Unconventional Languages Degree Review

If there’s a language you’ve never heard of, Oxford is bound to offer it. Spanish may be spoken in twenty countries, but that doesn’t stop language geeks here from pursuing Hittite, Persian and Syriac. There are an impressive abundance of options, most of which thankfully being offered ab initio (from scratch).

Answering the “what do you study” question never fails to provoke probing of why on earth I picked Modern Greek. As a celebration of niche languages, I thought I would ask the same question to students of Turkish, Akkadian, Tibetan (which isn’t even on Google Translate), Japanese, Egyptian (yes, actual hieroglyphics), Arabic, and Sanskrit.

Phoebe Hennell – Modern Greek, or Ελληνικά

I suppose I have my sister’s pancreas to thank for how I ended up studying Modern Greek at Oxford. My love affair with Greece began four summers ago, after an unexpected drama. Halloumi, cheap cigarettes and retsina galore, my sister’s week holidaying on the island Thassos had landed her with pancreatitis. Being a wondrously caring sibling, I spent all my summer wages on flying out to take care of her, since she wasn’t allowed on a plane yet. This impromptu trip planted the seed of obsession in me. It wasn’t long before I had taught myself the alphabet, exhausted my local library’s audio CD collection, and learned how to confidently say “I want an ouzo” (θέλω ένα ούζο) in Greek.

Quite uniquely, the language Greeks speak today requires clarification of its era. Without sticking “modern” in front, it is presumed that I mean the language of their ancestors some three milennia ago. English, hardly overshadowed by Old English, obviously does not require the same clarification. For me, there was never a question of modern versus classical. Language is a window into another universe, so I knew I wanted to speak it with living people, with a year abroad in Athens, and not simply read ancient plays. In literature, we do learn a great deal about how contemporary society feels overshadowed by their obviously rather impressive ancient past.

I am asked: why learn a language spoken only by 2 countries? The sparse population of Greece is 10.5 million (and declining!) — only a sprinkling more than London’s 9 million. But when you love that sole country enough, it doesn’t matter if it’s only a small civilisation; it can make it all the more special, plus the natives are always very flattered.

When I arrived in freshers, I was curious to meet my coursemates but was soon met with the reality that I had none. This had its advantages: I essentially had a personal tutor instead of a lecturer. However, this made discreetly skiving Friday morning lectures an impossibility. The population of my year doubled to a grand total of two when a classics boy switched, and the department is so tight-knit that this one tute partner even became my boyfriend!

Matilda Allan – Turkish, or Türkçe

The decision to commit four years and my student loan to studying French and Turkish was obviously not a spur of the moment decision, but perhaps did require a bit of mad blind faith. I have no Turkish family or connections to the country but after about a year of dwelling and ignoring the pleas of my school’s career advisor, I realised it was the only thing I wanted to do. No country in the world, it seems to me, has a culture, a history and a language that so perfectly combines all my areas of interest than Turkey. From the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish language reform of the early 20th century, to its recent struggles to resolve the Kurdish question or its relationship with secularism; Turkey has constantly wrestled with its own identity and place in the world, and that is what I find so fascinating.

Though being the only person in my year across the whole university studying Turkish comes with its challenges – for example, sharing my classes with post-grads was particularly intimidating at first – the language itself comes with more. I feel lost in most of my grammar classes and the Oxford term system forces your studies to be particularly fast-paced. However, the more I progress in class, the more sure I am that I’ve made the right decision in studying my ‘weird’ language. Though at times it can feel overwhelming, who could really complain about a degree that allows you to explore the country that you are so enthralled by?

Ananda Lee – Tibetan, or བོད་སྐད་

I mainly chose to study Tibetan because I have always been fascinated with Tibetan culture, as well as the branch of Buddhism which is specific to Tibet. My family being Tibetan Buddhist led to a childhood full of countless trips to retreats and teachings and this has had an unquestionable impact on the development of my intrigue for the topic. Religion and Oriental Studies has proved to be a fantastic choice; it has allowed me to combine my life-long love of learning languages with my interest in comparative religion. I find the Tibetan language particularly captivating because of the fact that it cannot be studied without reference to Buddhism – the two are intrinsically linked. I study both written and spoken Tibetan and this is really important to me because it opens up the opportunity to engage with the modern-day nuances of such an authentically preserved tradition. Unfortunately, my course does not offer a year abroad; even so, I am planning to spend some time with a Tibetan community in India or Nepal this summer. 

Initially, I was apprehensive – I thought that the unconventional nature of my course would inhibit my social life, especially because I am the only one in the whole undergraduate body who does my exact combination of Tibetan and religion. I now realise that it has massive benefits, for example: there are only a few students in my classes, so the teaching is highly personalised. On top of this, I have gained valuable experience by becoming involved with organising events within my faculty (like the Tibetan New Year party) and this would not have been possible if I was on a larger course. It is also amazing to think about the fact that I am one of the only people in the country who has knowledge in such a distinct academic field. Niche courses are great, don’t be put off! 

Tom Channer – Akkadian

Amongst all the weird and wonderful courses one can study at Oxford, I think mine is a front-runner for the weirdest and most wonderful. According to my personal statement, I experienced a cliché revelatory moment after seeing Assyrian reliefs at the British Museum, but sadly the reality is that I wanted to study Classics, but after various plot twists I found myself embarking on a degree in Ancient Near Eastern Studies (with a smidgeon of classics and Egyptology on the side…).

 Akkadian is a challenging game of mental gymnastics: it combines logographic and syllabic writing, and each of the thousands of signs can have multiple phonetic values, and so there are multiple ways of writing every word. Add into this the fact that with each term’s set texts comes the bombshell of a new script or dialect (Standard Babylonian and Assyrian are rather different!), and you get the impression of the daily challenges. The rewards, however, are worth it: the literary corpus from Mesopotamia, preserved on clay tablets for millennia, is unbelievably wide-ranging, from ‘wisdom’ texts about the value of life, to epic poetry about the deeds of Gilgameš, to the world’s first recorded laws, to proverbs with jokes about flatulence – it’s all there. 

Alexander Rojczyk – Japanese, or 日本語

When people ask me why I am doing Japanese, I usually say I don’t know anymore. But the reason I applied in the first place was because I couldn’t figure out what else I could possibly do with my life. I had been learning Japanese as a pastime for 4 years already when I applied to Oxford and I thought I might as well continue with it in the university (I couldn’t really envision myself doing anything else — a horrid combination of Geography, Maths and English I did in high school didn’t leave me a lot of choice anyway!) As to why I started self-studying — I’ve been really into Japanese music since I was a teenager and at some point I realised I might as well learn the language myself because it’s quite tiring to rely on other people for translations and access to content (especially when you like niche stuff – and I do!).

What’s interesting about Japanese is that it seems to be forever expanding — the longer I study and the more I know, the more I realise how much stuff I don’t know yet. The abundance of synonyms with slight nuance and a lot of words that seem to be correct in just one very specific context surely don’t help. Another thing is that it seems very hard (if not impossible) to use it very well without understanding Japanese culture and society at least to some extent. While I managed to reach fluency in English without having any idea about British culture, this wouldn’t work with Japanese at all — choosing the correct politeness level in speech or mastering manners that are not so obvious to non-Japanese most of the time require an understanding of how the society is structured and how are people supposed to interact with each other. I am hoping that my newly found interest in social anthropology will eventually help me get a better grasp of language as well — Japan is surely a country whose language is not only a tool that can be used to get to know the culture and society, but also a big part of them.

Chloé Agar – Egyptian

I’d always wanted to study English at university. I actually studied Egyptology, which does look like I just didn’t scroll far enough on a drop-down menu when applying. In reality, I think I didn’t realise what a profound effect our family holiday to Egypt when I was eleven had on me. I fell in love with Pharaonic history and what little snippets I gleaned of the language. It wasn’t until I was seventeen that I discovered that studying a BA in Egyptology was possible, and I’m glad that I chose to do that because of the breadth of skills offered by the degree, and the opportunity to learn to read Egyptian (yes, written in hieroglyphs). I say read, because we can’t actually speak it thanks to the ancient Egyptians not writing vowels. 

I also took the opportunity to learn Demotic and Coptic, which are later phases of the language, and each one presented its own quirks. Demotic has straightforward grammar but a difficult (read: illegible) script, and Coptic is written in the Greek alphabet and includes a lot of Greek vocab, which is challenging if you’ve never studied Greek. Egyptology classes themselves were different from a lot of Oxford degrees, because tutorials, language classes, and lectures felt very much like the same thing because there were only two of us on the course.

Emma Rath – Arabic, or اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ

Living in a time when conflict in the political and cultural spheres is a major theme in the world, I wanted to study something that could further intercultural dialogue. Also, I didn’t want to do a straight Law degree, so here I am doing Religion and Oriental Studies with Arabic. I grew up in rural Norway where the difficulties of the integration of refugees became very obvious when 24 children had to move to my small village. It is not only a language barrier that stands between us but also a much deeper difference, which is what makes humanity such a wonderful diverse mix of cultures but also what sets us apart if not nourished in a positive way. I think that we, as a Western society, often do a poor job in attempting to understand and respect other cultures. By learning Arabic and studying Islam I hope to be able to change this in some respects. Perhaps the cheesiest and most overused quote you can find is Gandhi’s “be the change you wish to see in the world”, but I hope that my choices can inspire others too, and one day make a difference to something that matters to me. 

Chloé Agar – Arabic, or اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ

Arabic learning as part of a degree consists of Classical and Modern Standard Arabic, and as part of an external course consists of Modern Standard Arabic. The grammar hasn’t changed much in a millennium and a half, which makes a nice change from a lot of languages. The big problem with learning Arabic is that you need to be at quite a high level of proficiency before communicating with native speakers goes well, as speaking in Modern Standard Arabic basically makes you sound like Shakespeare. Each region of the Arab world has its own dialect, but I would still recommend learning the standard version of the language first because then you’ll understand what the dialects are changing and how it all fits together. 

Andreas Janssen – Modern Greek, or Ελληνικά

Until last year, Greece always remained for me an abstract country, essentially an fragment of its glorified classical past. My first trip to Greece was a school excursion at 16 to the prominent archaeological sites: Knossos, Mycenae, Epidauros, Olympia, Delos, Delphi. Places which for me derived additional value from being associated with the Oresteia, Herodotus’ Histories or Byron. At the time I was such a cliché philhellene that, in my eyes, Attica might as well have consisted of just the Acropolis and ‘Sunium’s marble steep’.

I added Modern Greek for academic purposes, with the love for a dead civilisation and the hubris of a Westerner thinking he could teach classical Greece to Greeks. While the classical background is undeniably an enormous linguistic help, it is rather Modern Greek that has developed my classical studies than the other way round. On a summer course in Thessaloniki, I was finally confronted by vibrant contemporary Greek culture, from student parties to rebetika music in tavernas. Traditions and a people both cheerfully unaffected by the fall of Byzantium.  

Not entirely leaving behind classical interest, I went to see an Aeschylean tragedy in Greek and spent two days on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Yet my love for Greece and the Greek language has been decisively turned towards the contemporary. Classical Greece now interests me for the way modern Greece has re-appropriated it as cultural heritage, and re-invested its ruins with ideological weight. This question often comes up as the central topic in my Greek literature/film studies.

While Delphi is still the most beautiful place I have seen, and I still plan to visit the festival at Epidaurus, I no longer stand gawking in admiration at any classical ruin as if it were the key to some glorious mystery. A day trip to the Kassandra peninsula with my coursemate and now-girlfriend took me to Possidi, a dazzling coastal town and the location of possibly the oldest temple to Poseidon, from the 8th century BCE. With only slight embarrassment, I left the temple after ten minutes, finding nothing thrilling about its crumpled pronaos.

Natasha Mallett – Sanskrit, or संस्कृत

Having to learn a religious language for the first year of my Theology degree was a daunting prospect for someone who is not a linguist at all(!); I had no idea what I wanted to study. I could have gone down the easy route and opted for Latin. But having at the time a mild interest for East Asian religions, I thought Sanskrit might be a good option for me. Having to learn a completely new script was extremely difficult, but further into the course I was able to transliterate and read Devanagari script without much thought. In terms of studying Sanskrit alongside first year Theology, without studying Hinduism or Buddhism in depth previously, Sanskrit opened up a whole new world of religious texts and learning skills that I had never come across before.

When people asked me what language I was studying, and I answered Sanskrit, the most common response I had was: ‘what’s Sanskrit?’ I guess in a way, this was one of the things I loved most about studying Sanskrit; I was acquiring this skill, learning this language, that not many people knew about. Even though for Theology you only need to study a language for one year, learning crucial texts for Hinduism and Buddhism such as sections of the Bhagavad Gita and the Heart Sutra, has proved useful in my second-year studies of Hinduism.

For someone who always disliked languages at school, I was terrified at the prospect of having to learn a completely new language from scratch; I genuinely believed that I would fail my Sanskrit prelim, but it ended up being my best paper. I’m so glad that I ended up challenging myself in taking up this language, as it proved to me that I wasn’t as awful at languages as I always thought, and it has really sparked a deeper interest in Hindu religion and culture, even leading me to consider taking on an internship with academic Sanskritists in Kathmandu.