Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.20

Joseph B. Solodow, Latin Alive: The Survival of Latin in English and Romance Languages.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xii, 356.  ISBN 9780521734189.  $22.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Roger Wright, University of Liverpool (

Joseph Solodow, lecturer in Classics at Yale, joins the expanding ranks of scholars writing accessible histories of Latin, with his Latin Alive. This has a chronological range from several centuries B.C.E to the present day since Solodow's aim is to cover more or less simultaneously the historical development of the earliest Latin into the earliest recorded states of the three main Romance Languages and the influence of all of these on English. Thus the Romance Languages are shown to have been participating in a process that started before Latin, in Indo-European itself (261). Given the English connection, differently from other works on the historical development of Romance, the focus here is centred on vocabulary, although phonetics and morphosyntax are also extensively summarized afterwards. The diachronic linguistic exposition, professionally presented, is thus liable to be interrupted by a lengthy excursus on English etymologies arranged in such a way as to intrigue the non-professional reader, a decision that may in the event end up irritating both readerships. The three main Romance languages are said to be French, Spanish and Italian (in their standardized varieties), which will further irritate aficionados of Portuguese, Rumanian, Catalan and any number of dialects. But on the whole, the readers will be attracted by the mixture of perspectives, and the majority of readers will learn details they had not realized before.

The specialists above all will be pleased to see that the popularizing urge is not indulged at the expense of being out of date. Some books of this type are partly based on semi-remembered expositions of theories from the writer's past college experience. But the Romanist is unlikely to react that way to most of the sections here, for the author is an expert fortunately staying well within himself. Solodow understands historical linguistics well, for example, and realizes that a new feature is likely to appear long before the loss of any feature which it seems in retrospect to have neatly replaced: thus the spread of prepositions occurred well before the nominal case-endings got lost (236-38). The exposition of the development of Latin into Early Romance has benefited noticeably from the author's reading of József Herman's Vulgar Latin (Penn State Press, 2000); as he says, "naturally, many features of VL are the same as in CL" (113), and the distinction should not be overstated. On the other hand, the importance of the Appendix Probi would be downplayed rather than highlighted by most other Romance scholars now (114-20), and Solodow's presentation of the Riojan Glosses is outdated to the point of being misleading (312). Romance is seen as being essentially a single phenomenon up until the period when texts were deliberately being written in separate ways in different places, a position preferable to the reconstructionist perspective that treats them as having been separate from at least a thousand years earlier than that. Nevertheless, at times this collective view can lead to overgeneralization: the nature of Spanish word order is not really the same as that of French and Italian, for example, since in Spanish the subject has always been able to appear in any position relative to the verb and object (56-59).

The direct and detailed attention given to lexical change (new words) and semantic change (change of meaning in existing words) is refreshing and genuinely interesting, and no reader is likely to know already more than a proportion of the details recounted for us here. Well-known developments such as the relative fate of equus, equa and caballus are explained well (169). English Gallicisms are illuminated as much as Latinisms: Frankish bann, for example, is shown to be eventually the source of all of English ban, banish, bandit, banner, banal and abandon (190); Spanish Arabisms similarly, as azar ("chance") and azahar ("orange blossom") are shown to be not only the same word as each other but also related to English hazard (192). Solodow is also good at combining lexical and morphological perspectives; it is even a "piquant irony" that in the development of bonum and meliorem to (e.g.) Spanish bueno and mejor the -or affix is morphologically regular in the Latin but irregular in the Spanish, despite the regularity of the phonetic changes. (242). Solodow seems pleasantly easy to pique. I much enjoyed the name-check for Rufus T. Firefly, for example (25).

Inevitably, there are a few errors. Fifteenth-century Spanish did not yet include the [x] (the modern jota sound), for example (194), and Mozambique is situated on the other side of Africa (54). It is not true that "no trace of the final -m so common in Latin is to be found" (215), since it tends to survive (as [-n]) in monosyllables. Nor is it the case that Spanish ciudad is pronounced "/thyudad/ in Córdoba, Spain" (222), even given the confusingly unattractive phonetic notation used, since Córdoba, Spain, is a heartland of seseo (that is, lacking the [θ]). The discussion of the early Romance texts from Northern France (the Strasbourg Oaths and the Eulalie sequence) is excellent, and the section on Italy unexpectedly varied in its material; the Poema de Mio Cid is given the date now thought most probable (c.1200), fortunately; but there are a few misunderstandings in the explanations. For example, the symbol ç did not represent [s] in the Poema de Mio Cid, but [ts] (327). That error is immediately compounded by the idea that here the letter z represented [ts] (in fact it represented [dz]). Then we are told that the presence of initial letter f- in this poem shows that the words concerned were not yet pronounced with [h-], which is not the case; as Solodow said before, "one fascinating feature in early Romance texts is experimentation with the alphabet, attempts to fit the familiar letters to novel sounds" (78; rephrased later, 265); here they are experimenting with adapting existing letters to new sounds, and f- for [h-] was one expedient commonly adopted at the time (c.1200).

It is intriguing to see the suggestion that Visigothic Spain was a time of assimilation and tolerance (41); maybe it was, but that is not the picture usually given. Similarly, the reference to "... the Romans, who for the past two centuries have been the victims of prejudice and bad press" (182) is refreshing, but probably exaggerated; yes, Michael Richter and Tore Janson, inter alios, have recently expressed their distaste for the Romans, but the press still tends to be good. And their language is well served by this presentation. We can all read it with pleasure.

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