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Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin Hardcover – November 13, 2007
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About the Author
Nicholas Ostler is the author of Empires of the World: A Language History of the World. He is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (www.ogmios.org), a charity that supports the efforts of small communities worldwide to know and use their languages more. A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from M.I.T., where he studied under Noam Chomsky. He lives in England, in Roman Bath, on the hill where Ambrosius Aurelianus defeated the Saxons for a generation.
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Top Customer Reviews
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
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.
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.