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Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin [Paperback]

Nicholas Ostler
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Sep 2008

An in-depth biography of the Latin language from its very beginnings to the present day from the widely acclaimed author of ‘Empires of the Word’.

The Latin language has been a constant in the cultural history of the West for over two millennia. It has shaped the way we think of ourselves and of our (central) place in the world. It has formed and united us as Europeans, has been the foundation of our education for centuries and defined the way in which we express our thoughts, our faith and our knowledge of the workings of the world. And yet, Latin began life as the cumbersome dialect of a small southern Italian city-state.

Its active use lasted three times as long as Rome's Empire and its use echoes on in the law codes of half the world, in terminologies of biology and medicine, and until forty years ago in the litany of the Catholic Church, the most populous form of Christianity.

In ‘Ad Infinitum’, Nicholas Ostler examines the reasons why Latin made such a long-lasting impact on language, and how it managed to stay alive for two millennia despite the cultural superiority of Greek. He will look at how Latin's sturdy roots remained untouched while empires rose and fell, the influence of religion, war and the ways it has progressed through medieval times right up until the present day.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


Product details

  • Paperback: 382 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; Reprint edition (2 Sep 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802716792
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802716798
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 16 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,201,900 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Review

Praise for 'Empires of the Word':

'It is a compelling read, one of the most interesting books I have read in a long while…a great book. After reading it you will never think of language in the same way again.' Guardian

'Learned and entertaining…remarkably comprehensive as well as thought-provoking.' Observer

'Ostler is particularly good on this linguistic fragility…This richly various book offers new insights and information for almost everyone interested in the past.' Sunday Telegraph

'A serious work of scholarship, but one that can be read from cover to cover by the amateur enthusiast…the breadth of this analysis is breathtaking…it does its job admirably.' Spectator

'Ambitious and well-researched.' New Statesman

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Nicholas Ostler is a scholar and scientist of languages, who has a working knowledge of 26 languages and who, five years ago, set up the Foundation for Endangered Languages, an international organisation, to provide funding and support to document and revitalise languages in peril. With his own company Linguacubun Ltd., he regularly advises governments and corporations on policy in the field of computers and natural language processing.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book with some caveats 6 Oct 2008
By E. L. Wisty TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Nicholas Ostler has a wide and deep knowledge of linguistics and language history which he brings to bear in this book. Sometimes when he strays outside his area of expertise things can become a little dubious.

In considering the question of why descendants of Latin remain in Europe but not in Britain, Ostler suggests several possible reasons but seems to go for the belief (he's far from the first to suggest it) that the mid-6th century plague which hit Europe de-populated the Romano-British areas leaving the English to take over. He adduces the "evidence" of Y-chromosome data to "support" this (amongst the "English" it is the same gene, amongst the "Celts" it is different), which misunderstands what the data is saying. For one thing, taken as a whole, the genes of the "English" are 85-90% the same as the genes of the pre-English population. Secondly, a group of English males could have taken British wives rather than English men and women taking over depopulated territory (we are to believe that the English first came over as a mercenary army). No doubt petty nationalism will make these arguments run and run. Apart from all this, the plague was Europe-wide with no apparent special circumstances in Britain; so why didn't exactly the same issue hit continental Europe? And why didn't it hit the English equally? Where is the evidence that Latin was ever widely spoken in Britain anyway?

Ostler notes that on a global scale, Latin is a unique instance of where vernacular forms of a language have developed their own written forms (compare Arabic and Chinese where even though there are several very different spoken forms of the language, the written language is always the "standard" language).
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Ad Infinitum is a splendid life history, compilation and guide, every page intense, stimulating deep interest. It is a fascinating compendium of relevant facts about language, in no way limited to Latin or languages derived from Latin; a history of European (and in many ways world) civilisation, of exploration, of cultural and scientific development. It is full of coruscating gems of captivating facts and unusual linkages. By calling this work a biography (and writing it with that substantive in focus) Nicholas Ostler endows it with the extra appeal that a person has over and above an abstract concept, deriving from their lovable idiosyncrasies, their personality, their individual life and vitality.
Ostler covers a huge range of fields, including education, books, libraries and book-making, rhetoric and linguistic analysis, monastic organisation, the influence of the church on civil society. On our journey of discovery he introduces a host of figures whose intellectual achievements have changed our ways of thinking, and writing. He provides his readers with persuasive explanation of how the urgent need to make meaningful statements leads to economical expression, with concision being by no means an enemy of elegance; and he does it with mastery of his own language, expression and story, painting with enviable balance an absorbing and densely realistic picture of evolving societies.
This is a book to appreciate; to attend to, as you would to a highly erudite and likeable guide; to mull over and digest; to learn from; but, more than all those things, it is a stimulus to learn and understand more deeply. Ostler opens a window onto a world which still, after 2 millennia, merits further exploration.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book with some caveats 18 April 2009
By E. L. Wisty TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Nicholas Ostler has a wide and deep knowledge of linguistics and language history which he brings to bear in this book. Sometimes when he strays outside his area of expertise things can become a little dubious.

In considering the question of why descendants of Latin remain in Europe but not in Britain, Ostler suggests several possible reasons but seems to go for the belief (he's far from the first to suggest it) that the mid-6th century plague which hit Europe de-populated the Romano-British areas leaving the English to take over. He adduces the "evidence" of Y-chromosome data to "support" this (amongst the "English" it is the same gene, amongst the "Celts" it is different), which misunderstands what the data is saying. For one thing, taken as a whole, the genes of the "English" are 85-90% the same as the genes of the pre-English population. Secondly, a group of English males could have taken British wives rather than English men and women taking over depopulated territory (we are to believe that the English first came over as a mercenary army). No doubt petty nationalism will make these arguments run and run. Apart from all this, the plague was Europe-wide with no apparent special circumstances in Britain; so why didn't exactly the same issue hit continental Europe? And why didn't it hit the English equally? Where is the evidence that Latin was ever widely spoken in Britain anyway?

Ostler notes that on a global scale, Latin is a unique instance of where vernacular forms of a language have developed their own written forms (compare Arabic and Chinese where even though there are several very different spoken forms of the language, the written language is always the "standard" language).
Read more ›
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