Jurgen Leonhardt. Latin. Story of a World Language

By Bellew, R. Shelton | Italica, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Jurgen Leonhardt. Latin. Story of a World Language


Bellew, R. Shelton, Italica


Jurgen Leonhardt. Latin. Story of a World Language. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Cambridge-London: Harvard University Press, 2016.

This well-chronicled history of the Latin language explains how an obscure dialect eventually conquered the world and remained dynamic long after its native speakers died. Latin has never been restricted to the classroom or to classical literature. Like English today, it was a globally accessible language needed for communication and not merely for educational purposes. Translated from his native German, Jurgen Leonhardt describes how Latin has thrived throughout various historical contexts. The book is divided into five chapters. The first two chapters explain the purpose of the book--to reconcile the contradiction between the linguistic perspective of Latin and that of literary and cultural studies to better understand Europe's Latin tradition. He then moves onto the origins of Latin from the hillsides of Rome to become the lingua franca of an empire. In the third chapter, he describes how Charlemagne was crucial in revitalizing Latin during the early Middle Ages. The most popular books at that time were grammars reflecting how much the language had distanced itself from its speakers. Knowing one's basic grammar was synonymous with being cultured. It was thanks to Latin that vernacular languages were ironically allowed a safe space to gain momentum and eventually evolve into legitimate forms of written expression. Using the fixed rules of Latin, these new written cultures developed from unwritten European vernaculars. Next, Leonhardt analyzes Latin's new capacity among Renaissance writers who were interested in perfecting literary form. Eventually, eighteenth-century historicism turned Latin from a working language to an academic subject. It is from this point that Latin specialists have often suffered the stereotype of being ossified conservatives from an elitist discipline. As the author recounts the many lives of Latin, waxing and waning, he sustains that it has never died as a mode of communication. In fact, Latin persists as the most ubiquitous remnant we have from the ancient Romans. A review of the languages available on Google Translate will attest that no other ancient language is as easily recovered in our digital world. At the end of each chapter, the author recaps how these historical changes in Latin were not deaths but very different turning points in a long life.

Leonhardt, a professor of classical philology, corrects the erroneous view that Latin is "dead". …

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