An old question

George Thompson thompson at JLC.NET
Mon Jul 13 21:38:08 UTC 1998

Just a few brief comments [I got your message, Dominik] in response to
Ashok Aklujkar's interesting post of 7/5/98:

Last year I solicited definitions of, comments on, etc,, the term "dead
language" from the Linguist List. As a result I have a dozen or more pages
of notes from many linguists, most of whom know little or no Sanskrit,
buried somewhere on my desk [I'd had thoughts of writing a paper on the
topic, but perhaps I will never find those notes]. To summarize: they
tended to define 'dead language' as one that had no native speakers, i.e.,
no speakers for whom it was the first language. The typical example was the
Latin of medieval Europe, though several others were mentioned.

Obviously, Latin was an extremely vital language of culture for much of
Europe of that period. It was a different Latin than that of the classical
authors, so there was indeed evidence of it having undergone linguistic
change. But essentially it had become a static language which proved useful
for certain sorts of scientific, religious, and practical matters.

But it was not a language that people *lived* in. Or, to mix the metaphor,
it was not a language that *lived* in people. Thus, Dante, for example,
skilled in Latin though he was, turned to his native language, the language
of his mother and home, to write his *Divine Comedy*. Eventually, of
course, all of Europe did the same.

To what extent has the situation of Sanskrit over the millennia been
different from that of Latin?

BTW, in a recent book, *A Concise Compendium of the World's Languages* [a
1995 condensation of the much larger *Compendium...*, of 1991, by G.L.
Campbell], an interesting exception is made to the rule that the *Concise
Compendium* would include no articles on "dead languages":  while it
contains no article on Latin this compendium *does* contain an article on
Sanskrit, as well as Classical Chinese. Here is the editor's explanation of
this apparent "anomaly" [p. vii]:

"The explanation is that both of these are, in a sense, living
languages.... As for Sanskrit, it has consistently acted, and continues to
act, as an inexhaustible reservoir of living tissue for the new Indo-Aryan
langauges, by supplying them with straight implants [*tatsam*a, 'just as it
was', scil. in Sanskrit] or its genetic progeny [*tadbhava* 'derived from
that', scil. from Sanskrit]."

My 2k must be all used up. Comments anyone?

George Thompson

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