Latin: Story of a World Language by Jurgen Leonhardt

If you are looking for a single volume history of Latin, I recommend this volume by Jürgen Leonhardt. Leonhardt does not spend energy on Indo-European linguistics, and he does not linger on the fragments of old Latin — the story of Latin is far too long for that. The most sizeable portion of the book is the chapter entitled ‘Europe’s Latin Millennium’ — tracing the centuries 800-1800.

Nonetheless, ancient Latin has its place. Indeed, we cannot have Latin as a world language without Latin as the Romans’ language. Leonhardt gives a readable discussion of the ‘classical’ period of Latin literature, the era of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, et al. This era of Late Republican and Early Imperial Latin literature is important for the story of Latin literature because of two major developments. First, this is the era when Latin authors sought not to imitate but to rival Greek authors. Horace does not wish simply to be a Latin lyric poet in the tradition of the Greeks; he seeks to outstrip them. Second, this is the era of linguistic history when the Latin language ceases to change. The Latin of Cicero is syntactically and grammatically the same Latin as Augustine.

This fixing of Latin at this historical moment, a moment when so much enduring literature was written (the two mutually reinforce each other) meant that Latin was able to truly become a world language. The story of Latin when it is no longer connected to the ancient Roman world is the story of the bulk of this book.

Leonhardt’s book is full of interesting facts and important arguments, for which there is not a lot of time in this review. What is most significant, I think, is the argument that Latin in the Middle Ages created the space for vernacular literatures, and there was not originally competition between Latin and the vernacular. A piece of evidence for this mutual coinherence of literary space is the fact that our earliest vernacular literatures — Old English and Old Irish — emerge precisely in places where Latin literacy was maintained. Similarly, in periods when Latin goes through a slump — the 900s, for example — so do vernacular literatures.

The vernacular literatures only start to compete with Latin as the Early Modern period progresses. Even then, the competition is slow. In Italy, for a very long time, they considered Latin the grammatical form of the language for literature and Italian as simply the volgare. Moreover, even if places like England and France were using the vernacular for their court, this has little to do with poets, philosophers, and theologians who want an international audience. While our association of the rise of vernacular literature with the Early Modern world is not entirely off the mark, it is also worth noting that so many famous authors of the time wrote in Latin for a wider distribution, even if a lot of them also wrote in the vernacular: Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Lancelot Andrewes, John Calvin, and many Germans.

In fact, Latin remained the supraregional language within Germany for a very long time due to the fact that many German dialects are mutually incomprehensible. The book includes a very interesting discussion of Bach being hired by the Thomasschule in Leipzig, mostly about the state of Latin teaching and humanism at the time. One simple point, however, is that, although Bach was not considered qualified to teach Latin, he was still able to converse in Latin and answer catechetical questions in his job interview. A very different era from today.

Alongside a consideration of Latin literature and its variety through the ages, this book looks at Latin pedagogy in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and 1800s, and Leonhardt argues that one of the things that helped make Latin less alive in the 1800s is the lack of instruction in spoken, daily Latin but simply the style we all know from our own Latin classes, of memorising paradigms and vocabulary and nothing but the Classics for our reading.

In the book’s close come many challenges for those of us invested in Latin today. It is not enough to say with Harry Mount’s book Amo, Amas, Amat and All That that the best reason to learn Latin today is to be able to read the Latin classics, simply because too few people are interested in the effort required when they can, instead, read A D Melville’s Ovid, Robert Fagles’ Aeneid, David Ferry’s Horace, John Yardley’s Livy. However, given that over 90% of the Latin ever written remains unread and unedited, there is much potential for growth in the field. While Cicero and the turn of the era should remain an essential ingredient of Latin instruction, Leonhardt argues for promoting the riches of medieval and modern Latin as cause for students to become interested.

He also argues that we need to make Latin instruction live again — bring in more conversation, perhaps. Investigate methods from modern languages. Help students do composition exercises related to things other than politics and war. He doesn’t say it in quite these words, but that’s the feel I got.

This book is well worth the read for anyone interested in Latin, even if it’s just nostalgia from having studied it in school in the 1960s.

1 thought on “Latin: Story of a World Language by Jurgen Leonhardt

  1. Pingback: Study Later Latin! | The Wordhoard

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