I'm really interested in Biblical studies, so I've often wondered this about the languages in the Bible. Namely, Greek (Koine), Hebrew, and Aramaic.

I've tried looking into it, but I've never really been given a satisfactory answer. Usually, people will explain to me how we can determine the certain meaning of a word, using the modern form of the language, and languages of the same language family, but this does not explain how we came to figure out the grammar and syntax of a language, when many of its parts have no modern analogue. How did we figure out how μι verbs worked in Ancient Greek, for example? Or, how did we figure that א and ע were once pronounced?

How do we go about reconstructing the grammar and syntax of a dead language (mainly, I'm wondering how this was specifically done for the languages in the Bible, but an answer for how this is generally done for any dead language, or a focus on only one of them will be fine as well)?

Is there any research that I could read about the subject?

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    The short answer is by means of historical/comparative linguistics, which is a vast field. This is much the same answer to a question like "How are black holes discovered?"; in that case the short answer is "by means of astrophysics". For the long answer, take a look at a good introduction to historical linguistics, like Trask's. It's a long, complicated, detailed, and tedious process. But the results are fascinating.
    – jlawler
    May 2, 2016 at 2:40
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    I think these cases have a lot more continuous transmission than you seem to assume. For example: with Ancient Greek, Wikipedia says "[Homer's poems were] continually read and taught in the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire where the majority of the classics also survived." With Hebrew, studying sacred texts has historically been an important part of Jewish religious practice. These languages were never lost to the modern world in the way Maya glyphs were... May 2, 2016 at 3:43
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    So they didn't need to be "reconstructed" the way we would reconstruct an unknown language. There are also often surviving translations in different languages, such as the Septaguint. May 2, 2016 at 3:46
  • Can we make any useful analogies between analysis of a dead language and L1 acquisition? In each project we have to infer patterns from incomplete data, and infer meanings from context, rather than asking a fluent bilingual. Mar 24, 2020 at 21:11
  • @ Julian Jefko. If you are really interested to dead languages's reconstructions I inform you that for more that 15 years I'm working hard to the goal to reconstruct the first form of the language that we now call 'Hebrew' (you may call it 'Proto-Semitic' if you like so). My email address is [email protected]. Dec 22, 2022 at 11:27

1 Answer 1


The main difference between dead languages and living languages in this respect is that it's possible with a living language to resolve an empirical question by interrogating a speaker of the language, and this is not possible with a dead language. Therefore is you want to know how the N. Saami word guossi is pronounced, you can ask a speaker to say it, and if you want to know if Ich habe gesagt das is grammatical in German, you can ask a speaker. If you want to know how Ancient Greek γλῶττα was pronounced or whether ʔəshaydxʷ ti stubš ci sɬaday is grammatical in Lushootseed, you'll have to use secondary sources since there are no native speakers of these languages. In dealing with dead languages, we analogize from what is known to a conclusion about the unknown, based on similarities. In fact, we usually do that with living languages, though we are not supposed to invent "data" by analogy to directly-elicited data. If there is a very large corpus of a dead language, there is a reasonable chance that a particular desired form in a paradigm is actually available and if not, there is probably a reasonable basis for conjecture based on what is known.

However: there can easily be severe limits on knowledge especially when it comes to matters of pronunciation. With very rare exceptions (most notably Sanskrit, and to a considerable extent Biblical Hebrew and Quranic Arabic), one cannot call on trained phonetic descriptions of ancient languages, whereas one can call on numerous trained phonetic descriptions of recently extinguished languages such as Tonkawa, and for Lushootseed there are recordings of native speakers.

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