An old question

Jacob Baltuch jacob.baltuch at EURONET.BE
Tue Jul 14 20:46:21 UTC 1998

I think philosophical arguments about what constitutes a 'living'
vs a 'dead' language from the point of view of linguistics miss the
point. If you don't like 'living' vs. 'dead' you may replace it
with 'having native speakers' vs. 'not having native speakers'.

Despite some troublesome borderline cases (bilinguals, standard
language different from the colloquial dialect, etc.) this is
most often easy enough to decide.

Here's a simple test which you may or may not find relevant
to your purpose: a language that has native speakers has
an *independant* phonology.

This cannot be said of medieval Latin or Sanskrit.

People spoke Latin with French, German, English, Spanish,
Polish, Dutch, ... accents. There was no "Latin accent" in the 16th
century. Similarly for Sanskrit. People speak it with a Marathi,
or a Bengali or a Kannada or some other accent. No such thing as
a "Sanskrit accent" in the 20th century. (This should allow me to
rephrase my question about Sanskrit in a simplistic way: Until
when was there such a thing as a "Sanskrit accent"? When did
Sanskrit cease to be a language with an independant phonology?)

(Btw, I'm not implying this is the only way languages with native
speakers differ from languages w/o native speakers, but this
feature at least should be obvious to anyone)

No one said a language not-having-native-speakers never changes,
and is necessarily static. (Or if they did, they'd be wrong)

But if it changes, it changes in other ways than a language
having-native-speakers, or so some linguists seem to think,
which explains why those linguists seem to think the distinction
is worth making.

It may very well be that the distinction is irrelevant in many other

Btw, I do agree that the term 'dead' (vs 'living') is annoying.

Maybe the term 'dead language' should be reserved for 'really
dead' languages such as Gothic, Egyptian, etc. To distinguish
the situation of a language such as Sanskrit from that of say English,
one can of course call them both 'living' and perhaps distinguish
them as a 'living culturally' vs. 'living naturally'. The term
'mother tongue' vs. 'father tongue' I like too but I have
a Tamil friend who speaks English with his father, Tamil
with his mother (note both mother and father are
Tamil-speakers) and Hindi (at least when he was in India)
with his friends. So now what happens? :-)

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