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Nicholas Ostler: Culture, History, Language
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