Why Study a Dead Language?

Meeting new people here, the inevitable question always arises: “So,” they ask, “what do you study?” I tell them, “I study Old Irish and Middle Welsh language and literature.” “Oh!” They exclaim excitedly, “Do you have any Irish then?”

Studying in the southwest of Ireland, many of my classmates speak modern Irish and are excited thinking that a foreigner like me might be learning it. Whenever I’m asked, though, I must confess that I can’t speak Irish; I only study Old Irish, the medieval predecessor to the modern language. Compared to my friends who speak modern Irish, I am stuck—literally—in the dark ages, learning a language whose only application is in poorly lit library halls, staring at fragile manuscripts.

So what’s the point? The follow-up question that haunts students like me (and one that’s been on my mind as I spent the weekend preparing for an exam). Why study Old Irish and Middle Welsh, languages no one alive today speaks? Why not learn a useful language?

Because it’s not about usefulness.

There is a macabre beauty to studying a dead language, as it is the language of the dead. The people who spoke Old Irish and Middle Welsh have long ago passed away, but they wrote their stories and recorded their lives in these languages. To study their texts in some way brings these authors back to life. Or at least it gives a voice to those who lost theirs centuries ago. Moreover, they were using their voices to tell the most incredible stories: fantastical tales about humans transforming into birds or kingdoms disappearing into mist. (Check out the Mabinogi and the Chidren of Lir if you want to read a couple of them yourself.)

I must admit, I’ve always felt a little embarrassed by these esoteric interests, as I’ve faced the external pressure to find a useful (or—I shudder—employable) skill. But there’s something special about studying such topics in Ireland. On this island, renowned for its literary legacy and long history, there is a reverence for story and a deep respect for the past. While the people I meet might be disappointed that I can’t converse with them in modern Irish, they are just as excited to discuss features of Old Irish or the medieval tales they grew up reading.

The people I’ve met recognize the value of researching something like Old Irish, in deep contrast with the emphasis on professional pursuits that I often experienced in the US. I hope this regard for so-called useless subjects is something that we can start to encourage and emulate. Let us admire the pursuit of knowledge, not for its usefulness or applicability, but simply for its own sake. Perhaps this will lead to a more interesting and curious world.

All of that being said, I think there’s a simpler and more succinct way to answer the titular question. Why do I study a dead language? I study a dead language because it’s really fun. It may be esoteric—useless even—but who cares about that!

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