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The Blackwell History of the Latin Language

Praise for The Blackwell History of the Latin Language

“The stated goal of this welcome new survey is to overcome some of the shortcomings of L. R. Palmer’s classic handbook The Latin Language, unrevised since its publication in 1954. The goal is worthy, and the execution is in many ways a success.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“Clackson and Horrocks have produced a wide-ranging, theoretically sophisticated, and still thoroughly manageable book that will not easily be superseded.”

New England Classical Journal

“James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks have succeeded admirably in their aim, presenting a mass of data within persuasive narrative.”

Times Literary Supplement

“The hefty Blackwell History of the Latin Language [focuses] on the evolution of the sounds, vocabulary, word and sentence structure over the centuries.”

Chicago Tribune

“[The authors] set the tone with an honesty that is appreciated … Marvelous treatment of understudied languages … Carefully, admirably, proofread … Recommended.”


“This book is the best single volume work on the Latin language. A comprehensive survey of the major topics in Latin linguistics, it is valuable not only to specialists in that field but also to Latin literary scholars, and to students of Indo-European and Romance historical linguistics generally.”

Philip Burton, University of Birmingham

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The impetus to write this book came after teaching various joint courses on Latin historical linguistics to undergraduates reading Classics at Cambridge over the past ten years. Although we consistently recommended L. R. Palmer’s The Latin Language to students as a readable account of the history of the language, we became increasingly aware of some of the shortcomings that have become apparent in the 50 years since Palmer’s book was written. In particular, there have been considerable advances in linguistic theory and method, as well as important discoveries of texts in Latin (and in the other languages spoken in pre-Roman Italy), and a better understanding of the Indo-European background to the language. Furthermore, Palmer has comparatively little to say about the processes by which Latin became standardized, nor did he have the advantage of modern sociolinguistic theory to help explain the interactions between the spoken language and the Classical standard. Accordingly, we set out to write a new history of Latin that overcame some of the shortcomings we saw in Palmer. We decided to model the structure of the work on Geoff Horrocks’s book Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers, including detailed discussion of a number of texts from all periods with glossing for each word. In this way we hope that the book will be accessible to those who have little or no Latin, but are interested in linguistics or language history, as well as to classics undergraduates, graduates and professional Latinists. In order to appeal to this large and diverse constituency we have included expositions of some topics which may be familiar to some readers, such as the comparative method in historical

linguistics, but we hope that all readers will find something new. We have included a glossary of some linguistic terms for Latinists who are new to the subject; these readers may also find an introductory volume to historical linguistics helpful, such as Herbert Schendl Historical Linguistics (Oxford, 2001) or Mark Hale Historical Linguistics: Theory and Method (Oxford, 2007).

There are other changes of emphasis from Palmer’s work. On the whole our focus has been on Latin as a language, and its relationship to the history of Rome and Roman imperialism. We have in consequence concentrated more on linguistic than stylistic issues, and we have been less concerned to describe the particular idioms and vocabulary choices of Roman literary figures, except in so far as they have proved important for the subsequent development of Latin. Accordingly, the reader should not expect to find here very much in the way of appreciations of the music of Vergilian verse or descriptions of the metrical patterns found at the end of periodic sentences (clausulae) in Classical prose, though the latter are very briefly considered in chapter VI. We have not presented a systematic overview of the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the language, concentrating instead on specifics where these are relevant to the history of linguistic innovations and replacements. The necessary basic information can be easily found in standard grammars and handbooks. Finally, we devote proportionately much less space to the development of the Latin vocabulary than Palmer, who was writing before the publication of the Oxford Latin Dictionary and when the ongoing Thesaurus Linguae Latinae was still in its infancy. These works now allow the reader to trace word histories in a much more systematic way than was possible when The Latin Language came out, and we have preferred to restrict the space given to lexical discussions in order to allow a corresponding increase in the exposition of syntactic changes.

We hope that readers will benefit from being able to appreciate the history of Latin in its entirety, from the pre-historic origins to the end of its existence as a language with native speakers. But we are aware that people have many different needs from a book such as this, and some may prefer to read a chapter at a time. In view of this, we have decided to present specific bibliographies for each chapter. We have also appended a further bibliography of standard and useful reference works at the end of the volume.

Of the eight chapters of this book, we each took individual responsibility for four: James Clackson wrote the outer chapters, I, II, VII and VIII and Geoff Horrocks wrote the inner core: chapters III, IV, V and VI. All translations of Latin texts cited are our own. We each read, commented on and discussed the other’s work in draft. We have also benefited from the input of successive groups of students taking the ‘E3’ course at the Classics Faculty who were unwitting guinea pigs as readers of many of the Latin texts that appear in this book. We are particularly grateful to Jim Adams, for allowing us to use material from his forthcoming book Regional Diversity in Latin, and to Michael Crawford, for giving us access to his new reading of CIL I2 5. An anonymous and well-informed reader for Blackwell’s saved us from innumerable errors and made many welcome and constructive suggestions for improvement. The usual disclaimers apply, of course. And finally we wish to thank Anna Oxbury for copyediting our manuscript so expertly and professionally, and for devising a range of excellent solutions to rather complex problems of layout and presentation.

We dedicate our book to Gill Horrocks and Véronique Mottier.

Note on marking of Latin Long Vowels:

It has been our general practice only to mark in long vowels in Latin orthography when they are directly relevant to the discussion at hand. Hence we normally write, for example, occido ‘I kill’, except when explaining the changes to Latin diphthongs in non-initial syllables, when we write occd.