Book Review: Latin – Story of a World Language
by Jurgen Leonhardt
translated by Kenneth Kronenberg
The Belknap Press, 2013
University of Tubingen Classics professor Jurgen Leonhardt’s 2009 book Latein: Geschichte einer Weltsprache, now given an English-language translation by Kenneth Kronenbeg from the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press as Latin: Story of a World Language, is a neat little primer on the history of the Latin language, a primer that opens with a duplicitous little sleight of hand:
There are basically two ways to answer the question of whether Latin is a dead or a living language. It is certainly true that no community now exists in which Latin is the mother tongue, and in this respect Latin may be called a dead language. On the other hand, one is also justified in saying that Latin will be alive as long as there are people who speak and write it at all.
Leonhardt writes that the aim of his book is to “reconcile the contradiction” between these two views, but he writes that because it’s catchier to open a linguistic history with a mission than not to. In fact there’s no contradiction: a language that isn’t actively used anymore is a dead language, and there’s a difference between a dead language and a lost language, and Leonhardt knows that difference. The fact that scattered pockets of students and enthusiasts still construe it in exercises no more makes it a living language than it does that favor for Tolkien’s High Elvish or Star Trek‘s Klingonese. But this flirtation with catchiness doesn’t last very long, and once it’s over, the book settles down to business with the easy authority of a practiced teacher. We get the bright noonday of Latin’s living strength as the language of the Roman Empire; we watch it gradually decline into various parodies of itself as the Empire ages and weakens, and Leonhardt is attentive to this decline into mere declensions:
The more Latin became the province of the educated and the more it became separated from natural language, even from that of the upper classes, the more associated it became with social representation and official communications – with the claim of being correct. The fear, so typical in the history of Latin, of embarrassing oneself by saying something incorrectly, began at this time.
“Because Latin was the only established written language,” Leonhardt writes, “its disintegration was also a crisis of literacy,” and when the fall of the Roman Empire accelerated that crisis, the wide range of romance languages began to flourish (although even at the height of Rome’s earliest power, as Leonhardt notes when discussing the graffiti of Pompeii, ‘high’ Latin and ‘low’ Latin were already working side by side). That very multiplicity virtually guaranteed that Latin would be needed as a common language, and it also made likely the rise of simia Ciceronis, the “apes of Cicero,” archly phoney pastiche-makers of ancient Latin so richly mocked by scholars like Valla or Erasmus.
Latin stayed useful long after it was simply used, and that singularly successful lifespan rightly impresses Leonhardt. “The stubbornness with which Latin clung to its position as a language of the educated population all over the world while its importance as a world language dwindled,” he writes, “is astonishing.” This is certainly the case, and Leonhardt’s book, as the story of that stubbornness, will be of interest not only to his fellow classicists but to language students just in general.