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Showing 1-10 of 12 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 22 reviews
on June 12, 2015
Nicholas Ostler sheds a unique light on Latin, as a language originally of a community of herder folk, and then the Latin language in its development with the waxing of the Latin people's spreading influence in 'Italy', that is, the growth of Rome as a powerful state, and beyond, up to the present time. His book is not at all a dry linguistic work, but indeed, a saga, of a language that has been, in a far-reaching way, of fundamental importance to the culture of the West. The Latin language's story, as presented by the author, is richly imbedded in the context of history, documenting the development of literacy and as such, the vehicle of literature, poetry, philosophy, religious liturgy, science as they developed, first by the Greeks and Etruscans. As well, the role of Latin in a sociological and an anthropological context, as a language of a major power, but vis à vis an even greater ( far more sophisticated, more literate) culture, that of the Greeks. Linguistically, too, the author reveals how a language (like Latin, as a highly classical, standardised language) undergoes change, in conditions of civic upheaval accompanied by loss of literacy, etc., and thus engenders a continuum of 'dialects', or daughter languages, a few of which are called 'french', 'spanish', 'italian', etc.

It is not necessary to know Latin to read and appreciate this book. One can learn a lot about western history and culture through this book, and be awakened to a part of our own cultural underpinnings that we never might have imagined. Ostler's book, "Empires of the Word", is a recommended read for those interested in aspects of the development of writing and literacy from their origins, the development of literature, philosophy, religions over a vast scale of history,the why of the ebb and flow of languages, why they may become extinct, what part each plays in the development of culture. It is a fascinating and wide-ranging work, thumbs up
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on November 30, 2010
Latin is by no means a dead language. Every keen gardener or bird watcher will be familiar with the "Latin" names of plants and animals. Many of our school mottoes are in Latin. Devout Catholics will still encounter Latin. Latin phrases pop up surprisingly often in secular writing as well - per se, sub judice, et cetera. Look closely at film credits at the end of a movie and you will still see the production date given in Roman numerals.

Most of us speak pretty much the same way that our grandparents speak, at least grammatically. Words may quickly come and go, and their meanings may change, but grammar seems to be a constant. But that is only true if we have only a few generations, a time span of say 90 years, to listen to. Over centuries, language is remarkably changeable and even grammar can undergo radical changes.

This is also true of Latin. Its remarkable transformation from the classic language of Cicero into Romance Latin a millennium later and subsequent innovations is well described in this book. The author also explains the origins of the word "romance" in Latin (loosely, "of Rome") and how it later came to have the meaning of courtly love, and finally, in our day, romantic love in general.

The book also makes it clear that Latin survived and evolved so long because it was the "specialist" written language required for religion, law, philosophical works and formal contracts (legal and feudal). The great bulk of the population could neither read nor write and had no use for Latin.

It was only when vernacular speech changed markedly from Latin that attempts began to represent it in writing. Printing and the explosion of printed works gave great impetus to this trend.

Classic Latin was a highly inflected language (ie word endings determined their function in a sentence), as any student will attest who has had to grapple with Latin conjugations and declensions. A millennium later, nearly all the word-endings in declensions had been replaced by prepositions and by fixed word order in sentences to determine the functions of nouns. Tenses of verbs were determined by auxiliary verbs rather than conjugated verb forms.

These were radical changes indeed and they led to the grammar structures of modern French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian.

Some of the most remarkable changes in Latin vocabulary and grammar occurred in the Middle Ages as scholars "rediscovered" classic learning (Aristotle, Ptolemy, Plato etc) and tried to summarise all the known learning in many fields. These efforts eventually led to the Renaissance and the Reformation. Much of the material in these chapters of the book requires close attention by the reader.

Famous textbooks of Latin grammar were also surprisingly useful in the New World, where Latin parts of speech and related language theory were used to write grammars and dictionaries for the many indigenous languages encountered by the Spanish and Portuguese, in order to facilitate teaching of Christian doctrine.

We have recorded speech for only the last hundred years, so we can never really know how people actually spoke centuries ago. Written evidence is likely to have been more "correct" and formal than day to day speech.

Despite these limitations, linguists have made very plausible attempts to pin down how Latin was actually spoken down the ages. This is covered reasonably well in the book.

The text is quite detailed and technical in many places. It's not a textbook, but the book does require some familiarity with languages and European history to enjoy it fully. Personally, I found that very much to my taste. Far too many popular non-fiction books are so superficial, and often so ego-centrically focussed on the author, as to be annoying to read.

There is a lot of Latin in the book, but the narrative can be enjoyed without knowing any Latin at all. In fact, most Latin passages are accompanied by English translations. Those who do know something of the language will experience another dimension of enjoyment when reading the book.

The book covers much of the history of Europe, but only in sufficient detail to provide an adequate context for understanding the changes in Latin. The balance is well-struck for most non-specialist readers.

In discussing the residual impact of Roman law (specifically Justinian's Code) on modern law, the author states that "law is now seen as a positive creation of the . . . government, and from this point of view the past, with its laws, is a foreign country". This is rather dismissive of the importance of common law inherited from the past and, while that might be true for America (although I doubt it), it is certainly not true for England and countries like Australia that derive their legal systems from English law.

Many of the illustrations in the book are quite poor. The very detailed maps have been reduced in size to fit into a quarter of a page. This makes the print so small as to be virtually unreadable. In other cases they have been printed way too dark.

The maps are important aids to following the text, for example when peoples and place names do not match their modern names, so it is a pity that they are so amateurish.

This book is well worth reading if you love languages and are curious about the place of Latin in Western culture.
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on October 12, 2012
As several reviewers have correctly noted, this book wears its learning lightly. Ostler is fine stylist as well as an able scholar, an author who knows his craft and is able to coax an educated general reader through a variety of abstruse and potentially deadly topics. I will admit to skipping pages here and there where the author's muse seemed to fail him; but in compensation, I read all the footnotes, most of them fascinating, and a goodly number, amusing.
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on March 11, 2017
A bit damaged but an informative read
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on April 30, 2009
I enjoyed this book. It details everything you wanted to know about Latin from its origins to the present. No knowledge of Latin necessary.
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on April 5, 2008
If you love Latin, I think this is the book for you. I purchased it for a friend who teaches Latin. I only wish it had been more humerous.
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on January 9, 2008
For those who like to embellish their sentences with Latin words or phrases this book will definitely help you improve your game. For years I've used Eugene Ehrlich's AMO AMAS AMAT & MORE (Hudson Group Books), but it is only a quick reference book. Now, however, with Nicholas Ostler's book I have a better understanding of the development of Latin. Ostler has already written possibly one of the best books on the history of language:Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. In that book he wrote a history of the world with languages as the actors. In Ad Infinitum he has written a biography of one of those key players: namely, Latin.

Prior to the 3rd century BC, Latin co-existed with many other languages on the Italian peninsula: Ligurian, Umbrian, Etruscan, Oscan, to name a few. From Ostler's examples it looks as if those languages were very similar to Latin. So what happened in the life of Latin that caused it to emerge as the preeminent language, first on the peninsula, then ultimately throughout the known world?

Ostler offers three explanations as to why Latin prevailed. The first, of course, is that Rome was an imperial power. As the Roman army conquered new lands and peoples is left local cultures and languages undisturbed as long as they paid tribute to Rome. This is the modus operandi of successful empires. The administrators of the newly conquered regions spoke Latin, making it the language of power and prestige. This was a great incentive for locals to learn the language over time.

Secondly, the Roman army was always in need of new soldiers. All the young men conscripted from foreign lands were forced to learn Latin. Latin become a source of social mobility. And after a lifetime of service, soldiers were given land at the location of their last conquest, thus creating more Latin-speaking communities on the ever-expanding frontiers of the empire.

The third reason was that Romans were great engineers. They built roads, waterways, aquaducts and other types of infrastructure that greatly enhanced transportation and communication. All this building out of the empire solidified Latin's position as the universal language. Everyone from farmer, to soldier, to engineer, to administrator needed to learn Latin. The language itself became an empire.

Latin quickly became the language of Europe from England in the north to Romania in the east. It did not do so well in the Middle East and North Africa because Greek was still the language of culture in those areas. In fact early Latin writers still looked up to and borrowed from Greek literature. Ostler speaks of Latin's inferiority complex in relation to Greek in the early years. However, after the annexation of the Greek peninsula and the influx of Greek refugees, many Greek words started appearing in Latin. The Roman government even required that children's schooling begin with Greek. After several centuries of indoctrination and experimentation, Latin finally surpassed Greek as the language of culture and learning.

After the fall of Rome, Latin did not die. It remains to this day the language of the Catholic Church. It is the official language of Vatican City. After the dissolution of the empire, however, Latin devolved into a number of vernaculars such as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. The development of the vernaculars depended very much on the language of the conquering Germanic tribe. The language of the Franks, for example, was very influential in the development of French.

Not only is Latin not dead today, it is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. Ostler tells us that there are now many websites in Latin and that there is a Latin version of Wikipedia. Latin lives on in other ways. One need only look at the etymologies English words to discover the Latin origins of a large percentage or to study the structure of great works of English literature to see the continuing influence of Latin. For those who are interested in learning Latin, this book is a good place to start.
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on February 27, 2011
Unfortunately, I must conclude that this book is unsuitable for Kindle. Actually, I enjoyed the book itself very much, but had to obtain a print copy in order to do so. The Kindle version is literally loaded with typos. In addition, the many tables containing text in both Latin and English are treated as illustrations, and even when zoomed are too faint and small to read for the most part. There are so many footnotes and end notes that the somewhat cumbersome Kindle process for accessing them became quite tiresome.
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on April 3, 2008
A quirky, idiosyncratic introduction to the history of the Latin language. What purports to be a history of the language begins with the author's assumption that the Romans were from the first political, military, cultural and linguistic imperialists (perhaps not all that surprising in a student of Chomsky?). That in turn requires him to rewrite the history of Rome in and outside of Italy in ways which can only provoke raised eyebrows, and snickers, among Roman historians. The result of that first misstep is a prolonged exercise in history rewritten to substantiate theory: badly rewritten, too, with bloopers which run the gamut from from ancient (that Gaius Marius created a standing army for Rome) to the modern (that the Catholic Church no longer uses Latin in its liturgy). The unfortunate result is that there really is little room for the history of the Latin language. There are, amidst the historical theorizing, some interesting nuggets of information about Latin, but they are buried in far too much sand and detritus to make the effort of digging them out worthwhile.
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on September 10, 2009
In this book, Nicholas Ostler, also author of _Empires of the Word_, traces the history of the Latin language from its origins in a melange of dead Italic languages and Greek influences through its heyday as language of Empire and Church and its decline and ghettoization in an ivory prison.

Though biased as a Hellenistic historian, I found the earlier chapters of the book on ancient Latin and its relationship to Greek language and culture to be the strongest. In these chapters, Ostler dazzles the reader with pages and pages of loan words, but organized in such a way so as not to become tedious or pedantic. His style throughout has this quality: you never feel lectured at, even when his discussion ranges to the driest of topics. These early chapters also chronicle the development of the idea of grammar itself, a fascinating subject.

The other strongest part of the book is actually his chapter on Latin America and the bringing of Latin to the New World through Spanish and Portugese universities. The training of local, indigenous priests and educated laymen was at a very high level very soon after the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas, and anecdotal accounts point to a level of linguistic knowledge among these American students that even surpassed that of the clerics back in the Old World.

This book is not just a book on history or culture or linguistics, but a very intelligent and thought-provoking synthesis of all three (and some other things besides). How the Latin language became what it was at various points in history, who used it and how and why, and the dynamic relationship between the speaker and the language he speaks all inform Ostler's analysis. Highly recommended for anyone interested in any of these fields.
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