Countless factors facilitate the extinction of a language. A language becomes extinct when the members of the community who speak it are forced to integrate with larger populations. Through assimilation and the loss of cultural norms, these four languages fell out of the mouths of speakers, despite once being commonly heard around the world.
An extinct language that consisted of ancient Egyptian, Demotic, and Hieratic origins, Coptic was widely used in ancient Egypt after the spread of Greek culture to the region. This extinct language is considered the first language of Christianity, and scholars who specialize in theology often study it. Linguists agree that Coptic is similar to Late Egyptian, which was written with Egyptian hieroglyphs.
This ancient language existed as a literary-based language, so even in its most popular time, it was only written. The Coptic alphabet looks like a combination of hieroglyphs and Greek, probably because it borrowed letters from the Meroitic letters of the Demotic origin. Like most languages, Coptic is an example of the ever-evolving nuance of language. Though it is unspoken, the use of Coptic in liturgical practices, especially within the Greek Orthodox Church, is still going strong.
An extinct language that laid the foundation for modern spoken Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew is no longer used in conversation. This ancient way of writing in Hebrew grew from the literary and biblical scholars at the height of its popularity – around 200 CE. Most ancient Israeli people spoke biblical Hebrew in daily conversation. However, the language is considered extinct because it is only taught within the construct of the Jewish faith as a way to understand the Jewish bible, the Torah.
The main difference between Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew is the use of verb tenses. As Hebrew evolved from an ancient language to one in modern use, the need for the past, present, and future tenses arose. Earlier versions of ancient Hebrew had only two tenses – perfect and imperfect.
A true ancient language, Sumerian was spoken in southern Mesopotamia long before the Greeks and Romans were jostling. As a culture, the Sumerians' most widely accepted accolade is that they invented a system of writing. In fact, the first recorded example of written language comes from a group of texts dating from 3200 BCE written in ancient Sumerian.
Many linguists agree that the ancient language was an amalgamation of many different languages of the world, but the path of origin is not clear. What’s more, most archaeologists are not sure how or when the Sumerian-speaking people arrived in Mesopotamia, but one thing is for sure. The region served as a multicultural hub for a long time. However, there have not been any native Sumerian speakers in generations. This might be because of the decline of the Sumerian empire. As the people migrated north in search of lands for farming and lost their language to that of their new home, this made it one of the most famous extinct languages.
Linguists assume that Akkadian developed out of Sumerian, since there are some linguistic connections in this extinct language. At its height, Akkadian was the language to speak in the entire world. Speakers ranged from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. It has only been in the last century that scholars have revitalized the language while uncovering ancient ruins.
Language extinction is both gradual and sudden. If a community is forced to forfeit its language due to political pressure or because there is not enough interest in it, it is going to become extinct. Many believe it is vital that the current languages spoken do not disappear entirely and that records are maintained for posterity.
Cover image credit: aluxum / iStock