Language

Dying, Forgotten and Resurrected Languages

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Palimpsest: Library of Saint Catherine's Monastery

In this omnipresent, glittering digital world, a story of the never-before-heard languages from the remote and dusty past is a blast. A few days ago the Smithsonian.com enamored us with the smooth recovery of a collection of enigmatic manuscripts, carefully stored behind the walls of a 1500-year-old monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continually operating library in the world. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. These faint marks are the only clues to words that were scraped away by the monastery’s monks between the 8th and 12th centuries, to reuse the parchments. Some were written in long-lost languages that have almost entirely vanished from the historical record.

In this article, there is a short list of the discovered languages, and some of them are completely new to me. I am sure we will hear more about the discovery of this treasure, which must be a real treat for the linguists and archeologists. In today’s world, of the existing 6000 spoken languages, 500 to 1000 of those are spoken by only a handful of people, an estimate made by the Foundation for Endangered Languages during a conference in 2010. And since the world loses around 25 mother tongues a year, the conference was debating whether it is worth it, and possibly, to save the dying languages.

“When the languages are lost most of the knowledge that went with them gets lost. People do care about identity as they want to be different. Nowadays we want access to everything, but we don’t want to be thought of as no more than people on the other side of the world,” said one of the participants of the conference.

Well, the news from Saint Catherine’s Monastery tells us that even languages dead for more than 1000 years can be recovered. Somehow, at least. Which makes me wonder what will happen with some of the 600 languages spoken in Queens, the New York borough. Not 1000 years from now, but let’s say, by the day Mr. Donald Trump leaves the Oval Office.

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