BMCR 2010.10.04

Latein: Geschichte einer Weltsprache

, Latein: Geschichte einer Weltsprache. München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2009. ix, 339. ISBN 9783406568985. €24.90.

The danger besetting a tome like Jürgen Leonhardt’s Latein: Geschichte einer Weltsprache, which endeavors to delineate the history or an aspect of the history of the Latin language from its origins to the 21st century in roughly 300 pages, is that it will devolve into a series of broad generalizations and summaries without presenting a detailed portrait of any given epoch of the language’s development. Leonhardt, however, manages skillfully to avoid this pitfall by focusing on the development and significance of Latin almost exclusively in its capacity and significance as a Weltsprache. Furthermore, his delineation and discussion of the phenomenon of the Weltsprache is exhaustive and nuanced and would be of interest to anyone studying the concept of an international language: by juxtaposing several different languages that have functioned as Weltsprachen (e.g., Arabic, English, and Spanish), and analyzing them not only synchronically but also diachronically, Leonhardt not only explicates Latin’s quiddities as a Weltsprache but also the general characteristics of languages that have acquired international significance throughout history. His approach complements well that taken by Farrell in his influential study of the cultural significance of the Latin language (see below): whereas Farrell defines Latinity more from a literary critical and theoretical perspective, Leonhardt utilizes a more historically based methodology that shows interest in the cultural and political use of Latin.

In Chapter 1 Leonhardt discusses why a study not of Latin but of the status of Latin is particularly relevant to modern times, paying particular attention to globalization and the status of English as a world language. He divides the historical culture-languages of the world into three categories: lost, dead, and fixed. He places Latin into the category of fixed languages: it is not a lost language because it is still used as a means of communication, and it is not a dead language because, while its essential elements are fixed, there is still room for change and modification. This insistence that Latin is not simply a “dead” language is redolent of Joseph Farrell’s position in Latin Language and Culture 1 but, whereas Farrell is more interested in the implications and limitations of the metaphor of death for the Latin language, and in suggesting alternative metaphors, Leonhardt chooses to redefine with greater specificity the current status of Latin as a language that has the potential for further modification.

He then makes an extended comparison of Latin to a variety of other languages (pages 18-45), e.g. Sumerian, Greek, and Arabic, whose development and status show important similarities to Latin. Throughout these pages he highlights the phenomenon of a written language coexisting with different spoken language, and considers for each the interplay between the written and spoken modes of language. He concludes that Sanskrit in particular shows the closest parallels to the development and history of Latin because both are fixed languages that have undergone a transformation from spoken to culture-languages.

Chapter 2 traces the development of Latin from its origins to the end of the late antique period. Leonhardt begins by discussing the context of the emergence of Latin in relation to other Italian languages such as Etruscan and Oscan. Leonhardt distinguishes three levels of speech organization during the period that Rome first began its expansion into the rest of Italy: the first level was die natürliche Sprache der jeweiligen Bevölkerung, ‘the natural language of the existing population’, which, since the Romans did not force the peoples they conquered to use Latin exclusively, would in districts of Italy outside of Rome comprise languages such as Oscan; the second level was die Ebene der militärischen Kontrolle und der Administration, ‘the level of military control and of administration’, which was exclusively Latin; the third level was die Sprache der Literatur, which Leonhardt uses as a segue to his discussion of the factors that influenced the development of Latin as a literary language.

Leonhardt next proceeds to discuss the relationship between the literary Latin preserved in the classical canon and the Latin actually spoken at that time, arguing that from the time the language became fixed a gap began to grow between the vernacular and the literary according to the model of Distanzsprache and Nähesprache (languages of distance and proximity) formulated by Koch and Österreicher.2 Leonhardt concludes that, although historical factors may have played a role in the fixation of the language, the primary factor leading to its fixation during the first century B.C. was the self-conscious endeavor by figures such as Cicero, Vergil, and Horace to establish a literary canon that would rival that of the Greeks, for which a language that had been fixed and concretized was a necessity.

With regard to the relationship between Latin and Greek from the 1st to the 3rd century A.D., Leonhardt concludes that Latin, although it maintained its position as the language of the military and administration, never superseded Greek in spite of the efforts of Cicero and Vergil as die umfassende Weltsprache des römischen Reiches, ‘the inclusive world-language of the Roman empire’, in the realm of literature.

He then considers the late antique period with the beginning of Diocletian’s rule in A.D. 284. He asserts that during this period one can see the development within Roman society of a sort of nostalgic glorification of Rome’s past glory and greatness, especially as concerns the Latin language and literature. He also describes the impact of the decentralization of the Latin language and culture during this period and its significance for the development of Latin as a Weltsprache, citing English and Spanish as analogues.

In chapter 3 Leonhardt turns to the status of Latin in the Middle Ages and (not surprisingly) emphasizes the importance of Charlemagne’s education reform, which he notes was fundamental to Latin remaining a world language for the next millennium. He argues that the establishment of Latin as an international language of communication was necessary for the developments within the Romance languages at this time, for, if Charlemagne had decided to make one of the proto-Romance languages the written language of his empire, it would quickly have become codified and ceased to develop (134.) Leonhardt explores Charlemagne’s various cultural and political motivations behind choosing Latin as the written language of his empire, and provides a brief history of the transmission of the Latin language and culture after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, concluding that the associations between Latin and Italy had largely dissolved long before Charlemagne’s time and that Latin thus provided a means of international communication that was distinct from any particular cultural or national associations.

Leonhardt then provides a detailed delineation of the renaissance of Latin as a spoken and written language beginning in the 8th century. In particular he discusses the symbiotic relationship he believes existed between Latin and the popular languages and literatures, highlighting the fact that the Middle Ages focused more on authors of the late Antique than the traditional canonical authors. This is in contrast to the Renaissance and its reorientation towards the traditional canonical authors of the classical period.

He asserts (201) that we need to understand neo-Latin literary history not as the collective literary history of Europe at the time but rather to examine the development of Latin literature on a national basis, which he proceeds to do for each of the major national powers of Europe at the outset of the Renaissance beginning with Italy. Leonhardt sees classical models, which became less important in the rest of Europe after the Carolingian Renaissance, as always being influential in Italy, even before Petrarch. He argues that the self-awareness of a diglossia-situation that Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia represents was unique to Italy.

Leonhardt also sees the development of Latin literature in the rest of Europe as being distinct from that in Italy in that the popular languages became important written languages there earlier than Italian did in Italy (202). He does not, however, claim that the production of Latin literature in these countries was diminished or displaced; rather, he sees both as experiencing parallel developments. This continues into a discussion of the development of neo-Latin literature, which co-existed with a spoken Latin still used by people during this time, even for quotidian dealings and conversations. A new development during this period was the humanistic endeavor to regularize colloquial Latin according to classical Latin texts such as the plays of Plautus and Terence.

Leonhardt then discusses the influence of humanism upon the development of Latin. He sees Norden’s thesis that the humanists demand that Latin should conform to the dead standard of classical Latin texts led to its death as being wrong in a sense but true in essence. Leonhardt agrees with Stroh3 that the orientation of Latin towards a classical norm did not create the problem per se. Rather, the emergence of the popular languages as important written languages during this time created an unbearable strain on the educational system: one could not learn both Latin according to the rigorous expectations of the humanists and concomitantly whatever popular language was being spoken.

Chapter 4 begins by stating that by the year 1800 Latin was no longer a language used for communication. Leonhardt discusses the movement from Kommunikationssprache to Bildungssprache primarily as it occurred in Germany, where he argues that the German New Humanist movement played a central role. He discusses the implications of this movement from several perspectives and argues that the three main reasons why Latin maintained a central place in education in spite of its practical uselessness were the obsession with antiquity characteristic of the new humanistic Zeitgeist, the universal esteem granted to the writings of classical authors as the models par excellence for education in eloquence and writing, and the general belief that such language education, though it was in essence purposeless, still had its uses (261-262).

Leonhardt next discusses the challenges Latin faced in the 20th century academy. During this period Latin suffered attacks from several different camps with the result that it finally became a marginal subject of study (274-276). In the 1970’s the study of Latin once again saw a marginal upturn with a re-orientation not towards its value for language education, but rather towards its significance for interpreting Western culture and at the same time providing an education in grammar.

Chapter 5 is a discussion of the current status of Latin and its future. Leonhardt argues that from a global perspective, humanistic education is in danger of extinction, and that Latin as a language currently faces the prospect of being forgotten by society.

He concludes by arguing that Latin and the other historical languages will only continue to be generally relevant if they once again become fully realized and spoken languages at least among a small group of scholars [289]. This would require mastery of the classical corpus and the ability actually to speak Latin. He describes the current general interest in reconstructions of history and culture and cites them as a hopeful indicator that Latin as a living language may yet be revitalized. This conclusion differs from that of Waquet, who argues that the primary objective of Latin teaching should be providing the means to read Latin fluently.4

In conclusion, this work is a must-read for anyone interested either in the status of Latin or in what Latinity has signified throughout any previous epoch of its existence. We found the concept of a revitalization of Latin as a spoken language (albeit by a small group of humanists) explored in chapter 5 somewhat unlikely (even if it is desirable). The future of the study of Latin (and Classics in general) seems rather to lie in the fact that the classics are an integral part of the hermeneutic apparatus necessary for the understanding of western culture (Leonhardt himself states on pp. 291-92 that he considers this to be an integral element of the future of Latin). This is true not only of Western history and literature, but we would hasten to add, of contemporary literary theory as well (perhaps itself now a form of academic Weltsprache)?5


1. Joseph Farrell, Latin Language and Latin Culture : From Ancient to Modern Times. Roman Literature and Its Contexts. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press (2001). For Farrell’s discussion of Latin as a “dead” language, see chapters 3 and 4 in particular.

2. Peter Koch, and Wulf Österreicher, Sprache der Nähe – Sprache der Distanz. Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit im Spannungsfeld von Sprachtheorie und Sprachgeschichte. Romanistisches Jahrbuch 36, (1985), 15-43.

3. Wilfried Stroh, Latein ist tot, es lebe Latein. Kleine Geschichte einer großen Sprache. Berlin (2007), 309.

4.Waquet, Françoise. Latin, or, the Empire of the Sign: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. London and New York: Verso (2001), 274.

5. Cf. Paul Allen Miller, Postmodern Spiritual Practices: The Construction of the Subject and the Reception of Plato in Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press (2007); Miriam Leonard, Athens in Paris: Ancient Greece and the Political in Post-War French Thought. Classical Presences series, edited by Lorna Hardwick & James I. Porter. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2005).