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Latin: Story of a World Language

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The mother tongue of the Roman Empire and the lingua franca of the West for centuries after Rome's fall, Latin survives today primarily in classrooms and texts. Yet this "dead language" is unique in the influence it has exerted across centuries and continents. Jurgen Leonhardt has written a full history of Latin from antiquity to the present, uncovering how this once parochial dialect developed into a vehicle of global communication that remained vital long after its spoken form was supplanted by modern languages.

Latin originated in the Italian region of Latium, around Rome, and became widespread as that city's imperial might grew. By the first century BCE, Latin was already transitioning from a living vernacular, as writers and grammarians like Cicero and Varro fixed Latin's status as a "classical" language with a codified rhetoric and rules. As Romance languages spun off from their Latin origins following the empire's collapse--shedding cases and genders along the way--the ancient language retained its currency as a world language in ways that anticipated English and Spanish, but it ceased to evolve.

Leonhardt charts the vicissitudes of Latin in the post-Roman world: its ninth-century revival under Charlemagne and its flourishing among Renaissance writers who, more than their medieval predecessors, were interested in questions of literary style and expression. Ultimately, the rise of historicism in the eighteenth century turned Latin from a practical tongue to an academic subject. Nevertheless, of all the traces left by the Romans, their language remains the most ubiquitous artifact of a once-peerless empire.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

Jürgen Leonhardt

7 books4 followers
Jürgen Leonhardt is Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Tübingen.

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Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for Biblio Curious.
233 reviews8,273 followers
December 30, 2018
Leonhardt take us through virtually every facet that Latin touched upon during its 2,000 year history with human culture. During this odyssey, we discover how it shaped the ancient world, spread through the Roman empire and even some of its precursor role to modern Romance languages.

Nerdy folks take note, there's some hefty name dropping that occurs in the most delightful way possible. He gives us lists of who wrote what in which original language. It's sheer bliss! If you have an interest in the history of education, he generously touches on this as well ... complete with more of that name dropping!

Throughout most of the book, Leonhardt keeps his main point in focus. What we can learn from Latin's history & how it can be applied to global English use today. I won't spoil the ending of this book, though Classicists worth their salt would certainly agree with Leonhardt on his final point.
Profile Image for Nikki.
141 reviews27 followers
July 19, 2019
This book is a really nice overview of the history of Latin and the many shapes it has taken in society (world language chief among them). I am not a history buff, but am interested in Latin and language learning, so a lot did go over my head, but as a first-time exposure to these historical time periods and figures, I think the book isn’t a bad choice if you’re comfortable with not being able to absorb everything that the book has to offer (it goes really in depth—it’s much too detailed to take it all in with one pass).

While I enjoyed a lot of the information given (there has to be jokes made about the fact that Caesar’s assassinators were taught grammar by a guy called Staberius, right??), it is also quite meandering. As a made-up example, a chapter entitled “Latin in the 1800’s” may start with “We must first discuss this super important debate that happened in 1546, but to discuss that, we must first return to this thing that happened in Late Antiquity, but first...” I started to forget which time period was being described and how it Inception-layered together to form his point about educational reform in the neohumanist period (or something).

But this is coming from a lay person—I imagine this would be a fantastic resource for a historian or classicist. It has a well-done bibliography of sources, so there’s a lot to delve into with this academically.

I give it three stars because, ultimately, I enjoyed it, but it was not a page turner and could have been organized a little more clearly. I’d love to see a timeline diagram done up to visualize the author’s depiction of Latin history in proper order!

137 reviews2 followers
March 7, 2014
This was an interesting and insightful book, but it was certainly not compelling. Indeed, getting through 5-10 pages at a time was something of a challenge because it is quite densely written and has the feel of a "scholarly" text. That isn't a bad thing, it just means getting through it was a bit ponderous. The book is largely centered on a discussion of Latin's role from Roman times to the present along with questions of what being a "dead" language means. Interesting comparisons with the state of modern English are sprinkled through the text. If you have an interest in communication or in Latin, it's worth a read - but only if you are willing to devote a great deal of attention to it. It won't come quick or easy.
Profile Image for Helio.
453 reviews67 followers
February 23, 2020
I thought this was going to be a book about how Latin came about; instead it was more about how Latin became the Romance languages. I am interested in how language changes. It was interesting that the author states English is becoming the Latin of our age in that three times as many people use English than there are native speakers and they are not dependent on native speakers for its use. Here are some other things I got out of the book:

P28 Greek (as evidenced by surviving texts) became fixed. The external shape of the words and the key syntactic elements remained largely unchanged. A few selective elements continued to evolve. For example, in addition to the indicative and the conjunctive modes, Greek had the optative (wish mode). In addition to singular and plural they had a “dual” number. These and similar grammatical peculiarities largely disappeared. Vocabulary and phraseologies continued to evolve.

P30 Romans were able to use this fixed language, Greek, to engage in intricate negotiations and to describe complex objects and situations independently of place throughout the Roman Empire… before Latin acquired all of the functions of Greek.
[So what functions came along “after”?]

P33/34 High Arabic is a historically fixed language. It largely retains the morphology and many of the syntactic features of classical Arabic as are found in the Koran… Since the 19th C the vocabulary (in terms of new words and new meanings given to old words) has changed to adapt to the modern world. A person with knowledge of High Arabic can still understand 200 year old texts.

P37 The development of Sanskrit probably has the most parallels with that of Latin. Sanskrit was originally the language of a small region in northwestern India. The Vedas have survived from the oldest of times. Their language was far removed vernacular of the population in 500 BCE, during the lifetime of Panini. Panini’s greatest achievement was to develop the grammatical foundations of the language, thereby fixing them permanently. Sanskrit became the culture language of the whole Indian subcontinent.

P57 … we search in vain for minor alterations after the time of Cicero. The forms of declensions and conjugations are virtually unchanged since his time. Furthermore the syntax found in Cicero and Caesar and in Virgil and Horace is still valid today. Even where later developments introduced new syntactic possibilities or new words, the old ones were never dropped. Just as the forms of Sanskrit grammar laid down by Panini remain eternally valid, the core … in Latin classics remain the foundation…

What we do know is that the fixing of Latin proceeded from literature and not from administrative necessity. Because no external reasons are evident, it is almost too easy … to ascribe the fixing of Latin to classical literature and its supreme artistic achievements… According to Wilfried Stoh, Cicero and his contemporaries had so perfected Latin that their enthusiastic successors deemed it definite as a model and undertook no further changes ”Latin died of its own beauty” [Stroh 2007:109-112].

P58 Why Latin became fixed during this particular period and at this stage is a serious question. We can find no compelling external development... such as occurred in Greece as a result of the adoption of Attic as the language of the Macedonian court and the pluricentric organization of literature after Alexander the Great.

P61 Caesar suggested the genitive of Pompeius be written with three ‘i’s (Pompeiii) to distinguish it from the identically pronounced nominative plural (Pompeii) and the vocative forms (Pompei).

[I don’t know if this took (probably not or it would be held up as an example of a (Latin) word with three consecutive “i”s but it is an example of an attempt to overtly change a language – which begs the question where did all the conjugations and declinations come from originally? McWhorter (in his 2001 book “The Power of Babel”) says declensions came from words attaching themselves as affixes (suffixes in the case of Latin) but gave no examples for Latin (and I didn’t find any in this book).]

P77 … the preposition “cum”, which from the earliest times up to the classical period took only the ablative, is now found in accusative constructions (cum iumentum, cum sodales) which points in the direction of the later collapse of the Latin case system [tell me more!]

P86 After the second century Latin was used more in literary texts more frequently in North Africa than on the Italian peninsula

P89 For the British Empire, London played precisely the same role that Rome had for the Imperium Romanaum into the second and third century. But with the dissolution … North America, Australia, New Zealand and India eventually became linguistic regions on par with England.

P150/151 People are no longer learning English to communicate with English speakers but to communicate with others… The number of people who use English as a second ore foreign language now exceeds the number of native speakers by a factor of three.

No German would think of speaking Chinese to prospective Japanese supplier or customer even if both had mastered that language. English on the other hand is comprehensible to all three nations – but they use their own English without any native speaker exerting control. Whether the native speakers of a particular language have been dead for two thousand years or separated by two thousand miles is largely irrelevant, at least when it comes to speaking it as a second language.

P152 English, more than any other language, is gradually becoming to resemble Latin in the early modern era, which, thought the most important language in Europe, had no community of speakers to whom it really belonged.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
495 reviews79 followers
October 7, 2018
This is a remarkable story, combining history, religion, politics, and literature to show how Latin emerged from a welter of rapidly changing dialects to become a language rich in poetry, drama, history, and philosophy, and then spread throughout the western world, from the Levant to Britain, from Scandinavia to North Africa. It went through some parlous times after the fall of the Roman Empire and was almost forgotten in the two centuries before Charlemagne resurrected it to be the voice of the new Europe. From there it became the common currency of literature, poetry, and diplomacy for a thousand years. Even after the rise of local languages pushed it aside in the 18th century it remained an essential signifier of the educated person, a guide to the great works and thoughts of the past, and a rigorous framework for training modern minds.

Latin was a world language, and as such it has many parallels with today’s English. There are vastly more people who speak English as a second or third language than who learn it as their mother tongue, so who owns English? How will it evolve? As the author says, “Will this global English be a somewhat reduced form of the lingua franca, while the national languages maintain their position? Or will global English damage the refined standards of the national languages because people have not time to master the subtleties of their own language?” It is possible that English will follow the path that Latin and Italian took, where there was a high form spoken by the well educated minority, and an increasingly divergent low form used as the vernacular, ultimately becoming separate and mutually incomprehensible.

The book steps through the history of Latin and the many uses it was put to, and the controversies that swirled around its instruction. Should students be taught the classical form of Cicero and Ovid, or the less rigorous grammar of the later centuries? Was the goal for students to be able to speak Latin as fluently as their native language, or just to be able to read it? Which authors were to be considered canonical, and why? Who was the intended audience? The answers to these questions changed as the centuries went by, as each generation took from the past what it needed to shape its own future.

It is a timely and thoughtful book. In the end, the reader is left with the strong impression that Latin is not a dead language, that it still has much to teach, but today’s emphasis on the immediate cash value of education means there are too few who understand it well enough to transmit the important lessons it can teach to the new generations.
Profile Image for Sarah .
768 reviews35 followers
November 30, 2015
This was really interesting! It's fun good times to think about what is a world language or a universal language-- where they came from, how they developed, how they spread and why, and how long their uses continued past the point of "death." And from there, can world languages ever really die? Everybody knows Latin is a "dead" language, which is really very funny given that it's on offer in most high schools. That said, my scholarly monograph days are over and I skimmed most of this. I'd've rated it high if it were in any way accessible to regular dudes and dudettes.
Profile Image for Maciek.
28 reviews3 followers
September 28, 2018
Somehow this book managed to convince me that Latin was a language suited for ordinary soldiers, and if I want to be classy, I should learn Greek.
But I'm okay with soldiering.
Profile Image for Natasha Sneddon.
15 reviews4 followers
March 12, 2019
I love Latin and have a degree in ancient history, yet I was unable to finish this book as I found it 'hard' to read and a bit too repetitive.
Profile Image for Jonathon McKenney.
400 reviews4 followers
July 16, 2021
As with many NF books, it dragged a bit in the 100+ page chapter on “Europe’s Latin millennium “ but the last two chapters, examining the status of Latin changing as its practical use waned more than made up for it. Comparisons to modern languages, in particular English and Arabic, were exceedingly interesting, along with discussions of other “high status but less functional” languages like Sanskrit
Profile Image for Will.
92 reviews
April 23, 2020
Excellent and fascinating! This is required reading for anyone who teaches any ancient language, but especially for Latin teachers. Leonhardt narrates how the language, its speakers, learner's, and literary traditions developed throughout history in their various social, political, and scholarly settings. It makes the sort of language teaching (of Latin at least) seem very strange.
52 reviews2 followers
May 18, 2020
Really impressive in its comprehensiveness - takes you from Rome to present day. Clearly assiduously researched. That being said felt a little too academic at times and went too deep on certain historical movements / scholarly debates which didn’t feel essential. For those interested in the topic, it’s got exactly what you are looking for and is worth the read
Profile Image for Sarah Lorenowich.
125 reviews
May 18, 2021
this was so fascinating and somehow not at all what i was expecting when i bought it. probably would have enjoyed it more if i went in with more pre-knowledge but that’s a me issue
Profile Image for Colin.
Author 5 books127 followers
January 29, 2014
A truly wonderful must-read for anyone with any serious interest in Latin, I think, a work that to my surprise (and in my opinion) far surpassed Nicholas Ostler's Ad Infinitum as history of the Latin language from its roots in ancient Italy and its continuous use up to the modern day. Leonhardt's work is magisterial, and commands attention . . . the translation into English is smooth and nuanced. I highly recommend this to anyone into Latin, professionally or otherwise.
Profile Image for James Meyer.
55 reviews5 followers
January 1, 2015
This "biography of Latin" taught me a ton about the language that I teach and know; it reminded me of how amazingly ignorant I am of it; and perhaps most importantly, it reminded me of key differences between what we can know about written languages, what we can't about spoken languages, and how different the two can be.
Profile Image for Shana.
37 reviews
July 3, 2015
Interesting thesis - Latin is not a dead language! (But also - was it ever really alive?)
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