Latin’s Eminent Career

Is the language of empire, the church, scholarship, and Europe nearing retirement?


Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler, Walker, $27.95

Latin, like contemporary poetry, is subject to a certain amount of boosterism. True, there is no National Latin Month or Latin Teacher Laureate, but anyone with an interest in Latin is likely to have an assortment of whimsical or jokey books on their shelves along with dictionaries, grammars, and classical authors—Winnie Ille Pu and Alicia in Terra Mirabili (not to mention Harrius Potter) are among the more charming examples.

Boosterism, of course, belies an anxiety in the boosters. To proclaim a little too loudly that poetry—or Latin—is fun and accessible and useful to modern life (whether for getting in touch with one’s emotions or for improving one’s SAT score) implies that there is force in the opposite argument: that poetry and Latin are difficult, elitist, and irrelevant. At first glance, Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin looks like it might belong to this popularizing category. “Nowadays,” he begins, “Latin seems a comical language,” and he goes on to refer to Monty Python’s character Biggus Dickus. But this is part of a recusatio—this is not going to be a jokey book, though it entertains as well as edifies and will prove as interesting to the Latinist as to the layman. Refreshingly, this book is serious and scholarly, though it wears its considerable learning lightly, and in a world of increasing Anglophone hegemony and globalization against a backdrop of the rapid extinction of thousands of languages, its implications are thought provoking.

By calling this history of Latin a “biography,” Ostler personifies his subject; but there is also an inherent contrast in his two-part title. Ad infinitum—to infinity and beyond—suggests that Latin will go on and on; “biography” not only gives Latin a “life” but makes Latin mortal, for the definitive biography cannot really be written until near the end of a life. He takes for his subject, the life, the extraordinary career, of Latin over the millennia—language of Empire, of the Church, of scholarship, and of Europe: Where did Latin go right?

Like any good biographer, Ostler displays an encyclopedic familiarity with his subject, but not a blind, uncritical admiration. As he points out, over the Latin continuum that extended from the dawn of Rome to the Enlightenment, Latin was essentially inward looking—all roads led into Rome, not out of it. At one point Latin was spoken throughout the known world (but the known world was defined, conveniently, as that which spoke Latin).

Ostler also has a biographer’s flair for quotation and anecdote, and a knack for that lost art, the note. These are always worth wading into. I learned that the name California is taken from a fantasy island in a Spanish potboiler that came out in 1496: “Know that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any men among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.” The math term sum comes from summa lina—the top line (since in Roman arithmetic you literally added up). Also worth noting is the advantage of the codex (the book) over the scroll. A scroll had to be read in order as it was unrolled—it could not be bookmarked or flipped through at random for easy comparison of passages. (It is interesting that the Internet has brought back both the technology and the terminology of “scrolling,” though with the bookish advantage of being searchable.)

Ostler pithily explains grammatical points. Classical Latin lacked a word for being, which was problematic in philosophy, and so it had to invent one, ens (hence our entity). “The analogy of Greek was followed, where the present participle of einai ‘to be’ is just on, where the participle ending is bald, lacking any stem at all. It is as if the participle of is in English were ing.” Ostler has a working knowledge of 18 languages; he has degrees from Oxford in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, as well as a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky. This background enables him to effortlessly draw parallels from the Romance languages and from Hebrew and Arabic.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters is on Latin America. Here Latin, empire, and the Church combined in unexpected ways. The rapacious drive for conquest was sanctioned under the banner of converting souls, and to convert souls, one needed bilinguals and, eventually, a population of native priests. Their knowledge of Latin grammar gave the missionaries the tools to learn and systematically map the grammar of native languages. Here is a contemporary description of how the priests went about their research:

And the Lord put them in mind to turn themselves into children like the children who were their pupils to take part in their language, and with it to bring about the conversion of those tiny people, adopting the sincerity and simplicity of children. And so, laying aside for a time the gravity of their demeanor, they would take to playing with straws and pebbles in the break times they allowed, to get rid of their inhibitions in communication.

Anyone learning a foreign language will recognize that need to become again like a little child, to overcome the fear of looking (sounding) ridiculous.


Soon schools were turning out Inca and Aztec children who could read and write in Ciceronian Latin. Latin literature (including the Latin bible, the Vulgate), was in turn translated into indigenous languages. Not only were Aesop’s fables (Latinized) converted into the Aztec’s Nahuatl, the animals were changed into native fauna—for instance, lions became jaguars—and the stories took on a livelier local color, often at the expense of their original classical morals.

Because the book is not exactly chronological—rather, each section deals with a different aspect of Latin’s career—Ostler occasionally repeats and overlaps points. The chapter “Latin Today” contains fascinating but only tangentially relevant passages on terms for family relations and color values that might have been relegated to appendices. And very occasionally one feels an explanation is lacking that would be handy for the lay reader—say, a brief overview of the Arian heresy. For ease of reading, Ostler limits the Latin in the text (usually rendering quotations in English), but the original is always handily available in the notes.

Latin’s presence remains deeply, if obscurely, felt—not least in the unity of a Europe that also largely overlaps with the Roman Empire—even as Latinity itself remains an arcane accomplishment. Nevertheless, as recently as 2006, Finland, during its presidency of the European Union, offered a weekly roundup of events in Latin: Finnish may be a marginal language, but Latin offers a neutrality that English, the de facto lingua franca, does not. The Catholic Church, after having dismantled the Latin Mass in Vatican II, is rethinking the use of Latin in the liturgy—for its mystery and beauty (and nostalgia) rather than its common intelligibility. Ostler suggests that the current “jokey” attitude to Latin reflects the West’s unease with its own past. Perhaps the boosters should instead embrace Latin’s ancient snob appeal. In the words of Cicero (Ostler’s translation): “It is not so much creditable to know Latin as it is a disgrace not to.”

Besides a passion for Latin, Ostler has a more complex interest in the success of Latin. He is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (, which is concerned with the rapid extinction of these human resources. His interest in Latin is set off by an interest in Etruscan, singled out in the chapter “Latin’s Etruscan Stepmother.” For all that Latinate describes what to English writers is multi­syllabically abstract, Latin was originally a stubbornly physical language with roots deep in the soil of the Italian countryside. Writers such as Lucretius and Cicero had to coin terminology to attempt philosophy in it. From Etrus­can—the language of fancy cuisine, of the bustle and corruption of cities, of religion and its mysteries—Latin had to borrow the vocabulary of urbanity, decadence, and sophistication as well as a wealth of obscenities (obscene is itself Etruscan in origin). Among such borrowings in Latin are: taberna (taverna); botulus (black pudding, but where we get our word botulism); crapula (hangover); persona (masked actor); Aprilis (April); mundus (adornment, the world); calumnia (slander); damnum (loss); spurious (bastard). My favorite is elementum (element), which originally meant a letter of the alphabet and derives from L-M-N (say it out loud). Why did the Etruscan language vanish, eclipsed by its robust neighbor? The answer may lie in the vicissitudes of history, but the question of what makes one language flit alive through the mouths of men and another pass out of this world, is more topical than ever. The poignancy of lost languages—of lost potentials, lost diversity, lost views on the world, lost wisdom—is elegantly expressed by the poet Richard Wilbur in “To the Etruscan Poets”:

Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mothers’ milk the mother tongue,

In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind

Like still fresh tracks across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

A. E. Stallings is an American poet and former MacArthur fellow who lives in Athens, Greece. Her latest collection, This Afterlife: Selected Poems, was just published.


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