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Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (2007)

by Nicholas Ostler

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Not as interesting as I had hoped. ( )
  lauren.castan | Apr 3, 2013 |
Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum is a monumental effort to catalog the travels and metamorphosis of the Latin language throughout European history. Latin changed in varying degrees based on the peoples it met on its journey, but the modern family of European languages all trace their roots back to a single language from a once-small area in Central Italy known as Latium. While there are times when he gets bogged down in the minutiae of word transformations and grammatical construction, his thesis is that the language survived through a combination of early Roman acculturation and the swift expansion of the Catholic Church. There is an interesting interplay that always seems to happen between a language and the lives of the language’s speakers. Language, culture, and history all seem to effect each other and make for a “three body problem” when discussing any of these facets. Latin is no different. This is, however, a very intriguing read for language lovers. ( )
1 vote NielsenGW | Dec 23, 2009 |
This is an insightful volume, reviewing the history of the West from an unusual angle, the Latin language. Along the way the reader can discover many gems into language in general and the specific local languages of the Roman Empire, the Medieval Church, and continuing up to the present. It is a history of the West but from an unusual vantage point, the perspective of the study, importance, and dissemination of Latin.

Ostler traces Latin as it emerges, and parallels the emerging dominance of the city of Rome. He can supplement more standard histories as Latin gradually replaced Greek in parts of, and in particular situations, the former lingua franca. I do not have anything as detailed that chronicles the linguistic relationship between Etruscan and Latin. Ostler has less to say about other early military opponents of Rome. For example, it might have been worthwhile to consider Carthage and others as the Roman Empire grew. Ostler is stronger on the Latin interaction with Greek, a subject no doubt more readers are interested in knowing.

The discussion of Early Medieval Latin, after the fall of Rome, I found particularly interesting. The Germanic tribes found themselves as inheritors of an Empire yet in numerous respects were dependent on Latin to maintain regular order.

There are more works on modern history which address how Latin gradually lost out to vernacular languages and the newer predominant languages such as French or English although Ostler does cover this ground as well.
1 vote gmicksmith | Sep 13, 2009 |
In Ad Infinitum, Nicholas Ostler has created a biography of Latin, giving the history of the language from "birth" to present day. Along the way, he treats the interaction between the language and changes in the societies that use the language, showing the feedback loop in which events and customs change language while language guides events and customs.

The discussion of the origin of Latin was the most interesting part of the history for me. I'm little more than a linguistic novice, but had very little difficulty understanding his comparisons of Latin with other concurrent languages such as Etruscan and the discussion of why Latin in particular won out over its competitors. I also really liked his description of the interplay between Greek and Latin, and correspondingly between Greek culture and Roman culture as well. Frankly, though, the second half of the book lagged for me. After the Medieval period, the world grew away from Latin, and in the process, the story of the language becomes much less interesting. My recommendation - pay attention to the first half of the book and treat the second half more lightly. ( )
1 vote drneutron | May 25, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802716792, Paperback)

“An absorbing, scholarly account of the history of the Latin language, from its origins in antiquity to its afterlife in our own time...Ad Infinitum treats its readers with the dignity of Roman citizens.”—The Wall Street Journal

The Latin language has been the one constant in the cultural history of the West for more than two millennia. It has defined the way in which we express our thoughts, our faith, and our knowledge of how the world functions, its use echoing on in the law codes of half the world, in the terminologies of modern science, and, until forty years ago, in the liturgy of the Catholic Church.  In his erudite and entertaining “biography,” Nicholas Ostler shows how and why Latin survived and thrived even as its creators and other languages failed. Originally the dialect of Rome and its surrounds, Latin supplanted its neighbors to become, by conquest and settlement, the language of all Italy, and then of Western Europe and North Africa.  After the empire collapsed, spoken Latin re-emerged as a host of new languages, from Portuguese and Spanish in the west to Romanian in the east, while a knowledge of Latin lived on as the common code of European thought, and inspired the founders of Europe’s New World in the Americas. E pluribus unum. Illuminating the extravaganza of its past, Nicholas Ostler makes clear that, in a thousand echoes, Latin lives on, ad infinitum.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:44 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A study of the Latin language examines its role in the evolution of Western culture and civilization; its relationship with ancient Greek language, science, and philosophy; its place in the Catholic Church; and its function as an ancestor of modern-day languages.… (more)

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