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A classical language, is a language with a literature that is classical— i.e., it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. (UC Berkeleymarker linguist George L. Hart)

Thus classical languages tend to be either dead languages, or show a high degree of diglossia, as the spoken varieties of the language diverge further and further away from the classical written language over centuries.

Classical studies

In a most restricted meaning, in the inherently Eurocentric context of Classical studies, "the Classical Languages" are the Greek and Latin literary languages of Classical Antiquity, foundational to Western culture.

In terms of worldwide cultural importance, Edward Sapir in Language (1921) would extend the list by 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 arguments are sure to be studded with words that have come to us from Rome and Athens, we get some indication of what early Chinese culture, Buddhism, and classical mediterranean civilization have meant in the world's history.
There are just five languages that have had overwhelming significance as carriers of culture.
These are classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, and Latin.
In comparison with these, even such culturally important languages such as Hebrew and French sink into a secondary position.

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.

Living languages with a large sphere of influence are known as world languages.

General Usage

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. Thus, Classical Greek is the language of 5th to 4th century BCE 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 a 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 Arabic and Tamil, the "classical" stage corresponds to the earliest attested literary variant.

Ancient Near East

Classical Antiquity

Middle Ages

  • Classical Arabic (based on the language of the Qur'an, 7th c.)
  • New Persian (language of classical Persian literature, 9th to 17th c.)
  • Classical Japanese (language of Heian period literature, 10th to 12th c.)
  • Classical Telugu (language of Eastern Chalukya literature from 10th or 11th century CE).Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008. "Kannada literature" Quote: "The earliest literary work is the Kavirājamārga (c. ad 850), a treatise on poetics based on a Sanskrit model."
    "Telugu literature," Quote: "The literature, beginning in the 10th or 11th century, is mainly poetry and secular and religious epics ..."
    "Sanskrit literature," Quote: "Two main periods in the development of the literature are discernible: the Vedic period, approximately 1500–200 BC; and, somewhat overlapping it, the classical period, approximately 500 BC–AD 1000."
    "Tamil literature," Quote: "Some inscriptions on stone have been dated to the 3rd century bc, but Tamil literature proper begins around the 1st century AD."

  • Classical Icelandic (the language of the Icelandic sagas, 13th c.)
  • Classical Gaelic (language of the 13th to 18th c. Scottish Gaelic literature)

Early Modern period

New World

See also


  1. : According to UC Berkeley linguist George L. Hart, [to] qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.
  2. Quote (p. ix–x) "Tamil, one of the two classical languages of India, is a Dravidian language ... These poems (Sangam literature, 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE) 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."
  3. Article "Panini" from The Columbia Encyclopedia (Sixth Edition. 2001-07) at
  4. 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."

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