How Dead Languages Work

Coulter H. George

Oxford University Press 2020
A book review by Danny Yee © 2022
How Dead Languages Work is not about dead languages per se — one could imagine an entirely different book about the learning and use of no-longer spoken languages — but a survey of various older representatives of the Indo-European language family — Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English and its Germanic relatives, Sanskrit, and Old Irish — along with a glance at Hebrew as an outsider.

George touches on aspects of phonology, morphology, syntax, history, etc. for each language, making no attempt at being systematic but picking out a few features that are notable or interesting and looking at those in some depth. This accompanies detailed analyses of a few short pieces of text — two or three lines from Thucydides and Tacitus, for example — which bring out linguistic and literary features and highlight some of the challenges of translation.

There is little assumed knowledge. Texts are given in script where appropriate, transliterated, in a word-by-word gloss, and translated. There are explanations of the basics of historical reconstruction, grammar, and so forth. The presentation is dense, however, and will be fairly heavy going for anyone with no experience at all of an inflected language and no background in linguistics.

Two excerpts:

"Housman needs a lot more words than Horace does to get the same ideas across, and the line lengths are different: while Housman's are all iambic pentameters, Horace's alternate between dactylic hexameters — the same meter used by Homer, Lucretius, and Virgil — and shorter lines that are also dactylic, but only extend for two and a half feet rather than six. In effect, what Horace can express in a line and a half fills up two full lines of Housman."
"The accent over the s of Sanskrit daśa "ten" requires some explanation. Pronounced like the regular English sh (and therefore distinct from the retroflex of Krishna, the sound is illustrative of what was once seen as an important dialectical split in the Indo-European family as a whole. Named after the words for "hundred" in Latin and Avestan, an ancient Iranian language closely related to Sanskrit, the division sets the centum languages of the west (Germanic, Celtic, Italic, Greek) against the satəm languages of the east (Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian). ..."

I really enjoyed How Dead Languages Work and recommend it to anyone who thinks there might be fun in a mix of language history, linguistic detail, literary criticism and more, across six languages.

June 2022

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%T How Dead Languages Work
%A George, Coulter H.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2020
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN-13 9780198852827
%P 224pp