The Second Death of Latin
Language is a powerful shaping force of civilization, and each of the world’s languages is changing constantly. The way we speak has a profound effect on – and is itself profoundly affected by – other vectors of empire. Here, a master historian looks at how a “mother” tongue was ended (but not really) by powerful forces that, at first glance, seem to have little to do with language.
Scholar and author Nicholas Ostler speaks — or, as he puts it, “has worked in” — twenty-six languages (his clarification can be read on his web site http://www.nicholasostler.com/nicholas/faq) . When he writes about them, he “celebrates the wonder of words.” He is that rare scholar who knows so much about so many wide-ranging topics that he is able to tell a vast and complex story in an easy, seemingly effortless narrative.
This is an excerpt from Ostler’s 2005 book, Empires of the Word, a remarkable history of all the world’s great languages. I don’t think many people could write a book like this, a global narrative that is so all-encompassing. While this passage concerns one language in particular, it can serve as an introduction to the dynamic study of all languages, and their interlocking histories.
The Second Death of Latin
Copyright @ 2005 Nicholas Ostler
The discovery by the western Europeans that their ships could cross oceans and bring them directly to distant lands, whether for trade or outright conquest and exploitation, opens a new era in the global history of language spread. All too often, the language communities at the destinations of European shipping proved unable to mount effective military or political, resistance to the adventuring invaders. When this happened, the victims were frequently decimated, and always forced to submit to a new elite. The spread of languages through the dominance of the new elites was far more pervasive than anything that had been seen before. The results are evident today in the presence of six colonizing languages in the list of the world’s top ten languages by population.
Greek never put down deep roots in the regions to which it spread.
The Romance half of these colonizing languages, as we have just seen, owed their very existence to the changes that came over the Roman empire after its western regions were dissolved by the Germanic conquests; the decline in mutual intelligibility, and the redefinition of Latin or grammatica, to be no longer just their written form but a language separate from them, had led to their development as vehicles of a different sort of community. This community was less intellectual, but often as rich culturally as the Church which continued to rely on Latin, spoken and written.
Yet before these languages began their accelerated progress round the world, there came an epoch-making development, which emphasized and reinforced the spread of literacy in western Europe. It widened the range of competition between Latin and the vernacular languages, including the Romance ones, and massively raised the stakes in the contest. The result was the dethronement of Latin as the lingua franca of western Christendom: in effect its death, after two millennia, as a language of any real communication and innovation.
The event was the rise of a mass market in printed books. Like the information revolution reorganizing the world in our own time, it was in essence the economic effect of the spread of a new technology. Johannes Gutenberg published his edition of the Bible in Mainz in 1450. Very soon, publishing houses sprang up all over Europe, and by 1475 most of the classic works in Latin were available in print. By 1500, 20 million printed volumes had been produced, estimated to correspond to one book for every five people in western Europe. 
Almost at once comes the Reformation, and the rise of Protestant churches opposed to the established Christianity of the Pope in Rome. This, of course was no coincidence, but a sign that the new book- publishing revolution had broken open previously well-guarded access to media of communication. Martin Luther’s works, starting theatrically with his ninety-five theses nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, were printed and distributed in German translation. His translation of the whole Bible soon followed. The output of German-language publishing houses over the 1520s and 1530s was three times the total of the previous twenty years; Luther’s works accounted for 33 per cent of all German-language publications between 1517 and 1525.
The tide of new, unfiltered, information was too much for some. In France in 1535, King François I- briefly, and without effect- declared the printing of any books at all a capital offence. The Vatican, more circumspectly, set up the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, first so named in 1559. But the flow was not stemmed. The important effect was that the channels of long-distance and high-level discourse were switching from oral diffusion at court and university, mediated through manuscript messages, to written distribution of mass-produced texts. Latin had retained its domination as the vehicle of the old-style communications, but under the weight of sheer volume it now yielded to the new. Books might be printed in Latin as well as any other language, and those that were might be expected to enjoy a wider circulation for being written in an international language; but the economics of the book trade remaindered them, clearing its shelves for books in vernacular languages, which would sell in large quantities nearer to the point of production.
What was happening was one facet of the growing power of the nation-state in western Europe: the replacement of an international intellectual elite, which provided a common background for different kings’ governments, by a much more vocal and influential bourgeoisie, taking control of their local monarchies and making then serve their more worldly purposes. One linguistic effect of this was to replace Latin with national vernaculars, not just for local purposes but even at the level of the latest research.
Latin remained, in theory, a superior vehicle for high- level intellectual discourse: as a language, it had the vocabulary, built up over more than a thousand years of thought and disputation: and as a community, it had the reach, since scholars from all over the west of Europe were accustomed to talking, thinking and writing in it. Each vernacular, by contrast, had to build up equivalent strengths little by little from a much smaller base.
… It became possible to see the style of expression as far more important
than the content
But wherever there was a riot, or a market, the vernaculars had the force of numbers of their side; and the religious controversies and wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries showed that intellectual issues were as apt to generate sales booms, riots and civil wars as disputations or dynastic conflicts. It was not until the twentieth century that communications media could penetrate deeply enough for an international language to compete effectively with vernaculars on the street. Modern English has found in broadcasting the answer to the threat that book publishing posed for medieval Latin.
Intellectual life conducted in Latin gradually fell away. It took about a century to go. Francis Bacon, publishing his Advancement of Learning in English in 1605, wanted to have it translated into Latin to ‘ring a bell to call other wits together…and have that bell heard as far as can be.’ It did not actually come out in Latin until 1623, when he remarked: ‘For these modern languages will at one time or another play the bank-rowtes [bankrupts] with books; and since I have lost much time with this age, I would be glad as God shall give me leave to recover it with posterity.’
The last major intellectual work in England to be published in Latin was newton’s Principia in 1687. Since then, science had in general had to be conducted less conveniently, in a variety of languages. It is the price the modern world has paid to keep scientists and intellectuals more closely in touch with society at large.*
This second death was more profound than Latin’s first. It was not like the vernacular movements of five hundred years before, when Latin had just lost its use as a written disguise for Romance languages. They had moved on from Latin, and apart, in phonetics and structure; trying to access in written form through a Latin overlay was hard work, and increasingly pointless. But even as it made way for vernacular literature, Latin had retained a significant use: it was still the vehicle for the intellectual discourse that went beyond the popular themes being produced (and appreciated) in Romance. Now, Latin was ceasing to be used in any new thinking at all.
It is revealing to compare the final stages in the life of Latin with those of its fellow classic languages, Greek, Chinese and Sanskrit. Each of these languages, after all, represented the unitary linguistic ideals of an area large enough to split into a number of popular varieties. But only Latin ended up largely replaced by the set of its daughter languages.
The language communities at the destinations of European shipping proved unable to mount effective … resistance to the adventuring invaders.
Greek never put down deep roots in the regions to which it spread; and when these regions were conquered by others, so that Greeks ceased to be their governing elite, Greek was essentially lost in them. The result was that Greek ended by confined to a relatively small region, mostly under a single, authoritarian government, When the government was reduced in power and then ceased to exist, after the Latin and especially the Turkish conquests, the classical norms that had kept the language united were weakened; but when unitary government was returned, it proved possible, gradually, to move to a new, single, standard for the whole language.
Chinese has retained its role as the high-level focus, political and intellectual, for all the communities that speak related dialects (or daughter languages). Unlike Greek, it has lost linguistic unity, all over its south-eastern provinces; but political unity by and large has held firm. The phonetic inexplicitness of its writing system has, to an extent, allowed it to ignore emergent differences between its standard core and those dialects. This same ambiguity has enabled it, in the last century, to switch its linguistic norm from classical wényán to Beijing báihuà without losing the allegiance of the whole set of Chinese- speaking communities. The logographic writing system, then, has enabled Chinese to escape the ‘first death’, without preventing numbers of its daughter languages from diverging.
Sanskrit, like Latin, has given rise to (or been closely associated with) a number of daughter languages; this marks the major common feature of its history and Latin’s, namely the breakdown of political unity over its speech area for a long time. As in the case of Latin, this led to the daughter languages establishing themselves as independent literary languages for popular themes. But it long retained its role as high-level intellectual center, and hence in some sense linguistic ideal, for these independent languages. Despite the impact of English from overseas, eliminating its high-level secular role, it has never been replaced as the focal religious vehicle for the majority of Indians.
The next tale in this history is the phenomenal spread of Latin’s daughter languages; to this we shall soon pass. This, after all, is the real, continuing, story of the Latin speech community. And yet, in a way, Latin as a living language did find a new disguise.
In the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, western Europe had been enlightened by a new and more direct knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin. Aided by the influence of Byzantine scholars after the fall of Constantinople and its empire, Westerners began for the first time in a thousand years to have a reading knowledge of Greek and eagerly lapped up the associated stylistic doctrines of Atticism. Perhaps by contact, perhaps because of the nature of self-consciously classical studies, many began to develop a corresponding linguistic snobbery about their Latin, wanting to go back to the most ancient sources, Only Cicero’s work would do. Not all humanists caught this bug: in particular Erasmus, a witty Dutch classicist writing in the early sixteenth century, wrote a Dialogus Ciceronianus to satirise the aspiration, envisioning a character called Nosoponus (‘laboring under a disease’) exerting himself to work out which infected forms of each verb were actually found in Cicero’s work, and which (more importantly) were not. For such a man, even his dreams were restricted to Cicero (‘Nec aliud simulachrum in somnis occurrit praeterquam Ciceronis…’); the naïve witness Hypologus comments that he looks more like a ghost than a man (‘Larvae similior videtur quam homini’).
Only Latin ended up largely replaced by the set of its daughter languages.
When this kind of devotion to the details of expression established itself as respectable, it became possible to see the style of expression as far more important than the content, and the knowledge of what had been said as far superior to the ability to innovate and strive for progress. So just as the highest aspiration for Greek scholars in the West was to read the texts (and perhaps write a pastiche- but only in classical style), now people came to think they were preserving the value of Latin if they became experts in the language and its extant early literature, for its own sake alone. The primary uses of a language, to think and feel, to express ideas and to communicate them, became purely subordinate to this ‘classicism’.
It would have been better if Latinists had accepted the resigned verdict of one of their favorite poets:
Soles occidere et redire possunt:
Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Nox est perpetua una dormienda.
Suns can set and come back again:
For us when once the short light has set
There is one night perpetual to be slept.
 The six are English, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, German and English. There was a seventh, Dutch, which holds position 21 in the population league.
 Reynolds and Wilson (1968:120)
 Febvre and Martin (1976:248-9 )
 ibid (289-95)
Nicholas Ostler is the author of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World and Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, among other books. He holds degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. from MIT. He is also the chairman of the Foundation of Endangered Languages. A scholar with a working knowledge of eighteen languages, Ostler lives in Bath, England.