Why would anyone study an ancient language?

Di Giacomo Mario Menegola 

Would you study Latin? Greek? Some other ancient language? Would you spend time learning how to read it, pronounce it, write it? I bet many would just say “Why would I care to? It’s just a waste of time!”, but is it really? First of all, why would anyone study an ancient language?

The reasons are many and not all of them are understandable by anyone, but the most important, or, at least, the most widely spread, is curiosity. The will to know ancient civilizations, their way of acting and thinking and their approach towards life, death, war and peace, towards the mysteries of the world. Many wouldn’t think about this side of these studies, and most people who study ancient languages probably see this more as a side effect than an actual reason to do it, but it surely helps to increase the love for what they’re doing.

This brings us to the second most important reason to study ancient languages: love for knowledge. Many wouldn’t realize it, but the way we see the world is deeply influenced by what we hear, what we read and, most importantly, how it sounds to us. Not only that, but it also influences the way we relate with that information, the way we perceive it: many build their opinions on things just by hearing or reading them once, and what a pity this is! because many things get lost in translation. And this is a problem for modern languages, just think about how big of a problem it is for ancient ones.

Lack of knowledge of the language is another big problem: the Papal State, for example, only exists- now it’s Vatican City- because someone back in the 8th century wrote the infamous Donation of Constantine, a false Roman imperial decree by the emperor Constantine the Great, who lived in the 4th century, by which he gave authority, both spiritual and political, over Rome and the western part of the empire to the Pope. “Why didn’t anyone say anything?” you may ask, or “Why didn’t anyone find out?”, and the answer is that someone eventually found out, yes, but in the fifteenth century! It took Humanism, and especially the humanist Lorenzo Valla, to realize via philology that the Donation was a false, and by that time the Papal State was too well established to make an actual difference.

And this brings us to another important topic, and that is philology, which is quite interesting for most people, not only because it makes us understand where the words we use everyday come from, but also because it helps us understand and learn modern foreign languages in a better way. Many of the languages spoken today, in fact, derive from a common ancient language that was spoken by a people, part of which may have migrated to another place, becoming a new people and speaking a new dialect that later evolved into a completely different language from the original. Clear examples of this process are modern european languages: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian come from Latin; Russian, Polish, Slovakian, Serbian all come from Slavic dialects; Welsh and Gaelic both come from Celtic dialects; German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian are all Germanic languages and, last but not least, English is a mixture of Germanic and Latin elements.

Now then, after all these considerations, I’d just say that people should give more importance to the study of languages, especially ancient ones, thus increasing their knowledge and understanding of the world around us and of other people and cultures, promoting the progress of society towards a new era of unity, enlightenment and peace among all people in the world. And yet someone might argue that this is exaggerated and impossible: to them I respond: «Come on then, let’s try».