The cultural, religious and scholastic history of the Latin language—2,500 years of a paradise won and lost.
Polyglot Ostler—he possesses a working knowledge of 26 languages and holds degrees from Oxford in Greek, Latin, philosophy and economics, as well as a doctorate in linguistics from MIT, where he studied with Noam Chomsky—again demonstrates his considerable professorial chops, which readers first encountered in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (2005). The depth of the scholarship here is astonishing. He fleshes out his thesis—the history of Latin is the history of Western Europe and, indeed, of the New World—with thick strands from the histories of linguistics, warfare, religion, politics, empire, oppression and more. 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 (Latin became the common language of politics, the military and commerce). He offers glimpses of the lives and creations of Virgil, Horace and Sappho, and credits Cicero for giving Latin “its own corpus of philosophical writings.” Moving to the Christian era, he chronicles the adoption of the language by the early church, then examines how the German invasions affected both the Empire and its language—Latin began its metamorphosis into the Romance languages. On he progresses to the importance of Latin in medieval universities, the difficulties of translating Greek and Arabic texts into Latin, the rise of the printing press and the subsequent spread of vernacular languages. And then the long decline. Other languages—English among them—began to gain prominence as they developed formal grammars and produced literary geniuses (think Chaucer), and Latin became a more elite language, known and used principally by highly educated men. Latin retained a weakening grip on the church, until Vatican II, as well as a handful of other institutions, but its study today is limited. Still, doughty Latin-literates can purchase and peruse Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis.
Ostler’s erudition may occasionally lead readers into impenetrable thickets of explication, but his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious.