General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

For languages that have been around for a while, how close are ancient texts to the modern form of the language?

Asked by LostInParadise (17859 points ) January 14th, 2013

Can a person from Greece make sense of Plato and Sophocles in the original? Can someone from China read something written by Confucius? I am assuming that the original writings are still around. Hindi and Persian have also been around for a long time in written form and I am guessing maybe Korean, Japanese and possibly some other Asian languages.

It is hard to use English as an example. The language kept changing radically until fairly recently. The language of Chaucer is barely recognizable as English. We can read Shakespeare with a little effort. The writing from the eigthteenth century onward is pretty close to its modern form.

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11 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

Consider “Sumer is Icumen In” is the oldest known English poem, yet it’s damn hard to read for a non-scholar. And it’s only 8 centuries old. For something in Aramaic or ancient Chinese or Hindi, it can be damn tough. And the medium will probably make it very difficult; papyrus is fragile, stones get eroded, inscriptions have abbreviations to be deciphered.

And letters change, too.

Here is the poem with a modern English translation.

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Pes:

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

DominicX's avatar

It varies from language to language. Icelandic for example is much the same as it was in the Middle Ages, mostly due to its isolation, so there was little influence of language contact to cause change. English, on the other hand, is worlds apart from its medieval form, due to its wide contact with other languages, including the Norman conquest which vastly changed the vocabulary of English.

A language like Greek is somewhere in the middle. It has undergone stages the same way English has, but the differences between the stages isn’t as great. Greek didn’t borrow 70% of its vocabulary from Latin the way English has, nor did Greek lose as many grammatical functions (like gender, case, etc.) the way English did. Greek has lost some of it, certainly, as most languages do over time, but the change has been less drastic than the changes in English have been (and the stages of Greek were much longer).

@zenvelo Here’s some Old English, just for fun: Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum, þēod-cyninga, þrym ġefrūnon, hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,monegum mǣġþum, meodosetla oftēah, egsode eorlas.

zenvelo's avatar

Excuse me for not reading the whole of your original post. But old French and Old German went through similar changes over the last 1,000 years. Why would Greek or Hindi not change? Same with Mandarin or Cantonese.

DominicX's avatar

@zenvelo They do change, but they don’t all change at the same rate.

Aqua's avatar

Classical Chinese is very different than vernacular Chinese. The way they wrote back then was nothing like spoken Chinese. I’m not sure how many original classical Chinese texts still exist, but a lot of it has been copied and then copied again and again, so there are mistakes and different versions. Classical Chinese is quite different, and I would say most Chinese speakers would have a basic grasp, but it takes a lot of study and effort to be able to read and interpret classical Chinese texts.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

For someone who has not been taught even elementary Ancient Greek it would be impossible to make out an Ancient Greek text!

mattbrowne's avatar

What is your definition of “close”? And in terms of what? Pronunciation? Spelling? Grammar? (Multiple) Meaning of words?

cazzie's avatar

Icelandic is what people where I live now used to speak up until the damn Danes came and ruined the place with their Christianity and such and then the place really went to hell after the Black Death. Now, Norwegian, both written and spoken, resemble more of how the Danes spoke back in the day. As far as todays Danish goes, not even the Danish understand Danish. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-mOy8VUEBk

gailcalled's avatar

A very funny scene in one of my favorite novels, “Corelli’s Mandolin,“by Louis de Berniére, takes this up as a theme.

A British airman/spy is parachuted into the remote area on the Greek Island of Cephalonia, where the story takes place. One reason why he was chosen was his knowledge of Classical Greek, studied at Oxbridge.

When he tries to speak to the locals, they take him for a madman.

gailcalled's avatar

Sorry; I forgot to mention that “Corelli’s Mandolin” is about the Italian, and then the German occupation of parts of Greece during WWII..

Yetanotheruser's avatar

A good example of modern language evolution is the Cajun-French dialect. It is almost solely derived from the Acadian dialect at the time of the Acadian expulsion in the mid-18th century, as chronicled in the Longfellow poem Evangeline: a Tale of Arcadie.

The Acadian/Cajun population was extremely isolated for many years, so until the past 100 years or so, there was little outside influence on the evolution of the language, and it evolved independently from other French dialects.

The same happened in early years in England. In pre-industrial London, for example, a person could be born, grow up, get married, raise a family, and see grandchildren, all without leaving a 5-mile radius. With limited outside influences there would be plenty of opportunity for distinctive dialects (he Cockney dialect comes to mind) to develop in regions within the city.

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