book notice: Ad Infinitum: a Biography of Latin

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jan 4 13:30:19 UTC 2008

Ad Infinitum: a Biography of Latin
Nicholas Ostler HarperPress, 400pp, £25

Those of us who stood before dusty blackboards intoning "amo amas
amat" often wondered why we were doing it. What was the point? In my
class a favourite declension was bellum - "war" - which we chanted in
the nominative, vocative and accusative plural as "bla bla bla". Our
teachers assured us that Latin would help us in studying other
languages. So why didn't we just study those other languages and have
done with it?

If only we'd had Nicholas Ostler's fascinating new book, we would have
found innumerable reasons to be interested. Enlarging on a mere detail
from his magisterial history of the world's languages, Empires of the
Word, Ostler tells the story of Latin's life. With lightly worn but
hugely impressive scholarship, he pursues Latin from its birth and
subsequent fate at the hands of invaders, plagues, grammarians, poets
and priests, through to its present place, not buried in the graveyard
of history, but perhaps reclining in its retirement home.

Latin the language, Ostler argues, formed Europe, and therefore also
inspired the Americas that sprang from it. Lasting three times longer
than Roman domination, it was written unchanged by courtiers, clerics
and merchants for two millennia, and is still echoed today in
scientific terminology, law codes, grammar, wizarding spells, and -
until 40 years ago - the standard liturgy of the Catholic Church. Like
the air we breathe, Ostler says, it is almost too central to our
culture to have been noticed.

So where did Latin originate? Thought to be an Indo-European language
that arrived in Italy some time between the 6th and 2nd millennia BC,
it settled on the west coast in Latium, hence its name. Words -
particularly those connected with architecture, such as atrium
("forecourt") and fenestra ("window") - were borrowed from
neighbouring (but not Indo-European) Etruscan. And from the 2nd
century BC, Greek loan words enriched the grammars of medicine, music
and food (oliva or "olive" and olem or "oil").

>>From the Greeks, the Romans also discovered how a language could
enable a person to express him- or herself fluently. For example, the
notion of a structured sentence, ending with a "period" or full stop,
was Greek, the word periodos meaning "circuit", as in "lap". Aristotle
defined a sentence as "an utterance with a beginning and an end in
itself, and a length that can be easily taken in".

How many of us have ever considered the origin of the humble sentence?
Before this periodic system was adopted, an utterance could (and often
did) ramble incomprehensibly ad infinitum. Thus, Roman scholars
adapted these Greek rules to the rough Latin vernacular, thereby
improving its style and comprehensibility, and making it easier to

Oddly, as Ostler points out, it was another millennium and a half
before Europeans realised they could apply these rules of grammar to
their own vernaculars, thereby hastening the decline of the very
language that had spawned them.

The Romans quickly discovered that a language could also be an
instrument of power and commerce. Not through any official language
policy, but through the army, the courts, and the merchants travelling
the empire's long straight roads, Latin proliferated.

By the time Rome had fallen, Latin had replaced Greek in western
Europe as the language of the church, the Greek texts having been
translated into what was then the language of the street. By the end
of the 1st millennium, through missionaries and by means of books,
Latin had become the language of clerici - meaning both clerics and

Following the breakdown of Roman infrastructure and centralisation,
Latin mutated into different branches of the language family known as
Romance. Only in Britain was it displaced altogether. Why? Plague?
War? Isolation? There is no answer, but in a characteristically
intriguing footnote, we learn that plagues in general cut a swath
through British courts, cities and monasteries, thereby militating
against languages spoken by the elite. In 14th-century England, that
language was Latin (along with French), and so, after the devastation
wreaked by the bubonic plague, a great many vacant jobs had to be
filled by English-speakers from the countryside. The use of French and
Latin at court, by the law and by the church never recovered.

Yet Latin itself survived, and through 80 generations of grammar
lessons its stable rules have been maintained. It is the one constant
in the cultural history of the west, beyond Rome, beyond even
Christianity. Its 2,500 years of documented history make it unmatched
as the language of Europe's memory; thus, within the linguistically
fragmented European Union, perhaps it could once again be used as the
glue that binds Europe together. Then Latin would be the only language
that European schoolchildren need learn, and "amo amas amat" would
live again. If anything could inspire EU functionaries to adopt such
an idea, it is this wonderfully learned and entertaining book.

Helena Drysdale's "Mother Tongues: Travels Through Tribal Europe" is
published by Picador

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