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A classical language is any language with an independent literary tradition and a large body of ancient written literature.[1]

Classical studies

Main article: Classics

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.

Greek was the language of Homer and of classical Athenian, Hellenistic and Byzantine historians, playwrights, and philosophers. It has contributed many words to the vocabulary of English and many other European languages, and has been a standard subject of study in Western educational institutions since the Renaissance. Latinized forms of Ancient Greek roots are used in many of the scientific names of species and in other scientific terminology. Koine Greek, which served as a lingua franca in the Eastern Roman Empire, remains in use today as a sacred language in some Eastern Orthodox churches.

Latin became the lingua franca of the early Roman Empire and later of the Western Roman Empire. Despite the decline of the Western Roman Empire, the Latin language continued to flourish in the very different social and economic environment of the Middle Ages, not least because it became the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. In Western and Central Europe and in parts of northern Africa, Latin retained its elevated status as the main vehicle of communication for the learned classes throughout the Middle Ages and subsequently; witness especially the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This language was not supplanted for scientific purposes until the 18th century, and for formal descriptions in zoology as well as botany it survived to the later 20th century. The modern international binomial nomenclature holds to this day: taxonomists assign a Latin or Latinized name as the scientific name of each species.

Outside of western civilization

In terms of worldwide cultural importance, Edward Sapir in his 1921 book Language extends the list to include classical 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.[citation needed]

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

General usage

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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.[citation needed] 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 Persian and Tamil, the "classical" stage corresponds to the earliest attested literary variant.[3]


Middle Ages

Native American languages

Early modern period

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See also


  1. ^ Hart, George. "Statement on the status of Tamil as a Classical Language". Institute for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley. Retrieved 18 October 2021.
  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. Vol. 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

Further reading