After reading How Dead Languages Work
(Oxford University Press 2020), Coulter George hopes you might decide to learn a bit of ancient Greek or Sanskrit, or maybe dabble in a bit of Old Germanic. But even if readers of his book aren’t converted into polyglots, they will walk away with an introduction to the (in)famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is responsible for the inaccurate meme claiming that Inuits understand snow more deeply than other cultures because their language has one hundred (one thousand?) words for it. George criticizes this hypothesis, but through his six chapters, uses examples of ancient languages to argue that a subtler form of that hypothesis is apt: languages aren’t fungible, and the properties of different languages are interwoven with their literary traditions. The book takes readers through Greek, Latin, Old English and the Germanic Languages, Sanskrit, Old Irish and the Celtic Languages, and Hebrew, introducing their phonology, morphology, lexicons, grammar, and excerpting passages from texts such as the Illiad
and the Rig Veda
, to illustrate how the flavor of a language is always lost a little in translation.
Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Yale-NUS College. His research focuses on Indian philosophy of language and epistemology in Sanskrit. He is the author of Language, Meaning, and Use in Indian Philosophy (Bloomsbury Press, 2019) and host of the podcast Sutras (and stuff).