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have a quantity of classical education served up to them in harmless,
bite-sized chunks. The seven liberal arts provided the appropriate
institutional framework which lasted throughout the Middle Ages.
Of these seven, the ¬rst three provided the foundation and were of
the greatest practical value. They were called the trívium, literally
˜three ways™, and they were the only ones that were taught, together
with religion, in elementary school. In Sweden that led to the low-
est level of schooling being called ˜trivial school™, just as in English
some schools came to be called Grammar Schools because they
taught (Latin) grammar, while in English the adjective trivial has
come to mean ˜minor, unimportant™ because it originally referred
to things taught at the beginning of the school curriculum. The
¬rst art, then, was grammar, obviously meaning Latin grammar.
Theoretical concepts like gender (genus) or tense (tempus) were
learnt from a grammar book. The one which was used in teaching

A natural history of Latin

beginners was almost always a small compendium written in the
fourth century by a man called Donatus, whose name, with time,
became almost synonymous with grammar itself. The terms in
Donatus are not dif¬cult for someone who has been taught the gram-
mar of a European language. He starts with the names of the parts of
the sentence or partes orationis. These are: nómen, pronómen,
verbum, adv©rbium, particípium, coniúnctio, praeposítio, interi©ctio.
The corresponding English terms are: noun, pronoun, verb, adverb,
participle, conjunction, preposition, and interjection. As is clear, we
have taken our terms for the parts of speech over lock, stock, and
barrel from Donatus.
There is a small difference in that under nomen he included both
what we call nouns and what we call adjectives. This last term comes
from later grammars, which distinguish the nomen substantivum,
literally ˜substantive name™ and the source of the rather more spe-
cialized English term substantive, and the nomen adiectivum, liter-
ally ˜adjacent name™, so called because one of its most common uses
is to stand beside a noun. Thus grammar in Cassiodorus™ school was
not that different from what was, until relatively recently, taught in
our schools too. Rhetoric, by contrast, was a condensed version of
what Cicero and Quintilian had taught, and does not directly corres-
pond to anything in the modern syllabus. Even so, it had a much
smaller role when compared to the importance of this subject in
antiquity, and it was not used to train people in making speeches in
Latin, since that was not important in the Middle Ages. Rhetorical
devices were, however, useful in writing and sometimes in preparing
sermons. Dialectics or logic dealt with fundamental philosophical
concepts and the ability to draw formally correct conclusions from a
set of premisses.It was a subject which at ¬rst had had hardly any place
in Roman schooling, but interest in it increased in late antiquity.
Christians felt they had to have some knowledge of philosophy in
order to defend their faith against well-educated pagans.
Apart from the foundational language subjects grammar and
rhetoric, philosophy was the only one of the seven liberal arts to be
taught in Cassiodorus™ school. The remaining arts, the so-called

Latin and Europe

quadrívium or ˜four ways™, were, according to the ancient way of
looking at things, four further sub-branches of philosophy. More
precisely, mathematics (mathemática) was one of the principal ¬elds
of philosophy, and was in turn divided into arithmetic, geometry,
astronomy, and music. That the ¬rst two belong under the heading
of mathematics would probably not cause much disagreement, and
astronomy de¬nitely contains a considerable amount of maths,
although we now believe that observation is also important. The
place of music is more surprising. The reason it was classi¬ed as a
sub-part of mathematics is because of harmonics. Already Plato had
known that there are certain mathematical relations between, for
instance, the length of a string and the pitch of the note it produces:
a string which is twice as long will produce a note which is half as
high. For this reason, mathematics, a branch of philosophy, was in
antiquity regarded as the very foundation of music.
But not many pupils got as far as the quadrívium, and those who
did probably derived only a limited amount of pleasure from their
studies.What you could read about these subjects in Cassiodorus and
even in the bigger handbooks which later became available was very
meagre. It consisted of condensed and partly misunderstood digests
of ideas which originally came from a variety of Greek authorities. In
subjects other than religion, knowledge in the Middle Ages became
quite restricted, even for people who had had all the schooling that
was on offer. Apart from the knowledge of Latin, which covered
grammar and some of the basic principles of composition, most of
the rest was a training in logic.
This was not probably not such a bad thing. It was certainly the
case that those who had attended the monastic schools were often
able to make use of their abilities elsewhere than in monasteries or
the Church. And this is hardly surprising. Since there were no other
schools, it was obviously necessary to recruit people for any job that
required the ability to write Latin from among those who had been to
the Church schools. And people who were able to write were always
in demand, mainly by princes and kings who needed help with admin-
istration and correspondence, of which there was a considerable

A natural history of Latin

amount even in hard times like the eighth century, when large parts
of Europe were reverting to a local subsistence economy.
As time passed schools gradually improved, and education not
only lasted longer but became more substantial. Even so the founda-
tion was always Latin, since it was impossible to move on to other
subjects without this basic linguistic tool. It goes without saying that
Latin was also the language in which the classes were conducted and
any textbooks written.
Around the twelfth century there was a period of real prosperity
in western Europe both economically and culturally speaking. It was
a time when there was enough money and know-how to build such
magni¬cent places of worship as Notre-Dame in Paris or the cathe-
dral at Chartres. The cathedral schools in these towns also developed
into true intellectual centres, where there was advanced education
and where teachers and students were able to question the estab-
lished truths. The relation between religion and the philosophical
ideas of antiquity provoked particularly intense debate in the best
schools. Out of these schools developed the ¬rst universities, such as
Paris and Oxford, and before long more had been founded in many
other places.
Although the universities were much more advanced than the
schools, they kept the language of the schools. Latin was the only lan-
guage in the universities of Europe from their beginning and for
many centuries thereafter. Not even the Reformation in the sixteenth
century brought about any great change in this respect. Priests cer-
tainly had to conduct their services in the local language in Protestant
countries, but they still had to learn to read, write, and speak Latin,
since that was the language of the universities in which they received
their training. It was not until the eighteenth century that universities
started to use national languages, and in some places Latin was still
the language of instruction into the twentieth century.
In schools things were not quite the same. Latin was generally the
only school language until the fourteenth century, but by that time
the Church schools started to face competition as the need arose for
people who were able to read and write in the national language of

Latin and Europe

the country in question. Little by little, therefore, these languages
entered the Church schools as well, and Latin shifted from being the
sole language of instruction to being the most important foreign
language. It retained that status for as long as Latin was necessary in
higher education, which meant in most cases down to the nineteenth
century. Since then Latin has had a much less eminent place in the
schools of Europe, even though several million students study it
every year. Nowadays the students who choose it are those who
want to acquire a better understanding of the history and culture of
Europe in all but the last centuries. Of course, the interest is greatest
in countries like Italy and France, whose national languages derive
from Latin, and where written Latin has been in continuous use
since the time of the Romans. In Britain the language has had a sig-
ni¬cant role for a rather shorter period, roughly from the seventh to
the eighteenth centuries. On the other hand, Latin is perhaps the
principal language through which people can have access to the ear-
liest history of these islands, so to the extent that people want to be
in touch with their roots, it is of great importance here too.

Speaking and spelling

People for whom Latin was not a native language obviously had to
learn to pronounce the words at the same time as they learnt to spell
and write. But how could they know how they were supposed to
sound? As Latin was no longer anyone™s native language, there was
no one to imitate. In fact this was already a problem in late antiquity.
By the fourth century pronunciation had changed a fair amount by
comparison with the years around the birth of Christ. All languages
change with time, and Latin was no exception. The teachers in the
schools noticed that the spelling in the classical texts did not really
square with the way both they and their students pronounced
the words, and hence there were already debates about the rules of
pronunciation among Donatus and his contemporaries.

A natural history of Latin

When the Emperor Constantine established Constantinople as
the second capital of the empire, the problem grew yet larger. In the
new eastern capital there was an urgent need to recruit people to
carry out the imperial administration, which was conducted in Latin,
but the people in that part of the empire spoke not Latin but Greek or
some other tongue as their native language, and needed a very thor-
ough training in Latin. This is the reason why Priscian compiled his
grammar, the weightiest of all the ancient grammars and one which
devotes quite a lot of space to the pronunciation of the language. The
situation became even more dif¬cult once Latin became a foreign
language in the monastic schools which had hardly any contact with
the former Roman world, as happened for instance in Ireland, and
later in Germany and Scandinavia. In some places the pronunciation
must have been quite peculiar.
Fortunately, it is not dif¬cult to work out from the spelling how
to pronounce most Latin words. The alphabet had been invented
precisely for this language, and most of the sounds of Latin are also
found in all or almost all European languages. There is, for
instance, never any doubt about how to pronounce the letters in
words like bona ˜good™, mitte ˜send!™, lectus ˜bed™. Some of the
sounds, however, caused problems. In several cases this is due to the
fact that the pronunciation of Latin had already changed in ancient
times. A well-known example is the letter c, which in Latin in the
classical period always represented a k-sound. Cicero would cer-
tainly have pronounced his name [kikero] and the word concepta
˜ideas™ was pronounced [konkepta]. However, in late antiquity the
pronunciation changed when the sound came before the vowels
e and i. What exactly the resulting sound was varied from region to
region, as can still be seen in the different Romance languages. In
Italian they use what phoneticians call a palato-alveolar affricate,
the same sound as at the beginning of English chilly. In French on
the other hand the corresponding sound is [s] in Cic©ron and con-
cepts. The Germanic languages have adopted a good many Latin
words, and there too the pronunciation re¬‚ects this change.
English has taken over the [s] from French in words like Cicero and

Latin and Europe

concepts. German, by contrast, has the pronunciation which origi-
nally occurred in Old French, namely [ts] as in Cicero [tsitsero] and
Konzept [kontsept].
How did people who knew Latin pronounce these words ¬ve
hundred or a thousand years ago? We cannot know for sure, as there
are no recordings or even detailed descriptions, but everything
points to their already being pronounced in the different ways we
have described in the different countries at that time. One good
reason to believe this is the way loanwords are pronounced. There is
no better explanation than to assume that they carried with them
into the new language the pronunciation they had in Latin, the lan-
guage they had been borrowed from. There were probably ¬xed
norms for the pronunciation in all parts of Europe, but nonetheless a
degree of local variation was permitted from region to region.
It was not just the Germanic languages which borrowed from
Latin. Even the Romance languages did so frequently, although they
had originated in Latin. A case in point is precisely the word concept
in French. It is a typical learned word which probably did not exist at
all in early spoken French, and it is not to be found in any of the writ-
ten texts which have come down to us from the ¬rst 350 years of the
language™s attestation. In fact it shows up for the ¬rst time in 1401.
In English the corresponding word occurs in the sixteenth century. It
is the same with thousands of words in the languages of Europe, as
we shall see below.
Apart from loanwords, there is at least one more good reason to
believe that the pronunciation of Latin was partly different in differ-
ent places, namely our knowledge of the way Latin was traditionally
pronounced in different European countries in the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. This is well documented and indeed, here
and there, there probably still are individuals who stick to this style
of pronunciation, which really varied considerably from country to
country. Nowadays the differences are smaller. In the course of the
twentieth century there was a kind of reform movement, with the
result that people now use more or less the same pronunciation
wherever they are. This is a pronunciation which re¬‚ects the way

A natural history of Latin

the language sounded in the classical period and which was brie¬‚y
described at the beginning of this book.
Traditional pronunciation, by contrast, like loanwords, provides us
with a chance to learn a good deal about how the language sounded
over the centuries. There is no reason to go into detail; it suf¬ces to
be aware that the language sounded different in different places and
that it also changed gradually in some of these places. We will, how-
ever, spend a little time on the history of the pronunciation of Latin
in England.
It is in the area of vowels that the traditional English pronunciation
of Latin has most diverged from classical norms. One cause was the
different stress and rhythm rules of English. These have meant that,
from the earliest Old English times onwards, English speakers
lengthen stressed vowels when they are not followed by two conson-
ants, pronouncing a long vowel in words like focus and pater where
Latin had a short one. Conversely, a long vowel tends to be shortened


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