‘Dead languages’ find life at USF

USF professor Nicole Discenza teaches her students to read Old English during Chaucer, ENL 4311. ORACLE PHOTO / ADAM MATHIEU

When it comes to understanding modern language and literature, it pays to look back.

Most students will study a second language such as French or Spanish while in college. But there are more benefits to studying languages that no one speaks anymore than students may think.  

“When we’re talking about dead languages, I find it almost a kind of prejudice term in one sense — in the sense that the languages are not dead, they’re just transformed or they’re mutated,” said Ippokratis Kantzios, a USF associate professor in the world languages department.

He said the evolution of language is a process, rather than a “death and rebirth,” as many people think.

Kantzios said he believes there are misconceptions about learning classical languages, such as Latin or ancient Greek. Students worry about potential careers and believe getting a degree in classics will not aid them in finding a job after graduation.

“The most popular class our department – the classics program – offers is a course called Medical Terminology, which in essence is terminology based on Greek and Latin words,” Kantzios said. “Every semester we have something like 900 people taking the course. If it’s dead, why do people care so much about that? … They’re still around, they’re still very relevant.”

While it is common for students who study languages to continue on to medical or law school, Kantzios said students could do a thousand things with a degree in classics. The department’s website mentions that Mark Zuckerberg, J.K. Rowling as well as a slew of other prominent individuals studied classics.

“The vocab obviously gives you a big leg up in STEM fields, but Latin is an intensely analytical language, it’s really strongly structured, it’s really rule based,” said Christopher Polt, another USF professor in the world languages department. “In a lot of ways, learning Latin at first is like doing a crossword puzzle mixed with algebra.”

Polt said studying Latin could improve a student’s analytical skills, and their ability to slow down and handle complex tasks.

Over 60 percent of all English vocabulary is Latin based, and another 10-15 percent is Greek. Kantzios said a majority of his students feel that studying Greek helped them understand English better.

Nicole Discenza, a USF associate professor in the English department, teaches courses that cover the history of English as a language and examine texts written in Old and Middle English.

“Old English doesn’t just die off somewhere in a corner, it becomes Middle English and then Modern English,” Discenza said. “So when we learn to read those languages, we’re learning about the language we’re still speaking.”

In her class on “The Canterbury Tales,” by Geoffrey Chaucer, Discenza has her students memorize and recite the first 18 lines of the poem. She said by doing this, her students are able to better understand the sounds, syntax and vocabulary of Old English.

Discenza’s History of the English Language course, ENG4060, which will be offered next semester, covers topics from Modern English dialects to Proto-Indo-European language.

“I think it’s really eye opening to learn the older forms and see how what was old has become new again,”
Discenza said.

She said Modern English is very similar to Middle English because of the variety of dialects. Old and Middle English were not standardized and, though they were contained on a single small island, included various written dialects.  

Today the English language is broken up on a global scale into standardized dialects such as Singaporean English, American English, and British English.

“There’s a great value in studying language, and sometimes ancient languages, or so-called ‘dead languages’ get undervalued,” Discenza said. “I think it really informs our understanding of language and our understanding of people and cultures as well.”

Kantzios said studying classical languages is important in modern society, especially when it comes to modern religion.

“I believe that if all those denominations (and) all the people who belong to those denominations were able to access the Bible in the original, there would be much less misunderstanding,” Kantzios said. “Not only that, but sometimes there is … multifaceted-ness in the Greek words that sometimes does not transfer into English.

“In the St. John’s, ‘In the beginning there was the world,’ that’s how we translate it, but the ‘world’ in Greek is λόγος, logos. Logos, it may mean ‘world,’ but it also means ‘reason.’ Those things, when you transfer them from Greek into English, those nuances disappear.”

Classical societies and languages are entwined in American culture. Polt said that it is impossible to throw a stone in the U.S. without hitting something classically inspired.

“It is important to preserve the original languages because we are so much dependent in the past,” Kantzios said. “We cannot escape our past, we can learn from our past and we can use it in a way that will be helpful and active. The past is here with us, either we can learn and utilize and not have to reinvent the wheel, or we just start from square one.”