A Natural History of Latin

by Tore Janson

Oxford, 305 pp., $24

AN OLD SCHOOL JOKE HAS a clever boy, overwhelmed with the classroom grind, approaching his formidable Latin teacher with a query, "So why must we learn Latin, anyway?" Regally severe and serene, his teacher looks him straight in the eye and replies with the all force of a birch stick slapped across a desk: "So you won't be so bloody ignorant."

The answer strikes us as quaint, pungent, and, as the lawyers say, dispositive. Yet it is not, we suspect, quite satisfactory. The old master may be right, but still we're left uncertain as to how an ignorance of Latin makes us, in any obvious sense, ignorant. Surely that's to overstate or misrepresent the case. Washington and Lincoln didn't suffer Latin in school, and they seem to have gotten by swimmingly.

Nonetheless, Latin has a brief. Perhaps the better way to put the case would be to say that, while the ignorance of Latin may not diminish us, a firm acquaintance with the rigors of its literature can fortify us. Certainly the very history of the language testifies to what we might deem the athletically intellectual value of this ancient tongue, training in which can, over time, help work off the fat of bad thinking and vague expression. Latin has been a treasure trove, but it's also been something like a gymnasium.

Much of this long chronicle gets nicely and--despite his expansive subject--thriftily explored by Tore Janson in A Natural History of Latin, an odd yet apt title because Latin, with its monumental impact on the thought and feeling of the Western world, can be likened at least as much to a tree as to a grand man made edifice. And the tree is remarkable not only for its roots, which reach deep into time, but also for its extravagant, high-plumed vernacular branches, which have stretched far and, with their own influence, altered the very sound of speech over most of the planet.

Janson tells the tale of how Latin coursed from a living language--a language that took on new words and discarded some of the old, one that almost everyone spoke every day in many places for centuries, both in Rome and in the distant outposts of the empire--to an excruciatingly difficult, arcane, crabbed, learned language known by the Renaissance to a comparative few, yet one that all people with intellectual aspirations (or, increasingly, pretensions) needed to know.

Latin set standards for thought and expression for those few, and in so migrating from living to learned, paradoxically spread even farther. It's a bizarre or, as the critics might say, an unlikely story.

But prospective readers should not be put off by Latin's modern reputation for difficulty. Janson assumes no knowledge of the language, of either its history or its structure; his book is, as he says, more "an overview and an appetizer" than an exhaustive, footnoted monograph. And readers are well served. Beginning with the mists of its Indo-European origins, Janson traces its steady growth on the Italian peninsula--a Latin word, by the way--growing stronger and subtler with the politico-military power and cosmopolitan sophistication of the people who spoke it, who eventually met up with the culturally superior Greeks.

He makes fine work of joining early Latin words--virtus, fortitudo, senatus--to the qualities they signified to both the nascent and mature Romans. He then proceeds to show how written Latin began to make its mark on later generations of the Roman period and beyond, dividing its influence into digests of literary genres and their chief practitioners: history (Livy, Tacitus), rhetoric (Cicero), philosophy (Seneca), and poetry (Virgil, Horace).

To read through these waves of achievement is to see without the necessity of close argument that the modern world as we know it is inconceivable without the Romans' having marched before us. Along with the Greeks, they showed us much about how to think and write. Quoted Latin--with deft, clear translations provided--peppers Janson's examples. This is a catalogue of august accomplishment.

Perhaps inevitably, though, this outline becomes a jog trot, a fast and predictable drive-by of types. Only reading the sections separately will prevent the glazing-over that comes of this kind of summary description.

Yet the journey into that modern world proves just as interesting. As the classical world fragmented and gave way to Europe's sovereign nation-states, Latin kept exerting its reign over thought and feeling, weaving its way through the words of what became, among other languages, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and, by slightly more circuitous routes, German and English. Over 50 percent of English words are Latinate. And here is where we still feel under its sway, for both good and ill.

(We are perfectly free to question its influence, at least provisionally, every time someone says, in a simple letter or memo, that he "circumambulates" something instead of walking around it.)

While most of this book is, indeed, a history of Latin's perambulations (sorry) through the last couple thousand years, Janson felicitously sets off a long closing section explaining the mysteries, which aren't so mysterious after all, of its tight, inflected grammar, along with a lengthy list of Latin phrases--ad hoc, ad hominem, anno Domini, in toto, quid pro quo--that have insinuated themselves so thoroughly into English that we find no need to replace them with their vernacular forms. The Latin, we sense, somehow says it better.

Despite its golden aura, and despite its image of perpetual imperviousness to the sad work of time, Latin does, indeed, have a history. Yet many people, both those living and those very much dead, would register a quiet dissent, or perhaps only a cautionary rejoinder: Latin doesn't really have a history; to them, Latin is history itself, an embodiment of tradition. And as Janson so ably shows, it is a perennial reminder that tradition is never static, nor does it come cheap.

Tracy Lee Simmons, the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.

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