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the Complete Review
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Jürgen Leonhardt

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To purchase Latin

Title: Latin
Author: Jürgen Leonhardt
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 292 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Latin - US
Latin - UK
Latin - Canada
Latin - India
La grande histoire du latin - France
Latein - Deutschland
  • Story of a World Language
  • German title: Latein
  • Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg
  • The English translation is a "thoroughly reworked" revision of the original Germn text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : insightful and often fascinating look at the spreads and declines of Latin

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 30/12/2009 Caspar Hirschi
NZZ . 21/4/2010 Hans-Albrecht Koch
Sydney Morning Herald . 11/1/2014 Owen Richardson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Obwohl als Überblickswerk konzipiert, ist Leonhardts Geschichte des Lateins weit mehr als nur das. Sie stellt neue Thesen auf, anstatt bloß alte zu referieren, sie wählt ihren Stoff gezielt aus, anstatt ihn nur zu resümieren, und sie sucht den Gegenwartsbezug, anstatt sich allein in der Vergangenheit aufzuhalten. (...) Was an diesem Buch darüber hinaus beeindruckt, sind seine komparatistische Anlage und seine bildungspolitische Aussage." - Caspar Hirschi, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In zugleich detailreicher und konzentrierter Weise wird das Buch einem der wichtigsten Gegenstände der europäischen Bildungsgeschichte überhaupt durchaus gerecht. Vorlieben des Autors, auch seine eigenen Forschungen, gelten -- einer generellen Tendenz der heutigen Latinistik entsprechend -- dem Latein der Neuzeit. Doch bietet das in einer eingängigen Diktion gehaltene Buch sehr wohl die Geschichte der «ganzen» bisherigen Wegstrecke der lateinischen Sprache." - Hans-Albrecht Koch, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "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." - Owen Richardson, Sydney Morning Herald

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jürgen Leonhardt's 'story of a world language' is not concerned with linguistics-basics. His primary interest here is not in the structure and working of the Latin language itself, but rather in its use and spread. And while we may think of Latin as the language of ancient Rome, Leonhardt shows how, in fact, its role remained (often even more) significant long after classical times. Astonishingly: "all of the writings that have come down to us from ancient Rome, including all inscriptions, constitute at most 0.01 percent of the total output" of Latin texts. So, yes, the big names like Cicero and Virgil might be what we think of when we think 'Latin' -- but, in fact, its use was much more widespread, for far longer, than we generally realize (even as it now seems to find use only on fancy university diplomas -- and, as Leonhardt notes, the occasional tattoo ...).
       Leonhardt traces the evolution of Latin into a 'world language', and what's most remarkable about his story is the influence other languages had. Not so much in the shaping of Latin itself, but in allowing it to assume the role it did. Early Latin literature came by way of the Greek -- "Latin literature as we know it" began with Livius Andronicus, best-known for his translations from the Greek, of plays and Homer. Literature was not homegrown: "none -- not one -- of the Roman poets before Lucilius (d. 103/2 BCE) came from Rome or spoke Latin as his mother tongue". Only with Latin becoming a 'fixed' language, rather than a still rapidly evolving one, did it really take root and spread, around 100 BCE. (Even so, Leonhardt notes that: "At least in terms of literature in the narrower sense, Greek, not Latin, was the world language of the Roman Empire".)
       When a language becomes 'fixed' -- ceasing to evolve -- it also threatens to become 'dead' -- but as Leonhardt suggests, some 'dead' languages show enormous resilience and vitality (classical Chinese, Sanskrit, and, more complicatedly, High Arabic). Latin, too, thrived once it was, in a way, 'dead' -- in part because the lack of further evolution meant there were set rules to it: universal rules that could be learnt and passed on anywhere, and which users could rely on regardless of where they went. Obviously, stability and reliability facilitated communication and record-keeping -- and the teaching of the language. Latin fared better when it wasn't just a locally-spoken mother tongue, but rather was adopted as a second language by speakers elsewhere (much like modern English has more non-native than native speakers now). So: "Latin became a language independent of place" -- making it much more useful (and widespread).
       Nevertheless, Rome was still the driving force behind the use of Latin -- and with the collapse of the Roman Empire Latin primacy crumbled. Staggeringly:

we are probably not far off the mark if we assume that at the time of Augustine more than a hundred thousand people in the Mediterranean basin and Europe had extensive schooling in Latin, whereas by the seventh century their number may have dwindled to a few hundred. These few educated individuals did not form a language community in the literal sense: they were dispersed remnants of a once-vibrant culture, mastering as best they could an ancient cultural heritage through book learning.
       Much was saved at the periphery -- especially in Ireland -- and then with Charlemagne's embrace of (a standardized) Latin, the language again came into its own. Even as late the 18th century "something under 25 percent" of all published works were in Latin (varying from country to country, as some clung to Latin use longer); as late as 1848 Latin was still the official administrative language of Hungary.
       As Leonhardt suggests, it's hardly a language we can leave behind us, given how much was written and recorded in it -- and he notes with some disappointment that it's practically only the texts that exist in translation that are still read and relied on, while a wealth of Latin writing remains ignored. (He also makes a case for the continued use of Latin -- especially also as a spoken language -- though of course that's a somewhat harder sell.)
       Leonhardt also repeatedly compares Latin to English, which has now assumed the mantle of leading 'world language' -- an interesting if underdeveloped idea worthy of independent discussion.
       Latin is a fascinating history-book -- a bit academic and occasionally dry, but with a good story and quite a few surprising titbits. Leonhardt properly shifts the focus from school-Latin, with its entirely early Roman focus, and makes a very good case for Latin reading across the millennia. (With their accessible Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library and I Tatti Renaissance Library series, both of which include texts translated from the Latin (complete with the original text), Harvard University Press, who also published Latin, are also doing their part to spread the word(s).)

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 January 2014

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Latin: Reviews: Jürgen Leonhardt: Other books of interest under review:
  • Denis Feeney on The Beginnings of Latin Literature, in Beyond Greek

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About the Author:

       Jürgen Leonhardt, born in 1957, teaches at the University of Tübingen.

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© 2014-2022 the complete review

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