Dead Languages Our Heritage

In my lifetime, many languages have been brought back from the dead. The streets of Toulouse are named in both French and Occitan, and in the pubs of Caernarfon you may find teenagers flirting in a language until recently confined to their chapel-going great-grandmothers. Now, linguistic variety and richness is a very good thing in itself, as is regional culture, and yet there is something slightly odd about the way in which speaking an artificially revived language is said to be the “cultural heritage” of the first-generation Cymrophone. His parents and grandparents didn’t speak Welsh, and he would not speak it himself were it not for the efforts of enthusiasts and politicians. If the teenagers had been taught Japanese instead, they would have been in much the same situation, in that the first crop would only have been able to speak it with one another and the odd tourist. That would be unnatural, but not much more so than what actually happened – the teenagers speaking Welsh only with one another and some ancient farmers in Dyfed.

If suddenly beginning to teach an almost defunct language in school causes teenagers to connect with their cultural heritage, does that mean that we should make the medium of instruction demotic Latin, so that we can connect with our Romano-British cultural roots? Or Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse or even Middle English? If one considers that a language somehow inheres for millennia in the very rocks and stones of a land, then no one has any business speaking modern English in the USA. Or for that matter in England.

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