The Latin Tongue
THE fate of the Latin Tongue may be divided into six Ages. The Barbarous and Uncultivated Age; the Middle Age; the Golden, the Silver, the Brass, and the Iron Ages.
The Barbarous Age lasted from four to five hundred years; from Romulus, in whose reign more Greek than Latin was spoken, till Livius Andronicus, the first who caused plays to be acted at Rome.
The Middle Age extends itself from Andronicus till the days of Cicero. During this interval of time many authors began to write the Latin language. The most distinguished are, Ennius, Nævius, Plautus, Terence, and Lucretius. The poem of the last writer does so much honour to this age, that, we must candidly acknowledge, it would not be unworthy even of the Golden Age of pure Latinity; were it somewhat less obscure.
The Golden Age of the Latin language began in the time of Cicero, and finished with the reign of Augustus; so that, without a metaphor, it is but an Age. Then flourished Varro, Cicero, Julius Cæsar, Cornelius Nepos, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Severus Albinovanus, Sallust, and others; a part of whose works have happily escaped the ravages of Time.
The Silver Age, which commences at the death of Augustus, and terminates with Antonine the Pious, was very fruitful in excellent compositions ; but its language began to lose somewhat of its richness and its purity, in spite of the indefatigable Quintilian, who vainly attempted to revive the Golden Age. Seneca, whose style is one continued affectation, who is forever on the stretch to catch points, antithesis, and other trivial sports of the mind, enervates manly sentiment, and shocks a correct taste. It was him who corrupted the Latin language.
The Age of Brass commences from the reign of Antoninus, and reaches till Honorius, under whose reign the invasions of the Barbarians took place. Besides profane authors, who abound in this age, it produced Tertullian, Arnobius, Lactantius, Cyprian, Saint Hilary, Prudentius, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustin, Damases, and Sulpicius Severus.
The irruptions of the Barbarians occasioned an Age of Iron to the Latin language. Who has not heard declamations against the Goths and Vandals? This dreadful epoch lasted from six to seven ages. During this time some authors, however, arose, who have done honour to the Latin tongue; but, it must be recollected, that the ignorance of these times was so deplorable, that our great Alfred complains, that in England it was difficult to find a priest who could read: and the Historian of Universal History must record, that the knowledge of the Ecclesiastics consisted only in some very barbarous Latin.
Several learned men, says Charpentier, have written, that the pronunciation of the Latin is very different to what it was anciently. That the Romans distinguished the short i from the long i; that they pronounced the c in the word dicit, as in dico; that in artium they articulated the t as in arti; and that the u had the sound of w. According to this mode of pronunciation, these lines of Latin—
Utinam Ciceronem audivissemus, Romani, ut prononciaremus voces vestras ut decet,
Should be read thus—
Whotinam Kikeronem audiwissemoos Romani; oot prononkiaremoos vokes westras oot deket.
All this may be the effect of a learned fancy. It is, however, certain that every nation pronounce the Latin differently, and give it the accent of their maternal tongue. The Bavarians say poter, for pater; the Polands pronounce quamfam, for quamquam; agfa, for aqua. And the French smile at us, because we pronounce canis according to our national accent. We may take our revenge; for they pronounce it according to their own.
Aldus Manutius composed the first Latin Grammar. It was printed at Paris in 1500. The Method of the Port Royal is the first which freed itself from the bondage of prescribing rules in Latin, to learn the Latin language.
The Latin language is ranked amongst those they call dead, because they are no more the languages the vulgar of any nation speak; and, being regulated by the ancient authors, custom can no more tyrannize over them. But it may be said, in a figurative sense, that they are living ones, by the constant use the Learned make of them; and it may not be improper to call them the Languages of the Land of Science.