A classical language is a language with a literature that's classical . According to UC Berkeley linguist George L. Hart, 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]

Classical languages are typically dead languages, or show a high degree of diglossia, as the spoken varieties of the language diverge further away from the classical written language over time.

Classical studies

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.

In terms of worldwide cultural importance, Edward Sapir in (1921) would extend the list to include Chinese, Arabic, and Sanskrit:

When we realise 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 a few 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 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.

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 a large number of European languages use Greek and Latin roots to devise new words like "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 fifth to fourth century BC Athens and, as such, only a small subset of the varieties of the Greek language as a whole. A "classical" period most of the time corresponds to a flowering of literature following an "archaic" period, like 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 a few cases, like those of Arabic and Tamil, the "classical" stage corresponds to the earliest attested literary variant. [3]

Middle Ages
Pre-Colonial Americas
Early modern period