Anthropology: The History and Culture Behind Major Lost Languages

A language is a tool and pathway that helps us to learn about indigenous cultures and traditions. It also helps people to identify themselves. Roughly speaking, there are 6500 languages in use in the world. However, there are many lost languages in history as well. Lost languages, or extinct languages, no longer have native speakers, especially if the language has no living descendants. It is different from the concept of a “dead language”, where a language is still in use but is no longer the native language of a community, such as Latin.

This blog will look at some lost, dead or extinct languages and the history and culture behind them. Who spoke these languages? Which generation did they belong to? What was in their cultures? And most importantly, why did they die out?

#1. Latin: A Dead Language or an Extinct Language?

A Roman-styled male figure sculpture with a wall of Latin text.
The Ancient Roman Empire and its language, Latin. Credit to Live Science.

Latin is considered a dead language rather than an extinct language. It was the official language of the Ancient Roman Empire. But no country officially speaks it now, at least not in its classic form. Some people argue that Latin died out when the Roman Empire lost control of its colonies. But some people insist that Latin is still in use, but it evolves as time passes by. It continued to be spoken natively by people in Italy, Gaul, Spain and elsewhere.

As the debate continues, people find out there’s no date in the annals of history to mark the end of Latin as a spoken language. While the Vatican may still deliver some masses in Latin, no one in the world would use Latin to communicate. You may find evidence of Latin existing in lots of languages in Europe. In fact, Latin has become five languages – Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian. Italian is the closest language to Latin. Lexical similarity with Italian is 89% with French, 82% with Spanish, 80% with Portuguese, 77% with Romanian.

Scholars compare the process of evolution of Old English to that of Latin, but it is not the same case. If one compares Old English to the English we speak every day; it is clear that they are very different. Elizabethan English is still mostly comprehensible to us, but Chaucer’s English, dating from the 14th century, is much less so. The only difference between English and Latin is that Old English developed into modern English, whereas Latin diversified and gave rise to a number of different languages. That’s why people tend to think that Latin is an extinct or lost language. Perhaps we can believe that Latin now dwells in other languages.

History of Latin

The history of Latin is approximately 2700 years. Around 700 BC, the Roman people invented the language. The Roman people were not always powerful. At first, they lived in a small settlement sloping up towards Palatine Hill. The Romans lived in Latium. It was not a country but a region. At the time, it was a diverse place. Latium was home to many groups, and the Roman people were only a part of them. While they were related, each had one’s own ethnicity, religion, social organization, and language. 

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by twin brothers Romulus and Remus. The language spoken by the Roman people before Latin remains unknown. However, Latin first appeared on Palatine Hill. Through the power of the Roman Republic, it became the dominant language in Italy and subsequently throughout the western Roman Empire, before eventually becoming a dead language. The language spoken by Rome’s founders would have resembled languages spoken by neighbouring peoples, from which it had been derived. It bore a close resemblance to the Oscan and Umbrian dialects.

Comparing Latin, Oscan and Umbrian through hand scripts from ancient times, it is clear that they share lots of common vocabulary and grammar. The three languages form the Italic languages. The Etruscan also had a huge influence on Latin, especially on written Latin. Latin appeared in writing shortly after the foundation of Rome. It has a history of at least 2500 years. Latin borrowed the Etruscan alphabet and developed it into its own alphabet.

Importance of Latin

The Latin language was important and still is influential. It was highly diverse at the late stage on an oral basis. Thus it developed so many Romance languages later on. Despite the huge influence on the differentiation of Romance languages, Latin also significantly impacted how English developed over time.

Latin influenced the English language as Christianity spread. England was a predominantly Catholic nation until Henry VIII, and people conducted the Catholic mass in Latin. Thus, a significant number of Latin-based words are associated with mass and other aspects of the ecclesiastical process. Altar, for example, is derived from Latin origins. Moreover, the British legal system also adopted many Latin words. Between 40 to 90 per cent of English words come from Latin, depends on the situation.

Besides these linguistic achievements, Latin also plays a role in religion and education. The largest religious group that retains Latin as an official language is the Catholic Church. It is also the official language of the Holy See. The public journal, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, sets Latin as its primary language. Vatican City is also home to the world’s only automatic teller machine that gives instructions in Latin.

Although Latin isn’t a common subject in most Asian countries, it is popular in the rest of the world. Latin is a compulsory course for year 11 and 12 students if they choose to study humanities in Spain. It is also compulsory for students in Poland who study law,  medicine, veterinary and language studies. In both North and South America, Latin is more often an elective.

#2. Coptic: A Dead Language of Christianity

A hand script of the Coptic language written in the Greek alphabet.
A hand script of the Coptic language. Credit to Biblical Archaeology Society.

The Coptic language is the final stage of the ancient Egyptian language. Even though it looks very different from texts written in Old Egyptian using hieroglyphs, they are related.  It used the Greek alphabet. Moreover, Coptic is a combination of Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Hieratic languages. As a result, this language is very cool and exciting. In contrast to those early stages of Egyptian,  which used hieroglyphic writinghieratic script, or demotic script, Coptic, supplemented by seven letters borrowed from demotic writing. Coptics also replaced the religious terms and expressions of earlier Egyptians with words borrowed from Greek.

Scholars usually divide the Coptic language into 6 dialects, spoken in Upper Egypt and two in Lower Egypt. Asyūṭic or Sub-Akhmīmic flourished in the 4th century. It preserved a text of the Gospel According to John and of the Acts of the Apostles and a number of Gnostic documents. Sahidic was originally the dialect of Thebes; after the 5th century, it was the standard Coptic of all of Upper Egypt. It is one of the best-documented and well-known dialects.

The dialects in Lower Egypt were Bashmūric and Bohairic. Not many people knew Bashmūric. Bohairic was originally the dialect in the western part of Lower Egypt. Bohairic has been for religious purposes since the 11th century by all Coptic Christians. The latest Coptic texts date from the 14th century.

History of Coptic

The ancient Egyptian language went through a number of stages until it finally reached the Coptic language. Ancient Egyptians developed the Hieroglyphic language, which indicated words and ideas used in temples and tombs. Temple scribes simplified it to form Hieratic, and finally Demotic for normal people who could not write both forms. The dialect used nowadays is Bohairic, but only for religious rituals in the church. It is safe to say that the Coptic language is a dead language.

The Egyptian language has the longest documented history, from 3200 BC to the Coptic language at its late stage. Scholars refer to the earliest attempt of the Coptic language was when people tried to write Egyptian names in the Greek alphabet. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt by Arabs, Islam started to spread in the 7th century. Arabic soon replaced the Coptic language. At the turn of the eighth century, Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan decreed that Arabic replace Koine Greek and Coptic as the sole administrative language. The Coptic language gradually died out.

Coptic Language & Christianity

The Coptic language was the first language of Christianity. The terms Copt and Coptic are variously used to denote either the members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Christian body in Egypt, or as generic terms for Egyptian Christians. After the Islamic conquest, the church had to translate the Bible into Arabic because of the decreasing number of native Coptic speakers. However, the Orthodox Church has taken several steps to revive the Coptic language again. Pope Kyrillos IV, the 110th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark., called for Christians to donate to build a scientific institute for the Coptic language. He obligated that prayers be in the Coptic language only and appointed Priest Takla to teach Coptic to Christians.

If one wishes to learn the history and culture of Christianity, it would be very helpful to learn the Coptic language. Also, if you learn Coptic, you can quickly learn Greek, Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Hieratic languages.

#3. Ancient Chinese: A Dead Language Lives in Literature

A picture of how ancient Chinese characters developed into their traditional forms.
A process of how Chinese characters evolved over time. Credit to

The Ancient Chinese, or the Old Chinese/Archaic Chinese, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese. It is also the ancestor of all the modern variations of Chinese. In old Chinese, each character represented a monosyllabic word. Even though this writing system was not phonetic, each character was adapted to match a similar-sounding word. Although there are lots of dialects, written Chinese remains unchanged. The good preservation of ancient literature provided a way for ancient Chinese people to learn about the written form of Archaic Chinese. The Northern Chinese people have less diverse dialects, while the Southern dialects sound so much different from each other. 

Geography plays a role in diversifying Chinese dialects. While Northern China is mostly plains, Southern China is mountainous. In this manner, Northern dialects sound similar because people can easily travel from one place to another. But Southern people could not get out of the mountains in ancient times easily; thus, the language cannot merge with other dialects. Chinese is a group of languages or dialects in China. It’s not just one language. For example, Cantonese, Mandarin and Hokkien are all Chinese.

History of Ancient Chinese

Ancient Chinese was the common language during the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (11th to 7th centuries BC), whose texts include inscriptions on bronze artefacts, the poetry of the “Shijing”, the history of the “Shujing”, and portions of the Yijing. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qing dynasty philologists. The language is similar to the differentiation of Latin. Systematically, it is still in use for educational purposes. However, it evolves and becomes simpler. There are many Old Chinese words and slang in Modern Chinese.  

Chinese character inscriptions on turtle shells can date back to the Shang dynasty, which dates from 1766-1123 BC. It proves the written language has existed for more than 3,000 years. The Chinese written language uses single distinctive symbols, or characters, to represent each word of the vocabulary, a trait shared by early written systems like Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Old Chinese language wasn’t purposely promoted by any emperors in history, but there were several failed attempts to try to make it a uniform language. In fact, not until the promotion of school education system after the foundation of PRC, Mandarin was not the official language in China. There are still lots of people who can’t speak Mandarin rather than their own dialect.

Difference Between Modern & Ancient Chinese

Although the Old Chinese language shares huge similarities to the Modern Chinese, they are very different in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The phonetic elements in the majority of Chinese characters provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants.

Due to massive changes in language and script, no one knows exactly how the old Chinese language sounded in speech. Researchers who focused on the rhyming practice in ancient poetry managed to reconstruct some of its phonology. Unlike modern Chinese variants, such as Mandarin, old Chinese was probably a language without tones.


Latin words and verses
Credit: Ancient Language

Many ancient languages disappeared when their civilization fell due to war or cultural integration with a dominant civilization. Nowadays, more languages are in danger because of neglect, eventually becoming lost or dead languages. It is important to have a record of a minor language because it’s the only way to understand indigenous subculture alongside the mainstream culture. Also, old languages are valuable to modern linguistic studies. Because modern languages are derived from those older languages, they could be lost or dead, but it is our responsibility to keep history alive.

Leave a Reply