21 July 2008

A biography of Latin

I recently read a most interesting book - Ad Infinitum; a Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler (Walker and Company, 2007). It's not a textbook of Latin, but rather a history of the language itself - its Etruscan roots, why it rose to prominence, how it influenced the "Romance" languages of Europe, and why it fell into disfavor and disuse. Herewith some excerpts:

Ovid was the very model of Roman urbanity, a leading poet and wit in the time of Augustus, HOMO EMUNCTAE NARIS as they would have put it, ‘a man with an unblocked nose.’ (p.6) [discussed in various Google links]

…consider the word CARRICUM, unknown to Latin literature, but evidently universal in spoken Latin, since echoes of it are found in every modern Romance language (French charge, Spanish cargo, Rumanian carca, Catalan carreg, Italian carico…) as well as English carry. At the start, it evidently meant a wagonload, such as a CARRUS [four-wheeled cart] could hold. CARRUS has had a major career of its own (e.g. car, chariot, career), but CARRICUM is another example of a word borrowed into Latin that there found a new and extended life…(p. 19)

The name Caesar, for example, suggests that some remote ancestor (possibly Lucius Julius, who fought in the First Punic war around 250 BC) had had a significant link with the Etruscan city of Caere (called in Etruscan Caisr-). (p.42)

…the Romans borrowed their (and hence our) word for mustache: Latin MUSTACEUS, never found in Latin literature, is derived from a Doric Greek word for the upper lip, mustakion or mustax, Its close relative mastax ‘jaw’ was also borrowed in Latin; MASTICARE, a verb derived form it, has resulted in French macher ‘chew’ as well as modern English ‘masticate.’ (p. 93)

In such traditions based on a classical language, writing was the business of specialists, above all clerks (clerici – a word that had, revealingly, originally meant members of the Christian clergy, but was applied to all those with written work). (p. 167)

…the famous Papal Bulls, named for their monumental seal bulla (Latin for ‘bubble’). (p. 236)

When [Latin] is used productively, rather than simply quoted or misquoted, it is usually in macaronic form, mixing Latin in with the popular language. (p. 315) ["macaronic" - good word! - and when you look it up, you discover that "macaroni" is etymologically related to "macaroon!"]

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