Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin - A Review

by Tom Thompson

Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin

Ad Infinitum is a continuation of Nicholas Ostler's work in Empires of the Word, in which he developed the field of "language dynamics", a comparison of the careers of different languages, Phoenician, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Chinese and English, among others.

In Ad Infinitum, he fleshes out a thesis about Latin - the history of Latin is the history of Western Europe, and of the New World. He describes the birth of Latin in Latium, a region in west-central Italy, its translocation to Rome, and its role in the growth of the Empire. He offers a glimpse of the lives and creations of Virgil, Horace, Sappho, and Cicero. In the Christian era, he chronicles the adoption of the language of the early church, and then examines how the German invasions affected both the Empire and its language, where Latin began its metamorphosis into the Romance languages.

The great story of Latin, however, is not its demise, but rather its robust endurance from 750 BC over the next 2500 years. That history begins as a small regional langauge to the dominance of one of the great lingua francas of all time. How did this happen? Ostler offers three explanations.

The first, of course, is that Rome was an imperial power. As the Roman army conquered new lands and peoples it left local cultures and languages undisturbed as long as they paid tribute to Rome. The administrators of the newly acquired regions spoke Latin, making it the language of power and prestige.

Secondly, the Roman army was always in need of new soldiers. All those men conscripted from foreign lands were forced to learn Latin. Thus Latin became a source of social mobility. After a lifetime of service, soldiers were given land at the location of their last conquest. This system of land grants created more Latin-speaking communities on the ever-expanding frontiers of the empire.

Finally, the Romans were great engineers, who built roads, waterways, aqueducts and other types of infrastructure that accelerated transportation and communication. All of this construction helped to solidify Latin's position as a universal language. The language itself became an empire.

One of the most interesting chapters of Ad Infinitum is on Latin America. Here Latin, empire, and the Church combined in unexpected ways. The rapacious drive for conquest was sanctioned under the banner of converting souls. And to convert souls, as A. E. Stallings has written, one needed bilinguals, and eventually a population of native priests. Their knowledge of Latin grammar gave the missionaries the tools to learn and systematically map the grammar of native languages. Anecdotal accounts point to a level of linguistic knowledge among the American students that even surpassed that of the clerics. Not only did missionaries learn Chibcha through Latin mnemonic rhymes, but Aztecs learned good Ciceronian Latin!

Anything that Ostler writes is a thrilling analytical, narrative ride that combines history, culture, and linguistics. But sometimes the insightful pit stops are simply spectacular. Latin, he explains, was first chosen by the Catholic Church as the liturgical language because it was the vernacular that people spoke every day, not because it was a language like Esperanto that could unite everyone who spoke different languages. Now the exact opposite argument is used for keeping Latin as the language of the Catholic Church, because it ISN'T one of the languages that different nationalities use every day, and thus it might serve to unite the Church.

Similarly Finland, during its presidency of the European Union in 2006, started offering a weekly roundup of events in Latin, Nuntii Latini. The thinking was that Latin offered a neutrality that English, the current de facto lingua franca does not. "E pluribus unum", as Nicholas Ostler might say.

Tom Thompson writes frequently on language-related topics.

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