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precise theological meaning, namely ˜grace™, most commonly in the
phrase Dei gratia ˜the grace of God™.
Among the many loanwords from Greek we may mention baptizare
˜to baptise™ and eccl©sia ˜church™. In a sense such words were less con-
fusing, as they had only their Christian meanings. At the same time,
their pronunciation and spelling made it clear that they were foreign.
The word baptizare, for instance, contains the letter z, which does not
occur in indigenous Latin words and which represents a Greek sound
usually pronounced [ts] in Latin.
As we have seen, the Christians created a large new vocabulary for
themselves. In the beginning it probably sounded strange and per-
haps even funny to many people, but as Christianity in time came to
take over the whole empire, all these Christian words and meanings
were incorporated into Latin. This is the normal course of events
when a new phenomenon enters society: it brings its own vocabu-
lary with it. Christianity led to enormous changes in people™s every-
day lives and their way of thinking, and hence many new words and
expressions were needed.The people who brought this about were of
course not just translators and hymn-writers but a whole host of
missionaries and preachers, priests and bishops. Many of them were
also writers.They wrote sermons, hymns, long, dense commentaries
on the Bible, controversial pamphlets against the pagans, and not
least theological treatises, frequently with the aim of attacking
It was not easy to know at the time who actually was a heretic, or
haer©ticus. It depended on who was successful in having their view
of original sin or the Trinity ¬nally accepted as the true teaching of
the Church. The winners were rewarded not least by having their

Latin and the Romans

attacks on their opponents preserved even down to modern times,
whereas the books of the losers have in general disappeared.
Someone who won on every occasion was Augustine, the greatest of
the Catholic Church Fathers. He started life as a teacher of rhetoric,
but converted to Christianity at about the age of thirty. He became
a priest, and later bishop, in the small town of Hippo near Carthage
in present-day Tunisia, where he spent fully forty years until his
death in the year 430, just at the moment when the Vandals
conquered and occupied the province.
Augustine is one of the most productive writers in world literature.
He devoted much of his energy to the analysis of theological
questions in a series of long treatises, in an unending ¬ght against
Donatists, Pelagians, Priscillians, and others who on some point dis-
agreed with him and (later) with the whole Church. He also wrote an
enormous number of sermons, hymns, and other occasional pieces.
However, more than anything else he is famous for two works. The
¬rst, Confessiones ˜Confessions™, is always to be found in surveys of
the history of world literature, as it is the ¬rst personal autobio-
graphy which is not just concerned with what happened but which
also tries to describe the writer™s personal development. It covers
Augustine™s life from his birth until his conversion. The other work
is called De civitate Dei ˜The City of God™. The immediate cause for
him to write this was the assault on and plundering of Rome by the
Visigoths in 410 ce. This was an unparallelled event, in that
it showed that the capital of this great empire could be taken by its
enemies just like any other city. Some saw it as a punishment visited
on the Romans because they had abandoned the old gods and
converted to Christianity, and Augustine™s work started life as a
refutation of this idea. But it grew in the writing into an ambitious
philosophical study of the relation between the Earthly City and the
Kingdom of God.
Augustine summarizes the whole of Christian teaching, combining
it with a wide variety of ideas derived from non-Christian philosophy.
In this way he and his predecessors created a whole system of thought,
a Christian philosophy. For someone who is not a Christian many of

A natural history of Latin

his ideas are strange or even repugnant. This is especially true of the
idea of original sin, the idea that man is born evil and has to be
redeemed by the Saviour. But for almost one and half millennia his
thought constituted one of the foundations for all discussions of the
human predicament. He was one of the last ancient philosophers but
at the same time one of the foremost intellectual ¬gures of the era that
was to come.

Part II
Latin and Europe
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Europe after Rome

No one knows why the Roman empire collapsed in the west. Within
a few decades at the beginning of the ¬fth century, the territory
where Latin was spoken went from being a single empire under a
single emperor to being a number of separate states, most of them
governed by Germanic kings. The empire had evidently grown
weaker, since otherwise it would not have been so easy for the vari-
ous Germanic groups to help themselves to chunk after chunk, but
historians are still debating the reasons for this weakness. Current
research points particularly to the fact that the population seems
to have diminished drastically in the period before the Germans
arrived, but once again no one knows why this should have been
the case.
The new states were not that different from those that already
existed or which came into existence beyond the borders of the
Roman empire, to the east and the north. As time passed, the differ-
ences in society and culture between the former empire and what
had traditionally been regarded as the homelands of the barbarians
became smaller and smaller. There were two principal reasons for
these changes. First, much of what had characterized Roman society
disappeared. The large and ef¬ciently run army was disbanded, as
was the system of civil servants and tax collectors which under-
pinned it. People shook off their taxes, but that meant they no longer
received military protection. Trade and communication were in turn
reduced, and people moved out of the towns, some of which ended up
as nothing but heaps of ruins. Most people now lived in the country-
side or in small towns and had little contact with the surrounding
world. In this way conditions became almost the same as they had
been in the areas that had never belonged to the empire.
Second, all western and northern Europe gradually acquired the
same religion. Christianity became stronger at about the same rate
as the Roman empire grew weaker. By the sixth century the greater
A natural history of Latin

part of the former empire was populated by Christians, and from the
seventh century vigorous missionary activity began to be under-
taken in the north and east. By the eleventh century, Christianity
had triumphed in modern-day Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, the
Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech
Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia, and was well
advanced in Scandinavia.
Rome was the centre of the Church in this whole area, and in
principle the Pope had sovereignty over all the bishops. The areas to
the east and south, such as modern Ukraine, Romania and Greece,
had also become Christian but in these areas the missionaries
emanated from the Eastern Church, which had Constantinople as its
centre. The Roman Church had Latin as its language, and it insisted
on that in all contexts and in all countries. Missionaries obviously
had to be able to speak the local language, but the service itself had to
be conducted in Latin and all priests therefore needed to be able to
speak Latin, at least to some degree. The Bible and all other religious
works were also in Latin.
Since there were very few people outside the Church who could
read and write, the consequence was that Latin became completely
dominant as the written language throughout Europe. In every
country there were also a number of people in high administrative
positions who spoke Latin, and that ability was useful, among other
things, in international contacts. Strangely enough, Latin became
the most important written language and the international spoken
language in virtually the whole of Europe, and over a much larger
area than the western part of the Roman empire, where the language
had been spoken in antiquity. Latin retained that pre-eminence for
the best part of a millennium, and this explains why it has had
such an enormous in¬‚uence on almost all branches of European
In what follows I will ¬rst discuss how it was that Latin disappeared
as a native language while at the same time acquiring its unique
role as the common language of communication for individuals
from many language groups. I will then look in some detail at that

Latin and Europe

language, how it varied from region to region, and how it differed
from ancient Latin. I will introduce quite a few examples of how
Latin was used, and is still being used, in many ¬elds, and of how
thoroughly it has in¬ltrated the modern European languages,
including English. I won™t say anything about the death of Latin, as
the language is still very much alive.

From Latin to the Romance languages

During the ¬fth century CE all the Latin speakers in the Roman
empire saw great changes. Germanic tribes poured across the border
and, not content with ravaging and plundering, stayed and seized
power permanently in region after region of the old empire. Within
a few decades both the authority of the emperor and his means of
enforcing it had disappeared, and in the year 476 the last emperor in
the western part of the Empire, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed
and had no successor. Suddenly, all the rulers were German and not
This was certainly a revolutionary moment but the invasions
meant less for the language situation than one might have imagined.
The Franks, Vandals, Burgundians, Goths, Lombards, and all the
other Germanic groups naturally came with their own languages,
which all belonged to the Germanic family”which includes modern
languages like English, German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian
languages. One of the languages of the invaders, Visigothic, is well
known from a translation of the Bible, the so-called Gothic or Silver
Bible, which has survived. Unfortunately, we do not know much
about the other Germanic languages in the Roman empire as no
texts or inscriptions have been preserved. What they had in com-
mon, however, was that all of them, including Visigothic, soon dis-
appeared. There were probably not very many Germanic speakers,
and although they certainly assumed power and ownership of the
land, they were surrounded by people who spoke Latin, and after

A natural history of Latin

a few generations they started speaking the same language as the
people they ruled over.
The great exception, of course, was the invasion of England. The
Angles, the Saxons, and other groups, notably the Jutes from Jutland
(part of modern Denmark),not only conquered the earlier inhabitants,
but their own Germanic language soon became the language of the
majority. Latin did not survive as a spoken language. It is uncertain
how many spoke it even in Roman times, for it seems that most people
were still using the original Celtic language, called British, when the
Germanic ships arrived. But a few hundred years later, the British lan-
guage was found only in the western part of the island, where it stayed
on, eventually being transformed into Welsh and Cornish. (Celtic, in
the form of Gaelic, was in due course reintroduced to Scotland from
Ireland.) The language of the Angles and Saxons came to dominate the
island, and in due course also a large part of the rest of the world.
Within the rest of the empire, society did not at ¬rst change
greatly as a result of the Germanic invasions. The new rulers often
left the local administration in place, and in many respects life in the
towns went on much as before. There were, for instance, still schools
of the Roman kind well into the sixth century in a number of places,
and still writers who were able to write Latin according to the old
models. Gradually, however, the situation got worse and worse
throughout western Europe. It became increasingly uncommon for
people to use the written language, and the school system had col-
lapsed completely by the seventh century in the greater part of
Europe. Only in some towns in Italy was it possible to continue to go
to school. The art of reading and writing did not disappear totally,
however, due to the fact that the Church set up its own education
system, a topic to which we will return later.
Nonetheless, the ability to read and write became very rare in
Europe, especially during the seventh and eighth centuries, when
many regions had neither a school system nor a functioning public
administration. There was also a very low level of mobility among
the population; almost everyone spent the whole of their lives on
their farms or in their towns or villages. In such conditions, linguistic

Latin and Europe

change is to be expected. All languages change with time, but how
slowly or quickly they change depends to a large extent on the society
and culture in which they are embedded. Some situations promote
rapid change, others slow it up.
Roughly speaking, we can say that linguistic change depends on
the interaction between two con¬‚icting and incompatible tendencies.
On the one hand we want to use language as an effective means
of communication; on the other we want to sound as much as pos-
sible like the people closest to us and we prefer to speak a little dif-
ferently from strangers.The ¬rst tendency may create large languages,
with millions of people who speak in the same way and are able to
understand each other without dif¬culty. The second tends to form
small dialect areas, where the inhabitants of each town can immedi-
ately hear the difference between their own dialect and that of the
neighbouring town, and where people may not even understand those
who live a few miles away. Hence large, strong states are linked to
large languages. During the Roman empire it was extremely useful to
be able to speak with people in the same language in every town, and
that was exactly what many travellers did. The shared written lan-
guage also obviously reinforced the tendency towards a common
norm across the whole of the Empire. In the new situation that
obtained after the collapse of the Empire, the motivation for a com-
mon language disappeared. Almost no one travelled, and contacts
between any given place and its surrounding regions were reduced
to a minimum. The written language had very little in¬‚uence, since
almost no one learnt to read or write.
As a result, there was no longer anything to hinder the develop-
ment of local dialects. It seems that the spoken language changed
very fast between the sixth and the eleventh centuries throughout
the area where people used to speak Latin. Moreover, the changes
went in partly different directions in different regions, so that each


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