Today, we speak of Latin as a "dead" language. If it is dead, Ostler argues, the seeds of its demise may have lain within what gave it life: the very institutions (Rome, Christianity, scholastic learning, humanism) that disseminated it so wide and fierce.
But Ostler wonders aloud: Is it really dead? True, only one country (the Vatican) lists it as an official language, and no babies grow up speaking it as their first language at home. Latin, though, is everywhere: in scientific nomenclature, in 60 percent of the vocabulary of English - arguably the Latin of our time - and in the words we use to describe and manipulate the primary engine of our age, technology.
Literature in Latin is hardly dead. Catullus, Cicero, Horace and Virgil still are read and enjoyed in the original by hundreds of thousands. Translation is nice, but it's no substitute. Latin, as written by the best, is still vibrant in the minds and hearts of many who speak many languages. Ostler reports millions of Web pages in Latin (there's even a Latin version of Wikipedia). Can a language enjoying such an afterlife really be dead?
Before reading this book, I would have said yes. I dearly love Latin and still open Horace and Virgil with pleasure (I was never very good at it, let it be said) - but I do so as a self-conscious scholar. After reading Ad Infinitum, I have to say Ostler has persuaded me. A language is alive if it lives. And Latin lives. So do Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, classical Arabic, in much the same role, as the mothers and fathers of our minds. Once a language of farmers and soldiers, Latin now is a language for readers and thinkers. That's life.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
AD INFINITUM: A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler, is reviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer by John Timpane. Excerpt: