Latin Is More Than Roman

I've rambled before about how silly and counterproductive it is that we act these days as if Latin were only or primarily the language of the Ancient Romans. As if it were not also the language of Newton, Galileo, Gauss, Milton, Du Bellay, Thomas More or Caecilia Koch. It's a bit like acting as if English were only the language of the former British Empire, and not also the language of Weina Dai Randel or Joseph Conrad, (or for that matter the language of air-traffic controllers, diplomats, medical researchers and programmers in every country on this little blue marble of ours.) A language is not necessarily any less yours simply because you happen not to be a native speaker of it.

Incidentally, Caecilia Koch — the last name on that list of Latin authors I gave above — is still alive. Writing poems about things like the discovery of a Neanderthal skull or the American invasion of Iraq. (Her Latin pet name for George W. Bush, by the way, is Arbustulus "Little Bush".) Things like this are why I prefer to tell people that Latin isn't a dead language, so much as one that just happens to lack native speakers.

Which is really quite fitting in a way.

The earliest epics and plays in the Latin language to be preserved and transmitted were written by men who were very likely not native Latin speakers. A Greek from Tarentum named Ἀνδρόνικος became a Roman citizen by the name of Lucius Livius Andronicus, and sometime in the second half of the third century BC produced a wildly influential Latin translation of the Odyssey, as well as a considerable number of Latin adaptations of Greek plays. Toward the end of the century a Capanian Oscan-speaker named Gaeus Naevius created his own share of Latin adaptations of Greek plays alongside the Bellum Punicum, an epic about the first war between Rome and Carthage. Thirty years later, some time around 180 B.C. a native Messapian-speaker from the south named Ennius adapted Greek Homeric hexameters to Latin in his Annales, a huge poem which described the history of Rome all the way from the fall of Troy down to his own day. In addition to Latin and Messapian, Ennius also apparently knew Oscan and Greek (both of which he likely learned earlier than he did Latin.)

In a profound way, Latin — even that proportionally miniscule part of Latin literature that can be called Roman — is foreign to itself.

Lots of literatures' earliest recorded specimens consist primarily of translations or adaptations, of course. And the Romans were not alone in creating translations of Greek drama (the Carthagninians apparently translated some of the same plays into Punic), but I know of no real parallel to the Roman situation, where the beginning of a language's recorded literary repertoire is populated so thoroughly by non-native speakers using the language electively. Is there one?

Not unless it's a language like Early Modern Hebrew (where for a while native speakers were rare and non-natives were the ones setting the prestige norms) or Esperanto (where that is still the case).

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