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Ad Infinitum - A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler

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Nicholas Ostler

Nicholas Ostler

Reprinted by permission of Walker & Co.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for a picture of how the Latin language evolved or a history of Rome with a difference, you should read Ostler's Ad Infinitum - A Biography of Latin. Although there is an immense amount of material in its 382 pages, it is mostly easy to read and you can skip to sections that interest you. Even so, be sure to read the preface and the best section, Part I.

Although you could probably read it without any familiarity with non-English languages, you may find it hard to understand, so my recommendation is that you read it only if you ever studied Latin or the Romance languages.

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  • Thorough history of Latin and the Roman Empire
  • Copious examples and details
  • Provides welcome context for obscure and even somewhat familiar topics/names


  • Sometimes confusing (see next)
  • Uses technical linguistic concepts
  • Seems to rush through towards the end especially compared with the start
  • Requires some Latin, but why would you read it if you had none?


  • Nicholas Ostler studied Greek, Latin, and more at Oxford and received his Ph.D. in linguistics at MIT under Noam Chomsky.
  • The book is a Western Civ course focusing on the language -- Latin and its daughters.
  • Shows the effect of major events/movements, like Christianity, Islam, and the printing press, on Latin's dominance.
  • Appendix 1 explains Latin mottoes used as chapter titles. App. 2 lists Etruscan borrowings in Latin. Both are interesting.
  • The 3rd appendix, sound change, has good information, but is hard to follow and could use actual modern language examples.

Guide Review - Ad Infinitum - A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler

Just as Rome came to dominate Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, so the language of the Romans became universal. As Nicholas Ostler shows in Ad Infinitum - A Biography of Latin, the process was basically the same for politics as for language. Time passed; the originally Asian-based Christianity gained a foothold in the Empire, but still Latin remained dominant. Several factors led to the emergence of the Romance languages out of Latin, but still Latin was the lingua Franca. Even when it lost out in most areas, it kept a toehold in botany, and even when Latin came to be associated with the oppressive bourgeosie and other elites, Latin endured, coming up in odd places, like the Internet, where there is a Latin version of Wikipedia, and in an even odder place, Finland (host of weekly Latin radio broadcasts), where neither Latin nor any Latinate language was ever the national language.

While this is the survey that Nicholas Ostler presents and embellishes with details from many disciplines, I was unclear about his conclusion. Yes Latin is used in certain limited places, like semantics (referring to categories of relationship and color), the Internet, and Finnish radio, but he also calls it a language that has survived 2500 years and is now a language of the past "sic transit gloria mundi 'so the glory of the world must pass.'" I find this mixed message confusing and/or depressing.

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