What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

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Raconteur
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What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Raconteur » Sat Mar 27, 2021 12:43 pm

By full grasp I mean: we understand it enough to learn it and use it as the ancient natives would have (including pronunciation). Perhaps not "complete" knowledge, but close enough.

What are some others? (either slightly younger, or not quite "full grasp," but close)
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Dragon27 » Sat Mar 27, 2021 1:33 pm

Raconteur wrote:By full grasp I mean: we understand it enough to learn it and use it as the ancient natives would have (including pronunciation). Perhaps not "complete" knowledge, but close enough.

I have no idea what 'close enough' would imply in this context. Can you give any examples of 'close enough' and 'not close enough' from your point of view?
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Raconteur » Sat Mar 27, 2021 2:08 pm

Dragon27 wrote:I have no idea what 'close enough' would imply in this context. Can you give any examples of 'close enough' and 'not close enough' from your point of view?
I didn't have a very clear definition in mind... I'm looking for languages that are complete in every sense. Theoretically, a person could learn to speak it, and could use it fully to read, write and communicate in a way that long gone natives would deem natural.

However, I didn't want the discussion to end up too focused on the term "full grasp." That is, too pedantic. Maybe the jury's still out on how a certain syllable should be stressed or how some small, obscure piece of syntax would be used most correctly. If those types of issues were the only problems, that would classify as "close enough" for me.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby tungemål » Sat Mar 27, 2021 2:16 pm

I'm guessing Vedic Sanskrit.

Vedic Sanskrit: 1500 – 500 BC
Old Chinese: from 1000 BC
Ancient Greek: 750 – 400 BC
Classical Latin: from 75 BC

(quick research on wikipedia)
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Dragon27 » Sat Mar 27, 2021 5:19 pm

Raconteur wrote:I didn't have a very clear definition in mind... I'm looking for languages that are complete in every sense. Theoretically, a person could learn to speak it, and could use it fully to read, write and communicate in a way that long gone natives would deem natural.

However, I didn't want the discussion to end up too focused on the term "full grasp." That is, too pedantic. Maybe the jury's still out on how a certain syllable should be stressed or how some small, obscure piece of syntax would be used most correctly. If those types of issues were the only problems, that would classify as "close enough" for me.

But... in order for the discussion to actually make sense we have no choice but to become focused on what "full grasp" should mean.

There were given a few examples of some ancient languages (like Vedic Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and etc.) above, but I have serious doubts whether we have a sufficient grasp of these languages in order to qualify calling it "full". I'm not the expert in any way, and perhaps the actual students of these languages could chime in with better perspectives, but I'm personally not sure, that our long gone natives would consider the way we speak their languages as natural. There's quite a lot left of their languages, of course, for us to study, but is it enough? We mostly have works of literature (the tiny part of it that has survived to the present day), but not (in my uninformed opinion) enough colloquial material to be able to speak in a way the natives of that time actually spoke to each other. We have reconstructions of their pronunciation, but who knows if the natives won't laugh hearing us trying to actually pronounce their language with our reconstructed models?
Last edited by Dragon27 on Sat Mar 27, 2021 5:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby DaveAgain » Sat Mar 27, 2021 5:36 pm

Raconteur wrote:By full grasp I mean: we understand it enough to learn it and use it as the ancient natives would have (including pronunciation). Perhaps not "complete" knowledge, but close enough.

What are some others? (either slightly younger, or not quite "full grasp," but close)
Lithuanian and Icelandic are living languages that are often described as conservative.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Raconteur » Sat Mar 27, 2021 9:09 pm

Dragon27 wrote:But... in order for the discussion to actually make sense we have no choice but to become focused on what "full grasp" should mean.
Then, could you propose a definition that, in your opinion, would make sense? I don't really have a good sense of how to go about this, so I'm happy to hear suggestions.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Kraut » Sat Mar 27, 2021 10:47 pm

We can discuss between these two points in the language continuum, a Proto-Indoeuropean language which is mostly reconstructed

https://indo-european.eu/2021/02/proto- ... urse-book/

and a modern living language which has the commonly accepted status of preserving the most archaic features deriving from Proto-Indoeuropean

which in my opinion would be Prussian-Lithuanian, which did not see the modern linguistic purge of current Lithuanian (but is disfigured through a lot of Slavic vocabulary). Its morphology (declensions, cases ... etc) however is very ancient.

-----
Antoine Meillet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_Meillet

One of his most-quoted statements is that "anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant".
Last edited by Kraut on Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:34 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Iversen » Sun Mar 28, 2021 12:52 am

I wonder whether we have a full grasp any language. OK, grammarians and dialectologists and speech trainers and old ladies who do crozzwords and their greatgrandchildren may between between them know a lot about the shared language, but it would be hard to document it all - and no single person would ever end up know everything. So if we can't even document a modern language completely then maybe should we cut down on the demands for old languages.

OK, let's cut out Old Norse / Icelandic. The Germanic languages went through some rather comprehensive changes around 200-400 AC so Old Norse, Old Saxon etc. can't be counted on before that. And as far as I know we don't know one single swearword in Anglosaxon - so a full representation of the daily language of the old guys is far away. I'm not even sure that I know the word for 'toilet' in Anglosaxon - but the word for 'tree' might do in a pinch..

What about Latin? According to Mr. Pulju the oldest Latin inscription goes as follows "Manios me fhefhaked Numasioi", meaning "Manius made me for Numerius". Frankly that doesn't look much like Classical Latin, so I would not trust that I could produce anything comprehensible to a Roman from the 6th century BC, but when we come to maybe 200 or 100 BC then I might - definitely not with a correct pronunciation (long vowels and all that), but probably enough to ask directiones ad latrinas aut panem emere. And there are few, but alluring texts in something approching the vernacular which would meet one of the demands expressed earlier in this thread. We have even first hand information from writers like Tertullian.

Older than Latin ... well, Greek. How did people pronounce the kind of Greek written in Linear B? Nobody knows, and we have a gap of several centuries before Greek pops up again - but I gather the classical scholars have some information about the pronunciation of Classical Greek, which takes us even further back. Actually some professor translated some early Harry Potter into Classical Greek, and I own the book - but so far I can't read it. Sorry about that.

Then there is Sanskrit. Thanks to Panini and old texts (back to Rigveda and maybe even earlier) it would probably be possible for a local scholar to write something in reasonably grammatical Sanskrit, but after several thousand of years the pronunciation must have slided away from what it was more than 2000 years ago - did anybody at the impressive level of Panini ever write about the pronunciation of Sanskrit?

Even earlier languages like Sumerian and Old Egyptian were written in systems that to some extent built on pronunciation, but more on ideograms and on syllables rather that single phonemes, so I wouldn't expect that anyone could ask for a beer in a Sumerian brothel and be understood by for instance king Hammurabi. And Ancient Egyptian ... well, if we knew the pronunciation better then the spelling of certain pharaonic names wouldn't be as diversified as it is. And then I'm not even referring to Greek aberarrations like Sesostris for Senusret or Cheops for Khufu, but rather something Amenemhat versus Amenemhet. Actually we have a few texts in semi-colloquial Egyptian (like a travelogue of a wayward sailor) so it isn't all dry inscriptions and some version of the book of the Dead on grave walls, but I doubt that the knowledge of the ancient language today would even remotely respect the limits of the notion "full grasp".

So we have to accept that our materials for ancient languages are both partial and skewed, and that we have to be content with what we have got.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby sillygoose1 » Sun Mar 28, 2021 1:33 am

I would say Latin to be honest. The literature alone that we were able to conserve is incredible on its own. Ancient historic documents, poetry, legal documents, memoirs, graffiti. Plus it was heavily used during the Middle Ages up until the end of the modern era albeit with slight changes. Yes, there are still tons of materials out there in other ancient languages but I think we have enough Latin (including Harry Potter books) where it could make a comeback if it wanted.
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