Amid the ruins of a Middle Eastern palace dating back nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, archaeologists believe they have discovered a previously unknown ancient language.
Working in southeast Turkey, a team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan recently unearthed a 2,800-year-old clay writing tablet.
Cambridge University archaeologist John MacGinnis discovered the unknown language – which was likely spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – while deciphering the tablet, according to The Independent.
“The discovery is important because it may help reveal the ethnic and cultural origins of some of history’s first ‘barbarians’ – mountain tribes which had, in previous millennia, preyed on the world’s first great civilizations, the cultures of early Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq,” according to the British newspaper.
The clay tablet revealed the names of 60 women – probably prisoners of war or victims of an Assyrian forced-population transfer program.
But when MacGinnis began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45, or three of every four, bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.
Six decades after Yiddish appeared destined for the history books, a handful of North American colleges are offering the language as part of their curricula, enabling the grandchildren of aging native speakers a chance to learn the tongue of their ancestors.
“If we want to preserve this, we need to do so actively and consciously,” said Miriam Udel, a Yiddish professor at Atlanta’s Emory University who uses song to teach the language. “The generation that passively knows Yiddish is dying out. There are treasures that need to be preserved because we’ll lose access to them if we let Yiddish die.”
Emory is one of about 20 colleges and universities in the US and Canada that offer courses in the Germanic-based language of Eastern European Jews, though just a few of them have degrees in the language.
Yiddish developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages, and is written in the Hebrew alphabet. It dates back in its earliest form at least a millennium.
By the late 1930s, there were between 11 million and 13 million Yiddish speakers worldwide.
The Holocaust, however, led to a dramatic, sudden decline in the use of Yiddish, as the extensive Jewish communities, both secular and religious, that used Yiddish in their day-to-day life were largely destroyed.
Around 85 percent of the Jews that died in the Holocaust – 5 million people – were speakers of Yiddish. And while several million Yiddish speakers survived, assimilation in countries such as the US and the Soviet Union, along with the rejection of Yiddish as a national language in Israel, led to a sharp decline in the use of the language.
The Economist has an interesting question-and-answer piece with K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College who has made a career documenting many of the world’s endangered languages.
By some estimates, according to The Economist, half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next century.
A film about Harrison and fellow linguist Greg Anderson, “The Linguists,” was nominated for an Emmy award, and recently Harrison wrote a book with National Geographic titled “The Last Speakers.”
The Rosetta Stone language program sounds intriguing. Essentially, the program gets the user associating the language they’re learning with pictures and concepts, but not in English.
The Rosetta Stone folks say this method mimics a child’s language acquisition.
But this concept of learning a language through set of building blocks – start with some basic nouns, move to a few verbs, and so on – fails to take into account the crucial features unique to individual languages, according to The Economist’s column on language:
“… any reform aimed primarily at raising SAT scores is misguided,” Thomas writes. “And we must not ignore that time spent focusing on increasing a test score is time lost engaged in real and valuable learning experiences.”
Amen. Latin is a wonderful, challenging language. But to study it simply to improve SAT scores is akin to erradicating fire ants with a ball-peen hammer: it’s possible, but often laborious and painful.