Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler

What a great story. And it has found a book worthy to tell it.

Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum is the story of Latin, and like the story of language itself, it’s really the story of people — what they did, what they dreamed, how they lived and died. It’s told as well as any novel and is as gripping.

Nicholas Ostler, prodigious linguist, sparkling, witty writer, is eminently suited to tell this tale. He knows all the languages involved. And he knows how to spin a yarn.

It began, to echo Ostler, as a language of farmers and soldiers, spoken by people who called themselves Latins. As of the seventh century B.C., Latin was only one of a group of related Italic languages, some of which were far more widely spoken. The Latins were overshadowed by the Etruscans, whose vital culture, in a loose confederation of city-states, held sway for three centuries over the Italian peninsula.

Yet, a few centuries later, Rome, the center of the Latins, had surpassed the Etruscan cities, just as Latin surpassed its sibling languages. Rome did so not only by conquest but also by its system of settlement, which combined agriculture with the imposition of Roman law. They may have been less poetic than the Greeks, but the Romans were geniuses of organization and bureaucracy. Their thrusting ambition established Latin as a forthright, workable tongue of governors and despots.

It is not a particularly beautiful or flexible language. Some of us grew up with the Latin Mass and may think of it with nostalgia. But classical Attic Greek was a sensuous, lissome, bottomlessly resourceful tongue. By comparison, Latin seems gruff, stiff, terse. My Latin master at university once estimated that the core vocabulary for classical Latin as of 150 B.C. was about 5,200 words. Compare that with the richer trove of words in Greek, with more made up (much more easily than in Latin) as poet, politico or philosopher needed.

With humor and compassion, Ostler recounts how the Greeks only slowly came to realize they were being passed up. Nobody who wasn’t Greek counted, as far as the Greeks were concerned. Deep down, the Romans agreed. Even as they overran and dominated Greece, the Romans maintained a cultural inferiority complex, much like ours vis-a-vis English culture.

Cicero slaved to give Latin its own character in prose, and Virgil did the same in poetry. Their efforts were a turning point, a labor of intense love, often (with Cicero) not too original. Latin, now advanced around the known world by fire, sword, plow and system, had to create a literary tradition of its own, to match military prestige with cultural. By the second century, the language had expanded and flexed: It could claim an array of good poets, historians and playwrights.

So great was Rome’s prestige that, when the barbarians overwhelmed it (traditional date: Sept. 4, 476), among their first moves was to declare themselves defenders — of Latin! Goth kings spoke an unwritten Germanic, but they were so awed by what Rome meant, what Latin meant, that they hopped on that chariot (since they could not stop it). From Odoacer on, they tended to preserve the legal and administrative systems of Rome.

These surprising moves helped steady Latin through the dark centuries when everything fell apart. So did the spread of early Christianity, as Christians encouraged the use of a more personal, slightly looser Latin. So did the heroic labors of Europe’s monks, who copied and preserved the Western tradition as it then stood. Without these exertions, we wouldn’t be who we are, or speak as we speak.

From A.D. 1000 on, the history sprints. For centuries, people had been writing and reading Latin but speaking something else. Classical Latin (the written form) always had differed from vulgar Latin (spoken at home and in the street), and those differences accelerated with time and distance. People started to refer to “Romance,” any of several dialects derived from Latin but increasingly distinct from one another. These were becoming languages in their own rights, and as of A.D. 842, when the first existing official document is written that includes Romance (the Oaths of Strasbourg), the multilingual future of Europe was forecast. Without belaboring the linguistics of the thing, Ostler is fascinating on how the natural course of change eased these tongues away from their parent.

The explosion in learning that came with the Middle Ages produced scholastic Latin — new words for new ways of thinking. A second and final burst of refreshment came with the early Renaissance, and its own explosion of learning, including early modern science. At its peak, Latin was the transnational tongue of the businessplace and the docks; the diets, throne rooms and city halls; the courts, the schools, the churches. You could go almost anywhere in Europe and Latin would be your companion, your guide, your go-between.

But Ostler, breathtakingly, with a single sentence — “Latin had begun to wither” — fingers the turning point. For him, the humanists of the Renaissance helped Latin start to die. They insisted on a “classical” purity; they looked back to achievements of better writers in the ancient past. Whereas medieval scholars had generated new Latins for new purposes, the humanists sought to hold it still, and so a summit became a decline.

The coup de grace: printing. Now vernacular languages had an identity that could hold steady via the fixity of print. (Spanish — which started projecting itself into the New World as of 1492, and is, as of today, the most successful Romance language — produced the first printed grammar of a vernacular Romance.) Nationhoods were born: national identities with a place, politics and language of their own. Ostler, with sad fondness and fascination, marks how printed Latin books tail off between 1500 and 1800.

Today, we speak of Latin as a “dead” language. If it is dead, Ostler argues, the seeds of its demise may have lain within what gave it life: the very institutions (Rome, Christianity, scholastic learning, humanism) that disseminated it so wide and fierce.

But Ostler wonders aloud: Is it really dead? True, only one country (the Vatican) lists it as an official language, and no babies grow up speaking it as their first language at home. Latin, though, is everywhere: in scientific nomenclature, in 60 percent of the vocabulary of English — arguably the Latin of our time — and in the words we use to describe and manipulate the primary engine of our age, technology.

Literature in Latin is hardly dead. Catullus, Cicero, Horace and Virgil still are read and enjoyed in the original by hundreds of thousands. Translation is nice, but it’s no substitute. Latin, as written by the best, is still vibrant in the minds and hearts of many who speak many languages. Ostler reports millions of Web pages in Latin (there’s even a Latin version of Wikipedia). Can a language enjoying such an afterlife really be dead?

Before reading this book, I would have said yes. I dearly love Latin and still open Horace and Virgil with pleasure (I was never very good at it, let it be said) — but I do so as a self-conscious scholar. After reading Ad Infinitum, I have to say Ostler has persuaded me. A language is alive if it lives. And Latin lives. So do Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, classical Arabic, in much the same role, as the mothers and fathers of our minds. Once a language of farmers and soldiers, Latin now is a language for readers and thinkers. That’s life.

What a fascinating book, with beguiling sidelights — the many currents that change language, that change peoples and nations. Told with tenderness, packed with facts, quotations, jests and illustrations, this is a book that earns the great story it tells.

RATING 8 / 10
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