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Review of  A Natural History of Latin

Reviewer: Andrew D. Carstairs-McCarthy
Book Title: A Natural History of Latin
Book Author: Tore Janson Nigel Vincent Merethe Damsgaard Sørensen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Latin
Issue Number: 16.965

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Date: Wed, 30 Mar 2005 12:17:12 +1200
From: Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy>
Subject: A Natural History of Latin

AUTHOR: Janson, Tore
TRANSLATORS: Vincent, Nigel; Sørensen, Merethe Damsgård
TITLE: A Natural History of Latin
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, Department of Linguistics, University of
Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand


This is a book 'for everyone who wants to know more about Latin', as
the Foreword puts it. It consists of four parts. Part I is an outline
history of the Latin language and its speakers up to the adoption of
Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire under
Constantine in the fourth century CE. Part II carries on the story
through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the present day,
emphasizing the extent to which Latin has been a source of loans for
technical vocabulary and still retains an aura of prestige and (on
occasion) mystery, as exemplified in the Harry Potter books by J. K.
Rowling. Part III is a summary of Latin grammar, in terms designed to
be intelligible to linguistically unsophisticated readers. Part IV is a list
of basic vocabulary, including all words used in examples throughout
the book. Part V lists Latin phrases and expressions still in common
use. At the end are suggestions for readers who want to carry their
inquiries further.

The book was originally published in Swedish. It has been translated
and adapted for English-speaking readers by the well-known linguist
Nigel Vincent (University of Manchester) and his Danish wife Merethe
Damsgård Sørensen.


It is hard to imagine how this book could be improved. I am not a
member of its target readership, because I have many years'
acquaintance with Latin and a first degree in Greek and Latin
language and literature. But from now on, if anyone who has never
studied Latin asks me to recommend a short, readable book in which
they can find out about the history of Latin and get a feel for the
grammar, I will be able to answer unhesitatingly.

Janson's central theme is the importance of Latin in the development
of European civilization. He points out that Latin is not just as the
ancestor of the Romance languages but is also the vehicle of a huge
mass of written material (bureaucratic records, legal texts, histories,
poetry, and literary and scientific works) extending way beyond the
point when Romance vernaculars had diverged from a more or less
uniform 'Vulgar Latin'. Many readers may feel, as I did, that they know
sufficiently well how Latin survived as a language of education and
scholarship in western Europe long after it had ceased to be spoken.
Janson reminds us, however, that the use of Latin has waxed and
waned enormously at different times and places since the collapse of
the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE. He reminds us, for
example, that the ability to read (much less speak) classical
Ciceronian Latin disappeared almost entirely in continental Europe
during the turmoil of the early Middle Ages, surviving mainly among
monks in Ireland, where the Romans had never penetrated. In a
strange way that situation is paralleled today: Janson could have
added that the only country (apart from the Vatican) where Latin
thrives to the extent that regular news bulletins are broadcast in it is
Finland, whose main language is of course not only (like Irish) not
Latin-derived, but is not even Indo-European.

One would expect any author of a book such as this to try to whet his
or her readers' appetites for the writers of the classical Golden Age,
such as the poets Virgil and Horace, the historian Livy, and the orator
Cicero. But Janson does the same also for post-classical writers such
as the philosopher Boethius, who wrote his 'The Consolation of
Philosophy' while imprisoned under Ostrogothic rule in Italy, and the
theologian and philosopher Peter Abelard, whose correspondence
with his beloved Héloïse (in perfect Ciceronian Latin) survives.
Janson makes the point that the Renaissance, though often thought of
as a revival of learning, hastened the eclipse of Latin as a language of
science and scholarship because it gave new respectability to the use
of the vernaculars. Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics
but in other respects conservative and much occupied with old-
fashioned pursuits such as alchemy, still wrote in Latin -- but already
Galileo had used Italian when publishing his heliocentric account of
the solar system.

The precarious survival of some Latin authors through the Middle
Ages can be illustrated by another point that Janson might have
made. Dante in his Divine Comedy encounters the 'Silver Age' poets
Lucan and Statius. Neither of these, reasonably enough, is deemed
by Janson sufficiently important to mention. But he does mention
Catullus and Lucretius, who are ignored by Dante. Their works
survived in just a handful of manuscript copies that in Dante's time still
awaited rediscovery. It would be nice to think that unknown works of
major Latin writers might yet be unearthed, but the classical scholars
of the sixteenth century and since have ransacked monastery libraries
too thoroughly for that to be likely.

So far as the outline presentation of the grammar goes, my only
complaint is small. Although Janson tells us that vowel length is
phonologically significant in Latin, he ignores it when discussing Latin
morphology, so a reader who begins to learn nominal and verbal
paradigms from Janson's book may later have to unlearn the bad
habit of neglecting vowel length. For example, the -is ending of the
dative plural of _amicus_ 'friend' is not homophonous with the -is of
the genitive singular of _urbs_ 'city', despite what the table on page
189 seems to suggest. Perhaps Janson (or Vincent and Sørensen)
could consider remedying this in a later printing.


Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy is a professor at the University of
Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. He works mainly on
inflectional morphology and language evolution. His most recent
books are _The Origins of Complex Language_ (1999) and _An
Introduction to English Morphology_ (2002).

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199263094
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 316
Prices: U.K. £ 16.99