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A Natural History of Latin
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A Natural History
of Latin

Tore Janson
Translated and adapted into English by
Merethe Damsgård Sørensen and Nigel Vincent

Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP
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Published in the United States
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Swedish edition, Latin: Kulturen, historien, språket, published by Wahlström and
Widstrand, Stockholm, © Tore Janson 2002
© Tore Janson 2004
© English translation Merethe Damsgård Sørensen and Nigel Vincent
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First published 2004
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
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Foreword ix

Part I Latin and the Romans
Lingua latina: a ¬rst acquaintance
The earliest period of Rome 6
How Latin became Latin 9
From small town to great power 12
How bad were the Romans? 14
A voice from early Rome 17
The meeting with Greece 19
Theatre for the people 21
The age of revolutions 23
Writing, reading, listening, and speaking 26
Speeches, politics, and trials 29
Cicero and rhetoric 31
The language of history 34
Imperium romanum: Augustus and the Roman empire 37
Name and family 39
Years and months 42
Latin becomes the language of Europe 44
Poetry and poets 47
Philosophy: Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca 57
The schools and Quintilian 61
The sciences 63
Everyday language 65
Laws and legal language 70
Tacitus, the emperors, and Britain 73
Christianity: from dangerous sect to state religion 76

Part II Latin and Europe
Europe after Rome 85
From Latin to the Romance languages 87
Missionaries, Latin, and foreign languages 93
Latin in Britain 96
Latin in schools 100
Speaking and spelling 107
Books and scribes 115
Saints and heretics 122
The guardians of the heritage 127
Poetry after antiquity 131
Abelard and H©loïse 137
The thinkers 141
The Renaissance 145
Doctors and their language 148
Linnaeus and Latin 152
Physicists, chemists, and others 156
Alchemy, witchcraft, and Harry Potter 160
Loanwords and neologisms 164
Latin and German 168
Latin and French 170
Latin and English 172
Latin and us 174

Part III About the Grammar
Introduction 179
Pronunciation and stress 179
Sentences, verbs, and nouns 182
Words and word classes 183
Nouns 184
Adjectives 191
Pronouns 194


The forms of the verb 197
Amandi and Amanda 209
How words are formed 211

Part IV Basic Vocabulary 217

Part V Common Phrases and Expressions 271

Suggested reading 297
Index 301

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This book is for everyone who wants to know more about Latin,
about the language and about its in¬‚uence on the culture and history
of Europe. It covers the basic facts about the pronunciation of Latin,
the most common words, and something about the forms of words. It
also includes a fair number of well-known phrases and quotations.
This is not a textbook in any traditional or modern sense. It is mainly
about how and when the language was used, and how it has gradually
in¬‚uenced other languages. You will not need special previous know-
ledge; everything you need to know will be introduced as you go
along. My idea is to communicate to the reader what we know about
a language and a culture which has had, and continues to have, a very
great in¬‚uence on us all. Of course, I hope that some readers will
become so interested that they will want to acquire a thorough
knowledge of Latin for themselves, but to do this they will have to
move on to ordinary textbooks. My aim here is simply to offer an
overview and an appetizer.
Even so, if you want to know the meaning of individual Latin words
and expressions, this book will take you quite a long way. At the back
there is a brief grammar and a list of basic vocabulary and a collection
of the most common phrases and expressions. There is also an index
which will enable the reader to ¬nd matters that are discussed in the
text. The book can be used as a reference work for people who quickly
want to ¬nd out something about the Latin language.
Latin was both a spoken and a written language in ancient Rome.
It gradually fell out of use as anyone™s native language, but for more
than a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire it was used
as a spoken and written language by educated people throughout
western Europe. However, the language played a different role in
antiquity from the one it came to play later. For this reason the main
part of the book falls into two halves, one about Latin and the

Romans in antiquity and one about Latin and Europe thereafter.The
written language has in principle remained the same for two thousand
years from antiquity until the present day. This book aims to give
a portrait of that language.
While working on this book I have bene¬ted from the opinions,
advice and suggestions of Magnus Wistrand,Hans Aili,Eva Halldinger,
and not least my wife, Christina Westman. The English version is not
just a translation, since the text has been revised and adapted in many
places, and a couple of sections are entirely new. It has been a great
pleasure to cooperate in this work with the translators, Merethe
Damsgård Sørensen and Nigel Vincent (who wrote the sections on
Latin and German and on the pronunciation of Latin in England), and
with John Davey at the Oxford University Press. None of them is to be
held responsible for any remaining errors or ¬‚aws.
The translators of the English edition would particularly like
to acknowledge the help of John Briscoe, Tim Cornell, Roy Gibson,
Kersti Börjars, Martin Durrell, and Katy Vincent, not to mention
Tore Janson!

Part I
Latin and the Romans
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Lingua latina: a ¬rst acquaintance

Many Latin words are easy to understand. Here is one to start with:


It is easy to guess that this means ˜woman™. It™s the name of several
women™s magazines in various countries around the world and is also
a brand of perfume. Then there are related words like feminine,
female, and feminist.And it doesn™t take a big leap of the imagination
to link it with the French word femme ˜woman™. It™s often that way
when you study languages, particularly one as widespread as Latin.
Latin words are sometimes borrowed unchanged.They also frequently
appear as parts of learned or abstract words. English has borrowed
large numbers of words from Latin, often via French. And there are
even greater similarities with French, Spanish, and Italian, languages
which have developed out of Latin.
Anyone who has a large vocabulary in English therefore already
knows quite a lot of Latin words, and anyone who speaks Spanish or
French knows even more. But it also works the other way round.
Anyone who has acquired a basic Latin vocabulary will more easily
be able to understand many words in other European languages.
Let™s build up a little more Latin:

femina clara

This is a bit harder, even if Claire and Clara are English names and
clear is a loan from Latin (by way of French). Yet in Latin the word
usually meant ˜light™ or ˜bright™, as in English a clear day, but also
˜shining™ or ˜famous™. So femina clara means ˜a famous woman™.
This example also shows us that Latin has a different word order
from English. An adjective like clara usually comes after the word it
goes with. The same word order can be seen in the phrase which is in
the title of this section: lingua latina. One can guess that lingua
means ˜language™ from the English word linguistics, which means
A natural history of Latin

the science of language, or indeed from the word language itself or
the French word langue ˜language™. The word latina obviously
means ˜Latin™, and so the whole phrase means ˜the Latin language™.
One might query this translation on the grounds that there is
nothing in the Latin expression which corresponds to the English
word the,or what is called the de¬nite article.But Latin has no equival-
ent to the or to the inde¬nite article a/an. A Latin phrase like femina
clara can be translated as ˜famous woman™, ˜a famous woman™, or
˜the famous woman™ depending on the context. This is in fact the
way things are in most of the world™s languages. The de¬nite and
inde¬nite articles are by and large found in modern western European
languages like English, German, and French.
Just a few words in Latin quickly give an idea of what is easy and
what is dif¬cult.The words are often already known, or at least you can
often connect a Latin word with an English word you already know.But
the rules for how you put the words together into phrases or sentences,
that is the grammar of the language, are very different from those that
apply in a language like English. In this book for the most part I focus
on words in the main body of the text, and you can read it without
bothering about the word endings or other complications. If you are
interested, however, you can ¬nd the most important rules in the
section entitled ˜About the Grammar™ at the end of the book.
Latin is written with what we have come to call the Roman alphabet,
which English and most other European languages have taken over.
Our script was originally created to write down Latin, and so the letters
correspond very well to the sounds of that language. The words we

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