Are ancient languages superior to modern ones?

I know that the majority of linguists like to say that it impossible to find “objective criteria” to judge if any language is superior to any other. But I don’t think that this is necessarily the case

I was thinking about some languages like Latin, which is more clear from a grammatical point of view than many other languages, or languages like Greek, that seem to have a more rich vocabulary. I wouldn’t like to delve in the complexities of languages like classical Arabic or classical Hebrew.

Besides, it is very hard to say that “all languages equal” with languages with such a great differences like Russian and Mandarin. In what way this two languages are equal?

It definitely seems to my that this kind of affirmation (that is not possible to say that in some sense a language is superior to another) arises either from the lack of penetration of linguistics as a science (which has taken a distance from the humanities) or from political views.

Cut-to-chase answer: “yes”

In what respect?

In almost every respect! The purity, logic and internal consistency of the vocabulary, the sheer range and subtlety of expression…you gotta say that Ancient languages are cutting it in a way that we don’t see with newer languages!

Anglo-Saxon, for example, was vastly superior to Modern English - even as Latin was vastly superior to Modern Italian or Spanish.

Over time, down to pollution, and probably falling IQ, modern languages have gotten degraded and dumbed down. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

Cut-to-chase answer: “no”

I’m curious, how well do you know those ancient languages? Can you read Latin fluently? Ancient Greek?
I can of course improve a lot but I have read quite a few books in both Latin and ancient Greek. I love them both as languages but, precisely because I know them, I don’t see any kind of “superiority” in them. As a matter of fact I strongly disagree with both of your assertions:
a) Latin is not more “grammatical clear”. That doesn’t make any sense. What do you mean by that? Is it that it marked some functions by means of case endings? Many other languages do so, both ancient and modern, and to a larger extent than Latin (think Russian) and this way of marking function is not inherently better. Besides, there are a lot of weird aspects to Latin grammar. It never got to decide what the future passive infinitive should be, you got Cicero’s “invention” of “allatum iri”, which was in fact not widely used, later “faciendum esse” appeared, which is theoretically incorrect because it shows obligation (more have to do than will do). Most of the times the present infinitive was used. It never was clear how to distinguish, for example “from within” from “within” and similar adverbs. Late grammarians insisted that “intus” should be used for both, and “intro” to mean “towards the inside” (same foris, foras, etc.) but that was weird, so people said “de intus”, which was supposedly incorrect because you can’t use a preposition with an adverb, but it works well and it’s what modern romance languages do. The distinction between “while”, “until” and “provided” (as conjunctions) was never clear, and so on and so forth. All that doesn’t imply anything bad about Latin, all languages have some kinds of gray areas but it shows that it was not so “clear”.
b) Ancient Greek didn’t have a particular “rich” vocabulary, at least in terms of number of words. And especially if compared to “modern” languages. It couldn’t because many concepts and objects that we take for granted didn’t exist back then. A case in point is the color category. Ancient Greek (for a very long time) had few color words and the distinctions were much less defined than in many “modern” languages.

All human languages can express anything that can be expressed through language. It’s not a matter of which language you use but how you use them.
What I think happens is that old writers tended to be very good and modern language users often pale in comparison. The reason, IMO, is twofold:
a) Not so much old literature has arrived to modern times, only the best ones survived.
b) There’s a tendency in modern writing to overuse “dead metaphores” and to obfuscate writing in several ways (“Zombie” nouns, etc.). Two interesting takes on this problem for the case of modern English are this article by G. Orwell: George Orwell: Politics and the English Language
and this talk by S. Pinker (he explains concepts such as “zombie nouns”). Notice that, according to him, the “golden age” of clear prose was more XVIIth century France than ancient Athens.
Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century - with Steven Pinker - YouTube
This is a fairly recent tendency, so the comparison is not so much with Antiquity writers, but with those of past centuries.
Anyway, it’s about how we use language, not what language you use.

Of course not. Language is language. You’re looking at them from a language LEARNER perspective.

What can be analysed in language is irrelevant - to native speakers their languages are all as expressive as they need them to be.

‘purity’ ‘logic’ ‘internal consistency’ is you looking at it from a learner perspective. Languages in and of themselves are no better or worse just because someone who doesn’t speak them looks at them and thinks they have ‘more range’ (whatever that is supposed to mean).

I bet you simply looked at some ancient text, translated it TO ENGLISH (unless you are native level fluent in an ancient language, you can’t NOT have done this) and then went ‘wow, that’s expressive’ when what you mean is ‘that TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH is expressive’. But those languages aren’t English. They are their own thing and they are a means of communication. Even ‘basic’ languages contain everything needed for expressing anything they need to.

Your logic is ultra-flawed.

Pinker’s talk is great.

I’m riding a 19th century literature wave atm, and it just makes you wonder how the apparent iq-drop from then to now happened. Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Goethe, Clausewitz, Darwin… It’s a different dimension from today’s stuff. Part of it, I think, is that back then you only had the top 0,1% of the curve writing for the top 1% of the curve, whereas nowadays production and consumption have been democratized to such an extent as to reach far into the bulk of average voters. In addition to your a) survivorship bias.

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“…Notice that, according to him, the “golden age” of clear prose was more XVIIth century France than ancient Athens…”

Hm, well, it’s somehow drearily predictable that S.Pinker would think that. :slight_smile:

As a matter of interest, Francisco, do you honestly believe that Classical Latin and Greek are no more expressive or nuanced than, say, Modern English or French?

I mean, I’m being tongue-in-cheek (obviously!?) when I talk about environmental pollution and falling IQ, etc. But isn’t it incontestable that Ancient languages (at least as regards western languages) generally allow one to express complex thoughts in a more succinct and precise way?

The word “superior” is not easy to define. Besides, “general” superiority of a language over others might be impossible to conceputualize.

“…It’s a different dimension from today’s stuff. Part of it, I think, is that back then you only had the top 0,1% of the curve writing for the top 1% of the curve…”

You know what, this is a fascinating idea - and I think you may well have a point! Having said that, there was an oral tradition in antiquity, wasn’t there? This was notably the case for languages like Anglo Saxon, Old Norse, and of course Ancient Greek. In the Germanic tradition, at least, the epic stories arguably weren’t only for the elite?

I think Francisco’s point is also very pertinent: it’s only a small fraction which has survived for posterity. And it’s likely that the cream, so to speak, would be most widely copied and thus most likely to survive.

It just occurs to me that one could question Clausewitz’s place on your high-IQ list - if one looks at some of the fall out from his ideas in the 20th Century?

I honestly do think so. As a matter of fact, I think the opposite is true. Modern talk is more “succint”, which is part of the problem. Ancient writing tended to be better because it spelled things out. Don’t let yourself be misled by the examples of ancient proverbs or famous quotes that express a thought in a few words. They were appreciated but are not representative of the language.
The good part of ancient prose is that each author strove to say things their own way, instead of relying on cliches. Cliches are succint, which is why modern language is more succint, but they are unoriginal and imprecise

Little experiment: I just grabbed an online copy of Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico” and scrolled down to a random location. These are a few sentences:
Ita ancipitī proeliō diū atque ācriter pugnātum est. Diūtius cum sustinēre
nostrōrum impetūs nōn possent, alterī sē, ut coeperant, in montem
recēpērunt, alterī ad impedimenta et carrōs suōs sē contulērunt. 2. Nam hōc
tōtō proeliō, cum ab hōrā septimā ad vesperum pugnātum sit, āversum
hostem vidēre nēmō potuit.
My (admittedly poor) translation:
So, a long and bitter battle was fought in two fronts. Since they could not resist our attack, some of them withdrew to the mountains, others gathered around their baggages and wagons. During the whole battle, which was fought from the seventh hour to the evening, nobody could see an enemy fleeing.
To my mind, this is simple, effective and two the point. It spells things out, doesn’t try to “cut corners” or be succint and it uses simple, general-meaning words that exist in most all languages. I can’t see a single set expression or “metaphor”, … You can tell the same story with almost equivalent words in a modern language. It would be comprehensible, simple and nice.

Now, I googled “Iraq war battle story” and got the first account of a battle I could find, this is the beginning:
“This time of year marks the anniversary of one of the most storied battles in recent Marine Corps history: the Second Battle of Fallujah. The city became the scene of brutal urban combat when American, Iraqi, and British forces launched an all out assault on Nov. 7, 2004, to seize it from Iraqi insurgent hands”

You get: hpye (most storied battle) together with a strange and certainly “dying” metaphor (“most storied”???)
A couple of set expressions which are clearly cliche: “all out assault” “seize from … hands”, “marked the anniversary”. Unnecessary clutter and convoluted wording: “The city became the scene of…” Caesar would have written “In the city…”

Notice that the modern account is in fact more succint. Writing an “all out assault” is terse and quick but also cliché, Caesar’s equivalent is “a long and bitter battle was fought”. Notice that Caesar doesn’t even avoid repeating himself: he has “was fought” (pugnatum est) twice in a row and uses “proelio” (in the battle) also twice.

I stand by my opinion: Ancient (or pre-modern) writers tended to spell things out, took time to explain things in a clear, to the point way and used simple but precise vocabulary easily replicable in modern languages. Usual contemporary writing tends to overuse clichés, hype and empty expressions, which is why ancient writing sounds elegant and precise and modern writing is mostly crap: it’s not about language but about how you use it

“…The good part of ancient prose is that each author strove to say things their own way, instead of relying on cliches…”

I guess the bottom line is that they thought outside of the box? (Sorry! :-P)

All I will say is: it seems to me that things often tend to be unmarked to an alarming degree in modern languages. For example, we have the “historic present” in Afrikaans - i.e. the present tense can be used as a past tense in prose especially. I have always had a sneaking suspicion that Afrikaaners, when reading this in fiction or whatever, get the exact same ‘mental twitch’ as a German would when reading the Präteritum. If that is not the case, there’s a pretty shocking loss of nuance going on there. (I say that as someone who likes and is interested in Afrikaans, BTW)

Aspect marking too, is often lost in Modern languages, isn’t it? There are conservative ones like Russian that still have marked aspect - but that is negatively compensated for by a huge loss of sophistication in the tenses.

Well I just don’t know…

I don’t have very passionate feelings about this topic. But I can’t help feeling that Ancient Greek, in particular, was…well…‘better’ than modern tongues…

But maybe I’m wrong.

superior in what way ?language evolves over time to fit the needs of the people that speak it i’ve read the comments above some seem to believe modern latin languages are dumbed down versions of latin why? because it had a zillion conjugations and declensions.grammatical complexity does not make any language superior than the other

“I guess the bottom line is that they thought outside of the box? (Sorry! :-P)”

:smiley: :smiley: Just great!

In Caesar you get tons and tons of historical present, btw. I do understand the attractive of a language such as ancient Greek. I also think it’s beautiful but not superior.
The marked vs. unmarked distinction is completely different from that of ancient vs. modern. Many ancient languages didn’t use a lot of explicit (morphological) distinctions and there are very complex morphological languages in modern day. “We” (meaning “Westerners”) have a distorted conception of language evolution because we speak languages which stem from a specific ancestor (proto-Indoeuropean) which happened to be very complex morphologically, so we’ve “witnessed” a story of our languages becoming less so over time. That leads us to believe that this is the “natural” evolution. It is not. And the fact that a language displays less morphological variations doesn’t make it simpler. Other areas get more complex, only some of that complexity doesn’t lend itself to be presented by table after table of “grammatical” instruction, so it goes unnoticed.
Some examples are the use of articles or the increase in vocabulary. A language such as modern English is morphologically “simpler” than its ancestors Anglo-Saxon, proto-Germanic or PIE but it has a hugely larger vocabulary (though not the largest one, as it’s sometimes stated) and uses a lot of very nuanced conjunctions unknown in the ancestor languages and subtle uses of the articles, very difficult to understand for speakers of article-less languages. The list goes on
This is an interesting discussion of the alleged “simplification” of languages over time:

In general, the Xidnaf channel is worth checking out

Couple of other examples:
Modern English insists on distinguishing between “I eat”/I ate/I’ll eat" and “I am/was/will be eating”, etc.
And “I have been” is not the same as “I was” nor “I’ll do it” equivalent to “I am going to do it”
Latin, Anglo-Saxon, etc. didn’t give a damn about those nuances

I think what makes the Greek and Germanic sagas great is that the long oral prelude really distilled them into very raw archetypal themes, as Peterson the Wise of Alberta would say. Besides individual genius, that seems to be another way to go balls deep :wink:

Yes, it’s safe to say that Clausi is #5 of my 5 mentions. As it happens I just had Vom Kriege in the book stack, so he made the 19th century group.

First of all I’m sorry man! No language is equal to another nor superior nor inferior, because mathematically speaking the equal and superiority relationships doesn’t apply to languages. It just applies up to real numbers (and the equal for complex too, but no superior or inferior relationship in complex numbers). So we are talking about numbers. So don’t mess things up. Don’t be chauvisnistic, or old language supremacist. This is a language learning platform. We learn language cause we want to communicate with different type of people.
Now why did I say they are all equal using upper case letters. Languages, no matter what language you are native in, will always convey the same amout of understandable information to another native speaker of it, in a given period of time. Cause we are humans. 2k years ago humans weren’t better than us. Pretty much the same, shorter in life expency and height though, and thinner… We have become fat and lazy! If grammar rules tend to become too hard to a population they will slowly but surely ditch it, and after thousands of years the language won’t sound the same, and it repeats itself over and over again.
I hope you will reform your beliefs.
Thanks for reading.

Do you consider Shakespeare modern or pre-modern? He’s absolutely notorious for using cliches! Some examples:

The game is afoot
Be-all and the end-all
Brave new world
Cold comfort
Eaten me out of house and home
Faint hearted
Forever and a day
Foregone conclusion
For goodness’ sake
Give the devil his due
Good riddance
Hoist with his own petard
Play fast and loose
Wild goose chase

Well, actually he coined all these everyday phrases, and a lot more. :wink: Posterity turned them into cliches