A Dead Tongues Many Lives

Book cover
Ad Infinitumby By Nicholas OstlerWalker & Company. 400p $27.95
Primum omnium (first of all) monita quaedam (a few words of warning): this book is not for the completely Latinless reader. (Though almost all the Latin tags and texts are translated, many sections will baffle or bore anyone without at least a few faded memories of amo, amas, amat.) While popularly packagedwith a subtitle echoing Jack Miless fine survey of the Hebrew Bible, God: A Biography (1995)Ad Infinitum goes into a lot more technical detail than might be expected, with topics like Etruscan borrowings in Latin or the usefulness of Latin kinship terms when speaking of avunculocal, amitalocal, virilocal or uxorilocal residence after marriage. Caveat tiro (Beginner, beware).

Nicholas Ostler is a formidable-sounding character. He has degrees from Oxford in Greek, Latin, philosophy and economics, plus a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and (his publisher says) a working knowledge of 26 languages. Appropriately enough, he is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (www.ogmios.org), and he wrote the well-regarded Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (2005). As if to confirm his Romanitas, he lives in the erstwhile Roman town of Aquae Sulis, now known as Bath, England.

Ostlers 400-page history of Latin is a remarkable piece of compression. It severely downplays literature, citing only a handful of lines from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, et al., and barely attempts to convey a sense of what the language is, or was, like. For example, he does not address its celebrated laconic, lapidary, oracular qualities. Instead he stresses the geopolitical (cf. Max Weinreichs dictum, A language is a dialect with an army and a navy), the sociological (how Latin united diverse populations) and the ideological (Latin as the language of religion, philosophy, science, etc.) sides of the picture. Oh well, non omnia possumus omnes we cant all do everything.


To shape this sprawling 2,500-year story, Ostler chooses the neatly ambiguous theme of boundless sway. Videlicet, here comes a list: the Romans loved to intone the phrase orbis terrarum (what Prospero would call the great globe itself); and the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (under Trajan, say), or the Catholic Church before the Reformation and the ravages of modernity, programmatically stressed a universal perspective. Yet this ad infinitum viewpoint, with the city of Rome at the center and the far-flung frontiers linked by Latin as the great sacrament of the Latin language (in the bold phrase coined by Lorenzo Valla, ca. 1440), was also generally indifferent to the worlds beyond its horizon.

But then, since turnabout is fair play, not long after the Renaissance had recovered the timeless treasures of Latin classical antiquity, a host of European explorers, scientists, artists and thinkers of every description, working in languages other than Latin and with little or no thought of Rome, began to uncover the true infinity of the world, in ways never imagined before. Eventually Latin would be relegated, as it is now, to a few ivory-towerish preserves: botany, biological terminology, classical studies and, of course, official Vatican documents.

If, as the second-century North African grammarian Terentianus Maurus said, habent sua fata libelli (books have their destiny), then a fortiori so do languages; and Ostler has done an impressive job tracing the complex destiny of Latin. He quotes lively samples of inscriptions, poems, periodic sentences, formulas, phrase-books, ostraca, theological arguments, and so on, ranging from the three mysterious lines (sixth- or early fifth-century B.C.) of a love potion (?) to the perhaps inevitable motto (chosen in 2000) of the European Union, In varietate concordia.

Ostler reviews the epochal encounters between Latin and Greek culture (with the resultant Roman inferiority complex), Christianity (which gave Latin a spectacular new lease on life), Muslim scholarship in Spain, the invention of printing, the New World (whence Latin America), and so on, up until the final stage of decline beginning in the 18th century. He explains the emergence of the Romance languages, although happily he soft-pedals morphology and related gritty subjects.

But if Latin has a biography, doesnt that imply a deathor some sort of end? Ostler tells us that the American Carmelite Reginald Foster, one of the planets premier Latinists, claims there are only some 20 other people who can speak Latin as well as he (his courses at the Pontifical Gregorian University were legendary) and, worse yet, only two or three of them are under 60.

Well, Latin will never disappear (there are still three Latin mottoes on the dollar bill), but in a pleasant twist the current hot spot for Latin is a place where Romans never set foot, in a region they vaguely labeled Ultima Thule, Finland. Ever since 1990 Finnish government radio has been producing Nuntii Latini, both spoken and written news reports in Latin. (Scandinavians like Carolus Linnaeus, whose languages do not travel well, have always been partial to Latin.) Two books in the Harry Potter series, along with old favorites like Winnie the Pooh and the Asterix cartoon tales, are available in Latin translation. And, to vault from the ridiculous to the sublime, the so-called Tridentine Mass is making a comeback. Every little bit helpsincluding this richly informative book by Nicholas Ostler. Insignem ei gratiam debemus. (We owe him a notable debt of gratitude.)

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