Many people think that learning a dead language is pointless. Latin is a good example of how important it is to learn languages that are not spoken any more.
Occasionally we need to bear in mind, however, that there are reasons for studying extinct languages.
Considering that German or Arabic could be your fine opportunity to find the job of your dreams, the recommendation to learn a dead language might sound crazy. For numerous reasons – diplomatic, intellectual, commercial – we have to wake up to the clumsy reality that monoglottism is horrible for us. So, go ahead – study a modern language. If you want to be clear about it.
But all kind of “dead” languages enjoy significant existences nowadays, albeit in quieter, more exquisite ways. They’re threaded nearly invisibly through modern culture, kept in shape by an incorporation of tradition and adoration, like good hand-sewing.
There are serious reasons for studying an extinct language. It can make obtaining second, third, even fourth languages simpler. Philologists map dialects on to family trees. In the Indo-European language family, sections as seemingly different as Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic come down from a lost parent language named Proto-Indo-European. So, in harmony to the same basis that your grandfather had children and grand-children and great-grandchildren, studying a language that covers a place further up the family tree will hint that younger languages will have grown up out of it.
This altercation is sometimes used in defense of studying Latin, which is parent to French and Spanish, amidst others (it doesn’t refer to Ancient Greek, yet, whose offspring are few).
Some dead dialects are more dead than others. Dialects whose writings are precious never really die. Old English will be along with us as far as we treasure Beowulf. While our enchantment with King Arthur thunders on, Old English’s heir, Middle English, remains. Middle English romance tales of the rulers, queens and chivalric heroes of Britain are spun into the tails we still tell our children, while film studios apparently never tire of modifying them. Show me a fan of televised dragons and I will show you a lover of medieval literature.
Studying a medieval language – maybe Old Norse, or Old Middle English, Old French, or Occitan – relates you to a body of literature which is at once profoundly familiar and delightfully peculiar. These dialects gave voice to the basic-stones of European literature, but comprehending them takes a battle. It is an uncannily wonderful experience to read lines written several hundreds of years ago about parts of the world that you could have set eyes on yourself.