Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.57

Olga Spevak (ed.), Le syntagme nominal en Latin: nouvelles contributions. Actes de l'atelier du centre Alfred Ernout. Université de Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), 11 octobre 2008. Kubaba. Série grammaire et linguistique.   Paris:  L'Harmattan, 2010.  Pp. 229.  ISBN 9782296132054.  €21.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Katherine McDonald, Cambridge University (

[Table of contents below.]

Anyone who doubts that there are many “new contributions” to be made to the study of noun phrases in Latin should consider purchasing a copy of Olga Spevak’s new volume, the result of an international workshop at the Université de Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) on 11th October 2008. The variety of approaches, the thorough use of data from corpora large and small, and wide range of comparative knowledge displayed are all very impressive. But I was particularly struck by the willingness of all the contributors to engage fully with a wide range of complementary approaches taken from modern linguistic theory – something which is, even now, not always the case in the study of Classical languages.

After Olga Spevak’s initial introduction, which outlines the arguments of all the contributors, the book is divided into two halves. The first half deals with word order within noun phrases, with contributions from Spevak (two chapters), Kircher, Viti and Martín Rodríguez. The second half, titled “What is a noun phrase in Latin?”, comprises studies on the more problematic and marginal examples of noun phrases (including ablative absolutes, noun + adverb phrases, and others) with chapters by Touratier, Ripoll, Bodelot, Orlandini/Poccetti, and Fry. A table of contents is included at the end of this review.

All contributions are in French, apart from Carlotta Viti’s, which is in English. However, each chapter begins with an abstract in English (or, in Viti’s case, in French). Between these abstracts and Spevak’s French summaries in the introduction, the volume makes it relatively easy for a speaker of either language to find articles which are of interest. Because of the variety of approaches, I will deal with each contribution separately in this review.

Spevak’s introductory chapter, “Le syntagme nominal en latin: les travaux des trente dernières années”, is somewhat misleadingly titled, since her discussion in fact outlines the principal arguments in the field from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, and deals in detail with the major works of the last forty years. She discusses the main issues surrounding noun phrases, principally: the placement of adjectives and other determiners; the particular difficulty of the position of genitive complements; and the disjunction of the elements of a noun phrase. She also traces the interaction of the study of Latin noun phrases with new approaches in linguistics, including typology, generative grammar, and cross-linguistic studies. Spevak’s bibliography for this chapter, in particular, would be an excellent place for any student to start investigation into this subject.

“L’ordre des mots dans quelques syntagmes nominaux de la Guerre civile de César,” by Chantal Kircher, examines the relative order of nouns and adjectives in noun phrases in the first book of Caesar’s Civil War. Specifically, Kircher looks in detail at all the examples of noun phrases whose heads are animus, annus, dies, locus, populus, res and tempus (no rationale is given for the selection of these particular nouns, though I assume it is because of their relatively high frequency). Kircher’s investigation, while broadly supporting the view that the order of noun phrase elements hinges mainly on whether the adjunct has a determining (after head noun) or qualifying function (before head noun), adds nuances to the picture which can only come from close investigation of a small corpus. First, it is clear from her examples that other factors may reverse the usual order, such as the presence of multiple adjectives, multiple nouns or a preposition. Second, her decision to talk of “tendencies” rather than fixed categories of adjectives based on their semantics is justified by her evidence that the same adjective can behave differently with different nouns.

Olga Spevak’s third chapter, “La place des déterminants et leurs combinaisons,” seeks to show that determiners are not a uniform group, but fall into categories with distinct properties which affect their position in the noun phrase. The determiners she investigates are: anaphoric is, demonstrative hic and ille, indefinites aliquis and quidam, numerical quantifiers (cardinal and ordinal), non-numerical quantifiers ( multus, paucus, omnis, totus, etc.), and the possessives meus and suus. Her statistics are taken from a corpus of Cicero (Att. 1-4), Caesar (Gall. 1-5) and Sallust (Catil. and Iug.), though a broader corpus of classical and post-classical prose is used to look at noun phrases with multiple determiners. Spevak’s conclusions here add to the statements made by Marouzeau,1 particularly in regards to quantifiers and strings of multiple determiners. The conclusion of the second part of the paper, dealing with multiple determiners, presents the idea that the order of numeral + numeral, or numeral + indefinite, is based on semantics, numeral + demonstrative is based on pragmatics, and possessive + any other determiner is in free variation. On a side note, Spevak’s 2010 book, which follows a similar approach, is cited by several contributors to this volume;2 readers may also wish to refer to J.G.F. Powell’s review (BMCR 2011.06.30).

Carlotta Viti (“Observations on genitive word order in Latin”) builds on the work of Devine and Stephens (2006), who, using a combination of the methods of generative-transformational grammar and pragmatics, observed that different head-nouns take their genitives in different positions.3 Viti, however, changes the focus from the head- noun to the genitive itself. This leads to some interesting results; in particular, she shows that (in Caesar’s Gallic War) the genitive-noun order is more usually associated with singular genitives, while noun-genitive is more associated with plural genitives, or genitives of collective or abstract nouns, a result that it would be very interesting to see replicated using other data. Because of some exceptions for reasons of emphasis, she reiterates the idea found in other chapters of the book that both the semantics and pragmatics of the noun phrase are relevant to its word order.

“Quand le signifiant est aussi significatif: effets de sens dans l’ordre des mots du syntagme nominal chez Ovide,” by Antonio María Martín Rodríguez is the only chapter in the book which deals closely with poetry, taking a detailed look at noun phrases in the Procne and Philomela episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6.424-674). The preference for the anteposition of the adjective, and the separation of the adjective from its noun, is clear in this corpus. While Martín Rodríguez notes that metrical constraints and euphony must take a role in the word order, he spends most of this chapter exploring the stylistic (uariatio, chiasmus, etc.) and symbolic motivations for the disjunction of the noun phrase. He considers these to be the most significant factors in word order in hexameter poetry for our reading of the text, since these are the elements which would be picked up by an ancient reader, but not always a modern one.

To begin Part 2, Christian Touratier (“Qu’est-ce qu’un SN dans une langue sans article comme le latin?”) explores the difference between noun phrases, as traditionally defined in grammars, in languages with articles (French, English) and languages without articles (Latin, Russian). In this chapter, he seeks to create an overarching definition of noun phrases which can include both sets of languages equally, in part by distinguishing synthetic noun phrases (of one element, such as a proper noun) from analytic noun phrases (made up of multiple elements). The aim is to give us a new model of what makes the “typical” noun phrase, and to make this model consistent across as many languages as possible, rather than the definition changing based on the presence or absence of articles. The heavy use of abbreviations made this chapter tough going in places, though those with an interest in generative and functional grammar will find some thought-provoking arguments.

“Le SN composé d’un substantif et d’un adverbe,” by Arhur Ripoll, discusses the use of adverbs to modify nouns. While many apparent examples of this phenomenon can be explained away, some striking examples remain. Ripoll puts these into various categories: among these are adverbs modifying nominalised predicates (i.e. nouns of action or nominalised adjectives), and adverbs with a metalinguistic function, which he claims describe the actualisation of the substantive rather than the substantive itself (e.g. uix uir, quasi sanguis, nunc frater, etc.). Unfortunately, there are nevertheless a limited number of examples, particularly in comedy, which Ripoll can only define as “idiomatic”, since they cannot be explained further: these include expressions with hinc, undique, circa, ultra, infra and ibi.

Colette Bodelot’s chapter, “Propositions complétives entrant en séquence avec un nom ou un syntagme nominal. Étude morpho-syntaxique et sémantique,” investigates substantive clauses in Cicero’s De officiis. Bodelot seeks to show how morphological, syntactic and semantic features in the sentence affect the relationship between substantive clauses and their associated nouns or noun phrases – definining the technical terms used could have made this chapter more accessible to a wider readership.

Anna Orlandini and Paolo Poccetti give us the only chapter with a truly diachronic approach to Latin noun phrases: “À propos des tournures exprimant une comparaison élative (“melle dulcior”) et de leurs évolutions romanes.” As the title suggests, this article looks at the Latin constructions comparative adjective + ablative substantive, such as melle dulcior, and their later development into Italian phrases such as stanco morto “dead tired”. Orlandini and Poccetti analyse these as noun phrases, on the basis that they can be replaced with an adjective, e.g. “very sweet”, which cannot be said of other comparatives such as maior fratre. The authors also use a wide range of comparative data from other Indo-European languages, including Greek, Slavic and Vedic Sanskrit.

The book’s final chapter, by Carole Fry, is entitled “L’ablatif absolu en syntagme nominal qualifiant: dynamique énonciative, tactique et iconicité”. As Fry points out, the ablative absolute causes unique problems of interpretation for the modern scholar precisely because Latin speakers themselves could not analyse its form accurately. Fry uses mainly examples from Republican and early Imperial prose and comparative examples from French in her analysis; she also adds a new perspective from cognitive linguistics, that of “iconicity”.

While the book as a whole has a lot to offer, it has a few minor drawbacks. While sentences and longer passages of Latin are translated, words and short phrases are normally not, even where the precise meaning of the Latin is important to the line of the argument. Overall, a considerable degree of prior knowledge of technical terms is assumed – while this is a detailed and helpful volume in many ways, it may be hard going for those without some experience in Latin grammar and syntax, and indeed modern linguistic theory as well, particularly in Part 2. It is also worth noting that the focus of the book is firmly on Classical Latin, especially prose – and within prose, Caesar and Cicero are by far the best-represented authors. On that basis, this book may disappoint those looking for a more diachronic or wide-ranging approach, despite some references a broader range of sources in some chapters, and the diachronic approach of the Orlandini/Poccetti chapter as a whole.

There are several minor typographical errors (inconsistency in the use of italics for Latin words, for example), but I did not notice any which would cause significant confusion. A few other inconsistencies – for example, sometimes the summary at the beginning of the chapter is labelled “summary”, and sometimes “abstract”; occasionally, abbreviations are used which are not included in (or not consistent with) the list of abbreviations in the front of the volume – could have been easily ironed out by the publisher.

Therefore, in spite of a few minor problems, this book has certainly succeeded in making a host of new contributions, which I would encourage Latinists to read if they wish to bring their knowledge of noun phrases completely up-to-date (or if they encounter curious students asking awkward questions about the ablative absolute). Since much of the book deals with relatively small corpora, this work may prove to be a starting point for others who can expand these authors’ findings to larger data sets in future. I feel sure that this varied, thorough and affordable volume will quickly find a place on scholars’ shelves and on undergraduate reading lists.

Table of Contents

Abbreviations 13
Introduction 15
Part 1 – L’ordre des composants du syntagme nominal
Olga Spevak – Le syntagme nominal en latin: les travaux des trente dernières années 23
Chantal Kircher – L’ordre des mots dans quelques syntagmes nominaux de la Guerre civile de César 41
Olga Spevak – La place des déterminants et leurs cominaisons 57
Carlotta Viti – Observations on genitive word order in Latin 77
Antonio María Martín Rodríguez – Quand le signifiant est aussi significatif: effets de sens dans l’ordre des mots du syntagme nominal chez Ovide 97
Part 2 – Qu’est-ce qu’un syntagme nominal en latin?
Christian Touratier – Qu’est-ce qu’un SN dans une langue sans article comme le latin? 121
Arthur Ripoll – Le syntagme nominal composé d’un substantif et d’un adverbe en latin 139
Colette Bodelot – Propositions complétives entrant en séquence avec un nom ou un syntagme nominal. Étude morpho-syntaxique et sémantique 163
Anna Orlandini et Paolo Poccetti – À propos des tournures exprimant une comparaison élative (melle dulcior) et de leurs évolutions romanes 183
Carole Fry – L’ablatif absolu en syntagme nominal qualifiant: dynamique énonciative, tactique et iconicité 199
Index of modern authors 221
General index 225


1.   Marouzeau, J. (1922) L’ordre des mots dans la phrase latine, vol. I Les groupes nominaux, Paris, Champion; (1953) L’ordre des mots en latin. Volume complémentaire, Paris, Les Belles Lettres.
2.   Spevak, O. (2010) Constituent Order in Classical Latin Prose. Studies in Language Companion Series (SLCS) 117. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
3.   Divinem, A.M., Stephens, L.D. (2006) Latin Word Order. Structured Meaning and Information, New York, Oxford University Press.

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