Follow up to Could a well versed archaeologist understand and speak languages that are 3000+ years old?

I have an archaeologist who finds some inscriptions that are at least 3000 years old while excavating some ruins in Northern Europe. It takes him some time, but he manages to track down one of the world's leading specialists in this language to help him with the translations. Due to some handwavy mumbo jumbo, these two scientists manage to awaken a supernatural being that has been in a sort of stasis since the inscriptions were first written.

At a bare minimum, I would need these scientists to be able to read and write in a common dialogue that the supernatural being would understand, but I would prefer them to be able to have a spoken dialogue.

What would be the best language for the supernatural being to know to allow for this?

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    $\begingroup$ Just make sure you have lots of gum when you wake the supernatural being. Remember, Dum Dum want Gum Gum. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second May 24 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ Does the common language have to be European? $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second May 24 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond - Oh, you in trouble, Dum-dum. You better run-run. From Attila the Hun-hun! $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica May 24 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ Hebrew would also be a good contender, having first been spoken around 1000 BCE. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second May 24 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond In The Mummy, when Imhotep is awakened he menacingly approaches Beni. To defend himself, Beni starts reciting chants from a variety of religions. The Christian, Muslim and Buddhist prayers have no effect, until he chances upon a Hebrew psalm, which Imhotep immediately recognises. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo May 25 at 7:25

You are in luck; we actually do know one three thousand years old European language, maybe one and a half. We also do know another (non-European) language spoken three thousand years ago which is quite conceivable that the ancient supernatural being might know.

  1. Homeric Greek.

    There are millions of people who can read Homer's and Hesiod's works in the original. We are even pretty certain that we know how pronounce them in a way which is not all that far removed from the original. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days were originally composed in the 9th, most likely 8th or maybe 7th century before the common era, so 2700 to 2900 years ago, most likely around 2800 years ago.

    At that time the Greeks were busy using their ships to trade all over the Mediterranean, so their language was already beginning to be known internationally. Not so much as option number 3, but still plausible.

    (The major advantage of Homeric Greek is that there are many people in the modern world who know it well enough to communicate. This is how the stranded Natucketers begin to communicate with their Tartessian frenemies in S. M. Stirling's celebrated Nantucket series beginning with Island in the Sea of Time.)

  2. For completeness, we should also mention the remote possibility that the ancient supernatural being knows some sort of very archaic Latin. It is not at all likely, but hey, maybe his daughter dated a particulary exotic adventurer from Alba Longa, which, at that time, was the most important Latin city. (Rome did not exist yet.) (Yes, there was a people called Latins.) The main problem is that at that time Latin was a small language, spoken by an insignificant small nation in central Italy, and one would have to explain how come the ancient supernatural being knows it.

  3. The great language of trade widely known at that time around the shores of Europe was Phoenician.

    • The Phoenicians actually traded as far north as Britain in the right time-frame, and they were the dominant long-distance traders in Europe at that time.

    • Phoenician was actually written at that time, so it is plausible to find inscriptions.

    • Phoenician is quite similar to the oldest layers of Biblical Hebrew, so that it is quite easily believable that a modern scholar would quickly make sense of it. (There are very many people who study Biblical Hebrew.)

So basically, that's it: if they are to communicate orally without spending time actually learning each other's language, it would be in Homeric Greek or in Phoenician.

If there are inscriptions to be found and quickly deciphered, they would most likely be in Phoenician.

  1. But! It is perfectly conceivable (and, it my opinion, it would make a great episode in the story) that the inscriptions are in the parent language of Proto-Germanic written with a local adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet. At that time, that very late Indo-European dialect which gave rise to Proto-Germanic was spoken in southern Scandinavia and maybe the Jutland peninsula; and you are speaking exactly about the time when the Phoenician invention of the alphabet was spreading like wildfire west and east -- it was such a simple idea, it makes writing so easy, why on Earth didn't we think about it! If it spread to the west, and it spread to the east, why not also to the north?

    (We know Proto-Germanic a lot better than Proto-Celtic, mainly because the Germanic languages are much more conservative than Celtic languages and thus the reconstruction is much easier, because Germanic languages are attested at an earlier stage, and because Proto-Germanic has so many more living descendants than Proto-Celtic. Its immediate parent language must have been an Indo-European transitional dialect of Proto-Indo-European already with the distinctive Germanic vocabulary, but without the defining First Germanic Consonant Shift.)

Note about the idea of some sort of Proto-Basque: While we are certain that the ancestors of the Basques spoke a language which is the ancestor of Basque, we unfortunately don't know anything much about that language. Yes, it must have existed. No, we don't know it. Not that very few people study it; no: we simply have very very little data (basically, a handful or names recorded by the Greeks and the Romans) so that, at present, we don't even pretend to have the foggiest idea about it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would not call either Homeric Greek or Proto-Basque Northern European languages :-) $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen May 25 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen: That's why we have option 4... $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 25 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed. Adding my upvote. I'm unsure about the written versions that would be old enough. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen May 25 at 7:47
  • $\begingroup$ In defence of 2: It would make sense for a supernatural being to have a fairly complete knowledge of all languages spoken around the world at the time. While it would be far-fetched for Latin to be its primary language, I think it's much more reasonable that Latin would be one of the many languages it knows. $\endgroup$ – Jakub Konieczny May 25 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ 1000 BCE is too early for Proto-Germanic, which is believed to have arisen roughly 500 years later. At the time in question you're dealing with Pre-Proto-Germanic, which would have been a dialect of Proto-Indo-European. More importantly, the First Germanic Sound Shift wouldn't have happened yet, which, aside from issues of grammar and vocabulary changes, is going to play hell with understanding, at least as much as a modern English speaker would have trying to understand Old English. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison May 25 at 21:09


The Pre-Indo-European languages are any of several ancient languages, not necessarily related to one another, that existed in Prehistoric Europe and South Asia before the arrival of speakers of Indo-European languages. The oldest Indo-European language texts date from the 19th century BC in Kültepe, now in Turkey, and while estimates vary widely, the spoken Indo-European languages are believed to have developed at the latest by the 3rd millennium BC (see Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses). Thus, the Pre-Indo-European languages must have developed earlier than or, in some cases alongside, the Indo-European languages that ultimately displaced them.1[2][3]

A handful of the languages still survive; in Europe, Basque retains a localised strength, with fewer than a million native speakers...

The Basque language is definitely old enough for your purposes. Whether an ancient speaker would be intelligible at all is a different matter but you can sort it out in the fiction. Once your scholar catches on that some nouns and verbs are Basque, if the god is willing to be patient they can sort out accent and sentence structure with a little work.

There is also lots of fun theories about where Basque came from which range from the scientific to Atlantis-type theories; read a little and pick what you like!

A map showing the shrinkage of the Basque language area during historic times.


Basque distribution

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    $\begingroup$ Bigger. Possibly a lot bigger. The Basques are the relic population left from the people who lived there before the Indo-Europeans showed up. It might be knowable how large the original range of Basque was, looking for Basque words that have made it into regional dialects. If you assert they were speaking Proto-Basque in central France in 1000 BC I do not think anyone will cry foul. I did find the above map (added to my answer) showing distribution back to Roman times. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 23 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe I can summon @AlexP who always has interesting insights into European languages. AlexP AlexP AlexP! $\endgroup$ – Willk May 23 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ I'm skeptical. High school in Ireland required me to learn from a book called "Peig", an autobiography of an Irish speaking woman from the 19th century who died in the 20th. However you have to practically translate it (sentence by sentence) into modern Irish. Likewise compare Chaucer or something from that period with modern English. Basque may have survived 3000 years but I very much doubt it would be recognizable by a modern Basque speaker at all. $\endgroup$ – StephenG May 23 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk: Answered as summoned. (And we do not know anything about the ancestor language of Basque that was spoken 3000 years ago. Yes, we know that it must have existed. No, we do not know it, we do not know anything much about it. Such is the fate of a language isolate attested so very late.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 23 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Basque speaker here. While the structure of a phrase, of verbs, grammar or other thins may have not change, lot of vocabulary comes from latin, french, spanish, and other languages such as arabic. It's sometimes already hard to speak with someone of a different dialect (called euskalki), even if they are geographicaly close with lot of exchanges. Sure you could exchange words, but don't expect fluent conversation from the beginning. $\endgroup$ – Kepotx May 25 at 12:58

There are two questions that need to be unpacked from what you've written. One -- the language - has been addressed in the linked question. The other is this: what writing system did these archeologists find this 3000-year-old language written in?

There are four known writing systems from 1000 BC we can expect an archeologist to recognize, & perhaps even understand. (Actually five, if we include written Chinese.) They are Egyptian hieroglyphs, Luwian hieroglyphs (used in parts of Anatolia), cuneiform, & the Phoenician alphabet. (The Mycenaean Linear scripts fell out of use by 1000 BC.) I don't know of any examples of the Egyptian or Luwian systems being used beyond their territories, let alone to represent other languages.

While a number of languages have been written using cuneiform, reading cuneiform is a very specialized skill: I took a class in Hittite language years ago, & the instructor simplified matters by omitting teaching cuneiform. (All of our texts were transliterated.) So unless your archeological party happened to have a professor in Semitic languages along, I figure all they could do is say, "Hey, this is written in cuneiform!"

The Phoenician alphabet makes a little more sense: the Phoenicians spread the use of their writing system thru the Mediterranean, & it was later modified to use with Etruscan & Greek. Even an archeologist with only a superficial knowledge of the topic could at least transliterate the inscription, & make a guess at the language it was written in. (IIRC, any competent archeologist working in European topics would know English & one or more of German, French, Italian & Spanish, as well as have some knowledge of Latin &/or ancient Greek. So they could guess from a transcription that it was written in either Proto-Celtic or Proto-Germanic.)

To say more, one would need to do more in-depth research.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that even if we have the writing system, we have no idea how it was pronounced. For languages such as Ancient Egyptian, we do at least have a point of similarity in names of people and places which can be compared; elsewhere we don't even have that. Even then, we also have the Great Vowel Shift in English to prove that pronunciation of the same word can change over time; an English person from 1700 would have had trouble talking to someone from 1400. $\endgroup$ – Graham May 26 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ ... And even in the same language, accents may make a speaker incomprehensible, even within the same country. I've had to "translate" at times for a team member who comes from the same area of northern England as me. And the accents from Glasgow and Newcastle are famously hard to follow, so much so that when the comedy series Rab C Nesbitt (set in Glasgow) was first broadcast, it was actually subtitled because the BBC didn't think that English viewers would be able to understand it! $\endgroup$ – Graham May 26 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ ... It gets worse with English too. Native Brits are used to a very wide range of accents and grammars just within Britain, which is why it's relatively easy for visitors with very little English to make themselves understood, and sub-languages from America/India/Africa aren't an issue. The same is not true elsewhere though - it once took me 10 minutes to get a bottle of water at a cinema in Detroit because none of the staff could understand an English accent. How sensitive to accent might the OP's demon be? $\endgroup$ – Graham May 26 at 9:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham, you have a point. But without an understandable writing system, we have no clue what language this entity might be speaking, just some wild guesses: Basque, Aquitainian, Etruscan, Proto-Germanic, or Proto-Finnish. If a known writing system is used, the characters have some chance, slim as it may be, of understanding this entity. Unless it is omnipotent & speaks their modern language instantly. $\endgroup$ – llywrch May 26 at 15:20

So far so good for central and southern Europe!

But your guys are going to be working in northern Europe! At 1000 BC, your best bet is going to be a Uralic language (e.g., such as are spoken in Finland and along the Arctic Ocean coastlands.

It's thought that the Uralic languages got their start in relatively close proximity to the Indo-European family, and some have posited that those two families share a common ancestor.

Sadly for your intrepid duo, there are no records of anything written in any Uralic language before the 1200s. So, if what the archaeologist finds is a sample of actual Uralic, this would be a bonanza for philology! That would be like finding Schleicher's Fable in the flesh for the Indoeuropeanists! Assuming the writing itself can be deciphered & read, it should at least sound familiar to a Uralicist. So, yes, eventually they'd be able to talk to this ancient being.

We really don't know anything at all about what languages were spoken in the rest of Northern Europe at that time. Clearly, the Celts, Slavs & Teutons moved in on somebody, we just don't know who. Could be related to Uralic, could be related to Basque, could be related to Etruscan. Who knows!

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