Friday, 18 March 2011

Ad Infinitum

Nicholas Ostler

This history of Latin is a lot more than just that. The changing role of  language in a tribe, nation, empire and church is the perfect window through which to view the growing pains of civilization's teenage years.

There is a tangible tipping point in Ad Infinitum. Before that point, the Roman Empire, standing united and unconquerable, becomes an animal of two halves. The Latin-speaking west, in which the heart of Rome beats, and the Greek-speaking East; this is cellular division, one creature becoming two, before our eyes.

There is a last moment of hope, as this fragmenting empire is united again, perhaps as it has never been united before, by the spread of Christianity and the establishing of the Catholic Church. Catholic, of course, being another word for united.

But then the tipping point. The Church spreads, and with one eye perhaps on the causal crack in the proceeding empire, it actively spreads the use of Latin. And suddenly, it becomes obvious. Language, across barriers, borders and oceans, makes the most natural sense of the extent of a community. More than the economics of trade, or the ideals of religion, the pragmatics of who you can understand is the real divider and uniter.

So when that red shading on the map that represents the (Holy Roman) Empire doesn't match up with green shading of the Latin-speaking empire, there's only one of those that are going to win.

This is a biography as much as a history, because Latin grows and changes and ages. And as such, the massive success story is underpinned with a bittersweet tug of Ozymandias, and this too shall pass. We know where Latin ends up (although whether it is the end remains to be seen), in the backwaters of select English private schools and botanical naming classes.


  1. Hi there, I noticed you entered your link in the Literary Blog Hop. To participate you need to write up a post answering our question and link back to The Blue Bookcase. I've removed you from the linky list for now but feel free to add yourself again once you put up your post.


  2. This sounds excellent - I'd never heard of it, but I love language, history, and language history. I think maybe this book was written for people like me (and you, apparently). Thanks for sharing.

  3. @ Kerry: Glad you liked it -- I'd recommend it wholehertedly. It's been a surprise hit, memebrs of my family who saw me reading it or actually listened to me bang on about it are queueing up to borrow it.