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Dead languages and what they sound like?

  Tags: Dead Languages
 Language Learning Forum : Philological Room Post Reply
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 Message 1 of 7
14 August 2014 at 7:46pm | IP Logged 
I've often wondered if we truly know what things like ancient Egyptian sounded like, or even Latin as it was spoken by the Romans. I remember hearing about a part of linguistics that traced accents and have wondered about that as well. Do we actually know any of the phonetics of something like ancient Egyptian that is a symbolic language as opposed to a pronunciation based language?
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 Message 2 of 7
14 August 2014 at 8:27pm | IP Logged 
We know the consonants, more or less, when it comes to Egyptian (although the actual
details are anyone's guess). The vowels were never written and their true quality is thus

As for Latin, we know more or less, but of course the Vulgar Latin that was actually
spoken changed over time.
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 Message 3 of 7
14 August 2014 at 8:44pm | IP Logged 
The reconstruction of dead languages is generally part of historical linguistics. One of the great triumphs of this field was Laryngeal theory, which predicted that proto-Indo-European should have several laryngeal consonants. This was a rather surprising prediction at the time, but it has since been supported by quite a bit of evidence that was unknown at the time.

Typically, historical linguistics can do a pretty good job of reconstructing the abstract phonemes of a language: the "abstract" sounds that were present, and how they were related to each other. But it's often much harder to map these abstract phonemes to their underlying phonetic realizations, that is, the exact sounds produced by a given speaker. Or to put it another way, we know how many consonants were present in Egyptian, but we don't know what some of them actually sounded like.

In the specific case of Egyptian, it's a bit tricky. There are several sources of evidence:

- The Coptic language, descended from Egyptian, was written with an extended Greek alphabet.
- Throughout history, quite a few Egyptian words were transcribed in ancient Greek or in cuneiform.
- Historical linguistics allows a partial reconstruction of Middle Egyptian.
- The Egyptian writing system preserves the consonants.

By combining all of this information, it's possible to partially reconstruct what Egyptian would have sounded like, although many of the vowels are still unknown (especially those which were dropped in Coptic). One of the best-known researchers in this area is Stuart Tyson Smith, who has worked on several films for Hollywood, including Stargate and The Mummy.

There's a good summary of the ancient Egyptian sound system in Loprieno's excellent Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction. This book assumes a basic knowledge of linguistics, and it summarizes much of what we know about Egyptian, linguistically speaking. Loprieno argues that Egyptian is a goldmine of interesting linguistic data, in part because we have a written record stretching over 5,000 years, starting with ancient Egyptian and ending with the Coptic church.

Of course, this raises the other problem with reconstructing Egyptian: It was spoken for thousands of years in many cities along the Nile, and so there were obviously many different accents and variants. Even if you go by the "official" variants, well, speakers of Middle Egyptian could read Ancient Egyptian (sort of like how modern English-speakers can read Shakespere), but speakers of Late Egyptian often relied on translations of earlier forms of the language. Demotic and Coptic brought significant changes in turn. And even within Middle Egyptian, there's a lot of variation. For example, pA started out as a demonstrative, but it later became a definite article.

So trying to nail down a single, official pronunciation for Egyptian would be tricky, just like it would be for English: Do you mean Elizabethan English? US English? Received Pronunciation? Scottish English? Australian English? What about Texas and the Bronx?

Edited by emk on 14 August 2014 at 8:53pm

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 Message 4 of 7
14 August 2014 at 10:14pm | IP Logged 
The situation for Old Church Slavonic is similar to the above. Linguists have rough ideas about its phonology but the complications arise from the relative lack of attestation (not to mention the obvious absence of audio recordings) and the almost total certainty that pronunciation of what's treated as OCS varied from one part of Europe to the next (this is suggested by the number of recensions or revisions of OCS that exist, not to mention the different variants of regular Church Slavonic. See here for some information about variation in OCS).
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 Message 5 of 7
14 August 2014 at 11:32pm | IP Logged 
In regards to Latin, I'd say it is one of the ancient languages of which we know the most of it's pronunciation. While
the prosody of a languages never makes it out of the abyss of history, the rest is thanks to its once big importance
and its several descendants very well known – and by most scholars blissfully ignored. By this I mean classical gold
age Latin or Caesar and Cicero spoken by the educated upper class in Rome.

The problem is that this pronunciation is vastly more intricate and harder to learn and use than just pronouncing
every letter as it is written with continental vowels; thus most scholars gladly write articles about it but very few
actually use it when they talk about Latin with colleagues.

In spoken Latin at that time the difference between long and short vowels and between ungeminated and geminated
consonants were upheld, however English, e.g., has no long vowels nor does it have geminated consonants within
words. Alas, the only vowels the romans ever bothered to mark as long throughout history was i, written taller than
usual (they actually did mark vowel length with an accent mark during certain times and places, but it fell out of
use), and today macra marking long vowels are only ever used in text for beginners and very few students
pronounce the vowels accordingly but rather use them to help deterring the stress of a word.

Some other phenomena as described by a certain Sir Allen in his book Vox Latina are dark l-sounds before open
vowels (a, o, u), nasalation of syllable final m, and vowel elision between words. Thus "Possum ego linguam latinam
et linguam graecam loqui" would be pronounced like /Poss'ẽ:go łingwã łati:nã't łingwã graj:kã łokwi:/ which is
somewhat harder than /possum lingwam latinam et lingwam graikam loukwi/.

There is more known about how the languages were pronounced than what scholars actually bother with, because
most philologists have the meaning of the texts they study in mind rather than trying to accurately pronounce them.
Reading the languages aloud is only a means to facilitate the study of them and never an effort to bring back the
actual voices form the dead. People often reason that, since we cannot ever know how wight we'd be, there is no use
trying to come closer to the sound (a mentality I met when studying Akkadian and Sumerian at university when I
inquired to know whether Akkadian stops were aspirated or not).
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 Message 6 of 7
15 August 2014 at 1:56am | IP Logged 
In a sense we can never really know for certain unless someone invents a time machine. We
can suppose and theorize and maybe even get a consensus agreement, but we simply do not
have any living speakers left to listen to.

On the other hand, sometimes it's good to think outside of the box. A language sounds the
way the speakers pronounce it, so if people start speaking it again then that is the way
it sounds.

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 Message 7 of 7
16 August 2014 at 7:29am | IP Logged 
To me there are certain sounds of words, and sounds in general that say, only an English speaking person would make. Or a Russian for that matter. I was wondering a general this is what makes it so, the two long posts on Latin and Egyptian were fascinating. Thank you for the replies.

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