Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, Nicholas Ostler

Anyone still with me? No? Come back! Ad Infinitum is not just for Latin nerds! Or, maybe it is just for Latin nerds and I’ve lost all perspective. Hmm. Could it be…? No, I say that if you’re at all interested in language development, etymology, European history, literary history, religious history, education then you should give this a go. Do not be deterred by the occasional table of Etruscan-derived Roman cognomens, or a quick comparison of Mozarabic and Castilian. You can skip those (although they are quite fascinating).

First I must bow down before Nicholas Ostler, who apparently has a working knowledge of 18 languages. One, eight. 18. How do they all fit into his head without becoming jumbled? When I was first learning Italian I would default to French halfway through a sentence; the patterns of verb tables and declining nouns get a bit too mathematical for me, so of all skills I envy, a facility for languages is way, way up there.

Second, although the man is clearly a walking definition of ‘erudite’, he wears it very lightly. This is a book in which the author’s fair mastery of his subject is revealed by what he doesn’t feel compelled to put in front of the reader. In attempting to construct a narrative through 2,000 years of history from the perspective that the existence of Latin has been the one constant, there is plenty of opportunity to get sidetracked or bogged down. Ostler avoids these pitfalls.

So, Latin. An Indo-European Italic language that spread out from Latium in west-central Italy and eventually accompanied the Roman army to the bounds of the empire. As luck would have it, the Romans’ policy of grabbing land from conquered regions, which they then settled, as well as their habit of building roads left, right and centre, created the perfect circumstances for the accompanying spread of lingua Latina. It all took some time but the Romans were a tenacious bunch and they were in it for the long haul, taking their stolid, practical language with them.

And then they conquered the Greeks and figured out what a language could really do:

They would start to care about powers of expression, both their own personal expression and whatever was connoted by the language itself. They would begin to use Latin as a symbol of Roman power, for what it said about them.

To start with, they did this by basically coping Greek literary forms with Latin, even using the excuse of the importance of Greek culture to justify ever further incursions in the Eastern Med. (It was, of course, merely coincidental that the spoils from all these successful campaigns poured back into Rome to such an extent that the war-debt from that pesky Carthaginian affair was paid off, public building projects flourished and Rome stopped bothering to tax its own citizens because it was getting way more hard cash from Macedon and Asia. And the US likes to draw analogies between itself and the Roman Empire. In your dreams, boys.)

Greek as a language had been analyzed and codified, oh ages before. The Greeks learned Greek, and they all learned it the same way because the rules had been captured. It was de rigeur for upper class Romans to learn Greek; somewhere along the way they realised that the structure of their own language could also be made apparent, and promptly set to it. As soon as Latin was mapped out and could be learned, Greek began to cede importance in the empire.

The next step  in Latin’s development was the growth of Christianity. I still don’t understand how an intolerant minority religion managed to sweep away a strongly rooted state-sponsored pantheon, and I’m not happy about it. I blame Constantine. Anyway. Up popped the church, and after a brief scrimmage led from the Latin-speaking West, that nasty pagan Greek was forced to give way. The vernacular speech of the empire now became its official religious language too; and since Christianity survived the fall of the empire, Latin did as well.

Pretty much, the church continued to preserve Latin. Spoken Latin began to splinter into a multitude of vernacular Romance languages after the empire collapsed. People’s lives were circumscribed by the new dangers of travel when the legions were no longer protecting their roads, and without the need for communication outside of the immediate area, a variety of local dialects came into being. It was then Alcuin’s 9th century reforms that established new parameters for a version of Latin as a standardised language taught across Europe, simultaneously establishing it as something that differed so entirely from what anyone actually spoke that Latin became a foreign language to everyone. But it continued as the language of European education and communication until the 15th century:

By the end of the first millennium AD, this was the Latin education current across the whole of Europe. The culture that it propagated was a curious complex, in which Roman Christianity, an oriental religion rearticulated in a language not its own, was set alongside traditional knowledge from an ancient pagan empire, which had been developed in total ignorance of it. Both referred exclusively to a world order that had perished more than five hundred years before. Latin, or grammatica, the artificially preserved language in which it was all taught, was the single unifying element, its literature defining the bounds of contemporary knowledge. Until the era of translation began, the limits of the Latin language were quite literally the limits of the Western intellectual world.

Meanwhile, the lesson that the Romans had learned from the Greeks had long been forgotten. Although the vernacular Romance languages began to be written down as of about the 10th century,  they were late in developing the written grammatical structure that would enable them to be taught and learned. It took until the 16th-17th centuries for the vernacular languages to tilt the balance in their own favour. Isn’t it astonishing that it happened so late?

And that’s where I’m up to. But for my money, Latin’s a survivor.

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I've run out of books. Again.

6 thoughts on “Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, Nicholas Ostler”

  1. Can I also recommend Amo Amas Amat – it’s very funny about learning Latin. And 18 languages. My goodness – I struggled with three (and promptly forgot German as soon as possible).

  2. Litlove – I’ll have to look for that! At one point at school I had an afternoon schedule consisting of French, followed by Greek followed by Latin. Or some combination thereof. It was exhausting.

  3. Ruth – Excellent! But you are not helping me with the ‘not just for Latin nerds’ argument…

  4. Could I not be classed as a history nerd rather than a specifically Latin nerd? My Latin is pretty rubbish these days…

  5. Ruth – You can be classed as any kind of nerd you want. When you get round to the book, let me know what you think.

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