How many mummified languages are there?

A mummified language is one that is still in active use in some context but it is no longer anyone’s birth language.

In Europe, the archetypical mummfied language is Latin: It was the language of the Roman Empire, split and mutated into the Romance languages when the Dark Ages made travel difficult, but was preserved by the Roman Catholic Church as a liturgical language until the present day. Words have been added so the RCC can discuss television and airplanes in its Latin-language dispatches, but the language itself has not changed as, say, Italian has.

Another example is Coptic, the last linguistic descendant of the ancient Egyptian language (that is, prior to Greek and Arabic, the language of the heiroglyphics on the pyramids) which is the liturgical language of the Coptic Christian Church.

The final example I’m sure of is Hebrew, which isn’t mummified any longer. It was the language of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms, became a mummified liturgical language during the Jewish Diaspora, and was revived in the late 1940s to become the national language of Israel. (To be explicit, it ceased to be mummified when a child learned it as his or her first language.)

Are there any I’m missing? I don’t know about Sanskrit for two reasons: A constructed language cannot be mummified, and it might be a first language for some people in the village of Mattur. Modern Standard Arabic seems to not be anyone’s first language, but I don’t know if it qualifies as its own language and I don’t know if it isn’t artificial.

Well, certainly the preservation of Cornish, 207 years after the last person to speak it as his primary language died, would qualify.

I’m missing your point about Sanskrit, though as I recall the Indian Census has listed about 1000 people who claim it as their first language. But though as artificially preserved as Latin, it was at one time a natural, spoken language, in Panini’s day.

Old Church Slavonic, sometimes called Old Bulgarian, would be another example of a mummified language. The liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ge’ez, is yet another.

Actually, the modern Hebrew that is a national language of Israel is not the same language as the mummified one. They’re very similar, but there were extensive artificial changes between ancient and modern Hebrew.

Priceguy: Interesting. I thought they just added enough words to describe the modern world. Can someone who only speaks modern Hebrew understand something written in ancient Hebrew?

Polycarp: Plenty of good examples. Thank you.

As to Sanskrit: The Wikipedia article seems to imply (to me, anyway) that it was more artifical than you state. I didn’t know that bit about the census. For example:

It sounds like they took a natural language and molded it into what they thought a language should be, creating a constructed language in the process. Except I missed this, later in the article:

So you’re probably right.

Isn’t classical Greek essentially a different language then modern Greek? I thought they had the same relationship as Latin and modern Italian. But it’s all…you know…to me.

I would also imagine that there are a number of native American languages that are no longer anyone’s primary language.

Yes. The differences are mainly in grammar. As a former student of ancient Hebrew, I understand why they changed it.

But how many of them are still in use, as opposed to just being studied?

My experience with modern Greek is fairly limited, but I think the analogy with Italian and Latin is basically right. Pronunciation has changed quite a bit (as best we know), and the grammar has simplified a bit, but there’s a lot of similarity.

Most languages have probably changed much less than English did in the past 1500-2000 years.

On what do you base that assertion?

Here’s what the Ethnologue has to say about Modern Hebrew:

And about Greek: