Why Study a Dead Language?

Emily tells us exactly why, in her blog post this week.





It’s a question every Classicist has been faced with at one time or another. You’ve just met a friend you haven’t seen for a few years, say.

“And what are you up to now?” they ask.

“Oh — I study Classics,” you say, a little apologetically.

They look a bit bewildered.

Sometimes they venture a guess: “Classical music?” “Shakespeare?” Even — “Classic cars?” (I’ve had that one myself.)

 “No,” you say patiently. “Classics. It’s the study of the civilisations of the ancient world. You know, ancient Greece and Rome. I read their literature, study the history, that sort of thing.”

 Now the look of polite bewilderment has turned into incredulity. “You mean you actually read ancient Greek?” they say. Your heart sinks. You can feel the question coming. You ready yourself for it. And then it happens.

“So tell me – why do you study a dead language?”

Every student of Latin or Greek has to learn to cope with this question. Not only that, they have to have an answer ready to draw from their pockets whenever it’s sprung upon them. I’ve been accosted with it everywhere from petrol stations and driving tests to job interviews. So how do you give people the sure-fire answer to why you study Classics – one that will bowl them over with your intelligence and wit, and, at the same time, show them that the study of the ancient world is still absolutely relevant?

Read on for a couple of ideas that should get you started the next time someone drops the ‘Why Classics’ question.


Learning Languages

A good one to start with is the basic fact that ancient Greek and Latin are fantastic toolkits for understanding language better. Few of us have a good understanding of English grammar – after all, we’re brought up speaking it, not reciting verb tables. When you learn Greek and Latin grammar, you start to learn your own grammar at the same time; which means you get to be the annoying person who always corrects everyone else’s syntax. There’s also the fact that the roots of so many English words come from ancient Greek and Latin, which gives you a huge advantage in knowing fancy words other people don’t (it also helps in winning Balderdash). And many of the Romance languages – Italian, Spanish, French – are descended from Latin, making it hugely easier to pick them up once you’ve got a bit of Latin behind you.

Another big advantage of learning Greek and Latin is that it broadens your perspective on language. With English so widespread in the modern world, it’s a humbling and valuable experience to try to get under the skin of another language from scratch. It makes us appreciate what foreign speakers go through when they try to learn our language. And it invites us to begin to understand how relative language is to culture – how different cultures have different words to express the concepts that mean something to them, and how we can begin to understand them in our own languages and our own ways.



Anyone who’s done any ancient Greek will confirm this for you in a heartbeat: to learn a dead language, you need to have a highly sharpened sense of logic. The only way you can possibly learn all those irregular verbs is to get a grip on the patterns underlying their structure. I still have my grammar notes from school with all the different conjugations of Greek verbs colour-coded according to tense, person, voice and mood! Let’s just say you have to learn logic pretty quickly to wrap your head around Classics. It’s a quality that’s highly valued in many professions. Learning Latin and Greek gives you the chance to develop it early on.


A Broad Expertise

When people ask you exactly what Classics is, their first guess when you tell them you study Ancient Greece and Rome is normally, in my experience, that you read the literature of the Greeks and Romans (most people have usually heard of Homer). But Classics is so much more than that. You can be expected to know everything from the style of Alexander the Great’s hairdo and how it was depicted on coins, to the philosophical arguments of Socrates, to the origins of modern language in Indo-European roots, as well as some pretty funky myths. We do everything from language, literature and linguistics to philosophy, history, art and archaeology. It’s hard to find many other subjects that ask you for such a broad skill set – which means that Classics can provide invaluable training for a whole range of different interests.


Cultural Sensitivity

I already touched on this one earlier, but it bears repeating. One of the great things about studying Classics is that it doesn’t just cover the languages, as many people think – it’s the study of an entire culture (actually, two entire cultures). Being exposed to how other people, who lived in a very different time and place from our own, thought, wrote, talked, drew, philosophised, ate, prayed, partied and slept gives you a tremendous window onto the varieties of culture. It makes you comfortable with different gods and different religious practices. It allows you to accept and analyse alternative gender norms to our own with a critical, rather than a prejudiced, eye. Often I have found myself taking friends and relatives around the Classical galleries in museums and being asked in tones of scandalised shock about some of the ruder depictions on vase paintings or in statues. I have become so used to these depictions that I hardly notice them, and have to recall my own prejudices when I first started studying Classics, in order to understand why my friends are so offended. Being in touch with cultures other than our own forces us to confront our own prejudices and assumptions, again and again. And that, in my opinion, is the first step to letting those assumptions go, and starting to go a little bit deeper into what it really means to be human.


Understanding Historical Patterns

Isaac Newton, the famous physicist, once remarked that, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (His comment is also etched around the edge of two pound coins, just in case you need to whip it out at unexpected moments.) The quotation goes to the heart of history and why we study it. Not only do our historical and cultural achievements rest on the discoveries of the past, as Newton put it; our mistakes are, more often than not, repetitions of the mistakes made by the figures of history. By “standing on the shoulders of giants”, as Newton did, we see how history unfolds, in both good times and bad. The opportunity Classics provides us with is particularly unique in this respect. We can look back to the past from our present vantage point, survey the Classical period and the enormous impact it had on later European civilisation. And we can also climb up onto the shoulders of some of the Classical giants – Cicero, Homer, Augustus – and get inside their heads. What was Augustus thinking when he fought the Battle of Actium and defeated the last remaining opponent to his rule and brought about the end of the Republic? Who was Homer, and why did he decide to commemorate the story of Achilles’ wrath? Why did Cicero make the choices he did – and how would modern politicians face similar dilemmas?

Learning From The Past

And so this brings me to my final point: the way in which Classics enables us to learn from the past. Some scholars would disagree, but it is my belief that, whilst cultures and historical events may change around us, humans remain largely the same. By comparing ourselves to the people of the past, we can begin to explore how and if humans change. We can start to investigate what we share: what interests us, what we’re passionate about, what we find frightening, what motivates us, what we hate, what we love. We can start to understand what it is that makes us human, and explore those big questions: why we’re here, how agency and history (or free will and fate, put it whichever way you like) interact, what, if anything, is our relationship to the divine, and, last but not least, the question of how to live the good life.

Now that, I think, is something worth learning.



Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.