Ancient languages: most challenging one

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by JLanguage, Apr 11, 2005.

  1. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Chinese, Egyptian or others, give your opinion. I'm especially interested in Sanskrit and Hindi just because the writing looks so fascinating to me as a native English speaker.

    Hope to create an interesting discussion,
  2. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Let me begin with Latin. It has 6 cases (5 you have to know), it's vocabulary is very large and sometimes not yet fully explored.

    I don't know Ancient Greek, Aramaic, Chinese, hieroglyphes, not even Hindi and Sanskrit.

    But once I started to learn Hebrew. I was fascinated in these "circular-rectangular" characters. But I've never studied its grammar. Maybe I can do it later. So I don't know how hard it'll be.
  3. JJchang Senior Member

    NZ - English, Chinese
    Ancient Chinese looks exactly the same as traditional Chinese. but it doesn't have those colloquial interference such as having zi 子 at the end of certain nouns (so you don't have to worry about why "house" has zi but "door" doesn't), or sometimes the counting adjectives 個 枝 隻 張 把 條.... so I think it's easier for foreigners to understand. The problem is although it is not too difficult to understand ancient Chinese, it's extremely difficult to compose in it.
    Try google "san zi jing" (13th century) for a start if you are wondering what I'm talking about. Then you can move on to more advanced ancient Chinese.
  4. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    Biblical Hebrew in my opinion, isn't that hard especially since it's similar to modern Hebrew. I don't know about writing Biblical Hebrew, since that isn't done except as an academic exercise, if at all.

    I'm in my first year of studying Latin and it isn't that hard to learn the basics, but mastering Latin is really hard. In order to master it, you'd have to have memorized all the different case endings, verb conjugations and other rules of inflection. I'm not sure I'm going to be able understand Vergil in four years.

    Classical Arabic is supposedly pretty tough, and I'm sure it would take at least a few years of intense study for an average non-Arabic native to understand the Koran.

    As for writing Ancient Chinese, writing any ancient language is tough, but maybe Chinese is especially hard.
  5. roxy_gurl Senior Member

    canada, english
    i like heiroglyphics because first of all it is the only language that i actually know a little of among all the others that you mentioned and also because the letters are so interesting and they look like little pictures. however this is just my own opinion, but i still think it is an interesting language
  6. Lakeview Senior Member

    Canada - English
    Hindi isn't really an ancient language, so you can narrow your focus a bit more :).
  7. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    Yeah...what exactly is our gauge to determine which languages classify as "ancient"?

    Classical Arabic is extremely difficult, but is it an ancient language? Sure, it's old but it's very much alive and used today in almost every aspect of life (except for everyday oral exchanges), in which sense it is unique among most of the "ancient languages."

    So it it ancient, modern, both, or neither???
  8. avalon2004 Senior Member

    Merseyside, England
    UK- English/Spanish
    Ancient Greek is quite hard, but probably not as much as the other languages mentioned (except Latin). I've found with Greek it's easier to get to grips with the modern variation(s) of the language first before studying the Ancient form as that way you don't get completely thrown in at the deep end (Greek grammar/spelling has been simplified since the times of Plato and Socrates!)
  9. vachecow Senior Member

    USA English
    Yes...I actually have a friend who speaks it....anyway, I know from personal experience that Latin is easier than both Hebrew and ancient Greek. Or at least thats my oppinion...
  10. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    I know that Hindi isn't an ancient language, I was simply saying before that I find the alphabet very interesting. I was ambiguous, I know. Now aboout Classical Arabic, that is the language of the Qu'ran, correct? There are still people that speak it? Well then I guess it doesn't qualify as an Ancient Language. And really when I said ancient language, I also meant that the language should no longer be actively used, a dead language. In this case, I think that Anglo-Saxon would qualify, but not something like Classical Arabic.
  11. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    You mean ancient Egyptian... ;)
    By the way, the modern descendent of Egyptian is Coptic. It seems to be an endangered language. :(
  12. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    Classical Arabic isn't spoken except in very formal registers - such as the news, for example. Also, any foreign TV show that is dubbed is dubbed into classical Arabic. So it's kind of in-between, in a way.
  13. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    I didn't know it would be so difficult to determine what is and what isn't an ancient/dead language!
  14. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
  15. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    The study of languages is more complex than meets the eye! ;)
  16. esper Member

    athens greece
    greece - greek
    I would say that what is easy or difficult depends a lot on what your mother tongue is. Like, for me ancient greek is a lot more "accessible" than latin - let alone ancient chinese! I guess it's the other way around for "romance" language speakers - latin is far more familiar to them. Furthermore, personally I wouldn't classify ancient greek, latin, chinese and so forth as "dead" languages. To me, they are languages that have evolved into a new form. Perhaps in 200 years' time Shakespear's english will sound as ancient as Plato's greek but it'll still be english!
  17. Alijsh Senior Member

    Persian - Iran
    For me these three sisters: Avestan, Sanskrit and Old Persian.
  18. HKK

    HKK Senior Member

    3010 Leuven, Be.
    I can assure you: for an "Indo-European", Arabic is more difficult than Latin and Greek together, both in grammar and vocabulary.
  19. palomnik Senior Member

    I've tried my hand at a number of ancient languages over the years, from Old Irish to Mayan hieroglyphics. Personally, I still find the one that was easiest - and most satisfying, at least so far - was Greek, more so than Latin in both respects. People are scared away from Greek (and other dead languages) by the different alphabet, which should not be a major consideration.

    Elroy, while I agree that MSA is basically the same as Classical Arabic, there's a world of difference between trying to read al Hariri and the daily newspaper, and I'd include Arabic as a qualified member of the Ancient Language Association.

    I found reading Classical Chinese perhaps the most thrilling ancient language to deal with, but mainly because it meant dealing with a world so far away - in time, space, and aesthetic values - from my own, so there were a large number of subjective factors involved. Be advised though that most (but not all) studies of the Classical idiom expect that you already know modern Chinese.

    Most material in Mayan hieroglyphics consists of little beyond short inscriptions; the only literary material that has come to us was written down in the roman alphabet after the European invasion. However, the process of learning to read the hieroglyphics themselves is an exercise in the potentials of human aesthetics; in many ways it is the most involved script ever devised, not the least because the scribes "played" with the script in a variety of interesting ways that our modern culture would consider to be couterproductive to establishing clarity of expression.

    I'm working on Sanskrit now. The grammatical resemblances to Classical Greek are intriguing, although I'm still too early in the process to appreciate the literature on its own merit. Sanskrit seems to me to present some tremendous initial hurdles, such as the sandhi system and the elaborate verbal conjugations, which disguise the fact that the language can be surprisingly straightforward when you actually start reading it.
  20. Alijsh Senior Member

    Persian - Iran
    Since you've tried a number of ancient languages I'd like to know your opinion:

    As far as I see, the topic starter wanted to know which ancient language(s) you are interested in, and not which ancient language(s) you find harder or easier.

    Now, do you still say Greek? Is it the most interesting ancient language for you? By the way, have you tried Sanskrit? I'm personally interested in Avestan, Sanskrit and Old Persian because of their structure. As a side point, there have been suggestions to use Sanskrit as a metalanguage for knowledge representation in e.g. machine translation [source]
  21. palomnik Senior Member

    Ali, the ancient languages I've studied that most interested me were Greek and Chinese, not necessarily in that order. The one that I find most "challenging" in terms of difficulty is still Latin, oddly enough. I find reading Classical Latin to be too much like doing a word puzzle, as if Latin writers tried to achieve too many effects with illogical word order. I've always been bemused by the cult of Latin clarity. Greek, on the other hand, seems to drive the reader onward, providing reading that is gripping, clear and subtle all at once. And the ability of Classical Chinese to pack so mch meaning into so few words, and do it with so much precision and serenity, always amazes me.

    I'm working on Sanskrit now, although I don't know it well enough to make an intelligent judgment on it compared with other languages or whether it's fit to be a "metalanguage", although I've heard that argument before. I find its extensive use of the middle voice, ergativity and tendency to make compound words interesting, though, and similar in many respects to Greek.
  22. Lugubert Senior Member

    I suppose that the thread refers to languages that can be learned. Otherwise, for challenges, there's the language of the Indus-Sarasvati culture, from which we have just short inscriptions on seals, so that we can't even tell if it's Indo-European or Dravidian or something quite different.

    I don't have an opinion on Ancient Egyptian, but I think that Sumerian is a very demanding language.

    On the languages mentioned in the OP, I have tried Classical Arabic and found it difficult. But some ancient texts were less troublesome to me that some contemporary examples.

    I'm not into older Chinese yet, but I'm aware of
    I'm quite impatient to dig into it, in late autumn this year.

    Hindi can't be compared to Sanskrit. Their syntaxes belong to different worlds. For Sanskrit, the immense number of forms is a huge obstacle. A verb root can theoretically have some 720 different forms - person, gender, number, tense, mode etc. quickly add up.

    If I were to go for an easier ancient language (easier for a European, that is), I might pick Latin or Greek, or perhaps Old Church Slavonic.
  23. sinclair001

    sinclair001 Senior Member

    There is a very recently discovered language named linear B, described by Michael Ventris
    "The Mycenaean World", por John Chadwick. Scientific American 1977; 236 (2): pp. 130

    Is possible to date to know about coptic,

    Relationship between coptic and egyptian:
    "After 400 AD, the Egyptian language was written in the Greek alphabet, with the addition of several extra letters to represent Egyptian sounds that didn't exist in Greek. This form of Egyptian is called Coptic, and was in turn eventually replaced by Arabic, the language spoken in Egypt today. The ancient Egyptian tongue died out -- only the hieroglyphics remain to remind us that it ever existed."

    BTW: Champollion knowledge on coptic allow him to discover the meaning of the hyeroglyphics, using the word ra for sun and linking to the pictogram.
  24. Lugubert Senior Member

    I won't ever belittle Champollion's research, but I must mention the Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad. His work included much interpretation of the Demotic script on the Rosetta stone, and proof that the Coptic language had roots in Ancient Egyptian. Champollion built a nice structure on Åkerblad's foundations.
    If you haven't already, do read John Chadwick: The Decipherment of Linear B. "Very recently": weeell, that book is (c) 1958, and the breakthough Documents in Mycenaean Greek by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick was published in 1956.
  25. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    It is not even sure if those inscriptions refer to a language in the first place: this always has been an assumption, not a conclusion!
    (More information on the website of S. Farmer, a comparative historian who often works together with Indologist M. Witzel.)

    This pdf-file might be interesting, and for people who still want to deciphere the script(?), this announcement (a $10,000 reward) might be an encouragement :).


  26. Lugubert Senior Member

    I have often thought that the seal inscriptions are just names and addresses, but it is of course possible that they are, but non-linguistic symbols: "The tall man living in district 4, block Lion, house Goat" etc.

    I must admit that I haven't seen mentioned earlier that they aren't, either.

    Thanks! I have great respect for Witzel's knowledge and tenaciousness when debunking frauds (like here) and correcting misunderstandnings.
  27. Senior Member

    Spain, Spanish
    Don't you think those Indus signs look like some kind of pictographic writing? Have they been compared to ancient Chinese signs rather than to those of southeastern Europe?
    I would say they are writing, but maybe writing concepts or symbols instead of sounds.

    I would like to say that for we European people is quite challenging to study non-alphabetic languages (ancient or modern, dead or alive), since they convey a very different way of thinking things.
  28. Lugubert Senior Member

    I see no more than chance resemblance to old Chinese writings. The Indus valley set is (too) often compared to Easter Island signs, and drawings of the respective sets are compared. Some signs look really similar then. The people who made the drawings may have been inclined to enhance any resemblances, but if you're lucky enough to find real photos, you'll realize that it's more like chance's play again. It's for example not very original for a pictographic script to have a symbol that looks like a man.
  29. Senior Member

    Spain, Spanish
    Thank you for your sage contribution, Lugubert. After your post, I'll search for information on Easter Island signs. Those early scripts open a way to an early stage of language/thinking which I'm finding to be the most challenging of all language-involving aspects!

    To the thread: could undeciphered languages (tracked through their remaining signs) be the most challenging of all?
  30. Lugubert Senior Member

    Of course! For one of those, maybe belonging to the category "is it a script?", there's the Phaistos Disc
  31. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    I don't think your question is very clear. What do you mean by challenging? Of course, they are the most challenging languages in terms of studying, because if it isn't deciphered yet, you obviously can't study it. ;)
  32. Lugubert Senior Member

    We can't study those languages as such directly, but we might find a method to decipher their scripts, and thus get access to the languages. Ventris and Chadwick managed Linear B, Champollion using Åkerblad's pioneering elucidated hieroglyphs. Some day, somebody might find a blingual inscription (or wahtever) which solves yet another mystery.
  33. Senior Member

    Spain, Spanish
    I think undeciphered languages can only be "studied", and not "learned". I go for it.
  34. mataripis

    mataripis Senior Member

    Undeciphered languages/scripts hold the meaning with least importance.and i agree it can be studied and not learned, the past lessons from dead language is enough for all present age people to determine what are the errors done by early people that must be avoided in our time. The three major ancient languages 1.)Greek 2.) latin and 3.)Sanskrit evolved and prevailed and influence most of the world languages today because of the depth and great wisdom of early people who used them in communicating with Holy Creator and well mannered people.
  35. Sobakus Senior Member

    In my opinion one of the most diffucult IE classic languages for an average European is Old Slavonic. It presents the learner with all the difficulties that Russian does like perfectness and palatalisation, but has at least two times more declension types, all the typical IE tenses like aorist and perfect, one more number and loads of other exciting stuff. It's definitely much harder than Latin.
  36. koniecswiata Senior Member

    Am English
    Certainly Summerian and Elamite pose a big challenge. Maybe they will never even be sufficiently decyphered.
  37. paulbrevik New Member

    English- U.S.
    I enjoy my studies in Old Icelandic. Its grammar is more difficult, I would say, than modern Icelandic, and the original runic alphabet doesn't make it easier. But as for the most difficult, I would have to say sanskrit or old persian, because of their extremely complex script and equally complex grammar.
  38. sotos Senior Member

    Greek is not a "dead language" as it is still spoken. Even the ancient greek is daily used in the Church.
  39. mataripis

    mataripis Senior Member

    i think it is better to familiarize first to rural forms of language in every nation because the ancient terms are still existing with them. I believe the ancient words are related to some words in languages in rural/isolated areas. The changes in every language developed out of new belief and system they adopted from other cultures or incoming new ideas.i read in some articles that ancient people long time ago were able to communicate with one another even they belong to far places or with thousand miles distance between their origin/place and there is a possiblity that the root words of many words are almost the same or related and they were able to pick up their similarities and help them understand one another.
  40. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Classical and Koine Greek still are "dead" languages in the sense that they have no native speakers.
  41. gibouille Member

    France French
    I've heard Armenian is quite subtle to master. Never tried that myself.
  42. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    Well, in partial defense of sotos (ancient Greek is obviously dead), he may be trying to make a point: English is English, German is German and so on and so forth, why should the language Greeks are speaking be modern Greek? I personally just don't think it an issue really, but, if that's what he's talking about, I cannot exactly fault him. :)
  43. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Yes, absolutely. By comment has targeted at his second sentence (Even the ancient greek is daily used in the Church).
  44. dkarjala Senior Member

    English - America
    In terms of dead languages, I've studied Ancient Greek, Latin, Ancient Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, Classical Arabic a bit of Sanskrit, Hittite and a dash of Middle Egyptian. I have to say, the one language that really overwhelmed me was Sanskrit, in terms of acquiring mastery of the inflection.

    Sanskrit has 8 productive cases, singular plural and dual for all persons, subjunctive and optative moods - it has forms in all the 'slots' that are 'missing' in Greek, Latin, etc. Plus, you have to learn the sandhi rules for each combination of letters, and allophonic variation in Sanskrit is treated, and written, as a phonemic change, sort of like what you have in Celtic languages. I can't speak to Chinese or more obscurely written languages, but to me, Sanskrit is the daunting synthetic language par excellence.

    I took the path of Arabic and didn't have time to wrestle with Sanskrit but it's on the shelf, staring me down menacingly and someday I hope to return.
  45. palomnik Senior Member

    Quite true, Sotos, and I stand corrected. One of the nice features of learning classical Greek is that it is relatively easy to learn to read modern Katharevousa.
  46. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England

    Rightly or wrongly, when English speakers use the word "Greek" they often, if not usually, mean (in the case of language) Ancient Greek and (in the case of people) the Ancient Greeks. The language spoken in Greece today is often described as Modern Greek to make it clear that it is not Ancient Greek that is meant. "He knows Latin and Greek" can only be taken to refer to Ancient Greek; few people would say: "He knows Latin and Ancient Greek". If a local authority offers evening classes it will in its prospectus specify "Modern Greek" if that it is what is on offer. I googled "university course Greek" and the first site to come up was Glasgow. The course is entitled "Greek" and it says: "Greek involves the study of classical Greek language and literature and ancient Greek civilisation". Accordingly if anyone says "Greek is a dead language" they mean no more than that "Ancient Greek, like Latin, is a dead language".
  47. Perseas Senior Member

    If I ask someone "Do you speak Greek?", I think he will understand "Modern Greek", though.
  48. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Obviously. It all depends on context. Few people these days gossip in Attic!
  49. Rethliopuks Member

    Shenzhen, PRC
    I did not finish reading but I want to mention that you'll need to rely on Chinese charaters as to learn ancient chinese. Using romanization of modern Chinese languages can be sometimes torturing, whatever the language(e.g. Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Minnan, Min-tung, Hakka, Hsiang, Gan) you choose.
    This is because what you can read and learn is most likely the Written Ancient Chinese, whose standard was first established in between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. In those times Chinese' in pronunciation is believed to be very different from our usual recognition, much more difficult and also greatly free from homophones. Moreover, people use a writing system that conveys meanings more than sounds so their writings were further more based on meanings. Although you'll find as time passed the language used constantly changed and became increasingly easier to understand(in perspective of modern Chinese), still don't even try to solely adhere on romanization all the way.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2013
  50. biala Member

    Biblical Hebrew is written and printed now exactly like modern Hebrew. In the biblical times (first temple period) the letters were different. The letters we are using today (including for printing the bible) are derived from Arramaic (or "Ashuric" -Assyrian) letters which were adopted as far as I know during second temple era. They look different from the more ancient ones but their names (alef, beit, gimel...) are quite similar. Today they look like that: הן נראות כך
    or in handwriting:הן נראות כך
    In the medieval days there was a printing script called "ktav rashi": כךנראה כתב רש"י

Share This Page