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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book with some caveats, 6 Oct. 2008
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This review is from: Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (Paperback)
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). He attributes this partly to the Latin bible and partly to the reforms of the Carolingian renaissance. Initially the pronunciation of Latin changed locally in the same way as the local vernaculars (Spanish Latin being pronounced the same as Spanish and so on). This meant that the recitation of the bible could be largely understood by vernacular speakers. The reforms of Alcuin to standardise the pronunciation of Latin through Europe to the presumed classical pronunciation meant that the bible was no longer understood, creating an impetus to develop local written languages. Ostler also suggests that the fact that English, Irish, Welsh & German had their own written forms may also have given the Romance speakers the idea, which begs the question of what had previously inspired them? History is full of examples of civilisations using other, often very different and alien, languages for their written communication rather than inventing writing for their own. Developing writing, even if a system exists capable of doing it, always seems to be a hurdle.

One of the most fascinating sections is on the mediaeval translation movement to translate works from Arabic and Greek into Latin. Ostler discusses the major obstacles Latin faced, not just in terms of vocabulary but also with some quite fundamental restrictions in such things as the lack of certain verbal forms and syntactical constructions. For example even the verb "esse" (to be) lacked certain verbal forms which were needed to be able to properly translate the works; these had to be invented, such as "futurus" for a future participle. Ostler suggests in a footnote that prudishness may also have been a hindrance - he coyly remarks that the root "futu-", a form of "esse", is very rude in Latin. To fill in the gap for you, it has the same meaning as an English four letter word also beginning with "f". I have often wondered why "Greek" knowledge never really percolated westward through the Roman empire until carried by the Arabs at a much later date. Could language have been the barrier? Were Arabic and Greek superior vehicles for philosophical ventures which Latin couldn't provide without a major effort of lingustic borrowing and invention?

A good read, but keep an open mind about some intepretations presented here.
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Review Details



E. L. Wisty

Location: O'er Hill And Dale

Top Reviewer Ranking: 299