A natural history of Latin: The story of the world’s most successful language.

A natural history of Latin: The story of the world’s most successful language. By Tore Janson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. 305. ISBN 0199214050. $15.95.

Reviewed by Edmund P. Cueva, Xavier University

A natural history of Latin attempts to give an ‘overview’ and an ‘appetizer’ (ix) of the history of Latin. Janson supplies this overview in two parts: Part 1 deals with Latin and the Romans in antiquity and Part 2 with the postclassical language and its users. This division allows for an examination of the different roles that Latin played in antiquity and in Europe after the influence and importance of Rome had waned. It should be noted that this 2004 English edition (translated by Merethe Damsgård Sørenson and Nigel Vincent) is not just a translation of the 2002 Swedish version, but also includes revisions, adaptations, and some completely new sections. Sørenson and Vincent themselves authored the sections on ‘Latin and German’ and ‘The pronunciation of Latin in England’ (x).

The book is divided into two major and two secondary parts and also includes a foreword, a list of suggested readings, and an index. Part 1, ‘Latin and the Romans’ (3–82), begins with an attempt to provide a first acquaintance with the lingua latina by discussing cognates and their adjectival modifiers. There is also a brief presentation on Latin word order, orthography, and pronunciation. This section then moves on to a summary of the 2,700-year history of the development of the language that includes geographical and archaeological data. Among topics included in this section are ‘How Latin became Latin’, ‘How bad were the Romans?’, ‘The meeting with Greece’, ‘The age of revolutions’, ‘Speeches, politics, and trials’, ‘Cicero and rhetoric’, ‘Name and family’, ‘Poetry and poets’, ‘Philosophy: Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca’, ‘Everyday language’, and ‘Christianity: From dangerous sect to state religion’.

Part 2, ‘Latin and Europe’ (85–176), covers the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west and then proceeds to track the changes (political, linguistic, etc.) that led from standard Latin to the Romance languages. J discusses a variety of topics including, for example, work done by missionaries, the use of Latin in Britain, Latin in the schools, the importance of books and scribes to the advancement of the language, postclassical poetry, Abelard and Héloïse, the Renaissance, the sciences (medicine, physics, chemistry), alchemy, witchcraft, the works by J. K. Rowling, loanwords and neologisms, Latin and German, Latin and French, and Latin and English.

Part 3, ‘About the grammar’ (177–215), does a thorough but brief job of describing the essentials of Latin grammar: pronunciation, stress, sentence structure, verbs, nouns, adjectives, pronouns, gerunds, and gerundives. Plenty of morphological charts are included. Part 4, ‘Basic vocabulary’ (217–69), is a listing of all of the Latin words that occur in the text and words that have ‘left frequent traces in the modern languages’ (218). An added bonus to this list is the placement of stress accents that approximate those of classical Latin. Part 5, ‘Common phrases and expressions’ (271–96), consists of some 500 Latin phrases, expressions, and quotations with translations. The reader can find phrases and sayings ranging from such well-known ones as carpe diem (Horace) and cui bono? (Cicero) to such lesser-known ones as ad maiorem Dei gloriam (the motto of the Society of Jesus) and nemo me lacessit impune (the national motto of Scotland).

All in all, this brief introduction delivers on its promise to serve as an overview and to whet the appetite for future interest in the Latin language. J covers quite a bit of information in the 305 pages of text.