Classical language

A classical language is a language with an independent literary tradition and a large and ancient body of written literature.[1] Classical languages are typically dead languages, or show a high degree of diglossia, as the spoken varieties of the language diverge further away from the classical written language over time.

Classical studies

In the context of traditional European classical studies, the "classical languages" refer to Greek and Latin, which were the literary languages of the Mediterranean world in classical antiquity.

In terms of worldwide cultural importance, Edward Sapir in his book Language would extend the list to include Chinese, Arabic, and Sanskrit:

When we realize that an educated Japanese can hardly frame a single literary sentence without the use of Chinese resources, that to this day Siamese and Burmese and Cambodgian bear the unmistakable imprint of the Sanskrit and Pali that came in with Hindu Buddhism centuries ago, or that whether we argue for or against the teaching of Latin and Greek [in schools,] our argument is sure to be studded with words that have come to us from Rome and Athens, we get some indication of what early Chinese culture and Buddhism, and classical Mediterranean civilization have meant in the world's history. There are just five languages that have had an overwhelming significance as carriers of culture. They are classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. In comparison with these, even such culturally important languages as Hebrew and French sink into a secondary position.[2]

In this sense, a classical language is a language that has a broad influence over an extended period of time, even after it is no longer a colloquial mother tongue in its original form. If one language uses roots from another language to coin words (in the way that many European languages use Greek and Latin roots to devise new words such as "telephone", etc.), this is an indication that the second language is a classical language.

In comparison, living languages with a large sphere of influence are known as world languages.

General usage

The following languages are generally taken to have a "classical" stage. Such a stage is limited in time and is considered "classical" if it comes to be regarded as a literary "golden age" retrospectively. Thus, Classical Greek is the language of 5th to 4th century BC Athens and, as such, only a small subset of the varieties of the Greek language as a whole. A "classical" period usually corresponds to a flowering of literature following an "archaic" period, such as Classical Latin succeeding Old Latin, Classical Sumerian succeeding Archaic Sumerian, Classical Sanskrit succeeding Vedic Sanskrit, Classical Persian succeeding Old Persian. This is partly a matter of terminology, and for example Old Chinese is taken to include rather than precede Classical Chinese. In some cases, such as those of Arabic and Tamil, the "classical" stage corresponds to the earliest attested literary variant.[3]


Middle Ages

Pre-Colonial Americas

Early modern period

See also


  1. Hart, George. "Statement on the status of Tamil as a Classical Language". Tamil Classes. Institute for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  2. Sapir, Edward (1921). Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. p. 164. ISBN 4-87187-529-6. Retrieved February 17, 2006.
  3. Ramanujan, A. K. (1985), Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, New York: Columbia University Press. Pp. 329, ISBN 0-231-05107-7Quote (p.ix–x) "Tamil, one of the four classical languages of India, is a Dravidian language ... These poems (Sangam literature, 1st century BC to 3rd century AD) are 'classical,' i.e. early, ancient; they are also 'classics,' i.e. works that have stood the test of time, the founding works of a whole tradition. Not to know them is not to know a unique and major poetic achievement of Indian civilization."
  4. Article "Panini" from The Columbia Encyclopedia (Sixth Edition) at
  5. Brockington, J. L. (1998). The Sanskrit epics, Part 2. Volume 12. BRILL. p. 28. ISBN 978-90-04-10260-6.
  6. Zvelebil, Kamil (1997), The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India: On Tamil Literature of South India, BRILL Academic Publishers. p. 378, ISBN 90-04-03591-5 Quote: "Chart 1 literature: 1. the "Urtext" of the Tolkappiyam, i.e. the first two sections, Eluttatikaram and Collatikaram minus later interpolations, ca. 100 BC 2. the earliest strata of bardic poetry in the so-called Cankam anthologies, ca. 1 Cent. BC–2 Cent. AD."
  7. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008. "Kannada literature" Quote: "The earliest literary work is the Kavirājamārga (c. AD 850), a treatise on poetics based on a Sanskrit model."
  8. Cresse, Helen (2001). "Old Javanese Studies: A Review of the Field". Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. 1 (157): 3–33. doi:10.1163/22134379-90003816. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  9. Ogloblin, Alexander K. (2005). "Javanese". In K. Alexander Adelaar; Nikolaus Himmelmann (eds.). The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar. London dan New York: Routledge. pp. 590–624. ISBN 9780700712861.
  10. K. Ramachandran Nair in Ayyappapanicker (1997), p.301
  • Flood, Gavin (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-43878-0
  • Nair, K. Ramachandran (1997). "Malayalam". In Ayyappapanicker (ed.). Medieval Indian Literature:An Anthology. Sahitya Akademi. ISBN 81-260-0365-0.

Further reading

  • Ashdowne, Richard. 2009. "Accidence and Acronyms: Deploying electronic assessment in support of classical language teaching in a university context." Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 8, no. 2: 201–16.
  • Beach, Adam R. 2001. "The creation of a classical language in the eighteenth century: standardizing English, cultural imperialism, and the future of the literary canon." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43, no. 2: 117+.
  • Coulson, Michael. 1976. Sanskrit: An Introduction to the Classical Language. Sevenoaks, Kent: Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Crooker, Jill M., and Kathleen A. Rabiteau. 2000. "An interwoven fabric: The AP latin examinations, the SAT II: Latin test, and the national "standards for classical language learning." The Classical Outlook 77, no. 4: 148-53.
  • Denizot, Camille, and Olga Spevak. 2017. Pragmatic Approaches to Latin and Ancient Greek. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Eschbach-Szabo, Viktoria, and Shelley Ching-yu Hsieh. 2005. "Chinese as a classical language of botanical science: Semiotics of transcription." Kodikas/Code. Ars Semeiotica: An International Journal of Semiotics 28, nos. 3–4: 317-43.
  • Gruber-Miller, John. 2006. When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hymes, Robert. 2006. "Getting the Words Right: Speech, Vernacular Language, and Classical Language in Song Neo-Confucian 'Records of Words'." Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 36: 25-55.
  • Koutropoulos, Apostolos. 2011. "Modernizing classical language education: communicative language teaching & educational technology integration in classical Greek." Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 9, no. 3 (2011): 55–69.
  • Tieken, Herman. 2010. "Blaming the Brahmins: Texts lost and found in Tamil literary history." Studies in History 26, no. 2: 227-43.
  • Watt, Jonathan M. 2003. "Classical language instruction: A window to cultural diversity." International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities, and Nations 3: 115-24.
  • Whitney, William Dwight. 1971. Sanskrit Grammar: Including Both the Classical Language, and the Older Dialects, of Veda and Brahmana. 12th issue of the 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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