The Latin language has been the one constant in the cultural history of the West for more than two millennia. It has been the foundation of our education, and has defined the way in which we express our thoughts, our faith, and our knowledge of how the world functions. Indeed, the language has proved far more enduring than its empire in Rome, its use echoing on in the law codes of half the world, in the terminologies of modern science, and until forty years ago, in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. It is the unseen substance that makes us members of the Western world.
Nicholas Ostler shows how and why (against the odds, through conquest from within and without) Latin survived and thrived even as its creators and other languages failed. Originally the dialect of Rome and its surrounds, Latin supplanted its neighbors to become, by conquest and settlement, the language of all Italy, and then of Western Europe and North Africa. Its cultural creep toward Greek in the East led it to copy and then ally with it in an unprecedented, but invincible combination: Greek theory and Roman practice, delivered through Latin, became the foundation of Western civilization. Christianity, a latecomer, then joined the alliance, and became vital to Latin's survival when the empire collapsed. Spoken Latin re-emerged as a host of new languages, from Portuguese and Spanish in the west to Romanian in the east. But a knowledge of Latin lived on as the common code of European thought, and inspired the founders of Europe's New World in the Americas: E pluribus unum.
"Long after its disappearance as the common tongue of Europe, [Latin] survives as a remarkably successful brand, exuding dignity and permanence . . . Yet Latin, in its infancy, showed few signs of emerging as a superstar, Nicholas Ostler points out in Ad Infinitum, his lucid, erudite and elegant history of the language he calls 'the soul of Europe's civilization.' Until the third century B.C. it was simply one of several regional dialects spoken in Italy, a pipsqueak compared with Etruscan. So what happened? Three things, argues Mr. Ostler . . . First, when the Roman armies conquered, they did not destroy. Instead they formed alliances and created Roman settlements, with the choice tracts of land awarded to Romans. Latin, the language of the new elite, immediately became a mark of prestige. Second, wherever they went, the Romans conscripted young men into their army, where the commands were given in Latin, and retired soldiers often settled on the territory of their final campaign, further extending the community of Latin speakers . . . Third, the Romans built roads, putting the capital and its language within reach of the provinces. All roads led not just to Rome but to Latin, which enjoyed distinct advantages over its major rivals, Oscan and Etruscan. Unlike them, Mr. Ostler writes, 'it was a farmers' language, a soldiers' language and a city language.' Also, not incidentally, it was backed by a mighty army and a strong government . . . One of Mr. Ostler's most fascinating chapters deals with the self-conscious program undertaken by Latin writers to replicate the achievements of the Greek philosophers, playwrights and poets, a process that lasted centuries and required trailblazers like Cicero to coin words like 'qualitas' (literally 'how-ness') to make Latin express abstractions. Eventually Rome declared cultural independence from Greece, and Latin emerged as the principal identifying feature of the far-flung Roman empire . . . As the language of the Roman Catholic Church, Latin not only survived but also thrived for another millennium, the universal language uniting all educated inhabitants of a politically fractured Europe . . . Latin may seem as unchanging . . . but Mr. Ostler traces the remarkable stylistic changes it underwent over the centuries."—Harry Mount, The New York Times
"An absorbing, scholarly account of the history of the Latin language, from its origins in antiquity to its afterlife in our own time."—The Wall Street Journal
"In this delightfully rich book, Ostler, an Oxford-educated classicist with a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, thoroughly tackles the deep and complex history of the Latin language. He delves into the matrix of antique languages (Greek, Etruscan, Oscan) to uncover the context and relationships that a nascent and burgeoning Latin had with the multiplicity of Mediterranean languages existing at that time. In four parts, Ostler covers the origins and development of Latin in the Roman world, Latin's 'taking over the church,' its medieval continuation and fracturing into vernaculars, and a nuanced rebirth in the Renaissance and its legacy in the contemporary world. Incredibly well documented, with examples from antiquity to the modern era (such as Giuseppe Peano's 'Latino sine flexione'—uninflected Latin as a world language) . . . for interested students, teachers, and scholars, it is a fabulous text. Recommended for public and academic libraries."—Anthony J. Elia, Library Journal