In Focus
Jan 19, 2022

Dead Languages Remain Alive in the Classroom – and Beyond

Dead languages has been brought into the spotlight with the introduction of Ancient Babylonian in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Gina BagnuloAssistant Features Editor
Illustration by Emma Donohoe for The University Times

Dead languages, sometimes called ancient languages, have a thriving community at Trinity. While often the butt of a joke, their relevance can be underestimated. Ancient languages provide a unique insight into historic social and cultural development and have informed the modern languages we know today.

As one of the oldest English-speaking universities in the world, Trinity has historically been at the forefront of teaching about language in Europe, particularly in the field of dead languages such as Ancient Greek or Latin. With availability almost exclusively at private secondary schools, the number of Leaving Certificate students sitting the classical studies, Latin and Ancient Greek marks them as minority subjects.

Dr Martin Worthington is a lecturer in Trinity’s department of Near and Middle Eastern studies, specialising in the field of the antiquital Near East. Worthington has recently brought the study of Ancient Babylonian, or Akkadian, to public attention which has not been in use since 500 BCE.


Dr Worthington was consulted for the development of the Marvel blockbuster Eternals, in which characters speak Babylonian.

He explains that he is neutral on the characterisation of ancient languages as “dead”: “I could recognise the problems with it, for example is Latin dead? It depends on how you define dead language. Are there still native speakers of this language and so forth – these are all points on which the state of a language can be accessed.”

When addressing the importance of studying Babylonian, Worthington said: “There are probably two dimensions to that there are interests in it – it’s taken me all over the world, it’s given me a big and small film. In terms of intellectual history, 100 years ago, ancient Iraq was barely known, many things had to be reconstructed. If someone had to study Europe from the year 0 until the present day. It is an inherently disciplinary field, within which anyone can find their niche.”

Is Latin dead? It depends on how you define dead language

Although perhaps a niche interest, he explains that generating exposure and spurring excitement around these languages is essential and should not be confined to the academic domain. “I would recommend Babylonian to everybody because of the way it portrays your brain to think in patterns. This is especially the case in the way in understanding how it relates to English, nano physicists are very surprised with this relation. Over half of human history, the cuneiform system of writing had a presence for over 3,000 years. There are multiple studies outlining how much the Ancient Greeks owe to the Babylonians. The Greeks were just a speck in a wider Middle Eastern world. If you are interested in Egypt and the world’s first epic poem, Gilgamesh, architecture there are a lot of questions Babylonian can answer for you.”

Speaking of his work on Eternals Dr Worthington explains that “the whole experience was great fun. Of course it was a special moment to see and hear the finished product, but the translations presented me with any number of philological challenges, and I really enjoyed thinking through these – it’s what I do!” He explains that as someone whose subject sometimes raises the eyebrows of the unwary for putatively not being ‘useful’, I felt a quiet satisfaction in finding such a real-world application.”

Dr Worthington explains that “on an emotional level” he was surprised by the inclusion of Babylonian into the Marvel cinematic universe. “When the first email arrived it came totally out of the blue. I was delighted, and flabbergasted,” he explains. “But it’s still the first time it’s happened for a major feature film to feature characters speaking Babylonian (and Sumerian). The notions of ‘first time’ and ‘surprising’ have a close, if complex, relationship.”

The Babylonian language, Dr Worthington says, has “spent about two millennia lying in a silent grave, so I think my colleagues of the past 160 years have already done a pretty good job at reviving it. The amount we know is astonishing. But what any language – alive, dead or somewhere in between – needs is people: learners, users, speakers. While I don’t see Babylonian becoming an official language of the European Union any time soon, thanks to the efforts of many scholars the awareness of its existence is spreading, which can only be a good thing. It is all part of the inexhaustibly rich tapestry which is the human past.”

I would recommend Babylonian to everybody because of the way it portrays your brain to think in patterns

Dr Zuleika Rodgers is the head of the department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity. This department has been pivotal in the study of ancient languages. Rodgers explains the vastly diverse work that Trinity scholars of Eastern languages conduct “from its foundation, both ancient and contemporary. There were experts in Farsi, Sanskrit, and even in hieroglyphics and cuneiform”.

Rodgers also speaks about Prof Jacob Weingreen, a scholar of Near Eastern languages, after whom a museum in the department is named. “Weingreen had written grammar books in Classical Hebrew which has been translated into many languages including Korean and Braille, knew modern Hebrew and at the time of his death was writing a grammar of classical Arabic.” Honouring the work to excavate, analyse and revive languages, Rodgers explains, is imperative.

Restricting access to the morals, philosophy of the ancient world as well as the subject matter – including mythological tales and fables that provide the foundation for modern Western storytelling – is to be regretted. The route that subjects like Latin provide at second and third level to an ancient world, however, has been granted to a small minority of students.

As well as the mythological tales that carry enduring intrigue for students and scholars, the vocabulary and grammar of ancient languages is of modern day relevance. Over 60 per cent of the English language is derived from Greek and Latin, spanning the fields of law, medicine and science.

Dr Charlie Kerrigan, a professor of Latin at Trinity, explains that it is “the most studied ancient language in the world for historical reasons. The elite education in Europe was structured around Latin and Greek. In more recent times, a lot of educational privilege was structured around Latin and Greek.”

Over 60 per cent of the English language is derived from Greek and Latin, spanning the fields of law, medicine and science

Student interest in Latin at Trinity, Kerrigan explains, is “constant and remaining constant. There would always be people interested in these things. Students are always interested in these languages when studying the past and questioning the present. Take the example of gender that is now being spoken about in a useful and progressive way. Latin terms and terminology has a lot to do with this.”

Dr Jurgen Uhlich is a professor of Old Irish. Explaining what exactly sets apart Old Irish from other ancient languages, he said: “Here it is an important part of pre-history of Irish culture. Old Irish is very different from modern Irish. I teach that old languages are never pronounced as written. Without knowing Old Irish you cannot read and understand old documents properly.”

Addressing why it is important to study Old Irish in the 21st century he added that this issue is closely tethered to “the question of why it ’s important to study history. We can see the mistakes that were made before us. What has shaped modern Irish history”. In regards to an increase in student interest in the language he concluded, “It’s always been a small subject. Quoting a former Trinity professor of Old Irish, David Green, ‘if I ever have a full-time student for every four years I will retire!’”

Despite their characterisation as niche or minority subjects, however, ancient languages endure – and are revived in dynamic ways even outside the classroom.

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