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latin language and latin culture

11 january 2013

In Latin Language and Latin Culture, Joseph Farrell takes an original, often oblique, always interesting look at the cultural work that the whole concept of the Latin language has done across the centuries of its existence. You may be asking, "how can a language do cultural work? Isn't a language just a medium in which cultural work gets done?" Yet as Farrell shows, Latin has never been a neutral or naïve medium. Even legends about its original naïvete, back in some rustic pre-Republican past, are tendentious. And ever since Latin became a medium of a growing Empire, the choice to write in Latin has never been simple or unfraught.

Even for Cato the Elder, writing long before the "Golden Age," writing in Latin wasn't just something you did because you were a Roman and grew up speaking it. It was a nationalistic choice, proudly made on the edges of a Hellenistic world that saw anyone unGreek as a barbarian. Cato and his contemporaries worried that Latin wasn't as good as Greek for literary purposes. But they also had an in-your-face attitude toward their self-styled superiors from the East. Farrell (via the later rhetorician Quintilian) quotes Cato's wisecrack to the effect that yes, the Romans had to borrow words from Greek: after all, there's no Latin word for "bastard," so they had to use the Greek word (32). It's like some wag claiming that there's no English word for "surrender," so we had to borrow it from French.

Later generations of Latin writers had to defend their literacy not only against Greek, but against a feeling of inherent poverty in Latin itself: it often didn't seem like a language that could convey subtlety. Farrell notes the case of Lucretius, who constantly apologizes for choosing Latin to write about nuances of Greek philosophy that really would be better off in the original. As Farrell shows, this is Cato all over again: by ingeniously using Latin to complain of its own poverty, Lucretius shows its richness.

Isidore of Seville, writing around the year 600, proposed a scheme of periods in the history of the Latin language quite unlike the ones we think in terms of today. He saw four major epochs: an archaic language preserved only in religious ritual; a "Latin" period under the mostly prehistoric monarchy; the "Roman" period of the height of the Republic, ending sometime around the death of Cicero in 43 BC; and a "mixed" period covering the next 650 years or so, the period of Isidore's own Latin. Farrell argues that we should take Isidore's ideas more seriously than classicists have usually done (86-90). He is especially intrigued by the fact that modern academics do a lot of subdividing of the language and literature of imperial and post-Imperial Rome, in a way that would have made no sense to Isidore. For Isidore, there were simply early periods of more-or-less pure and increasingly refined Latin, and then there was the world language, subjected to all sorts of external influences and centrifugal forces. There was no Golden Age or Silver Age, no "late antique" or "early medieval" Latin (still less did Isidore of Seville think of himself as medieval; he was, in his own eyes, a pretty modern guy). Nor, for Isidore or for Farrell, was there a "decline" from Ciceronian standards. There was just new and unpredictable growth in interesting directions.

For that matter, asks Farrell, did Latin ever "die?" And if it did, can we mark a time of death, forensically speaking? Charlemagne, around the year 800, was famously scandalized by the ignorance of Latinists in the continental empire that he ruled. He imported the best Irish and English scholars, most notably the fearsome Alcuin of York, to restore the quality of the language to standards held in offshore territories where there was no Romance vernacular to confuse Latinists. Renaissance, revolution, continuity? how to characterize the Carolingian "revival" depends largely on the arguments you want to make about it.

And so it would be for the next millennium, argues Farrell: Latin was continuously taught all over Western Europe, as a literary and diplomatic language, but also as a spoken medium, particularly within the Catholic Church. Latin lives today, in fact: not just in its daughter vernaculars or in the vocabulary we can hardly write an intelligible English sentence without (the word "sentence," for instance!), but in everyday currency. Even 12 years ago, in 2001, Farrell remarked on the efforts of Finnish Latinists to broadcast the news in Latin over state radio. Bizarre as that phenomenon may seem, it's still perfectly viable over the Internet, in the YLE Nuntii series of audio streams. You can read breaking news in Latin at the Ephemeris section of something called "alcuinus.net." And inevitably, there's a Latin Wikipedia – or, naturally, Vicipædia.

Dead language, or on life support? Latin probably has more readers than Esperanto or Klingon, and certainly a longer unbroken history of transmission. Alcuin taught Hrabanus Maurus who taught Lupus of Ferrières, and one can probably draw direct lines of descent from those sages to the women who taught me Latin in the 1970s, and the people that the Nuntii Finns and the Vicipædians learned their Latin from in more recent years. Farrell's large point is that Latinity, as a culture, as an attitude, is of a piece, and has been the ground bass of more of the strains of Western culture than we might imagine today, as the language swings, however feebly into its fourth millennium.

Farrell, Joseph. Latin Language and Latin Culture: From ancient to modern times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. [Roman Literature and Its Contexts]