The Trouble With Old Languages

I’ve had this desire to “learn a really old language” for a long time. I’ve looked at a lot of them. (Coptic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Aramaic, Sumerian, Hebrew and more). I keep running into the same problems. Either it’s so old and musty that nobody really knows how to pronounce it and there is limited reading material; or it is of such long lifetime that it isn’t really “A Language” but rather a trajectory through a language group with strong affinity.

A decent example of the first one is Sumerian. Nobody is really sure what language family it is in and typically call it an “isolate”.


Sumerian has been the subject of controversial proposals purportedly identifying it as related genetically with a wide variety of agglutinative languages, as well as with some non-agglutinative languages. As the most ancient written language, it has a peculiar prestige, and such proposals sometimes have a nationalistic background and enjoy virtually no support among linguists because of their unverifiability. Examples of suggested related languages include:

Hurro-Urartian languages (see Subarian, Alarodian)
Munda languages (Igor M. Diakonoff)
Dravidian languages (see Elamo-Dravidian)
Nostratic languages (Allan Bomhard[9])
Dené–Caucasian languages (John Bengtson[10])
Uralic languages (Fred Hámori, Simo Parpola)
Turkic languages (Julius Oppert, Adam Falkenstein)

So with that kind of imaginative pedigree set, there’s all kinds of theories about it. Then the reading material is all written in a strange form and has limited availability. You can’t go check out a clay tablet from the local library in California… and the ones reproduced on paper are usually accompanied by a translation, so what’s the point?

It has a couple of “odd behaviours” that might be amusing, but mostly make it a PITA to get comfortable.

Sumerian distinguishes the grammatical genders human/non-human (personal/impersonal), but it does not have separate male/female gender pronouns. The human gender includes not only humans but also gods and in some cases the word for “statue”. Sumerian has also been claimed to have two tenses (past and present-future), but these are currently described as completive and incompletive or perfective and imperfective aspects instead. There are a large number of cases: absolutive (-Ø), ergative (-e), genitive (-(a)k), dative/allative (“to, for”) (-r(a) for human nouns, -e for non-human nouns), locative (“in, at”) (-a, only with non-human nouns), comitative (-da), equative (“as, like”) (-gin), directive/adverbial (“towards”) (-š(e)), ablative (“from”) (-ta, only with non-human nouns). The naming and number of the cases varies in the scientific literature.

Another characteristic feature of Sumerian is the large number of homophones (words with the same sound structure but different meanings), which are perhaps pseudo-homophones, as there might have been differences in pronunciation such as tone or some phonemic distinctions that are unknown. The different homophones (or, more precisely, the different cuneiform signs that denote them) are marked with different numbers by convention, “2” and “3” being often replaced by acute accent and grave accent diacritics respectively. For example: du = “go”, du3 = dù = “build”.

The “human / non-human” gender isn’t as odd as you might think. “Gender” in the Indo-European languages originated not as male/female but as “animate / inanimate / externally-moved”. This is reflected still in Russian where the river, that moves, is feminine gender while rocks are the non-moving is the masculine gender. (Leaves don’t move themselves, but blow in the wind, so would get ‘neutral’ gender in old Indo-European structure).

It also shows how languages merge and change over time, even that far back:

Sumerian ( “native tongue”) is the language of ancient Sumer, which was spoken in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) since at least the 4th millennium BC. During the 3rd millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism.[3] The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence.[3] This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a Sprachbund.


Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century AD. Then, it was forgotten until the 19th century, when Assyriologists began deciphering the cuneiform inscriptions and excavated tablets left by these speakers. Sumerian is a language isolate.

So we have Akkadian gradually replacing Sumerian, but Akkadian is clearly a Semitic language, not an isolate. This means two different language families slowly having one replace the other. When that happens, most often there is a far amount of ‘borrowing’ between the two. (We saw how the Akkadian Empire fell during one of the periodic cold periods we have; but they lasted quite a while before then and were the inheritors of the Sumerian culture).

Akkadian (lišānum akkadītum, 𒀝𒂵𒌈 ak.kADû) (also Accadian, Assyro-Babylonian) is an extinct Semitic language (part of the greater Afroasiatic language family) that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system, which was originally used to write ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate. The name of the language is derived from the city of Akkad, a major center of Semitic Mesopotamian civilization, during the Akkadian Empire (2334 – 2154 BC), although the language predates the founding of Akkad.

During the third millennium BC, a close cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a sprachbund.

Akkadian was first attested in Sumerian texts in proper names from the late 29th century BC. From the second half of the third millennium BC (circa 2600-2500 BC), texts fully written in Akkadian begin to appear. Hundreds of thousands of texts and text fragments have been excavated up to date; covering a vast textual tradition of mythological narrative, legal texts, scientific works, correspondence, political and military events, and many other examples. By the second millennium BC, two variant forms of the language were in use in Assyria and Babylonia (known as Assyrian and Babylonian respectively).

As Akkadian is the oldest Semitic language, those borrowings continued forward and show up in odd places from time to time.

OK, lots of stuff to read in Akkadian, but it clearly isn’t a ‘pure’ language (is there such a thing?) and we’re still dealing with a load of clay tablets and cuneiform writing… But at least the material is more varied and interesting. Sounds like a reasonable thing to learn, then we find out that not only is there old Akkadian, and the slowly accumulating Sumerian shift, but toward the end we’ve got two variant forms to sort out. About that point I figured it would require being a specialist and dedicating a decent chunk of your life to it as you are learning about 4 major variations…

Akkadian had been for centuries the lingua franca in Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. However, it began to decline around the 8th century BC, being marginalized by Aramaic during the Neo Assyrian Empire. By the Hellenistic period, the language was largely confined to scholars and priests working in temples in Assyria and Babylonia. The last Akkadian cuneiform document dates to the 1st century AD. A fair number of Akkadian loan words survive in the Mesopotamian Neo Aramaic dialects spoken in and around modern Iraq by the indigenous Assyrian (aka Chaldo-Assyrian) Christians of the region, and the giving of Akkadian personal names, along with a number of Akkadian last names and tribal names, is still common amongst Assyrian people.

Here we get to see how it, too, was slowly replaced by Aramaic (itself a Semitic language). But if you have a large interest in things pre-8th century BC, it’s your tool of choice, with some of it running all the way to the BC / AD divide. And, BTW, we find snippets of it surviving in the modern dialects around Iraq. That is another thing seen consistently; bits of ancient languages surviving in areas as local ‘dialect’ and as names for places and rivers.


Aramaic is interesting for folks with a Christian Historical bent, as the Peshita Text was originally written in Aramaic which was the native language of Jesus, so is arguably the least changed of all versions of the Bible. (One example: The word for camel and the word for rope differ by one tiny dot. A dot that was lost in the translation to western languages. So the Peshitta Text has a much more sensible translation for how easy it is for “A rich man to get into heaven”. Not a “camel through the eye of a needle” but a “rope through the eye of a needle”. I think the Peshitta has it right…)

It was widely used for a long time too. So it also suffers from many variations and even a couple of writing systems.

Aramaic is a group of languages belonging to the Afroasiatic language phylum. The name of the language is based on the name of Aram, an ancient region in central Syria. Within this family, Aramaic belongs to the Semitic family, and more specifically, is a part of the Northwest Semitic subfamily, which also includes Canaanite languages such as Hebrew and Phoenician. Aramaic script was widely adopted for other languages and is ancestral to both the Arabic and modern Hebrew alphabets.

During its 3,000-year written history, Aramaic has served variously as a language of administration of empires and as a language of divine worship. It was the day-to-day language of Israel in the Second Temple period (539 BCE – 70 CE), some speculate it was the language spoken by Jesus, it is the language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra and is the main language of the Talmud. However, Jewish Aramaic was different from the other forms both in lettering and grammar. Parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Jewish Aramaic showing the unique Jewish lettering, related to the unique Hebrew language.

Aramaic’s long history and diverse and widespread use has led to the development of many divergent varieties which are sometimes called dialects, though they are quite distinct languages. Therefore, there is no one singular Aramaic language, but each time and place has had its own variation. Aramaic is retained as a liturgical language by certain Eastern Christian churches, in the form of Syriac, the Aramaic variety by which Eastern Christianity was diffused, whether or not those communities once spoke it or another form of Aramaic as their vernacular, but have since shifted to another language as their primary community language.

Modern Aramaic is spoken today as a first language by many scattered, predominantly small, and largely isolated communities of differing Christian, Jewish and Mandean ethnic groups of West Asia—most numerously by the Assyrians in the form of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Chaldean Neo-Aramaic —that have all retained use of the once dominant lingua franca despite subsequent language shifts experienced throughout the Middle East. The Aramaic languages are considered to be endangered.

Oh Dear! A couple of writing systems. Several different forms, either very strongly divergent ‘dialects’ or nearly different languages. Then again, over 3000 years you expect a bit of change.

Still, if it’s Christian History (or even old Jewish History) that interests you, it looks like the vehicle of choice. It also covers about 1000 BC to 2012 AD or so (to the present) so you have a long period of texts, but oh those dialects… And recent material is likely to be limited in scope.



Archaic Biblical Hebrew from the 10th to the 6th century BCE, corresponding to the Monarchic Period until the Babylonian Exile and represented by certain texts in the Hebrew Bible (Tanach), notably the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). Also called Old Hebrew or Paleo-Hebrew. It was written in a form of the Canaanite script. (A script descended from this is still used by the Samaritans, see Samaritan Hebrew language.)

Standard Biblical Hebrew around the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, corresponding to the late Monarchic period and the Babylonian Exile. It is represented by the bulk of the Hebrew Bible that attains much of its present form around this time. Also called Standard Biblical Hebrew, Early Biblical Hebrew, Classical Biblical Hebrew (or Classical Hebrew in the narrowest sense).

Late Biblical Hebrew, from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BCE, that corresponds to the Persian Period and is represented by certain texts in the Hebrew Bible, notably the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Basically similar to Classical Biblical Hebrew, apart from a few foreign words adopted for mainly governmental terms, and some syntactical innovations such as the use of the particle shel (of, belonging to). It adopted the Imperial Aramaic script.

Israelian Hebrew is a proposed northern dialect of biblical Hebrew, attested in all eras of the language, in some cases competing with late biblical Hebrew as an explanation for non-standard linguistic features of biblical texts.

Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, corresponding to the Hellenistic and Roman Periods before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and represented by the Qumran Scrolls that form most (but not all) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Commonly abbreviated as DSS Hebrew, also called Qumran Hebrew. The Imperial Aramaic script of the earlier scrolls in the 3rd century BCE evolved into the Hebrew square script of the later scrolls in the 1st century CE, also known as ketav Ashuri (Assyrian script), still in use today.

Mishnaic Hebrew from the 1st to the 3rd or 4th century CE, corresponding to the Roman Period after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and represented by the bulk of the Mishnah and Tosefta within the Talmud and by the Dead Sea Scrolls, notably the Bar Kokhba Letters and the Copper Scroll. Also called Tannaitic Hebrew or Early Rabbinic Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew gets an entire article of it’s own, as much changed.


At that point, I thought: Why not just jump over to ancient Egyptian, or Greek. Yes, Arabic has replaced old Egyptian, but that was only started well after about 700 AD. That still leaves 3,000 to 4,000 years of Egyptian! The British Library even has a Coptic Language Collection.

AND you can attend an Egyptian Coptic Church to hear it spoken! (At least, I can, we have one in the San Francisco Bay Area..)

Coptic or Coptic Egyptian ( Met Remenkēmi) is the current stage of the Egyptian language, a northern Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Egypt until at least the 17th century. Egyptian began to be written using the Greek alphabet in the 1st century. The new writing system became the Coptic script, an adapted Greek alphabet with the addition of six or seven signs from the demotic script to represent Egyptian sounds the Greek language did not have. Several distinct Coptic dialects are identified, the most prominent of which are Sahidic and Bohairic.

Oh Dear. Just in the first paragraph we have three writing systems and two dialects. Greek, Greek+some called the Coptic Script, and old Demotic Script. (Even further back it was in Hieroglyphs, make 4 writing systems…) But it reaches all the way up to the 17th century as a spoken language outside the Church.

Coptic and Demotic are grammatically closely akin to Late Egyptian, which was written in the Hieroglyphic script. Coptic flourished as a literary language from the 2nd to 13th centuries, and its Bohairic dialect continues to be the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It was supplanted by Egyptian Arabic as a spoken language toward the early modern period, though revitalization efforts have been underway since the 19th century.

Well, “Late Egyptian” implies an “Early Egyptian” and “akin” implies “not the same”. So we’re looking at about 4 major variations in at least 4 writing forms. Time for another “Oh Dear”.

But at least we get an idea why Arabic has so many variations.

Coptic Egyptian was spoken only in Egypt, and historically has had little influence outside of Egypt proper, with the exception of monasteries located in Nubia. Coptic’s most noticeable linguistic impact has been on the various dialects of Egyptian Arabic, which is characterized by a Coptic substratum in terms of lexical, morphological, syntactical, and phonological features.

That same old thing of soaking up bits from the locals…

Then we get another “Oh Dear” moment in that even the word order tends to change over time.

Coptic has a subject–verb–object word order, but can be verb–subject–object with the correct preposition in front of the subject. Number, gender, tense, and mood are indicated by prefixes that come from Late Egyptian. The earlier phases of Egyptian did this through suffixation. Some vestiges of the suffix inflection survive in Coptic, mainly to indicate inalienable possession and in some verbs. Compare the Middle Egyptian form *satāpafa ‘he chooses’ (written stp.f in hieroglyphs) to Coptic f.sotp ϥⲥⲱⲧⲡ̅ ‘he chooses’.

So, other than word order wandering about, suffixes vs prefixes changing over time, 4 major writing systems some of which come in ‘variations’ and at least 4 major language change phases; it’s a fine choice if you want to listen to a lot of sermons in Coptic or read about old Egyptians…

Moving on…

It’s all Greek To Me

So, I figured, Greeks still speak Greek. Yes, it’s a different script from English, but it’s still the Greek Alphabet. There’s also a pretty good collection of interesting things to read, written in Greek.

Greek (ελληνικά IPA [eliniˈka] or ελληνική γλώσσα, IPA [eliniˈci ˈɣlosa]) is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were previously used. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script, and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Coptic, and many other writing systems.

Oh. So it’s been through a couple of writing systems too… But at least there isn’t a whole lot written in Linear B and Cypriot Syllabary.

The Greek language holds an important place in the histories of Europe, the more loosely defined “Western” world, and Christianity; the canon of ancient Greek literature includes works of monumental importance and influence for the future Western canon, such as the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. Greek was also the language in which many of the foundational texts of Western philosophy, such as the Platonic dialogues and the works of Aristotle, were composed; the New Testament of the Christian Bible was written in Koiné Greek and the liturgy continues to be celebrated in the language in various Christian denominations (particularly the Eastern Orthodox and the Greek Rite of the Catholic Church). Together with the Latin texts and traditions of the Roman world (which was significantly influenced by ancient Greek society), the study of the Greek texts and society of antiquity constitutes the discipline of Classics.

Greek was a widely spoken lingua franca in the Mediterranean world and beyond during Classical Antiquity, and would eventually become the official parlance of the Byzantine Empire. In its modern form, it is the official language of Greece and Cyprus and one of the 23 official languages of the European Union. The language is spoken by at least 13 million people today in Greece, Cyprus, and diaspora communities in numerous parts of the world.

Greek roots are often used to coin new words for other languages, especially in the sciences and medicine; Greek and Latin are the predominant sources of the international scientific vocabulary. Over fifty thousand English words are derived from the Greek language.

A tiny side bar: 50,000 words in English from Greek roots alone? 3,000 words is all the typical person needs to get by. 10,000 for highly educated use. What the heck are we doing with THAT 50,000 and just how many words are there in English? You’d think we had enough by now… Further, if we have 50,000 derived from Greek, either Greek has one heck of a lot of words, or we’ve reused bits rather a lot ( I’m pretty sure it’s reuse and vary…) But if I’d known English had over 50,000 words, I’d have asked my Mum not to teach it too me ;-) Then again, maybe that is part of why I’m finding it so hard to embrace some other language. They all seem a bit “limited” in one way or another…

And here we see the term “Koine Greek”

Koine is the Greek word for “common.” Koine Greek (also called New Testament Greek) was the form of the Greek language used from around 300 BC to AD 300. The books of the New Testament were originally written in Koine Greek. Koine Greek was the lingua franca (or the commonly used language of communication) in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern for hundreds of years following the conquests of Alexander the Great, including during the time of the early church.

Claims have been made that the Greek language of the New Testament confused many scholars for a period of time but this is not the case. It was, however, sufficiently different from Classical Greek that some hypothesized that it was a combination of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. An attempt was made to explain it as a “spiritual language,” assuming that perhaps God created a special language just for the Bible. But studies of Greek papyri found in Egypt over the past 120 years have shown that the Greek of the New Testament manuscripts was the “common” (koine) language of the everyday people – the same as that used in the writing of wills and private letters. In fact, Koine Greek was propagated through the centuries by the Eastern Orthodox Church and was the language common in the Byzantine Empire. Therefore, knowledge of the language was never lost nor was the meaning of any of the vocabulary in doubt when reformation scholars began to translate from the Textus Receptus.

Dare I say it? Oh, why not: “Oh Dear”, again… A significantly different Greek for the 600 year period in the middle, with “Classical Greek” before it (and Modern Greek after it…)

Back at the Wiki again:

The Greek language is conventionally divided into the following periods:

Proto-Greek: the last unrecorded but assumed ancestor of all known varieties of Greek. Proto-Greek speakers possibly entered the Greek peninsula in the early 2nd millennium BC. Since then, Greek has been spoken uninterruptedly in Greece.

Mycenaean Greek: the language of the Mycenaean civilization. It is recorded in the Linear B script on tablets dating from the 15th or 14th century BC onwards.

Ancient Greek: in its various dialects the language of the Archaic and Classical periods of the ancient Greek civilization. It was widely known throughout the Roman Empire. Ancient Greek fell into disuse in western Europe in the Middle Ages, but remained officially in use in the Byzantine world, and was reintroduced to the rest of Europe with the Fall of Constantinople and Greek migration to the areas of Italy.

Koine Greek: The fusion of various ancient Greek dialects with Attic, the dialect of Athens, resulted in the creation of the first common Greek dialect, which became a lingua franca across Eastern Mediterranean and Near East. Koine Greek can be initially traced within the armies and conquered territories of Alexander the Great, but after the Hellenistic colonization of the known world, it was spoken from Egypt to the fringes of India. After the Roman conquest of Greece, an unofficial diglossy of Greek and Latin was established in the city of Rome and Koine Greek became a first or second language in the Roman Empire. The origin of Christianity can also be traced through Koine Greek, as the Apostles used it to preach in Greece and the Greek-speaking world. It is also known as the Alexandrian dialect, Post-Classical Greek or even New Testament Greek, as it was the original language of the New Testament. Even the Old Testament was translated into the same language via the Septuagint.

Medieval Greek, also known as Byzantine Greek: the continuation of Koine Greek during Byzantine Greece, up to the demise of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. Medieval Greek is a cover phrase for a whole continuum of different speech and writing styles, ranging from vernacular continuations of spoken Koine that were already approaching Modern Greek in many respects, to highly learned forms imitating classical Attic. Much of the written Greek that was used as the official language of the Byzantine Empire was an eclectic middle-ground variety based on the tradition of written Koine.

Modern Greek: Stemming from Medieval Greek, Modern Greek usages can be traced in the Byzantine period, as early as the 11th century. It is the language used by modern Greeks and apart from Standard Modern Greek, there are several dialects of it.

This thing has more flavors than Baskin and Robins Ice Cream. ( “31 Flavors” per their ads; but they change over time.)

FWIW, I did a little in depth looking at Greek as it covered areas of history and geography that were particularly of interest to me, including late Pharonic Egypt. There are changes in spelling, grammar, lexicon, all sorts of stuff. I also met a native Greek speaker in Florida who said he signed up to a Greek class and discovered it was all Ancient Greek and unintelligible to him. I figured if it was alien to him, it would be worse than “Greek to me”…


That sort of left Latin.

(Actually, I wandered through several others, but they were not that interesting, not that common, or had the same kinds of issues. Hebrew, for example, has several ‘eras’ to it, with Biblical Hebrew being different from modern; modern having many loan words in it. Text may be vowel marked, or not. There are several variations on the alphabet. Etc etc… Might as well learn Aramaic at that point. Oh, and the very old parts of the Bible are mostly in Aramaic or Greek (or a Latin translation).

Latin has the virtue than many English words are derived from it, too. I’ve also learned, at one time or another, a couple of Romance Languages that give many cognates to Latin words. Heck, I even managed to puzzle out some bits of the Latin Vulgate Bible all on my own. ( I’m not a very strongly religious person, tepid at best really. But at one point I got to wondering just how much the Bible had changed in translation and over time. That sent me on a quest into old Bibles and languages… The answer was ‘not much’ and the translators notes at the bottom of a decent recent version were better than I’d ever be at marking variations between old sources.)

So may it would be ‘easier’ and, as a ‘dead language’, it would have been relatively frozen, I figured. Then I ran into this:

Seeing as Latin was the official language of doing the business of government in the UK for a very long time, they have a lot of stuff written in Latin. All the better, I think, as that means more texts to work with. Little did I realize…

This is an introduction to the problems that you may encounter with Latin vocabulary and grammar in documents from the period 1086 to 1733.

It is important to remember that the Latin used in the period covered by this tutorial was not consistent. As a living language, its vocabulary, meanings and grammar changed over time.

Read through these problems and be aware that you may face any or all of them. However, do not worry about them. In time and with practice, you will find that you can deal with them easily.

Just in ONE country and in ONE period of time of less than 700 years, we have changes in vocabulary, meaning and grammar. There is also the minor point that Latin is very sensitive to every letter. Being highly inflected, even a single change of a vowel can change the meaning. “Spelling matters” – and even the spelling wandered around a bit.

There was no consistent way of spelling even common words in the medieval, Tudor or Stuart periods. Look at the different spellings of these words, meaning grace

gratia, –e (f.) First declension
gracia, –e (f.) First declension

Spelling changed over time and varied between individuals. You will often see a word spelt more than one way within a single document.
If you cannot find a word in the dictionary, think about other ways to spell it and try looking these up.
Consider letters that sound similar, like ‘a’ and ‘e’, ‘m’ and ‘n’, ‘c’ and ‘t’.

Interchangeable letters

In medieval documents, many letters are almost indistinguishable, for example
‘c’ and ‘t’
‘u’ and ‘v’
‘i’ and ‘j’
Sometimes it is not possible to differentiate between ‘i’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘u’ or ‘v’!
Are you looking at an an unfamiliar word in your document?
Consider whether these interchangeable letters might help you identify it.
For example, could that letter that appears to be a ‘c’ really be a ‘t’?

Words with more than one form

Some words have a form from more than one gender, for example, both a masculine form and a feminine form.
Look at these words, which both mean ‘park’:

parca, -e (f.) First declension
parcus, -i (m.) Second declension

The dative plural and ablative plural of both of these forms is parcis.

Other examples you may find include


soca, -e (f.) First declension
socum, -i (n.) Second declension


tofta, -e (f.) First declension
toftum, -i (n.) Second declension


bosca, -e (f.) First declension
boscum, -i (n.) Second declension
boscus, -i (m.) Second declension

There are many more words with more than one form. It is not possible to provide a comprehensive list.
You can try looking up these forms in R.E. Latham, Revised Medieval Latin Word-list, (London, published for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press, 1973).

Well I’m all for allowing variation in spelling (since absolutes are a relatively new invention and do not carry local accent and flavor very well…) but this is getting a bit over the edge…

All this is from one subset of Latin from one part of history and one small body of works. The rest has got to be even worse…

The extensive use of elements from vernacular speech by the earliest authors and inscriptions of the Roman Republic make it clear that the original, unwritten language of the Roman Monarchy was an only partially deducible colloquial form, the predecessor to Vulgar Latin. By the late Roman Republic, a standard, literate form had arisen from the speech of the educated, now referred to as Classical Latin. Vulgar Latin, by contrast, is the name given to the more rapidly changing colloquial language spoken throughout the empire. With the Roman conquest, Latin spread to many Mediterranean regions, and the dialects spoken in these areas, mixed to various degrees with the autochthonous languages, developed into the Romance tongues, including Aragonese, Catalan, Corsican, French, Galician, Italian, Occitan, Portuguese, Romanian, Romansh, Sardinian, Sicilian, and Spanish. Classical Latin slowly changed with the Decline of the Roman Empire, as education and wealth became ever scarcer. The consequent Medieval Latin, influenced by various Germanic and proto-Romance languages until expurgated by Renaissance scholars, was used as the language of international communication, scholarship and science until well into the 18th century, when it began to be supplanted by vernacular languages.

So again we have the “Koine” problem with both a common and ‘classical’ form, and then that whole “medieval Latin” drift above. But also with some seasoning by local languages in different places… We can see that in this note from the British page:

F: Medieval Latin was influenced by contemporary society and therefore English spellings and words started to appear.
For example, you will often find these words in medieval Latin documents

croftum, -i (n.) croft
shopa, -e (f.) shop
virgata, -e (f.) virgate

They are English words which have been turned into Latin.

G: There is a much greater use of quod (meaning ‘that’) in medieval Latin. You will often find it after verbs of saying, thinking, replying, claiming etc.

dicit quod he says that

H: The increased use of prepositions in medieval Latin, particularly ad, de and per. In Classical Latin, the same phrase would be given using the noun with the appropriate case ending.

I: In medieval Latin, de is frequently used to mean ‘of’.

Now I’m pretty sure I could cope with some of this. I’ve got a wide enough base I cold accept a bit of language blending. OTOH, I can see there will be a lot of time spent trying to find something in a dictionary only to discover it’s a bit of latinized German or Romanian… the English I think I’d catch onto pretty quickly.

There’s also this item “E” in their list:

The meaning of some important words in changed between the Classical and the medieval periods

baro, baronis (m.) baron, tenant-in-chief
miles, militis (m.) knight
villa, -e (f.) vill, town

If you look these up in a Classical Latin dictionary, a different meaning will be given. The meaning will be inappropriate for the medieval, Tudor or Stuart periods.

For example, in Roman times, a villa was an agricultural estate or farm with a large house at the centre.
In the medieval period, a vill was a small to medium sized settlement or town.

Use reference works designed for medieval Latin to avoid any confusion.
You will find R.E. Latham, Revised Medieval Latin Word-list, (London, published for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press, 1973) very helpful.

So even words where I think I know what they mean are likely to be shifting under my feet… This is worse than an “Oh Dear”. The wiki lists several steps in the evolution:

2.1 Archaic Latin
2.2 Classical Latin
2.3 Vulgar Latin
2.4 Medieval Latin
2.5 Renaissance Latin

At least 5 major variations.

About the only good thing is that the bulk of the 15th century books were printed in Latin, so there’s a bunch of interesting stuff to read; if you can figure out which language to use for any given book…

Sidebar on Sanskrit:

I briefly took a look at Sanskrit. Figuring it was likely one of the oldest, so most representative of the original forms that lead to Indo-European languages “of a lesser sort”. What I found was yet more of the same. Yet Another Script, along with variations over time.

Sanskrit (संस्कृतम् saṃskṛtam [sə̃skɹ̩t̪əm], originally संस्कृता वाक् saṃskṛtā vāk, “refined speech”), is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.[note 1] Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand. Sanskrit holds a prominent position in Indo-European studies.

Classical Sanskrit is the standard register as laid out in the grammar of Pāṇini, around the 4th century BCE. Its position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, with the language of the Rigveda being the oldest and most archaic stage preserved, its oldest core dating back to as early as 1500 BCE. This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.
From the Rigveda until the time of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE) the development of the Sanskrit language may be observed in other Vedic texts: the Samaveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads. During this time, the prestige of the language, its use for sacred purposes, and the importance attached to its correct enunciation all served as powerful conservative forces resisting the normal processes of linguistic change. However, there is a clear, five-level linguistic development of Vedic from the Rigveda to the language of the Upanishads and the earliest Sutras (such as Baudhayana).

The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight-Chapter Grammar”). It is essentially a prescriptive grammar, i.e., an authority that defines correct Sanskrit, although it contains descriptive parts, mostly to account for some Vedic forms that had become rare in Pāṇini’s time.

The term “Sanskrit” was not thought of as a specific language set apart from other languages, but rather as a particularly refined or perfected manner of speaking. Knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment in ancient India and the language was taught mainly to members of the higher castes, through close analysis of Sanskrit grammarians such as Pāṇini. Sanskrit, as the learned language of Ancient India, thus existed alongside the Prakrits (vernaculars), also called Middle Indic dialects, and eventually into the contemporary modern Indo-Aryan languages.

It also has a grammar that makes “Byzantine” look like a compliment… several writing systems, and more individually distinct sounds than most folks use. It would be a difficult language to learn at all, and likely impossible to master (at least for me, at this point in my life.)

In Conclusion

At this point I realized that the tendency for humans to muck around with, change, and generally screw up their languages is a constant. That “justice” can be turned into “left wing coveting” and that “liberal” can be turned from “libertarian like conservative” into “socialism lite” is not unique to English in the modern age.

For any language that has had a long life, you can pick a couple of hundred year span and learn THAT language, but it is only slightly useful outside that window of time. Even languages “frozen” in time via being a liturgical language or a dead language slowly drift (or not so slowly) as new learners get some bits wrong, or add to it from their own language.

So I’ve decided to just not bother. Most anything I want to read is likely translated to English already.

The other lasting benefit to me from that exploration was the realization that variation in spelling and usage (and punctuation and grammar and…) are fully normal and to be expected. So if I don’t like the prohibition on dangling participles I have nothing to be afraid of. ;-) And leading a sentence with a conjunction may well be the norm, if enough of us do it. Not only THAT, but variant usage of Capital Letters comes around at different Times and in different Languages, so what can be Wrong today can be Right in the past and in the future. Languages live and folks trying to freeze them are just tilting at windmills. Drifting in style. Slowly into the past. Like old spats.

Olde English

Maybe I’ll go learn Old English… Part of my interest had been in learning a highly inflected language, and Old English was one. There may not be a lot to read written in it, but I’ve always liked the use of thine and thy… A brief look at it shows some of the same dialect issues, along with changes over time as Latin and Celtic influences (along with Norman) had effect.

But it does look like a reasonable way to ‘scratch the itch’ on an old inflected language while not contending with something as Byzantine as Greek or Sanskrit…

It’s a little bizarre, but perhaps just enough to make it interesting:

Gewat ða neosian, syþðan niht becom,
hean huses, hu hit Hringdene
æfter beorþege gebun hæfdon.
Fand þa ðær inne æþelinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble; sorge ne cuðon,

When night fell, he went to *Heorot, took thirty thanes who were sleeping off the reveling and brought them to his lair.

And I complained about how much the other languages changed over time…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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18 Responses to The Trouble With Old Languages

  1. j ferguson says:

    I’d gotten into reading English history, first Macaulay, then Hume. Hume, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon wrote in the second half of the 18th century. Except for having to look up words I hadn’t seen before, or finding that some Hume used, “clown” for one, had different meanings in his time, once i got into them, I found them comfortable to read. These guys were really good, too.

    I had to bounce back to beginning of 17th century for some things, and found the stuff from that time more remote.

    I’m reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague, and I hadn’t checked the publication date and it being a journal and the plague being 1665, I thought, this guy was way ahead of his time. He read like 18th century. Turns out there was good reason. He wrote it in 1722 and it was a novel, although thought to be a good report of what happened at the time, and maybe better than Pepys’ diary which was contemporary. I have that too, but will get to it later.

    But none of this has much to do with reading old languages.

    I think I would go with Middle English, of which I think there’s quite a bit out there.

  2. hillrj says:

    Why not Chinese (Mandarin)? You might be able to talk to your descendants…

  3. Peter Offenhartz says:

    I’m reading Chaucer at the moment (Canterbury Tales) and finding it quite enjoyable. Knowing German helps.

  4. Judy F. says:


    “…so old and musty that no one really knows how to pronounce it…” You should have learned Latin from the nun I had in high school. She was so old that we swore that she had learned it at Caesar’s knee, so I am sure she knew how to pronounce it correctly. :)

    Maybe it’s not “really old” but Gaelic might be right up your alley.

  5. omanuel says:

    Beautiful teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and other Upanishads were written in Sanskrit.

    My favorite book – a three-volume, hard-back set, “The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living” – was translated from Sanskrit and explained by one of my spiritual advisors, the late Eknath Easwaran (1910 – 1999). He taught meditation classes in the student union of UC-Berkeley for many years and later established the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation and Nilgiri Press to publish his work.

    My old e-mail address,, the shortest e-mail address on campus, began with my initials, om – a sacred symbol in Hinduism

    It seemed to bring good fortune when I attended an International Conference on Isotopes in the Solar System at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India in the fall of 1997.

    A local politician befriended me on the flight from New Delhi. He had the auditorium packed with news reporters, scientists and students when I spoke on the “Origin of our elements and evolution of the solar system” on Thursday, 13 November 1997.

    Later the politician’s mother gave me a large, silver-colored statue of Lord Shiva dancing:

    “This cosmic dance of Shiva is called ‘Anandatandava,’ . . ., and symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction

    In the spring of 2000, five students and I found neutron repulsion – the creator and destroyer of chemical elements.

  6. omanuel says:

    Information from ancient languages may even guide us to correctly interpret the most precise experimental data from nuclear and space age measurements:

  7. Tom Bakewell says:

    God sir, I believe you would truly enjoy the Teaching Company course “Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Use” taught by Dr John McWhorter. In the course he describes how our English has come to be in its present state as the result of a series of cultural encounters with adult learners of the language. Each lecture has at least one point of delightful detail, lovingly delivered. I’m going back to listen to it again next week after I finish a course on the history of the Persian empire

  8. omanuel says:

    @Tom Bakewell (30 March 2012, 2:54 pm)

    1. Where can we find the Teaching Company course “Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Use” taught by Dr John McWhorter?

    2. Here’s a photo of Lord Shiva Dancing with a friend at the crack of dawn six years ago:

  9. j ferguson says:

    I thought some more about what language, and changed my mind. You might learn a lot more about language from one with a greater disconnect with English. I think we’ve tossed this around in the past. One of the other Readers suggested Steven Pinker’s book, “The Language Instinct” which I then bought and read. You may have already read it.

    Budge’s Dictionary of Hieroglyphics is available to download from the National Archives in various formats. It’s interesting to see Budge and company conjecture about pronunciations where there were consecutive consonants which clearly required an intervening vowel sound yet as written gave no indication of which.

    The original set of two volumes is gorgeous – Washington University had a set in 1961 when I was more interested in these things. I think i’ve seen a paperback set which was smaller in size but also gorgeous.

    In 1961, the WU Library had closed stacks. I got a pass and went through the Egyptology section. Next to the Budge, was a small blue book which contained the biography of a woman who surfaced in London in the twenties at the time the Dictionary was being compiled who (ala Bridey Murphy) claimed to be the reincarnation of a woman who had been a handmaiden to Queen Ti (her mummy was recently discovered in the Valley of Kings). She lived a generation or two ahead of Akhenaten. Ti was also known to the historians of the time.

    One might think that something like this would never survive the light of day. On the other hand, this couldn’t possibly be partially remembered overheard discussions of the sort which primed Bridey Murphy. To further confound this, Budge wrote the introduction. In it, he said they’d talked to her at some length and it appeared she spoke the ancient language and that her pronunciations were instructive particularly on some of the issues i raised above.

    I thought the whole thing fraudulent at the time. In retrospect, it may have been an elaborate practical joke concocted by his graduate students. But the book was real.

    I wish there was some way to reconstruct what it was. I’ve tried Googling without success.

    Maybe the WU library still has it, although they built a new library in 1964 and now the stacks are open.

    There has also come to be more fluidity in library collections and the slow-movers of which this surely would have been a prime example get sold off.

  10. Power Grab says:

    In the book “Moses in the Hieroglyphs”, Grant Berkley uses the Khumric British language to decipher Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

  11. j ferguson says:

    Fascinating, Power Grab,
    I can remember reading a book of photographs which compared early British and Irish possibly religious structures to ancient Egyptian work – surprising similar.

  12. Tom Bakewell says:

    30 March 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Try I have quite a few of their offerings and I’ve enjoyed all but one; a dry-boned attempt to explain economics. OTOH it was a pretty good soporific….

  13. kakatoa says:


    The Teaching Company has the “Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage” course available for $35.00 (via an audio download)

    They also have: Special Set Includes: (1) Story of Human Language & (2) Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage for 99.00

    Most of my Teaching company courses are on cassette tapes. I have to drive my old MB diesel to listen to them.

  14. Pascvaks says:

    Language and Age Don’t Mix. It’s true. They told me that, the experts themselves. After the welcome and pep talk in the big auditorium they took the ‘seniors’ out to a seperate room, they said all the hype about being the brightest and best that they were saying in the auditorium did not apply to us, as everyone of us was over thirty and it was going to be pure hell. They were right. Let’s see, 1982-1948=34, yep! Pure hell! And that was at a government school! Imagine if I’d been going to a regular school. It would’a killed me! I hate German (but Monterey was nice;-)

    It occured to me to ‘suggest’, the first words (sounds used to mean something) were today’s letters. “A” meant an ‘a’, whatever an ‘a’ was I haven’t a clue. I imagine a ‘B’ was what we call a bee, but maybe not. etc. The alphebet of each language, old or not, probably has a lot of interesting relations to primative speech (ie- if it works why invent something new?). But I would think each cave clan probably had their own ‘whatevers’ to tell every one what was proper and not (but I can’t imagine how). It’s fascinating, buy it’s real slippery and gushy.

    I do think that the number of languages on the planet and global temps are inversely related. The higher the temps the less languages, and more languages the colder it is.

  15. E.M.Smith says:


    Well, I’m falling behind on comments again. I’ve read them, but if I reply to all of them now, as I’d like, I’ll be up until 5 am… So that will have to wait. “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” (which I reviewed some time back) also finds a non-Indo-European substratum in English (and all Germanic languages) that is supposed to be a Semitic sort of base ( IIRC he thought it Phoenician and traced some Phoenician mining near Holland) I’ve also found that one of my favorite aspects of English is more common in Semitic languages (and especially in some Berber dialects that are likely derived from Phoenician… Ablaut. (Change of a vowel to show change of meaning – sing sang sung drink drank drunk etc.)

    Yes, there’s an Indo-European Ablaut and the Germans do a lot with ablaut vs umlaut, but it’s those “irregular” English verbs that speak to me…


    For whatever reason, I’ve stayed fairly ‘plastic’ with respect to languages. At about 40 something I learned to read the Greek Alphabet and can work out some words and phrases ( from a book, while sitting in an “X-Games” audience – the kid wanted to go… it took most of the day.) In the last decade I got a tape and book on Irish Gaelic ( got to where I could count and a few other bits over a long weekend – but the writing system was bizarre…) About 6? years ago I read the grammar of Interlingua and found that it was ‘close enough’ to others I knew to more or less read it. Oh, and I learned a new sign language about 8 years back. My biggest problem is just not practicing any given one enough to ‘stay current’. (But they ‘reload’ fast with a brush up. Recently I’ve been working on the Cyrillic alphabet and I’ve gotten to where some words now ‘sight read’ without the ‘puzzling it out’ problem from years gone by).

    It’s probably why I make a good computer programmer. We’re always making up a new set of symbols to encode a problem / solution. (Come to think of it, I’ve gone through somewhere over a dozen computer language over the years… they keep changing with the recent fads… )

    It was only in my 50s that I really looked at Latin, and with only a few days work could pick out words and phrases ( not up to keeping all the conjugations strait … yet… but that’s a problem I’ve had with all highly inflected languages starting with Russian at about 19 years old… over 4 cases part of my brain starts to complain ;-)

    I’ve been doing a ‘language survey’ looking at dozens of languages enough to ‘get a flavor’ rather than going ‘in depth’ into any one, just trying to find ‘what was most effective’. Along the way it was clear that the ‘learn a language’ function was still there and working. (Heck, \Japanese was required in Karate Class and I was in my late 30’s then…) Though I haven’t gotten proficient in any one language as a whole in about 20 years. (Not counting computer programming languages). I think ASL (Sign Language) was the last one, and we had to hold conversations in it, in class. (It is NOT just a different mode of English – that’s SEE Sign, or Signed Exact English. ASL grammar is more like Chinese than English… and ‘word order’ is free in 4 dimensions… ‘timing’ is one of them. So make the sign for “rain” and move it violently and large, that’s a very large violent rain… Make “love it” with a bored face, that’s sarcastic. It’s a very rich language. Sometimes I’ll be talking and toss in a sign ‘because it fits’ ;-)

    I think it’s part of what makes me, me. I’m still basically a teenager… ( At ‘near 60’ I’ve finally had the rate of pimples drop off… I may be becoming an adult yet ;-) As noted in a prior posting, my wisdom teeth finally were removed, so I’m not teething anymore ;-)

    Or maybe it’s just that the demands of computer programming force you to keep that part of the brain particularly open to change…

    Per Chinese – somewhere along the line I learned that it is very helpful to like the ‘music’ of a particular language. Basically, to get the pronunciation right, you must sing the song of that language as the locals do it.

    I don’t like the music of Chinese. It grates. Too… too… ‘disjoint’ or ‘off key jazz’ for me.

    Similarly, I find the gutterals in Arabic unpleasant to the ear. ( The structure is interesting, and the grammar logical, but the sounds not so much…)

    I love the sound of Gaelic (all kinds). It is still ‘in the running’… and for reasons I can’t explain, Latin just sounds logical. The phrases I’ve learned in it are compact and clean, with a ‘flow’ that works. Greek seems a bit more flowery, but more poetic of sound.

    Who knows, though… The eventual conclusion I came to was that all languages were subject to massive change over time (though the highly inflected ones less so due to the sound structure being so important) and accumulated lots of irregularities. Due to that, you would always think more efficiently in the one you learned as a native language; as you know all it’s foibles. (It was at that point my quest and enthusiasm for ‘the best language’ ended…)

    So it may be that I’ll not bother to get good at ‘yet another language’ and just do something like ‘refresh Spanish’ or practice my ASL. Get really good at one learned long ago enough that it needs some polish. ( I had more French than anything else. Up to “French Literature” as the next class – meaning we’d run out of actual language to learn… But my future tenses are a bit rough… I took ‘French 2’ as a summer session and it was crammed into 6 weeks, one of which was finals week ;-) Over 1000 words of required vocabulary, 3000 total, with several verb tenses… Some of it got ‘run together’…. So it might make more sense to just go back and polish that bit and straighten out my spelling – that isn’t all that good even in English ;-)

    We’ll see. It will ether be in the next couple of years that I ‘pick one’ or I’ll just let it go by the wayside. I’ve also been doing a lot more writing and a whole lot less reading lately ;-)

  16. Pascvaks says:

    We are all of us ‘The Gifted’ in our own way.
    My children, when they were infants, taught me that.
    Or, perhaps, it was a talent for observation,
    But somehow it seems more true to credit the kids.
    If there ain’t a God, there sure as hell ought’a be!

  17. j ferguson says:

    Fortran was second (third?) “language” for friend to meet PhD requirements.

  18. John O'Gorman says:

    Brilliant! I would add 3 comments:
    1. re Spanish. Very close to Latin EXCEPT it has replaced nearly all its words for food with Ariabic words. Portugal was never conquered by the Arabs – so it still has Latin words for food!
    2. Greek has done a similar thing and uses Turkish words for food.
    3. If you know Ancient Greek, it is hard, on the fly, to cope with flattening of about 5 different vowels to -i. e.g. hoi polloi is now pronounced i poli.

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