Reviving Latin–Not Just For English-Speakers

Posted on December 27th, 2007 by

From the Bryn Mawr Classical Review:

Wilfried Stroh, Latein ist tot, lang lebe Latein. Kleine Geschichte einer grossen Sprache. Berlin: List, 2007. Pp. 415.

To release one’s book with a major non-academic publishing house and reach the best seller list (?) may sound like a classicist’s wildest dream, but ‘Latein ist tot, es lebe Latein’ (Latin is dead, long live Latin) shows that this dream can indeed come true. Under this somewhat cumbersome title lies hidden one of the most entertaining and illustrative, and at the same time comprehensive, histories of the Latin language from the time of antiquity until today. The author has gained cult status among German academics, as he fights for the active use of the Latin language and, whenever the situation is suitable, appears regularly dressed up in public in the typical Roman dress of toga and sandals. Yet, Wilfried Stroh, also known in latinized form as Valahfridus, emeritus Professor of the University of Munich, is without doubt one of the Germany’s most respected classicists. And he is, thanks to his public speeches and his active commitment, certainly well known across the limited scope of the academic community. For that reason one is not surprised that Stroh has published his book with List, the renowned publishing house that after more than 50 years in its Munich exile has moved back to its Berlin roots in 2004. This choice of publisher (or should we rather say, the publisher’s choice of author) guarantees at least in Germany a general readership that probably no other book on Latin language has gained in recent years.

And the reader gets much more than just another literary history of Rome. In Germany this topic has been covered successfully and elaborately in the 1990s by Michael von Albrecht (1992) and Manfred Fuhrmann (1999), Stroh’s book does much more than that. What starts out as an overview of the literature of the classical period evolves itself as a history of European higher education and science, and along the way the reader learns a lot about the silent mechanisms that interlink language, literature and the course of historical events. Furthermore, Stroh’s book is simply a good read, always entertaining and vivid, sometimes gripping and novel, even for specialists.

Stroh’s core thesis is in the chapter entitled Mors immortalis: Only by the ‘death’ of Latin as a language was there the chance of a new beginning, a rebirth in form of the Christian authors of late antiquity and later as the second language under Charlemagne in the Middle Ages, a position the Latin language held unchallenged until the eighteenth century.


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