Latin has been written off by many as both a secular and a liturgical language. Ironically it has made something of a come back in education in remedial courses designed to repair the appalling standard of English ‘inculcated’ by state education. Similarly, Pope Benedict is promoting Latin in the liturgy to help correct the banality of so much vernacular liturgy. Linguist, Nicholas Ostler, provides a brief history of the rise and fall of the Latin language.
Latin has a history that covers 2,500 years and is, of course, the foundation of many of the modern European languages. It has undergone many crises, and can teach us a lot about how to read the milestones of a language over the centuries.
The history of Latin shows how a language can survive - as Latin largely did, against the odds, for a good thousand years after the collapse of the Roman Empire - but also how it can lose its way and disappear when it seems to have the world at its feet - its plight after the Renaissance, even as Europe filled the world with its books and imperial settlements.
We all experience the almost preternatural influence of English in the modern world, and other languages too - Chinese, Arabic and Spanish especially - are widely thought to be becoming languages of wider communication as their native speakers become richer and more numerous. But how can we know about a language’s true prospects?
A reflection on the fate of Western Europe’s number one language over a couple of millennia is, perhaps, the best way to ponder the likely futures of other languages in the long term.
Latin’s history falls into five major eras, each about five centuries long. For the first of these, much the least well documented, which spans from the founding of Rome (753 BC) to the First Punic War (264-241 BC), it went from being a country patois overshadowed by the prestige of its large and highly developed neighbour, Etruscan, to being the language of the overwhelmingly dominant state in Italy.
The Romans’ ever-readiness for war, and their determination to settle wherever they were victorious, resulted in their emergence over richer, more cultivated and far more numerous peoples. Latin spread with the diffusion of its farmers.
In the second half-millennium, which takes the story up to AD 250, Latin spread round the western Mediterranean, but despite the political supremacy of Rome, could not gain more than a foothold in one or two cities in the East: Greek here never yielded an inch.
Once again, successful wars were the key to its expansion. Although the Roman soldiers who settled came from all over the empire, their service in the army gave them a command of the language. And Rome’s reputation for invincibility, compared to the trappings of Greek civilisation, meant that Latin was without cultural competitor.
After the third century AD the most significant developments in Latin’s history were its adoption by the Christian Church, the collapse of the empire’s defences in the West, and the invasion of these provinces by German-speaking warriors.
Pan-European links and communications broke down, and the vernacular languages began to acquire separate identities. By AD 750, Romance was well and truly born. Towards the end of this period, it certainly seemed that Latin was to be forgotten, surviving only in Church liturgy and in those isolated fortresses of Christian learning: the monasteries.
But the fourth half-millennium, from AD 750 up to 1250, became the age of Latin revivals - attempts to hark back to the glories of the language’s past. From Charlemagne to Thomas Aquinas, Latin achieved a new antiquarian honour for ancient learning. Latin education was reconstructed and expanded, in cathedral schools and then universities, and knowledge of the classics again became widespread in Europe. Spoken Latin was the preserve exclusively of the educated.
Then comes the final period of Latin’s use as a serious medium of communication, the 500 years to 1750. It begins with a revulsion from contemporary Latin, serviceable though it was, in the name of a more ancient literary standard. With the gradual disappearance of the clerical monopoly on learning that followed - aided by the concomitant invention of the printing press and the discovery of sea-routes from Europe to the wider world - the use of Latin for anything beyond acquaintance with its literature died out.
Some of the last redoubts of Latin were in the educational colonies established by Jesuits in the New World, but, nevertheless, Latin at last became a dead language.
Within this history, I would like to consider the moments when Latin might have been lost, but somehow was not. These crises - what would have been called discrimina - are defined by a contest with’some other language or languages.
The first of these was Latin’s long and unequal relationship with the Etruscans, famous for their attendant mystery. The puzzle of their origins goes back three thousand years, but there is evidence that, by the early first millennium BC, the Etruscans were firmly ensconced in north-west Italy - richer and more powerful than other Italians, and enjoying a privileged relationship with the Greek colonists of Italy.
It is not known whether Rome was ever an Etruscan city, ruled as a colony of the Etruscan League, but the Etruscans certainly gave Roman magistrates their famous fasces - the axe tied up in a bundle of rods.
By name and tradition, the last three kings of Rome before the foundation of the republic in 510 BC were Etruscans, and Etruscan practices - such as the reading of omens from animal entrails - remained at the core of Roman religion until the advent of Christianity. Most persuasively of all, the Romans got their alphabet not from the Greeks, but from the Etruscans.
Nevertheless, Latin continued to be spoken throughout the period of Etruscan magnificence. The Etruscans never united their rich league of trading cities into a single state, nor spread their language much outside Etruria: probably they were content with a network of emporia.
Then, from the fifth century BC, the Etruscan cities went into a relative decline, defeated as a league by the Greek colonial cities of southern Italy and, a century later, by direct Roman assault. Early Rome had learnt a lot from the Etruscans about city life, but when Rome began to dominate their cities, they were not given the option of independence.
Although dominance’ was achieved by the middle of the third century BC, the transition from speaking Etruscan to speaking Latin seems to have come some three hundred years later (on evidence from gravestones).
The next point at which the future of Latin became endangered was eight centuries after the absorption of Etruria. Roman arms encountered very little successful opposition during that period and, in the provinces won by the Roman sword (outside the eastern Mediterranean), the use of Latin very soon penetrated, thanks largely to the influence of the army, businessmen and settlers.
But this was all put at risk in the fifth century AD, when the Roman legions lost the ability to defend the empire’s borders, and German and Gothic aristocracies set themselves up in what would be permanent new kingdoms across Britain, France, Spain, Italy and North Africa.
However, only in Britain did Latin cease to be spoken; in all other parts of what had been the western empire, Latin survived, and ultimately - after several centuries in most cases - the speakers of Germanic languages gave them up to join the Latin population.
Even though the Germans’ all-dominating armies had been commanded in their home languages and its leaders became the new land-owning class, the literate structures by which civil society was ordered - trade, tax collection and business - remained in Latin.
The biggest reason for the loss of Germanic gemeinschaft, and hence Germanic languages, must have been the demise of the Germans’ Arian churches. Christian faith, with its rituals and texts recited in Latin, was to prove the great survivor through the time of tribal upheavals and imperial cataclysm that began in the fifth century. The regular observance of religious services kept vivid the eternal verities of life, and above all language, in their hearts and on their lips.
But this crisis quickly led to another. As the overall control structures of the Roman Empire broke down, life became more local, organised on a smaller scale. Education in Latin - the only kind of education there was - became far less widespread, with the result that different dialects of Latin developed unconstrained.
Latin began to split into what we now see not as a language but a language family, the vernacular languages of Western Europe, collectively known as Romance. This was the ultimate linguistic effect of the invasions that disrupted the empire.
What was crucial was that Latin itself remained as a language in its own right and was not replaced by the vernacular languages even when - in the twelfth century and thereafter - they developed written standards of their own. For by then, Latin education had recovered and Latin had assumed a new life associated with learning.
What emerges from these three different crises for Latin is some kind of predictive principle. A language can survive, even when in sustained contact with a neighbouring language that has higher prestige or is spoken by a dominant class or is a closer and better representation of the current vernacular, if it can maintain coherence in its region or its speaker community.
For a language community, unity is strength, a fact that characterises the piecemeal disappearance of Etruscan as well as it does the survival of Latin, buttressed at different times by its early geographic unity, its attachment to a persistent liturgy, and its association with learning.
Perversion and influence
Another important feature of the history of Latin is its interactions with other languages - vicissitudines in Latin, from vicissim meaning ‘one after the other’. I shall consider the effects of three languages: Etruscan, Greek and Arabic.
Consider some loan words from Etruscan: atrium, ‘forecourt’; fenestra, ‘window’; caupo, ‘shop-keeper’; numerus, ‘number’; caseus, ‘cheese’; culina, ‘kitchen’; alea, ‘dice’; histrio, ‘actor’; caerimonia, ‘observance’; rite, ‘rightly’; miles, ‘soldier’; triumphus, ‘triumph’; forma, ‘shape’; littera, ‘letter’ (the words in bold come originally from Greek): these show the kinds of contact that there must have been between Rome and its northern neighbour. The emphasis shown here is on urban culture, with words for large-scale architectural features, trades, foods and public entertainments. High-level state observances are represented too, in religion and military life, and the new language technology of writing is also there.
These are not the signs of an Etruscan-speaking elite, but of Romans coming to terms with Etruscan practices, and (to some extent) Etruscan institutions. They do not show (as later, when Greek words flooded into Latin) that an important segment of the population was bilingual.
Moving on three hundred years, we come to the direct influences of Greek on Latin. The immediate effect of Rome’s annexation of mainland Greece in the second century BC was a surge of Greek immigrants to Italy.
Supply was available to meet the demand from all levels of Roman society: entertainers, tailors, grocers, vintners, cooks, slave-traders, importers, farm labourers, nursemaids, butlers, secretaries, accountants, doctors, tutors. In a way, then, they were as the Etruscans had been, but more so, and Roman society had now become sufficiently advanced and sophisticated to absorb the full flood of Greek know-how.
Greek influence was everywhere and not just in the political and literary pursuits, which tend to be the focus of modern education in the Classics. Greek provided the terminology for high-tech civil engineering (troclea, ‘pulley’; ergata, ‘windlass’; cnodax, ‘pivot’) and for the most advanced military hardware (corax, ‘crow’ [i.e. battering-ram]; catapulta, ‘off-swinger’; ballista, ‘shooter’).
Greek doctors were famous and their technical terms are still with us: emplastrum, ‘moulding’ (i.e. plaster); paralysis, ‘relaxation’ (hence ‘palsy’ or ‘paralysis’); dosis, ‘giving’ (hence ‘dose’). Greeks also excelled in music (musica) - that work of the Muses par excellence - and instruments (organa) also had Greek names (syrinx, ‘pan-pipes’; lyra, cymbala), as did their parts (chorda, ‘plectrum’).
It is interesting to reflect that in at least two fields in which the Romans are thought to have made a peerless contribution to Europe’s civilisation, namely large-scale architecture and military technology, their language shows that they got their most important innovations either from the Etruscans or the Greeks.
But Latin’s debts to other languages do not stop here. One and a half millennia later there is a sense of déjà vu: Latin was still the universal language of European civilisation, but in this era (the twelfth century AD) some thought its civilisation rather pitiful by world standards. Many of the translators of that era, working from Greek or Arabic, echo Alfanus, the Archbishop of Salerno, who said he was moved by “the penury of the Latins” to do something to bring them real learning.
Translating technical and often highly abstract texts in Arabic and Greek was an uphill struggle. The translation scholars were second-hand learners of Latin themselves, and they were usually less than fluent in the source languages as well.
Their basic priority was to translate as literally as possible, with concern only for sense. But this too was difficult. They were confronted with languages that were even more highly inflected than Latin (classical Arabic and Greek), and which used those inflections far more universally and flexibly than Latin. The popular ad verbum approach to translation was almost impossible.
The answer was found by relaxing the constraints on Latin word formation, one part of that modus and decorum that had once been the hallmark of Latin academic or literary style. The new aspect of scholastic Latin is its festival of new words, generated from inherited resources, but with a freedom that had never been acceptable before.
There had always been abstract nouns ending in -tas, but now they were coined thick and fast, even on adjectives that were comparatives (prioritas, superioritas) or themselves derivative (actualitas, animalitas, causalitas). Likewise, the adjectival endings -alis and -ivus took off, added to nouns and verbs respectively (accidentalis, canonicalis, communalis, universalis, virginalis, activus).
The Greek verb-making -izo suffix was now miraculously productive, with no concern shown for linguistic purism (decanizo, ‘to be dean’; forizo, ‘to frequent the forum’; quinternizo, ‘to play the guitar’).
What is shown by these three responses to language contact is that translation can have a profound effect in the long term to enrich a language tradition. It perhaps offers some encouragement to those who see their own languages apparently losing their ‘purity’ in an orgy of loan vocabulary derived from English or some other locally dominant language, such as Hindi in India.
Finally, we can consider what light is shed by Latin’s long career on language death, one of the great issues of the present age. Specifically, how has the presence of Latin contributed to the loss of languages, what some have called ‘linguicides’ or, in Latin, a strages (‘massacre’).
The spread of Latin due to Roman conquest and subsequent settlement massively simplified the language map of Europe. From 100 BC to AD 400 the count of known languages in lands under Roman administration fell from sixty to twelve, and outside Africa and the Greek-dominated East, from thirty to just five: Latin, Welsh, Basque, Albanian and Gaulish.
Among these, Gaulish was already marginal and doomed to die out totally. But unlike the others listed here, it left enough of a trace in the inscriptional record to show what was lost. Despite the Gaulish respect for eloquence noted by Lucian, a Greek essayist of the second century AD, classical culture had nothing positive to say about the value of the Celtic language traditions, and they were allowed to lapse.
This total loss is surprising, since 500 years later many myths were written down in Irish and Welsh, re-telling the adventures of gods such as Nuada of the Silver Hand (Gaulish Nodens), Lugh of the Long Arm (Lugus), Brigid the High (Brigindona); and surviving iconography (e.g. on the magnificent cauldron found at Gundestrup) shows that other gods, such as the horned Cernunnos, had complicated myths. So there must have been a wealth of fascinating subject matter for the Gauls to tell.
The loss was not inevitable; the transformation that Latin had undergone to incorporate prestigious Greek shows that it was quite possible for one ancient language to take on board another’s culture without being capsized.
Yet, as far as we know, the Gauls made no attempt to re-cast Roman culture in their own Celtic terms. Rather, it is precisely the areas of Western Europe that spoke Celtic in the ancient world that now have Latin-derived languages: French, Occitan, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and others.
This is doubly surprising when we contrast Roman society with what the Gauls had previously known. A centralised, urban society replaced the more scattered village life. It must have felt like progress.
Despite its miraculous revival in the later first millennium AD, returning from a sacral life to one of power and learning, Latin too was ultimately going to be lost as a living language.
For a long time, even in the modern world, Latin was the lingua franca of Europe’s elite. As the French professor Antoine Muret remarked (in Latin) in Rome, 1583: “He who speaks Italian will be understood only by Italians; he who speaks only Spanish will have the status of a mute among Germans; a German among Italians will be forced to use nodding and his hands in place of his tongue; he who uses the French language with high skill and knowledge will often be mocked gratuitously when he leaves France; but as for the man who knows Greek and Latin, he will be admired by the majority wherever in the world he arrives”.
Latin was still, in that age, the language of continental science. But it had come to be mocked and termed ‘scholasticism’ by Renaissance humanists who were looking for something fresher.
Ludovicus de Valentia, writing a commentary on Aristotle’s Politics in 1492, complained about the new fad for style over substance. Humanists, he said, “took too much delight in verbal cleverness and embellishment; content to know what the words mean, they forget to enquire diligently into the natures and properties which the words express. The result is that they condemn works which lack polish, even though they contain the truth.”
Paradoxically, they found what they were looking for in the productions of ancient writers, and so they preferred Cicero and Virgil over Abelard and Aquinas.
There was no revulsion from Latin as a language in the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries - quite the reverse - but as the great nineteenth-century scholar Eduard Norden pointed out, the new may have killed off Latin as a language of living thought. “The Latin language was put in its grave by humanism,” he said.
The burden of writing respectable Latin came to seem intolerable, especially for the livelier thinkers: in the seventeenth century, Descartes in France, Galileo in Italy and Thomas Hobbes in England led the fashion, which soon spread, of publishing their research in their own vernaculars. Memories of an older world were no longer an inspiration, but an irrelevant distraction to increasingly self-confident moderns.
Arguably, though, what really did for Latin was the long-term effect of the printing revolution. Time spent in learning to read the vernacular was now amply rewarded by the new publishing market, and the proportion of works published in Latin fell throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Ultimately, the root cause of Latin’s decline was the growing influence of the bourgeoisie, taking a leading role over the old aristocratic and clerical establishments. But their linguistic weapon was the combined force of literacy and printing.
In sum, we can see from this progress of Latin that trendiness, traditional purism and technology are all, in their different ways, capable of killing a language.
Ultimately, the many threads in the 2,500-year history of a dominant language beggar summary, but I have distinguished three themes that can stand as lessons for modern linguists. Firstly, discrimina: language survival depends on community coherence. Secondly, vicissitudines: translation and contact can be enriching for a language. And thirdly, strages: trendiness, traditional purism and technology can kill even the most deep-seated of linguistic traditions.
This article was first published in The Linguist, magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.
[Taken from "Mass of Ages" May 2009, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine]