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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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1.3 Family resemblances

Let us now take a closer look at the languages themselves.

Neither language is unusual from a strictly linguistic point of view. It is easier to trace connections between them and other languages than to identify any unique characteristics. You can appreciate this by thinking in terms of a ‘family tree’ of languages, with younger languages inheriting characteristics from older ones. This so-called ‘genetic’ approach to language classification gathered momentum in the late eighteenth century, especially after the demonstration in 1786 that Greek and Latin shared roots with Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. The excitement generated by this discovery is neatly captured in the following contemporary account:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in the forms of the grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer [i.e. linguist] could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

Sir William Jones, 1786 address to the Royal Asiatic Society in Kolkata