By Nicholas Ostler
Latin is a language dead as dead could be;
first it killed the Romans and now it’s killing me.
So we used to chant as schoolboys, though actually I loved Latin even then. What people do not realise is that Latin was not confined to the Ancient Romans but remained, in many different ways, a living language up until modern times. Even today, though its use has greatly declined, it is still learned, enjoyed and seems to have a place in the formation of the human mind.
Ostler, in this fascinating book, shows us some of the roots of Latin not only in Greek but in Etruscan and some the other languages of the people of Italy. Greek, of course, was hugely influential on Latin in helping Latin to develop literary and poetic forms. Ostler gives some attention to the classical period of Latin but then traces the different trajectories as Latin morphed into the Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian over the next thousand years. At the same time, Latin remained the language of the Church throughout Europe and, of course, of all educated men. The Latin changed, simplified but remained still Latin. With the Renaissance and the rise of the humanists a great effort was made to recover classical Latin and to write it in the mode of Cicero and Livy. This continued for three centuries until the new languages of Europe were developed enough to talk about modern things. Curiously, the last people to write regularly in Latin seem to have been the scientists who used this common tongue to gain a hearing and participate in a dialogue across Europe. Isaac Newton, for instance, wrote all his major works in Latin.
Yet Latin was tied to the Roman Empire. The German tribes were never colonised by Rome and retained their own language. England was colonised but it would seem that most Romans and Latin speakers lived in the West of England which suffered a great plague about the time the Romans left in the fifth century. Thus England was left with the largely Germanic language of Anglo-Saxon.
My one regret about this book is that it doesn’t have a chapter on Latin today. Perhaps that will come in the form of a new book. Although Latin and Greek are much less studied at University level now there is much very high quality work done on classical subjects in the universities. Latin has also been popularised by some inspired writers and people who were deprived of learning Latin at school show interest in the language and literature later on. Part of the magic of Harry Potter is the corrupted Latin of the spells!