The publisher, Walker & Company, was kind enough to send me a review copy of Nicholas Ostler’s new “biography of Latin,” Ad Infinitum, and I’ve finally finished reading it. I must preface my remarks by saying that I’ve never liked the language all that much. I was taught it in Catholic school by the efficient but unappealing combination of Caesar and the ferula, and in the great division of classical snobbery, I am definitely a Hellenist and not a Latinist. That said, I am of course an eager reader of anything labeled a biography of a language, and I enjoyed this one a great deal.
Ostler’s basic approach is to move from the language’s origin as just one of the twigs on the Italic branch of Indo-European through its heyday as common language of first the Roman Empire and then Catholic Europe to its current fallen status, which he describes at the beginning by saying it “seems a comical language” and at the end by quoting the last of his many Latin tags, Sic transit gloria mundi, in the process tying its fate to the historical tides that swept Europe during that stretch of time (the last 2,500 years or so). It’s a sensible strategy, somewhat compromised by the fact that he’s not a historian and of necessity has to present a simplified and out-of-date picture of what historians have to say. On the second page of Chapter 1, for example, he writes “ROMANITAS—the Roman way as such—was never something voluntarily adopted by non-Roman communities.” (N.b.: When quoting Latin in the early chapters he uses small capitals; after the fall of the Empire, he uses italics.) He qualifies this in a footnote by mentioning the bequest of Pergamum to Rome in 133 B.C., which is hardly relevant; much more so is the insistence of Germanic tribes on joining the Empire a half-millennium later, which he himself describes in Chapter 9 (“First the Goths… applied to enter the Empire”). His general picture of Rome facing the barbarian hordes seems to ignore the recent trend in frontier studies to see permeable zones of trade and cultural contact where traditional historians saw hard and fast borders. Also (to get a minor nitpick out of the way), he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of irony. On p. 57, talking about the Romans’ advantage in having a single dominating city, he says “Ironically, this single urban core turned out to be much more effective than the multiple urban cores that the Etruscans had developed for themselves”; on p. 318, he says “[Latin] was largely propagated through violence, even if … that violence was nominally being deployed on behalf of the Christian God of love, and (just as ironically) knowledge of Latin was until recently passed on to each new generation with ample use of the ferula, that painful instrument of educational discipline.”
But that’s by the by; any book that takes in so much is going to have minor errors and infelicities. The real test is whether there is plenty of good, interesting material that makes you glad to have read it, and the answer here is unamiguously positive. I’ll go through and pick out some bits that struck me.
In Chapter 5, on the relations between Latin and Greek, he talks about “hermēneumata ‘translations’, parallel school texts, apparently dating from the third century AD or earlier, filled with everyday language showing how to say the same things in good Latin and Greek, and (like modern phrase books) sometimes illustrating the right words for a crisis”—and presents two pages of examples, in three columns, Greek, Latin, and English. One example translates as “Isn’t this the Lucius who owes me money? It is. I go up to him then and greet him. ‘Good morning, good sir! Can I still not have back what you have owed me all this time?’ ‘What? You’re mad.’ ‘I lent you money and you say, “You’re mad”? You cheat, don’t you know me?’ ‘Go away, ask the person you lent it to. I don’t have anything of yours.’ … ‘Okay then, it’s not right for a free man and a householder to have an argument.’” I found four collections of Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana at the Bibliotheca Augustana, a useful collection of Latin texts; it only has the Greek and Latin in parallel, but if you know those languages, it’s a lot of fun. If only I’d known about these dialogues in college!
In Chapter 8, he has a discussion of Christian Latin with some great quotes:
A general feature of Latin as used by Christians was its aggressively vulgar, plebeian, tone, quite happy to commit what traditionalists would call solecisms or barbarisms. This is unsurprising, since it was the converse of their worries about excessive eloquence. As Arnobius had put it, writing in 303, “When the point is something serious, beyond showing off, we need to consider what is being said, not how elegantly; not what soothes the ears, but what brings benefits to the hearers.” But the fact that it seemed easier to write ungrammatically also shows that maintaining the full traditional grammar of Latin was becoming a burden even to native speakers, within the fourth century AD. Augustine observed:
For what is called a solecism is nothing other than putting words together on a different rule from that followed by our authoritative predecessors. Whether we say inter homines ['among men'—accusative case] or inter hominibus [ditto—ablative case] does not concern a man who only wishes to know the facts. And likewise, what is a barbarism but pronouncing a word differently from those who spoke Latin before us? For whether the word ignoscere ['pardon'] should be pronounced with the third syllable long or short is indifferent to the man who is praying to God, with whatever words he can, to pardon his sins. What is correctness of diction beyond sustaining images that happen to be hallowed by the authority of former speakers?
He even explicitly enjoined breaking the grammatical rules on occasion:
Feneratur [a deponent verb, with passive form but active sense] is the Latin for giving a loan, and receiving one: but it would be clearer to say fenerat [i.e., the corresponding active form]. What do we care what the grammarians prefer? Better you understand through our barbarism, than get left behind [deserti] through our elevated finesse [disertitudine].
Good for Augustine! (This might be a good time to point out that all translations from Latin are referenced to the original texts in the footnotes.)
In Chapter 11, he talks about the beginnings of the Romance languages; this passage presents an interesting theory about how and why Latin became a “foreign language”:
Alcuin enjoined a new, universal style of pronunciation for Latin, deliberately reconstructed to be close to its original sound. Rather than allow each local community to pronounce its Latin as came naturally, he proposed that all should follow a single norm….
This would perhaps give scholars closer access to the true sound of Latin poetry and rhetoric; importantly, it would certainly make it easier for them to communicate orally in Latin, wherever in Europe they might hail from. As a reform, it did not in itself tend toward vernacular literacy: indeed, quite the reverse, for the immediate effect of the new pronunciation was to make priests reading out their sermons or their church offices more or less incomprehensible to their illiterate parishioners. In the favorite—somewhat extreme—example, the word viridiarium ‘orchard’ cold no longer be pronounced in northern France as verdzer, by then its natural rendering in the local variety of Romance. With each priest following his home pronunciation, it was possible—at least in Romance-speaking countries—for the Latin text to have been read pretty much in line with the local language…. The newly antiquated, universal Latin, by contrast, was a foreign language everywhere, accessible only to those who had studied it.
Compare the results of the Renaissance humanists’ insistence on following classical models, especially Cicero (Chapter 15):
By insisting on ancient models, the humanists tore Latin away from its old, massive root structure, pruned it, and replanted it in well-weeded display beds, in admirable but alien splendor. Latin remained a privilege of the educated: Renaissance humanism did nothing, for example, to bring Latin closer to the growing multitudes who were learning to read in the vernacular. But even for those who were brought up with it, Latin was now that little bit harder to learn, as its links were cut with modern discourse, however ponderous that discourse might have been. Appreciating Latin neat, in its supposedly purer, pristine form, was an aesthetic achievement; but paradoxically it made the language harder to master, and to use as a living medium of day-to-day expression, let alone as a vehicle for original thought.
And there are all sorts of incidental tidbits, like his reference to Maffeo Vegio, “an epic poet who dared to complete Virgil’s Aeneid with a Book XIII of his own devising, carried off with pure Virgilian panache” (online here), and this splendid quote from John Colet‘s preface to Lily’s 1511 grammar: “In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake such Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.” If all this appeals to you, you will like the book, which is well written, comprehensive, and delightfully discursive.
One thing I found hard to understand, though, was his gloomy sic transit gloria conclusion. Sure, Latin is no longer the world language it was, but there’s been a revival of interest in recent years; there are Latin blogs, you can get the news in Latin, and there’s a whole movement to promote spoken use (read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker article on Luigi Miraglia). Lingua latina vivit!