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16.12.2016

Is dead language alive?

Etruscan, Sumerian, Coptic and Gothic can languages will probably be extinct, but they make up a large database of human thinking, says Wikander.

In his book “In the dead language’s business,” which has just come out in the Norwegian translation, he provides an introduction to a selection of very old languages of our culture.

Spreading knowledge

With good old-fashioned public education as a motivational book has been a success in Sweden, where nearly 20,000 copies have been sold. The author has great communication skills and a strong commitment.

— The idea of this book is simply to disseminate knowledge. This is something I’ve been doing since I was young. I know how interested I am myself, and how cool I think this is. So then there should be others who feel the same, says Wikander.

The 27-year-old has won the Swedish Academy award for his writing. He alternates between writing fiction, translations and PhD at Lund University.

Unaccustomed topic

Slogan Translation Agency ServicesThe turn in linguistics in the 1900s to contemporary language and linguistic structures that allowed the study of long extinct language has lost its dominant role in the research. Meanwhile, classical languages like Greek and Latin become less important in the education system in Europe.

There are few books of this kind to go to for the young and old who are interested in language history, but we will not go so far as to lend an academic treatise on such Hittite empire languages at the University Library.

— There were probably more books of this kind written in the beginning of the 1900s, states Wikander.

Providing insight

He stressed that there is much to gain from the extinct languages.

— Old languages give us insight into the people who are completely alien to us, says Wikander.

Limiting ourselves to reading only contemporary language, we only access a few hundred years back in time. If we include the extinct languages, we come 5000 years back.

Wikander shows that the study of ancient languages is something people have done for long. In historical perspective, it is the norm rather than the exception. Role of Latin in Europe is an example of that. Hebrew, classical Greek and Arabic are other examples.

— It is us who are the “weird” because we will only study the extant languages, he said.

Keeping the language alive

In India, Sanskrit, which has not had a single native speaker of over 2000 years, has a similar role as Latin in Europe. The language is kept alive through religion and poetry.

Hebrew was essentially extinct language of everyday speech, and only kept alive by Rabbis until it was revived as a daily language in conjunction with the Jewish migration to Palestine from the 1800s on.

If we go back to the high culture of Mesopotamia, in modern Iraq, Sumerian had a similar role as Sanskrit or Latin. Sumerian, which most likely was the first language that was written down, died as a language sometime around the year 2000 BC. Although no longer used in everyday speech, it was kept alive by scholars in the 1000-1500 years.

— Font culture was strongly linked to the Sumerian language. The Babylonians and Assyrians, who defeated the Sumerians continued to study and write Sumerian, says Wikander.

While Sumerian did not belong to any known language family, Akkadian belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family and subgroup Semitic. It is related to other Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew. Wikander writes about multiple languages in this language family, but also about language in our own Indo-European language family.

Affinity within the Indo-European language family was systematically mapped by linguists in the 1800s.

The family includes Indian languages like Urdu and Hindi, Persian language, classical Latin and Greek and modern European languages.

A number of words within the family of languages have a common origin, and are surveyed how they have changed between the different languages .

— It is not just that the words are similar, but that there are structures that can be studied with mathematical precision, points out Wikander.

The words that are common within the language family such as mother and father, numerals, horses, wheels and numerous others.

Original languages

Thanks to these forms, we can reconstruct a primeval Indo-European language probably spoken by people who lived north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in today’s Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan for 6000 years ago.

From this area a language has spread out over large parts of West Asia, India and Europe in the course of a couple of thousand years.

— Do you think that this language has had a special power since it is so widespread?

— One should be careful not to speculate too much about it. Many people have done it and it has often gone very far, says Wikander.

Linguistics is the combination of biology and racial doctrine has been used for many purposes, and the tracks are frightening. In India, the invading Indo-Europeans were called Aryans, a term the Nazis in the war era, Germany used for their purposes. Today the Indo-European linguistics is free of such anomalies.

Enheduannas praise

Wikander research stands in a long tradition of historically oriented linguistics, where one might also have looked at comparisons between languages and the relationship between language and society. In his book he teases out a number of texts and renders them in the original language and in the Norwegian translation.

From Sumer presented a text of the first known named author of world history. She is interestingly enough a woman named Enheduanna.

The text is a tribute to the female deity Inanna. The author, Enheduanna, was probably a high priestess who lived about 2300 years before the Christian era and is described as the daughter of King Sargon. She belonged to the ethnic group Akkadians, but wrote her text in Sumerian.

Many of the surviving texts from the ancient cultures is related to religion and the sacred. Language and religion can also be a very basic form closely related to one another, says Wikander.

In Jewish mysticism medieval Kabbalah, they read biblical texts full of characters that contain hidden meanings of creation. In Hinduism, the language has become a deity.

— In Hinduism, the goddess Vac was the personification of speech and language. Her name has the same root as the Latin vox and our word vocabulary, says Wikander.

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