The case for living LatinBooks
LATIN: STORY OF A WORLD LANGUAGE
By Jurgen Leonhardt
Harvard University Press, $45
Jurgen Leonhardt's far-from-dusty book argues against the idea that after the fall of the Roman Empire Latin became a dead language, and was then supplanted by the European vernaculars that emerged in the Middle Ages.
On the contrary, most surviving Latin texts were written after Rome, and where the vernacular flourished, so did Latin, which continued in scholarly, literary and political use throughout Europe until the 19th century: the language of the church, law and medicine, of course, but also employed for administrative purposes in Hungary until 1848. Despite its core grammatical components being fixed, it also continued to change, though not according to the models of language development favoured by modern linguistics.
The phrase ''world language'' in the title points to Leonhardt's analogy between the history of Latin and the use of English today.
Just as Latin long outlived the empire, most communications in English now taking place are between non-native speakers. Latin itself has long been in retreat: nowadays the kind of scholarship associated with it and other ancient languages doesn't match the ideals of the modern university, and it has also suffered in the general abandonment of middle-class cultural ideals. It still retains some mystique, however: every year, Leonhardt says, he gets numerous appeals to proofread Latin mottos before they are used as tattoos.
Leonhardt ends with a call to turn away from the rigid, ''mathematical'' method of teaching Latin that has dominated since the 19th century, and to try to return the status it has had throughout most of its history: a living language with no native speakers.