A life story of Latin

As the BRLSI’s Romans in Bath series enters its final stretch, the Institution was pleased to welcome back Dr Nicholas Ostler, a philologist of formidable scholarship and no stranger to the Elwin Room lecture platform. His subject was formidable too – nothing less than a brief history of Latin, seen from the perspective of the people who spoke (or were forced to speak) it.
Anyone who feared a rerun of schoolday sessions with a Latin Primer was soon reassured, as Dr Ostler launched into an entertaining life story of the Roman language, complete with good helpings of unvarnished truths and busted myths. He began by telling us that Latin, whose linguistic dominance lasted an astonishing two millennia (roughly 750BC – 1750AD), was spread, to put it bluntly, by pain, not only in the early days when slaves were beaten by Latin-speaking magistrates to guarantee honesty, but much later when it was beaten into schoolboys with the ferulam (cane).
In its early days Latin had to share living space with the very different language (and alphabet) of the Etruscans, a pleasure-loving civilsation who occupied large parts of Italy and gave us, among others, the words “tavern” and “scurrilous”.  Latin was very different in those days, and it was only by 150BC that the Classical Latin taught today emerged, while it took until 88BC, after the oddly-named Social War, for Rome to establish itself as the ruler of all Italy.  One myth is that Latin was spread to all corners of the empire by the Romans; in fact they took it mainly to the West (including Britannia, where it was enthusiastically adopted by the local ruling class) while its spread in the East was mainly the work of the Catholic Church.
A key characteristic of classical Latin was its unchanging nature, and as Dr Ostler explained, this was both its greatest strength and the key to its eventual downfall. The standard syllabus for Latin study lasted, unaltered, for a barely comprehensible 1200 years until 1750, but also came to typify the spirit of Latin culture, expressed by Dr Ostler as “we already know everything if only we could remember it”. It wasn’t an outlook that sat comfortably with the dawn of the modern world – or even the world of the 9th century, which saw the first of three backward-looking renaissances that Dr Ostler identified as signalling the start of Latin’s death as a living language.
Latin’s still with us, of course, although even the Catholic Church stopped using it as the original language for new communications in 1959. You can buy Harrius Potter books, and Google offers Latin among its repertoire of translatable languages. Meanwhile Finland chose, for reasons unexplained, to issue Latin documents during its EU Presidencies in 1999 and 2006. There’s life in the old language yet.

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