An old question

Robert J. Zydenbos zydenbos at BLR.VSNL.NET.IN
Tue Jul 14 10:10:13 UTC 1998

George Thompson <thompson at JLC.NET> wrote:

> Last year I solicited definitions of, comments on, etc,, the term
> "dead language" from the Linguist List.[...]
> 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.

I am not so sure about this, because:

> Obviously, Latin was an extremely vital language of culture for
> much of Europe of that period.[...]
> But essentially it had become a static language which proved useful
> for certain sorts of scientific, religious, and practical matters.

Is this really so obvious? Can a language really be "vital" and
"static" at the same time?

Some random bits of food for thought: was Erasmus' Latin "static"?
I should think not. Neither was Madhva's Sanskrit (and authors
who wanted their Skt. to be static were angry at him for it). The
fact that there are varieties of Skt. (Jaina, Buddhist, etc.) shows
that it was not static.

Or how should we judge the language written by non-mother-tongue
speakers today? Tulu speakers who write Kannada? Various kinds of
Indians who write English? And cases where the 'natural' mother
tongue is not exactly the written language, as in the case of much
of German-speaking Switzerland?

The argument that somewhere else there are 'real' mother-tongue
speakers of English etc. does not really hold good, because
language lives in the mind of the user, not in the mind of somebody
else. Users (of Skt., Latin, etc.) decide whether the language
lives and is vital or not.

Questions of what constitutes a 'living language' are obviously
more subtle than the linguists to whom George Thompson referred
apparently thought. In his little book _Lateinisches Mittelalter:
Einleitung in Sprache und Literatur_ Karl Langosch wrote about
mediaeval Latin as the European "father tongue" ("Vatersprache",
next to "Muttersprache"), which I think is a beautiful and accurate
expression. Sanskrit is the Indian Vatersprache. And are fathers
less 'living' than mothers?


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