In his review of Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, the New York Sun’s Brendan Boyle wrote that Latin shouldn’t be just appreciated among Ivy League halls and linguists. “it’s a fine idea to remember just how deep was the mark that Latin left on the West,” he writes.
We tend to think of Latin as something that might season our dreary vernacular, per the cutesy suggestion of books such as “Put a Little Latin in Your Life.” But our very best prose and public oratory does not have just a “little Latin.” It’s Latin through and through — in tempo, structure, and diction. This goes for even our most ostensibly demotic fiction. When Philip Roth or Saul Bellow unspools a sentence that you think cannot go on one word longer, but somehow does, before it stops, turns back on itself, and leaves us in awe, surely neither has Cicero in mind. But as we catch our breath, we might spare a thought for the language that gave our own this capacity to ravish. I’m not sure Ostrogoth could have done the same.