mentioning Latin? We’d be remiss not to note what is probably the most impactful dead language out there—at least the most impactful on the hugely popular tongues that have since popped up across Europe. Latin is officially a dead language, with only the nation of Vatican City using it as an official tongue, and even they only do so because of the many holy scriptures that are written in it. As far as everyday speaking is concerned, nobody is using Latin anymore in Rome, around Italy, or anywhere else on the globe.
But that doesn’t mean Latin hasn’t had a massive effect on modern society. It’s still regularly used for medical terms, as well as classifications of flora and fauna. In the English-speaking world, common Latin phrases are routinely inserted into our daily discussions, too. Take “carpe diem,” which means “seize the day.” Or “ad infinitum,” which means something that goes on the same way again and again forever. Countless Latin phrases have made their way into our lexicon. So many, in fact, that you might say they go on for (nearly) ad infinitum.
Besides the phrases we have picked up in the English-speaking world, Latin has also had a major effect on many other popular languages. All the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc.) draw endless inspiration from Latin. Words in all those languages and more find their bases and roots to be created by Latin words and developed in the modern age. So, while Latin may be a dead language in terms of actual speakers, it is still very much around. And with all the foundation it has given so many other languages, it will never leave us.
Sanskrit is one of the oldest—if not the oldest—languages in the world. And it’s been dead in common usage for quite a while, too, having bitten the dust way back around 600 BC. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a direct impact on the world we know today, especially within faith-based communities in South and East Asia.
So, even though it’s dead and gone, Sanskrit still remains one of India’s official languages. That designation may be in name only, but India is proud of the language and wants to protect its heritage. That’s because the majority of the ancient scriptures in three impactful religions were all written in it: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism all count Sanskrit as their mother tongue.
Because those religions are still so popular in India and surrounding environs today, Sanskrit still holds a place of designation among adherents. Even though it’s not spoken in daily use by people, its impact on their religious life is quite literally second to none. Philosophical works have been produced in Sanskrit, too, and those still hold sway among modern Indians, as well.
Take the renowned philosophies of the ancient “Vedas,” which were said to be put together by the Vyasa. They are written in Sanskrit and include a series of spiritual theories, medical missives, and more. That they still have so much influence today proves Sanskrit itself is here to stay.
8 Biblical Hebrew
Biblical or classical Hebrew had its heyday before and during many of the times told and fables shared in the Bible, as you might have guessed. But after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the language saw a swift, severe, and lasting demise. Rabbis all over the Jewish world worked to keep it around, but it wasn’t spoken by nearly as many people as it had been before. At that point, it was all but dead—at least as far as normal, everyday language usage was concerned.
Fast forward to World War II, and biblical Hebrew sadly saw its final demise. Many of the rabbis who had worked so hard for so many centuries to maintain the language, record its words and meanings, and analyze its grammar and structure were killed as the Holocaust swept across Europe. That tragic loss of life coincided with a significant loss of brain power as far as biblical Hebrew was concerned.
In time, modern Hebrew has emerged as an actual, living, changing language spoken by Jewish people all over the world. It is based on the tenets and foundations of biblical Hebrew, of course. So, in that way, biblical Hebrew lives on and has its legacy in the modern language.
Obviously, if you want to read passages of the Bible in their original translation, biblical Hebrew is necessary to learn. For those who choose to do so, they often work backward from modern Hebrew to perfect the 8,000 or so words that make up the biblical version. Thus, it’s dead as a language in common use, but not quite extinct as a tongue tracked and studied.
7 Old English
Old English was commonly spoken in England until around the 1100s. Sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon, it comes from and is named as such by the Anglo-Saxon period in England and Wales that occurred before the medieval era. It is, of course, the ancestor of today’s Modern English. And it was a great deal more complicated in some ways.
For one, like current-day languages, including Spanish and French, Old English had multiple genders which were used with nouns and to define words precisely. Nouns in Old English could be either feminine, masculine, or neutral—a major change from how the catch-all article “the” functions in today’s language.
After the 1100s, Old English slowly and then completely fell out of favor across both England and Wales. Welsh solidified its hold in the latter, while Middle English took on a more prominent role in the former. And that Middle English is what our current modern English is most directly based upon, with its Old English roots still way down the line.
Coptic is (or was) a well-known language of Ancient Egypt. It was interesting during its heyday nearly 2,000 years ago as being a unique Egyptian language that was mostly written using the Greek alphabet. In fact, as it developed around the third century AD during the Roman period in and around Egypt, it effectively became the final Egyptian-based language that was in heavy use.
After its decline hundreds of years later, Arabic rose in its place. Today, of course, those living in Egypt (and the rest of the Muslim world in the Middle East) continue to speak Arabic as the dominant language in the region.
But Coptic is an important language for many Christians even now. Linguists and historians consider it to be the first-ever Christian language. It was based on four very important languages during its time, too, which made it all the more influential as a tongue of both trade and faith. Demotic, Hieratic, Hieroglyphics, and the aforementioned Greek all had a profound influence on the development of Coptic as it spread across Egypt.
Sadly, it shuttered later in the Roman period. Even more unfortunate, it was eventually dropped as a language of religious instruction and cataloging, too. Today, Coptic lives on in ancient religious texts that still hold significant import for Christians around the Middle East and the world.
5 Old High German
Like how Old English eventually transitioned toward Modern English, Old High German can say the same thing for its current-day evolution. Old High German is regarded by linguists as the earliest, most primitive stage of the German language. Most historians identify it as having swung heavily into favor around Bavaria and other German regions beginning between the years AD 500 and 700. Then, it reigned in common and popular usage until roughly 1050, when it was replaced over the next several centuries by more modern German-related dialects.
In practice at that time, several dialects within Old High German were common depending upon the region in which one found themselves. The areas now known as Austria, Germany, and Switzerland all had their own dialects. Plus, there were what were known as “Upper High German” dialects, too—namely Alemannic, Bavarian, and Franconian.
We say all that simply to note that these Old High German dialects may have faded away in time, beginning around the year 1050. But they all had a direct impact on the German that is spoken in Germany and elsewhere in the world today. In addition to that, just like many languages on this list, a considerable amount of ancient religious and philosophical texts were written in Old High German, too. Thus, its legacy as a language of academia and the church lives on in the present.
Akkad was one of the most important cities in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. As an early civilization with a large number of citizens within its limits, Akkad eventually developed its own language, appropriately called Akkadian. Today, historians recognize Akkadian as the very first of the Semitic languages. There are two major modern-day Semitic languages that still take their inspiration from Akkadian: Hebrew and Arabic. So, in that way alone, Akkadian has had an impact on the modern world even thousands of years after it died out.
That isn’t the only legacy left by the people of Akkad in regard to their language choices, though. Akkadian was also the first language written in cuneiform. Because of that, the writings of Akkadian still survive to this day—where archaeological evidence has been preserved and carefully uncovered, at least. But the fact that cuneiform allows us to see into the past like that with such relative ease is a shocker.
If you want to study Akkadian, you must learn cuneiform, which academics and linguists across the world have tended to do. Sadly, Akkadian died out for good in about the eighth century BC. But between the Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Mesopotamians, it had a heck of a run before the end.
Aramaic is best known as the language that Jesus Christ spoke when he was alive. He was far from the only one who used it, too. It was incredibly widely used during the time of Christ—so much so that it was the lingua franca of much of the Middle East and spoken as a primary language by a great many disparate groups there. The Akkadian language we just learned about actually died out because of Aramaic! Even though Aramaic was more complex than Akkadian, it simply swept across the region and took hold as the dominant language for centuries on end.
Interestingly, the country from which Aramaic originated, Aram, fell centuries before the language’s rise in a woeful war with the Assyrians. But even with Aram long gone, the language it created puttered along, first surviving and then thriving. Later, even the Assyrians came to use the language as one of their main tongues simply because it was spoken so widely across the Middle East. If you wanted to trade with other regions at the time, you pretty much had to speak Aramaic.
But just like Akkadian before it, Aramaic wasn’t destined to last forever. The diaspora of its diverse speakers eventually began dwindling, and other languages took hold in the region in the several centuries after Jesus Christ’s life. For a while, it looked as though Aramaic would become completely extinct.
Modern-day linguists and researchers have worked hard to ensure that doesn’t happen, though, and language preservation has pushed Aramaic out of the full-on extinction realm. Even though it doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the influence it once had, the very fact that it was Jesus’ language will ensure Aramaic’s legacy lasts forever.
2 Old Norse
The Vikings are, of course, one of the most infamous and legendary groups of people from the Old World. They spoke Old Norse in their daily lives, and they spread it all around the regions of Scandinavia and Northern Europe as they invaded places, vanquished them, and colonized them. So it was only natural that Old Norse would spread to a lot of far-flung places. Even if it wasn’t used in daily life by those the Vikings overcame, it still had a large effect on a lot of tongues that survive today. And in some ways, Old Norse was like Aramaic, which we’ve just learned about: a dominant lingua franca that sweeps across a very wide region and is used by many peoples who aren’t descendants of those who developed it.
Sadly, like Aramaic, Old Norse eventually died out and lost its spot as a commonly used language. But fear not, Viking admirers and aficionados! Old Norse’s descendant languages have split off into many sub-groups, and many of its words can still be heard today in tongues like Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish. That’s not the only legacy Old Norse left behind, either.
The language also gave English a great many words, too. Common words used nowadays, including “berserk,” “cake,” and “knife,” have Old Norse roots. So too, does “husband” (the combination of Old Norse words “hus” and “bondi”) and “Thursday” (a derivation from the Old Norse “Thor’s day”). The connection comes through the Germanic language family, of which both English and Old Norse are part.
1 Ancient Greek
This one might confuse you a little bit since, of course, the modern world still holds Greek as a popular language. Spoken in Greece (duh) and by the Greek diaspora all over the world, modern Greek is definitely not a dead language. But ancient Greek technically is, and even though it’s somewhat similar to the modern version, it’s different enough to be its own thing—and not in use anymore.
Of course, ancient Greek was spoken (and written) by renowned philosophers and writers, including Aristotle, Homer, Plato, and Socrates. They produced works in their native tongue that are still studied and pored over in the modern age. And those works continue to be studied by academics at universities all around the world, too. In order to read and analyze the original works of Plato and the rest of his ancient peers, you need to know how to read Ancient Greek—so this long-dead language still has use in highly-specialized cases today.
Aside from that, Ancient Greek is similar to Latin in that we’ve pulled plenty of words, base words, and roots from it to name things in our medical and scientific systems and other areas of common parlance. Words as disparate as “democracy,” “hermaphrodite,” and “marathon” all have their roots in ancient Greek—and we have those ancients to thank for how we use them today!