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CLASSICAL LANGUAGE. A prestigious, often ancient language, such as LATIN or SANSKRIT, or a variety of a language, such as classical GREEK. Such a language is usually learned formally, is often a yardstick against which other languages are measured, and may be a norm in terms of which they are described. Classical languages are often contrasted with VERNACULAR languages, in a relationship of ‘high’ to ‘low’. They have traditionally provided models for successor or dependent languages, especially for styles of verse and prose, literary genres, grammatical descriptions, pronouncements on usage, and philosophical and other texts. They have a body of literature, usually preserved in manuscript form and organized into a canon which may be scriptural (as with Sanskrit and Arabic), secular or secularized (as with classical Greek), or a mixture of these (as with Latin). The evaluation is often historical, made by later generations, and in many instances a certain period in the history of such a language has been regarded as a golden age.

Classical strata in non-classical languages

Generally, a classical language dominates a cultural area in which vernaculars are used. Because of this, elements of its vocabulary may be absorbed into a subordinate tongue, to form a more or less distinct ‘high’ stratum within it. Both learning the classical language and using its extension into a vernacular are often associated with prestigious systems of education in certain societies, such as Latinity in the public schools of England. After the invasion of the Persian Empire by Muslims from Arabia, Persian developed a learned stratum of Arabic, and in such languages as Hindi and Tamil there are Sanskrit strata. Both classical ARABIC and Sanskrit have been associated with traditional forms of education. The Neo-Latin stratum of English developed during and after the Renaissance, largely as a response to the need for a prose capable of handling scholarship and science, traditionally the domain of Latin.

Dead language?

There is a widespread view that to be truly classical, a language should be ‘dead’: that is, not passed on from parent to child within a community. Some classical languages, such as Latin and Sanskrit, have not been mother tongues for centuries, but this is not a universal feature of such languages. At one and the same time, Greek in various forms was the mother tongue of the Greeks, a Mediterranean lingua franca, and for the Romans a classical source of literary and rhetorical inspiration. In such situations, there has been a tendency to look to one variety of such a language as ‘the best’: that is, the properly classical and normative. In the case of Greek this was the educated Attic or Athenian variety.

A learned code

Because of centuries of standardization and veneration of literary usage, a classical language or a classicized variety of a language may split off from everyday use. Classical Latin split off from the ‘vulgar’ varieties of the Republic and the Empire, and Sanskrit split off from the Prakrits of northern India. When such a division occurs, the classicized medium becomes progressively less and less available as a mother tongue. It is instead perpetuated in script, print, and formal instruction as the learned code of an élite, taught by accredited masters. Latin became a ‘high’ language first through its literary and rhetorical tradition, then its association with Christian learning. Sanskrit and classical Arabic became ‘high’ languages primarily as the vehicles of religion. Mandarin Chinese became such a language because, especially in writing, it served to hold the Chinese Empire together for centuries, was associated with Confucianism and public examinations, and influenced such other cultures as the Japanese and Korean.

Classical English

English has within it a double classical inheritance, from Latin and from Greek through Latin. The STANDARD LANGUAGE has two blended superstrates and is to some degree defined by their presence and use. After the Renaissance, English began to display classical tendencies of its own, when a ‘refined’ and ‘elegant’ standard was promoted by 17–18c writers who called themselves Augustans in imitation of the Augustan period in ancient Rome. Such writers and their associates set their own, especially literary usage above all other forms of the language and some campaigned for an academy and a dictionary that would enshrine classical norms. Samuel Johnson, however, found that he could not compile the kind of dictionary hoped for, and with the independence of the US a resistance to Augustan norms developed outside Britain. In 1828, the American writer John Neal observed:
For my own part … I never shall write what is now worshipped under the name of classical English. It is no natural language—it never was—it never will be spoken alive on this earth: and therefore, ought never to be written. We have dead languages enough now; but the deadest language I ever met with, or heard of, was that in use among the writers of Queen Anne's day (unpublished preface to the novel Rachel Dyer).
Nevertheless, present-day STANDARD ENGLISH has received a double legacy from the Augustans: (1) The variety known as the King's/Queen's English, associated with the public schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. (2) The print standard, which, despite minor differences in spelling and some other conventions in BrE and AmE, was largely systematized in the 18c. In the late 20c, Standard English has four quasi-classical features: it is a prestigious international medium; its literary canon is widely studied, including by many non-native speakers; its vocabulary is being drawn into ‘vernaculars’ throughout the world; and amid its varieties, the print standard serves as a canonical form, learned not at home but at school. It is not surprising, therefore, that for many people standard English is an object of some reverence, and that they wish to protect it from barbarians at its gates, as if it too were a classical language.


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