Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.17

Eleanor Dickey, Latin Forms of Address from Plautus to Apuleius.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. viii, 414.  ISBN 0-19-924287-9.  £45.00.  

Reviewed by Philip Burton, University of Birmingham (
Word count: 2626 words

How would you address the Chancellor of the University of St Andrews? 'Chancellor', certainly -- but only if you were a member of that University, and on official business. 'Sir Kenneth' in other formal contexts, or if you weren't well acquainted. 'Kenneth' or perhaps 'Ken' if you were a friend or relative. One could imagine circumstances in which either 'Dover' or 'Sir' might be used, though these would differ between Britain and North America. 'Sir Dover' or 'Kenneth Dover' would be inadmissible everywhere, though only the former would be inappropriate in speaking about him. Clearly, one has a choice, but not an open choice. In such matters, the variables are complex and subtle. It would be a challenge for a teacher of English as a foreign language to formulate guidelines which would work in all cases. To attempt a formal description of the address system of a language without living native speakers may seem a hopeless task.

Readers of Eleanor Dickey's Greek Forms of Address (1996; hereafter GFOA) will know better. That volume was warmly greeted in this review and elsewhere. Since I will question some details of Dickey's account of Latin forms of address (LFOA), let me state at the outset that this also is an excellent book, lucid, well-informed, lively, and undogmatic; a fine demonstration of how linguistics and stylistics can interact, to the benefit of each.

The structure of the book follows quite closely that of GFOA. Dickey begins by discussing theoretical approaches to forms of address over the last forty years and claims (with some justification) that her GFOA is virtually the only other 'serious' work on this subject in ancient languages. Some technical concepts and terms are discussed. These includes the distinction between 'free' and 'bound' forms of address; the key role played by speaker/addressee relations and by formal context in determining which forms are used; the cross-currents of content of discourse and emotional involvement of speakers; and the fact that speakers of the same language may be employing different sociolects. A further key distinction is made between lexical and referential uses; the terms we use in addressing someone are not necessarily those we use in describing them to a third party. Dickey introduces the terms t-form and v-form (tu and vous; polite and formal respectively), and considers briefly the motivations of address change. The introduction is, in fact, a lightly-revised version of that found in GFOA, and presumably in a DPhil before that. It is interesting, but I am not sure it all belongs.

Dickey then sets out the scope of her research. This covers all major Latin literary texts down to the end of the second century A. D., plus a fair number of non-literary ones too; a very considerable body of material. The chronological cut-off point is defended on the grounds that the address system of later Latin merits a study of its own. This is a fair point; though her three main second-century authors, Gellius, Fronto, and Apuleius, are all notable archaizers, making the chronology of changes hard to trace. The authors cited are then assigned to one or more of the registers of 'low', 'middle', and 'high', plus a fourth category of 'various'.

Part One ('Addresses') begins with chapters on Names, Titles, and Kinship Terms. Names are by far the most common form of address in Dickey's corpus, but the tria nomina system of classical Latin (of which she gives a magisterial summary) allows for considerable variation in addressing the same man; moreover, it is increasingly displaced over time by addresses such as frater, domine, carissime, and so on. Building on the work of Adams (Classical Quarterly 28 [1978], 145-66), Dickey identifies a default pattern of naming consisting of multiple names at the first address, followed by a single name at subsequent addresses. Multiple names are, in general, a sign of formality. Where a single name is used, it is usually the cognomen. The gentilicium is particularly used in addressing lower-status characters and famous dead poets. Among relatives, the praenomen is commonest. Women acquire cognomina rather later than men; within the family, an informal system of nicknames (Maior, Minor, etc) is the norm. The chapter on Titles is mostly taken up with the use of domina/e, followed by a discussion of addresses for emperors and patrons; the term 'title' here seemed to me to call for some comment, as classical Latin has nothing like the modern European/North American title system. The literal use of Kinship Terms (e.g. pater to one's father) is treated briskly and efficiently, but more time is spent on the non-literal uses, in particular the tricky negotiations of pater and frater; Dickey demonstrates convincingly how they may be neutral, flattering, or offensively familiar, according to the context.

We then move on to discuss Terms of Endearment, Affection, and Esteem, Insults, and Other Addresses. In all three areas, Dickey comes up with some unexpected data, for which she offers subtle but plausible explanations. Take, for instance, the relationship of the positive degree of the adjective to the superlative in addresses (137). Paradoxically, in classical Latin it is the positive which is the stronger of the two. This, Dickey suggests, is the result of a cycle of erosion and accretion. Originally the superlative is stronger; then, as it becomes more common, its distinctive force is worn away, and positive comes to supplant it in more affective contexts. Superlatives even come to be used sarcastically. It is not always a compliment to call someone vir doctissime; if you want your addressee to know you are sincere, you should use two superlatives together. Dickey puts it all better, of course. At her best -- which is much of the time -- she is capable of sustained, precise analysis, dealing subtly with questions of date and genre of text, context, age, gender, and status of the speaker. My one recurrent query was the translation of blandus and its cognates, which occurs frequently in explicit statements by Latin authors about given addresses; the semantics seem to need some clarification. The section concludes with a useful discussion of mi and o in address.

Part Two of LFOA is devoted to 'Interactions'; here Dickey starts with the context, then asks which forms of address are used. The contexts discussed are Addresses to Strangers and Nameless Characters, between Relatives, between Spouses and Others with a Romantic Interest, to Groups, and to Non-Humans; the whole being followed by a Glossary of five hundred and five favourite forms of address. This section too contains many crisp observations, and it is not entirely a criticism to say that Dickey's research sometimes produces the sort of results one might expect anyway; she has already demonstrated how the address system frequently cheats our expectation. None the less, 'pauper "poor": 5. Term for those lacking in material prosperity' (349). The main text of the book concludes with Usage Tables aimed primarily at those 'wishing to employ classical address forms in their own spoken or written Latin'. Brava!

Bibliography and indices conclude. The bibliography is a wide-ranging and certainly I noted no major omission. Re the index rerum, perhaps OUP will one day insist that no heading in an index have more than half a dozen references without a sub-heading.

So, what do we make of it all? There is no doubt that this is a very good book. The BMCR reviewer of its predecessor praised the way in which Dickey's rigorous accumulation of data enabled her to see patterns and nuances in specific passages which might escape a specialist in those fields, and the same is true of this book also. I was particularly struck by her exposition of how the different characters in Cicero's de Re Publica select from among the 20-plus means of addressing Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus (58-9), and by her tough-minded refusal to take at face value Juvenal's complaint about women's use of Greek (159-162); but many more such examples could be given. No doubt many readers will come to this book as to a reference work; but like the best reference books, it will tempt them to read on.

Those who wish to take issue with Dickey on certain points will find grounds for doing so. I had some minor quibbles about the importance of metre, surely a factor in the predominance of scelerate over sceleste in poetry (169), and probably also of senior over senex (197).1 Sometimes the background and context of a given passage could be considered more fully. Take one example from the Aeneid: Dickey cites Aeneid 11. 243, 11. 459, and 12. 572 as an example of cives used to 'non-Romans' (287, 292). But the very repetition of cives should suggest that the Latins are destined to be members of the Roman civitas; should cives here not strike us as an anachronism?

These are qualifications; more rarely do I feel that Dickey is mistaken. In discussing the rise of domine as a standard form of address, Dickey suggests that the use is originally amatory, then becomes familial, and then generalized in address to strangers (85-6). Much of her evidence supports this, though she admits that amatory usage is poorly attested outside the stylized language of the elegists. Her earliest exhibit is Lucilius' fragment 730: cum mei me adeunt servuli, non dominam ego appellem meam? The interpretation of this passage is debated, as Dickey allows; the juxtaposition of adire and appellare suggests to me that they are being used synonymously: 'Seeing as my slave-boys come to me for help, should I not in turn appeal to my mistress?'2 This would make the usage referential, and quite probably jocular. The complete absence of domina as an address in love-poetry does deserve notice, but again metre could play a part; and since, as Dickey points out, domine/a is never a servile form of address, it would actually be inappropriate in the context of the servitium amoris.

Underlying Dickey's argument here is a belief that the vocative use of domine as a term of respect among free individuals develops independently of the Greek use of κύριε in similar contexts.3 Her belief in the basic independence of the Greek and Latin address systems is persuasively argued. Mulier, for instance, may be used to strangers by anyone, man or woman; but to known women only ever by men. This, she points out, is a contrast with Greek, where γύναι 'is a perfectly neutral address used by members of both sexes' (200). But it seems to me unlikely that the separation is quite as stark as she claims. So, for instance, she cites Plautus Menaechmi 1079 as evidence that adulescens is not necessarily used by an older speaker to a younger (195). Yet this use could easily be influenced by the Greek μειράκιον, which she herself has demonstrated is 'not infrequent' in Menander (GFOA 74).4 Or again, consider the reciprocal use of hospes between Evander and Aeneas in Aeneid Book 8 lines 188, 364, 532. This Dickey cites as being different from the use of ξένε, which 'is used by natives to foreign visitors but not vice versa' (149). But who, at Pallanteum, is the indigen and who is the incomer?5

The case for Greek influence seems to me particularly strong when she deals with the use of the positive degree of adjectives in forms of address (notably chapters 4 and 5). The association between poetry and positive forms is partly a function of metrical unwieldiness of many superlatives (as Dickey notes); but it also means they are linked with the higher registers of literary Latin, where they are liable to interpretation as Graecisms. This liability is all the stronger where many of the Latin words are complex adjectives, a formation particularly common in Greek poetry. In many cases we may suggest possible Greek models: for instance, improbe (172) alongside ἀναιδές;6 demens/amens alongide ἀνόητε; infide alongside ἄπιστε; ingrate alongside ἀχάριστε; iners/ignave alongside ἄεργε; oblite alongside ἀμνήμων; sacrilege alongside ἱερόσυλε; and so on. Our concept of 'influence' may need some sharpening up. Few would deny that nate dea is a calque of διογενές, and probably many would buy the suggestion that sata nocte is a calque of νυκτιγενές; except that νυκτιγενής is not attested in extant Greek. To my mind, there is still something Hellenic about sata nocte; but if we invoke the notion of 'influence', do we set our criteria of proof too high?

Dickey recognizes, of course, that literary Latin becomes increasingly stylized over time. But the process sets in early. When a slave in Horace's Satires 2. 3. 625 addresses his master as ere, Dickey believes this is more likely to be verisimilitudinous than archaic (80). I would suggest it is a tertium quid, that we might call stylized verisimilitude. Representations of servile speech in Latin literature are frequently cast in the language of comedy; we may compare the way Dickensian representations of non-standard speech pervade much nineteenth-century English literature. Moreover, it is well recognized that the passage in question echoes a passage of Terence's Eunuchus.7 Nor does literary stylization simply preserve obsolete locutions; they may actually become more common, as the original conditions for their use are gradually forgotten.

Here we come close to an important question not directly addressed in this book: that of the relationship between the spoken and written word. In GFOA, she excluded from her corpus all poetry, even if she still drew on it in places: the elevated diction, and the exigencies of metre, made it problematic as a source for 'ordinary colloquial speech' (Dickey 1996: 20, 39-40). In LFOA, poetry is included; after Cicero, Dickey's two most-cited authors are Ovid and Plautus. Dickey may have felt that Latin poetic texts were better sources for 'colloquial speech' than Greek ones, or simply that without poetry the Latin data would be too few or too heavily dominated by Cicero. But it seems that Dickey's object of enquiry has changed significantly. Her GFOA contained a chapter on 'Sociolinguistics and Written Texts', in which she identified which representations of speech are likely to be closest to the real thing. The nearest counterpart in LFOA is a sub-section on 'Latin Literature and its Presentation of the Address System', in which she compares the various registers of literary Latin without making any strong claim to verisimilitude for any of them.

Should we sense here a retreat from the philologist's dream of hearing the authentic sound of spoken Latin? Certainly the focus of much recent English-language research on Latin linguistics has shifted away from 'Vulgar Latin' towards the study of certain registers or fields where the written text is primary. We are less likely than we were to label all peculiarities of (say) medical or veterinary Latin as 'vulgarisms'. We are also rediscovering the value of linguistic approaches to 'literary' texts. However, it is still meaningful to ask how ordinary Latin-speakers actually spoke to each other. I would have been interested to know whether Dickey thought this could be recovered, at least in the address system, or whether she thought the surviving texts could not be used as evidence for anything beyond themselves.

In questioning some of Dickey's analyses, I do not mean to suggest I would have considered any of the issues involved at all had it not been for her book. It is provocative in the best possible way; Dickey rarely writes as if she meant to have the last word on a subject, though it may be she has had the first word on quite a few. And for a work explicitly philological in scope, it is ridiculously readable. It is hard to anticipate that a better book on the subject will appear soon. In the interim, all Latinists and all Roman historians should have access to this one.


1.   Perhaps notable here is the similarity between the patronizing use of senex in Latin and the less-than-flattering use of πρέσβυ and πρεσβῦτα in Greek comedy. Could the more respectful use of the modified form senior be paralleled by πρεσβύτερε in Greek?
2.   The relevant passages are cited by Nonius, 237. 32-8, 238. 21-2: ADITUS, interpellatio . . . Lucilius lib. XXVII: cum pacem peto, cum placo, cum adeo et cum appello meam . . . APPELLARE est familiariter respondere. Lucilius XXVII: cum mei me adeunt servuli, non dominam ego appellem meam? . This is admittedly hard to square with Nonius' gloss on appellare, but then so is the 'traditional' translation. --Note also the examples of dominus 'host of a banquet' in early Latin, collected at Nonius 281. All Nonius' examples are of referential usage rather than address, but they do suggest a context in which domine might conceivably have been used between free individuals.
3.   A belief she has argued cogently in the Journal of Hellenic Studies (2001: 1-11); though I find less cogent the suggestion that the Greek is modelled on the Latin. Evidence is scanty, and qualitatively different on the Greek and Latin side.
4.   On the Greek background, see Gratwick (Plautus. Menaechmi, CUP [1993] 23ff). Gratwick also detects Greek influence underlying the address o adulescens in line 1065.
5.   Dickey's other example of reciprocal hospes (Hermes and a peasant in Ovid's Metamorphoses 2. 692-5) is also ambiguous; hospes in line 695 is almost certainly referential.
6.   Probably better translated as 'tough' or 'unrelenting' than Dickey's 'not good'. Note also impotentissime (174), probably better 'most unrestrained' than 'most powerless' (presumably ἀκράτιστε).
7.   Satires 2. 3. 265-7, o ere quae res/nec modum habet neque consilium, ratione modoque/tractari non vult; Eunuchus 56-8, proin tu, dum est tempus, etiam atque etiam cogita,/ere: quae res in se neque consilium neque modum /habet ullum, eam consilio regere non potes. This tradition of representation seems remarkably durable; one thinks of the Plautine meribibula! addressed by a slave-girl to Augustine's mother Monica (Confessions 9. 8. 18).

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