Well, well. Susan Jacoby, who wrote a book on the pride many Americans (let me assure you, many Germans do so, too. I can provide several really hilarious links if you’d like some) take in being and staying ignorant (although she kinda does not listen to her own advice). Interestingly, some posts lately on the Log talked about an amazingly brazen book on linguistics. The book’s called The Secret History of the English Language and its claims are preposterous, no, beyond preposterous, and they seem to be based on that little helper of American (hell, german, too) ignorance: so-called common sense. Sketching briefly (anything in a 199 page language HISTORY will, of necessity, be brief) the accepted history of the English language, apparently he then dismisses it as implausible and proceeds to claim that in fact, English developed into French, which developed into Provençal, which developed into Italian. And then the log quoted a bit of the most outrageous claim of them all: that Italian merchants then invented Latin.
Fortunately, there’s a much more reasonable explanation that meets all the facts: Latin is not a natural language. When written, Latin takes up approximately half the space of written Italian or written French (or written English, German, or any natural European language). Since Latin appears to have come into existence in the first half of the first millennium BC, which was the time when alphabets were first spreading through the Mediterranean basin, it seems a reasonable working hypothesis to assume that Latin was originally a shorthand compiled by Italian speakers for the purposes of written (confidential? commercial?) communication.
That’s very funny, but the book and its predecessor have been praised (see the first of the two log links above). Apparently making a bold claim in an “age of unreason”, based on so-called common sense, is enough to sway a significant portion of the public. If you are now sulky, here’s something funny to lighten your mood: Marc Liberman at the Log had this hypothesis to share:
My own hypothesis is that the whole thing was written over a drunken weekend, to win a bar bet:
Harper: It’s unbelievable, my friend. No one knows anything anymore. Not anything worth knowing.
Drinking buddy: Oh come now. The general level of education has never been higher.
Harper: Not among the so-called intellectual classes, the idiots that publish and
review and buy books. Why, I bet I could write a little tract arguing that French is historically derived from English, and not only get it published, but sell ten times more copies than your last laboriously-researched academic tome.
DB: French derived from English? You’re not serious. You might as well argue that Latin was derived from Italian. Everyone knows that’s impossible.
Harper: You don’t understand — no one knows anything, not anything that’ll stand up to an authoritative poke in an anti-authoritarian voice. Hell, give me a typical modern humanist, and I can make her believe that Latin was invented by Italian speakers as a form of commercial shorthand. Or at least make her accept the idea as an interesting hypothesis.
DB: Latin a shorthand form of Italian? A hundred pounds says no reputable publisher will put it out, unless you frame it as a burlesque.
Harper: Oh, it’ll be serious, believe me. You’re on for that hundred quid. And how about a side bet on how many copies I sell?