Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.05.15

Thorsten Fögen, Patrii sermonis egestas. Einstellungen lateinischer Autoren zu ihrer Muttersprache (Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Band 150).   München-Leipzig:  K.G. Saur Verlag, 2000.  Pp. 279.  ISBN 3-598-77699-3.  DM 158.00.  

Reviewed by Jan den Boeft, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Nederland (
Word count: 1633 words

'Quanta uerborum nobis paupertas, immo egestas sit, numquam magis quam hodierno die intellexi': this awful experience happened to Seneca during a discussion of Platonic philosophy (ep. 58.1). Quintilian was convinced that Greek surpassed Latin in euphony: 'sermo Graecus Latino iucundior' (inst. or. 12.10.33), and Aulus Gellius found out that Latin translations of Greek comedies, which at first made a pleasant impression, proved to be disappointing, when one compared them to the Greek originals: 'iacere atque sordere incipiunt, quae Latina sunt' (2.23.3). These are three among many examples of a stereotyped feeling of Roman men of letters. They obviously regarded the Latin language as lagging behind the Greek one. Modern linguists will have nothing to do with any order of merit for languages. In their view no language is superior or preferable to another. "No language, by virtue of its inherent structure, bestows any general cognitive advantage on its speakers", the author quotes approvingly from Gillian Sankoff (19). Yet the non-linguist, provided (s)he knows other languages, at times cannot help feeling that a certain emotion or technicality can be more easily or artistically expressed in one of these other languages. That is precisely the common element in much of the evidence which can be gathered from a number of Latin authors, who in various contexts brought up the 'patrii sermonis egestas', the title and indeed the subject of the book under review.

Of course, the authors in question were no linguistic experts, not at least in the modern sense of the term, but they did possess a definite "Sprachbewusstsein" (linguistic awareness), which inspired a variety of "metasprachliche Aeusserungen". The author (henceforth F.) assigns such testimonies to four domains: 1. Pedagogical objectives: pupils should be taught the 'sermo urbanus' as the prestigious idiom. 2. Aesthetic standards. 3. Typical writers' viewpoints: reflections are determined by the rules of literary creation. 4. Relation to other languages, in practice hardly any other than Greek. These domains often overlap one another, but as such the classification is a clear indication of the research undertaken by F.: his study is essentially a specimen of sociolinguistics, with important contributions from the history of culture and mentality.

All this is explained in the introductory chapter (11-26). Ch. 2 (29-60) deals primarily with the status of the "Muttersprache" in relation to other languages, when it is being used within specific surroundings. In such a situation its most relevant aspect is identification, both internal (a person's own conviction) and external (the judgment of others). Curiously, whereas most European languages have the term 'mother tongue', the correct Roman equivalent is 'patrius sermo', but, as F. notes, this "kann angesichts der patriarchalischen Sozialstruktur der roemischen Gesellschaft nicht weiter verwundern" (56). Even more curious is the fact that in this case Greek had to settle for a 'calque': 'phone patroia', found for the first time in Hippolytus (59). The next four chapters, which are the core of the book, deal with the views of four authors: Lucretius, Cicero, Quintilian and Gellius. At the end of his introduction, F. had explained his selection: the writings of the four authors selected offer the clearest reflections on their native tongue, especially regarding its "Konkurrenzfaehigkeit mit der Sprache des grossen Nachbarn" and its "innereinzelsprachlichen Varietaeten". One wonders whether Seneca jr. should not have been allotted a chapter, but apart from this the choice of the four authors mentioned is undeniably correct. As could be expected, in his elucidation of their views on the subject, F. covers ground which has been trodden before. However, both his sociolinguistic viewpoints and the fact that much invaluable material is now conveniently brought together in interesting and enlightening surveys add to the value of his work.

Lucretius is treated in a brief chapter (61-76). F. justly draws attention to the fact that the poet presents the 'patrii sermonis egestas' not as bad luck one has to put up with, but rather as a challenge to be met. The stereotype is introduced "um die eigene Leistung umso deutlicher hervorzuheben". Indeed, as A. Dalzell has shown, Lucretius masterly avoided all excessive using of loanwords and calques, and exploited the potentials of the Latin language. Small wonder for a man who regarded the Latin poet Ennius as his model.

By far the longest chapter (77-141) is devoted to Cicero, with the famous passage at the beginning of De finibus (1.1-10) as point of departure. Near the end of this passage Cicero firmly challenges the stereotype: 'saepe disserui Latinam linguam non modo non inopem, ut uulgo putarent, sed locupletiorem etiam esse quam Graecam" (10). This is not empty defiance but the conviction that "Sprachausbau" is a serious possibility (91). One of the methods Cicero used and advocated to make up a particular deficit was the metaphor. This is a fascinating anticipation of modern linguistic insight and a worthy testimony to his ability in shaping language. His guiding principles were 'consuetudo' and 'aptum'. In view of the former he advocated a prudent caution concerning neologisms. The principle of 'aptum', which regulates the correct choice of style and register in a given situation, is especially relevant in view of the "Variabilitaet der Sprache"(119) and the need of "kommunikative Akzeptabilitaet" (121). A competent speaker should be able to use "different registers on different occasions" and to switch codes. For instance, in 'official' writings Cicero avoided Graecisms, but in his letters there was no need to steer such a puristic course.

F.'s analysis of Cicero's ideas on language and his "Sprachnormkriterien" is illuminating in that he consistently refrains from measuring the great Roman orator's performance with the standards of modern linguistics. For Cicero questions of language were always tied up with other questions, of a cultural, political or rhetorical nature. It would indeed be foolish to expect an "objektiv-distanzierte Sichtweise" (140) of him, but nobody will deny that he fully grasped the immense power inherent in speech, 'quae conciliatrix est humanae maxime societatis' (De legibus 1.27).

Quintilian and Gellius are dealt with in substantial chapters of some forty pages each. The rhetorician did not share Cicero's upgrading of the Latin language in comparison to Greek. On the contrary, throughout the 'Institutio oratoria' one descries a tendency to rate Greek as the better equipped of the two. But such a preference never runs wild. An illustration of Quintilian's elegant and professional prudence is his warning not to overdo the habit--which he approved of--of beginning the language teaching of young children with Greek: the experienced teacher knew the risks of 'interference'. Generally speaking, he agrees with Cicero's "Prinzip der kommunikativen Adaequatheit"(159), but he shows less restraint concerning "Wortschatzerweiterung durch Neologismen" (163). One of the most interesting sections of Quintilian's educational programme was the translation exercise: 'uertere Graeca in Latinum ueteres nostri oratores optimum iudicabant' (10.5.2). This does not necessarily imply a depreciation of Latin, since it is part of a larger strategy of contriving a personal 'version' of an original text, e.g. reproducing a poem in prose.

Language is evidently a significant item on the list of Aulus Gellius' multifarious interests. Moreover, both the cultural climate of his day and his own philhellenism made him reflect on the distinguishing features of Greek and Latin. In this comparison Latin came off as the weaker of the two. Such a view also tallied with the usual assessment made by Greek intellectuals. In a fascinating scene in 'Noctes Atticae' 19.9 a Roman orator defends his native language and literature against disparaging remarks by some haughty Greeks. The scene may be fictional, yet such a Greek attitude is plausible. F. refers to a thorough study by B. Rochette (Brussels 1977), in which it is shown that, generally speaking, Latin language and literature were poorly thought of in the Greek world. There is one notable exception: Plutarch, who felt much attracted to the language of the Romans and regretted his lack of 'schole' to improve his understanding of it ('Life of Demosthenes' 2.2-4). Summing up Gellius' own views, F. notes that he was clearly less optimistic about the "morphologisch-lexikalische Produktivitaet des Lateinischen" than Cicero and Quintilian had been. To put it in Roman terms, he endorses the formula which is the title of F.'s book, but without any disdain. "Seiner Muttersprache gegenueber empfindet er...eine grosse Verbundenheit und Zuneigung"(220).

In a chapter of a mere seven pages (221-227) F. takes a brief look at a handful of testimonies of some late antique authors: Augustine, Jerome, Boethius. One cannot avoid the impression that he wanted only to demonstrate his being aware of the continuing significance of the subject at the time when a large number of Greek philosophical and theological writings were rendered into Latin. However, F.'s remarks are sketchy and the pages allotted to them would have been more profitably added to those containing the overall summary (228-231), which is rather brief. Refraining from all sociolinguistic terminology, F. rightly highlights two clear facts emerging from the evidence: 1. The ongoing sense of inferiority experienced by Roman men of letters when they compared their own language to Greek; 2. The one-sided emphasis on the lexical aspects; Roman authors obviously were far more occupied with individual words than with sentence structures. One would have appreciated the author's enlarging on this subject, but, admittedly, it does not strictly belong to the specifically sociolinguistic framework chosen by F.

Fögen offers his readers an attractive and worthwhile survey of the various ways in which the stereotype of an at least partly deficient mother tongue keeps cropping up in the writings of four Roman authors with a more than average interest in problems of language. The survey is made more useful by the prudent handling of modern sociolinguistic concepts and it comprises a wealth of primary material and numerous references to scholarly literature. The book is well produced; the functional layout of the pages is convenient and deserves appreciation.

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