Book Review – Nicholas Ostler’s ‘Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin’

Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler. Bloomsbury Publishing, Nov, 2007; 400 pages.

Preface (Praefatio) and Chapter 1 (Ad Infinitum – An Empire Lived in Latin):

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a about a year now.  I have been wanting to read it but unfortunately between what I had to read for school and what I had to read for research kept me busy.  Now that I am taking summers off in lieu of a much more fulfilling fall semester (which is approaching much to fast), I have found some time to sit down and read this.  And now that I’m well into the first half of the book, I can’t understand why I put off reading it until now.  First, some initial perspectives.  Not everyone will enjoy this book.  But for those who like this subject (ancient cultures, ancient languages, semiotics, etc…), this book is downright entertaining and full of wonderfully useful observations.  It is engaging, critical, and thought-provoking in all the right ways.  It introduces Latin–and perhaps language in general–as not merely a product of a culture, but a driving force behind its development.  More on this in a minute.

One of the (very, very few) negative reviewers of this book complained that they like their history with a bit of fiction.  But those that feel that way don’t seem to fully get the study of history.  In fact, they might not have fully understood the book–and that isn’t the fault of Nicholas Ostler, whose grasp of language is astonishing and impressive.    Rather, Ostler goes out of his way to illuminate the fact that history and language are as much a part of one another; and language is itself a complex entity that fuses with the self-concept which, above all else, contains personal fictions.

Ostler writes, “Languages create worlds to live in, not just in the minds of their speakers, but in their lives, and in their descendents’ lives, where those ideas become real.”   And he demonstrates this great truth about language, essentially writing on semiotics without actually referencing it, in the whole of the first chapter.  But the examples of such a phenomenon extend beyond the signs and symbols of the book.  This can be seen everywhere, id est, the Roman motto Pax Orbis Terrarum found on coins throughout the first centuries BCE and CE are anything but ‘fact’; so what is it if not a type of ‘fiction’?  And what might that say about the Romans and, consequently, the power of Latin for the Romans?  Ostler is correct when he writes that Latin is the language of an Empire (though it was also the language of a Republic); one can hardly think of the Romans without thinking of the Latin language.  When someone travels to Rome, the old ruins greet them in Latin;  M. AGRIPPA L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT (‘Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulate, made it’), S(enatus) P(opulus) Q(ue) R(omanus), A CUBICULO AUGUSTORUM (‘From the bedchamber of the Caesars’).  One cannot remove the two without losing a bit of something important.

The strength of the first chapter of this book is in how well it lays the groundwork for the rest of it.  One needs an established grounding of the function of a language within a society, how it is both a part of, and a mule tugging along, a cultures evolution.  So far this book is impressive and I hope to get into more detailed reviews as the book progresses, ceteris paribus.

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