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strategy, somewhat compromised by the fact that he’s not a historian and of necessity has to present a simplified and out-of-date picture of what historians have to say.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!


  1. A minor nit: while many people speak of “Italic” as though it were a firmly-established branch of Indo-European, it is not: many scholars have claimed that Latin on the one hand, and Osco-Umbrian on the other, owe their similaraties to language contact and that there never existed a “Common Italic”: I’m inclined to think these skeptics are right.

  2. Lily’s grammar (also known as ‘The common accidence’) was not published until 1542, having been cobbled together from various bits and bobs from Colet and Lily (d. 1522). [See C. G. Allen, ‘The sources of ‘Lily’s Latin Grammar’: a review of the facts and some further suggestions’, The Library, 9 (1954).]
    The theory that the vernaculars became distinguished with Alcuin’s reformation of ecclesiastical Latin comes I think from Roger Wright (though no doubt one of your more erudite readers will correct me) and is by no means universally accepted, though it has the virtue of being attractively neat.
    Sounds like an interesting book, though, I’ll have to check it out.

  3. Ah, thanks for the date correction. I’ve found a number of niggling errors like that; I didn’t mention them because it’s a review copy and I didn’t know what might have been corrected in the final published version. And yeah, he tends to present theories as more definite than they are; that’s why I talked about it as “an interesting theory” rather than presenting it (as he does) as a fact.

  4. Ostler certainly had a lot to say about Greek in his previous book.

  5. Hat: in his “Empire of the Word” Ostler did the same thing, referring for example to a number of theories on a non-Indo-European substrate in Celtic as though they were uncontroversial, when in fact very few scholars accept them.
    Conrad: you’re quite right, Roger Wright was the one who first presented the theory, which has been a little too readily and uncritically accepted for my taste. My own view is that, while basically correct, the theory does not explain ALL instances of writing Romance as a separate system from Latin.

  6. I’m glad to have that warning before reading the earlier book (which is still sitting patiently on my shelf).

  7. marie-lucie says

    influence of Alcuin’s reform: it seems improbable that this reform should have influenced the whole of the Romanitas, and every parish from Sicily, through France, to Portugal. A recommendation is not the same as its application. Attending the “Latin Mass” does not mean that every word heard is in Latin – only some traditional prayers.
    Etienne, can you suggest references for the Italic controversy?

  8. Etienne,
    While the non-unity of Italic may have been suggested, this view is surely far from the mainstream. I’m not aware of any major figure in Indo-European who holds this view. What work are you citing?
    For a truly interesting classical language with a real literature, try Sanskrit. The Mahabharata alone is eight times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined.

  9. I’ve tried it, thanks—I can still recite “Asid raja Nalo nama…” with brio!

  10. Marie-Lucie, Bill–
    Madison Beeler’s article in Birkbaum & Puhvel (Eds.) (1966) ANCIENT INDO-EUROPEAN DIALECTS (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press) gives an excellent summary of the similarities as well as the differences within Italic: he ends his article saying that the similarities are as readily explicable through a hypothesis involving a “Proto-Italic” as through one involving language contact.
    The latter hypothesis strikes me as far more plausible: however, because the former is the older one, it has found its way into the textbooks because of a kind of “academic inertia”.
    Indeed, in the same volume Calvert Watkins dealt with the “Italo-Celtic” hypothesis and thoroughly debunked it: unfortunately, like “Proto-Italic”, “Italo-Celtic” lives on in all too many textbooks (and in neither instance have any new arguments/facts been presented, as far as I can see), I suspect for the same reason.

  11. David Marjanović says

    The Mahabharata alone is eight times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined.

    Incidentally, is there anyone left who can sing the Iliad and/or Odyssey? 1000 years ago there were still such people.

  12. The other explanation for vernacularization, which I find a little more plausible (why couldn’t there have been local dialects of Latin as well as an Alcuinized “Mandarin”?), is in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. You’re probably familiar with it, but he says that the shift came about because of print capitalism: the market for printed books in Latin was quickly saturated, and printers turned to vernacular editions to broaden their appeal. The two theories aren’t incompatible, of course, but I suspect that Anderson’s explanation is more correct.

  13. Two different things. Anderson is talking about the decline of Latin as a printed language, Wright about its (much earlier) decline as a language felt to be native (“The newly antiquated, universal Latin, by contrast, was a foreign language everywhere”).

  14. Thanks for the tip! “This book establishes that Latin was never geographically uniform. ..This is the most comprehensive treatment ever undertaken of the regional diversification of Latin throughout its history in the Roman period.” Sounds like an important read. And it’s only… $220?! What the hell, Cambridge UP??

  15. David Marjanović says

    Now $257, as the $ has experienced more inflation than the £.

  16. Per BookFinder, it is now available for $54 used or $59 new. Still too rich for my blood, though.

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