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Sunday, December 12, 2010

We Are What We Speak

Ad Infinitvm
A Biography of Latin
by Nicholas Ostler
p.  2007
Published by Walker and Company

       I like author Nicholas Ostler because he is one of those folks trying to write about academic subjects in a popular way.  So far I've read Empires of the Word, which was basically a history of the world from a llinguistic perspective.  Then I read the Last Lingua Franca, his most recent book, which focused in on the historical career of English.  Ad Infinitum is his biography of Latin, and it was published in between the first two books.  Like the other two, the idea is to bring a historical sense to bear on a specific language.  Here, the language is Latin.

       Ostler starts off with a bang, showing the great extent to which Latin was influenced in it's infancy by its northern neighbor, Etruscan.  Ostler even illustrates that point with an appendix which contains a glossary of Latin words that came directly from Etruscan.   From then on it's a familiar history written from a novel history.  Basically, Ostler tells the story of the rise of Europe through the eyes of its common language.    The split up of Latin into the descendant languages of French, Italian and Spanish is perhaps the best attested example we have in all of human history of that the process by which one language becomes many languages.  Ostler, both int his book and in the last Lingua Franca, uses this example to illustrate what might happen to English in the future.  Of course, the split up of Latin was contemporatenous with nasty events like barbarian invasions and a general break down in civilization, so the possibility of the same thing happening to English is not a particularly positive prospect.

    As the story draws closer to the present day, Ostler shows the ways in which Latin lost its role in the world, a process which was still being completed during the 20th century.  Today, Latin is an archaic relic, it's use limited to arcane fields like botany and it's influence more likely to be demonstrated through the use of its descendant languages than Latin itself.

   Perhaps Ostler's main point is that Latin speakers always had a somewhat unique viewpoint that saw the limits of Latin and the Roman Empire as the limits of their world.  This perspsective: That of the Latin speaker as the only meaningful agent in world history, has been transmitted quite directly to successor cultures around the world. 

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