5 Ancient Languages You Haven’t Heard of, and Books to Get You Started

By Simone Visentin

Reading books from different languages is fun and interesting: it gives you a new perspective on life and the world around you. But do you ever wonder how the world was before you? Reading books from ancient languages provides a different experience, a chance to displace yourself into an utterly different but real world. When we think of ancient languages we think of Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian. However, there are other lesser-known languages that are just as intriguing and interesting. Interested in ancient tongues but don’t know where to start? Then we have some book recommendations for you from the ancient worlds of the Nahuatl, Mayan, Lithuanian, Etruscan, and Phoenician languages!

  1. Nahuatl

Nahuatl (/ˈnɑːwɑːtəl/) is known informally as Aztec and is part of the Uto-Aztecan language family. This is an indigenous language and it has multiple varieties which are still spoken by 1.5 million people in Central Mexico since at least the 7th Century CE. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs that dominated Central Mexico during the late Post Classic period of Mesoamerican history. Before the Spanish conquest, the Aztec Empire expanded to incorporate a large part of central Mexico. Its influence caused the variety of Nahuatl spoken by the residents of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) to be considered a language of prestige and power. With the introduction of the Latin alphabet, Nahuatl also became a literary language and during the 16th to 17th centuries, many works of poetry, chronicles and documents were written in Nahuatl.

Broken SpearsOne of the most important books available in English from Nahuatl is The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico.

This book was originally written by Miguel León-Portilla, who translated into Spanish a selection of accounts in Nahuatl that detailed the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. This book shows the other side of the story by telling how the Aztecs perceived the conquest. The book was published in 1959. It was translated into English by Lysander Kemp just a few years later, in 1962. The title of the English version comes from a passage in “The Annals of Tlatelolco”, xaxama[n]toc omitl , which is another text in Nahuatl. According to James Lockhart, there is a mistranslation in the title as there was confusion between the word mitl, which means arrow or spear, and omitl, which means bones, suggesting that the title should be The Broken Bones. If you want to experience another perspective of the Spanish conquest and are interested in the Aztec culture, this book is definitely worth a read.

  1. Lithuanian

Lithuanian (lietuvių kalba) is the official language of Lithuania and is recognized as one of the official languages in the European Union. There are about 2.9 million native Lithuanian speakers in Lithuania and 200,000 abroad. You might be surprised that we would include it on this list, but Lithuanian, though being one of the members of the modern BaLithuanian Bookltic languages, is considered to be one of the oldest and most conservative living Indo-European languages. It retains traits of Proto-Indo-European, making it a living, speaking fossil.

Lithuanian literature dates back to January 8, 1547 when the first Lithuanian book was printed. The name of the book is Simple Words of Catechism (Katekizmo prasti žodžiai) written by Martynas Mažvydas. The book followed the ideas of Martin Luther but it also reflects on both religious and secular needs. The book includes the first Lithuanian-language poem, primer with alphabet, basic catechism and 11 religious hymns with music sheets. Gordon B. Ford translated this book into English in 1547. Currently, the book is not available online, but if you have the chance to find it and are interested in reading the first book to be ever written in Lithuanian, then it is worth the hunt.

  1. Etruscan

Etruscan was the spoken and written language of the Etruscan civilization in Italy in the ancient region of Etruria (Modern Tuscany, Western Umbria and northern Latium) as well as other parts of Italy. Etruscan influenced Latin, thus affecting all languages stemming from Latin, including French, Italian, Spanish, and English. In fact, the word “Roma” was borrowed from the Etruscan “Ruma”. However, with the increasing dominanceEtruscan of Latin, Etruscan gradually faded away. The Etruscans left around 13,000 inscriptions such as the Tabula Cortonensis. Some were bilingual in Latin, Ancient Greek or Phoenician, as is the case with the Pyrgi Tablets which contain Etruscan and Phoenician.
If you enjoy reading translations of ancient inscriptions or are interested in learning Etruscan, The Etruscan Language: An Introduction by Giuliano Bonfante and Larissa Bonfante is the ideal book for you. This book contains a series of inscriptions in Etruscan with their English translations as well as an overview of the Etruscan grammar and glossaries.

  1. K’iche’ (Mayan)

The Mayan languages form a language family that is spoken in Mesoamerica and northern Central America, still spoken by at least 6 million of people between Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. K’iche’ or Quiché /kiːˈtʃeɪ/ is part of this family and is a Mayan language of Guatemala, and is the second most spoken language in the country after Spanish. The Mayan civilization was known for their hieroglyphic script and the only known fully developed writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for their architecture, mathematics and astronomy.

Mayan BookThe most famous work of the Mayans in the classical K’iche’ language is the Popol Vuh. The title translates as The Book of the People. The Popol Vuh is considered the oldest book on the continent of America and the sacred book of the Mayans. In fact, some consider it to be the Mayan equivalent of the Bible. Furthermore, it is one of the most important pieces to have survived the Spanish conquest. An unknown highly literate Quiché Mayan first transcribed this book in the Quiché language in Latin characters during the mid-16th century. Father Francisco Ximenez, later a priest in the highlands of Guatemala, once copied the first Quiché transcription that is now lost. The book has been translated into many languages including Spanish and English. Adrían Recinos’ translation into Spanish is still a major reference, as well as the English translation of Recinos’ work by Delia Goetz. If you are interested in mythology and Mayan culture, this is the perfect book to get you started.

  1. Phoenician

The Phoenician language is sometimes identified as Canaanite Hebrew. This language was originally spoken in the Mediterranean region of Canaan. This language is part of the Canaanite subgroup of Northwest Semitic language family. A descendant of this family is Modern Hebrew. Phoenician was spoken in different areas including modern day Lebanon, coastal Syria, coastal northern Israel, parts of Cyprus and some areas of Anatolia. It was Phoenician Bookalso spoken in the areas that were colonized by the Phoenicians such as Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Malta, Western Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and the southernmost part of Spain. It is estimated that there are approximately 10,000 Phoenician inscriptions. One of the most famous is the Kilamuwa Stela, which was King Kilamuwa’s stele written in the 9th century BC.

If ancient languages pique your interest and you wish to understand Phoenician and other inscriptions The Ancients in Their Own Words by Michael Kerrigan includes a selection of inscriptions with their respective translations, along with explanations. This book also contains the translation of the Kilamuwa Stela and the Rosetta Stone. It is an amazing book to read and will take you back in time to where it all began.


Simone Visentin is a student in Toronto, Canada. He is working to complete his degree in SimoneCommunication Studies and a certificate in Spanish-English translation at York University. He is passionate about languages and music. He speaks Italian, Spanish, English and French. He is also a songwriter, music producer and Radio Host for Radio Glendon.

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