Date: Wed, 30 Mar 2005 12:17:12 +1200 From: Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy firstname.lastname@example.org> 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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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).