Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.52

Peter Barrios-Lech, Linguistic Interaction in Roman Comedy.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxiii, 381.  ISBN 9781107129825.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, University of Reading (

[A full table of contents is given at the end of the review.] 1

This excellent work offers new insights into the ways Plautus and Terence use language. The author defines his subject, linguistic interaction, as ‘linguistic features that emerge from interaction and reflect or even alter the relationship between its participants: commands and requests, conversation particles (command softeners and strengtheners, statement hedges), and conversational formulae and devices: attention-getters, interruptions, and greetings and closings’ (p. 4). Of course, many other linguistic features besides the ones listed could be included under the definition of ‘linguistic interaction’ given: in fact what Barrios-Lech actually does is to include only those interactional linguistic features on which he has a real contribution to make and leave aside those for which he considers the existing literature adequate. This approach, though slightly confusing for readers new to the subject, is a valid one also used by other scholars in the field.2 It results in a book that packs a lot of scholarly punch per page by declining to rehash the findings of earlier work, but does not provide a full overview of the topic it claims to treat, offering instead a doughnut-shaped perspective that omits a core of already-understood material. Despite this drawback from the perspective of the novice reader, the book is not inaccessible; indeed it is remarkable how well Barrios-Lech has managed to cater for such readers, and it is to be hoped that this book will serve as an entry point to the field as a whole.

Much of the book focusses on the use of language in character portrayal. It has long been appreciated that Terence assigned different types of language to different characters (differentiating e.g. by gender, age, and social status as well as by individual personality), but Plautus’ practice is less well understood. Barrios-Lech joins a significant number of recent scholars in making the case that Plautus too engages in linguistic characterization; in general he makes this case convincingly, but readers may not accept every single point. Particularly notable in terms of linguistic characterization are the disguised characters who adopt speech characteristics of the people as whom they are disguised, and therefore chapters 16 and 17 contain detailed analyses of three such disguised figures: Philocrates and Tyndarus in Plautus’ Captivi, Chaerea in Terence’s Eunuchus, and Demea in Terence’s Adelphoe (readers may or may not accept that this last is a disguised character, but the case for treating him as one is well argued). Although the discussion here is extremely interesting, I was uncomfortable about the fact that the linguistic features identified are not always ones that have been discussed earlier in the book. Some of this disconnect is due merely to the fact that Barrios-Lech does not re-discuss topics that have already been well handled elsewhere, but some of it is more worrying. We are told that when Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus reverse roles, the slave pretending to be a free man uses a greater variety of subordinate clauses and more complex subordination than does the free man pretending to be a slave (pp. 245-6)— but Barrios-Lech presents no evidence to show that these features actually distinguish the language of higher-status characters from lower-status ones in Roman comedy, and as far as I know no such evidence has been gathered by anyone else.

Another significant focus of this book (especially in chapters 9-11) is politeness and impoliteness. Although much has been written on Latin politeness in recent years, that work tends to be concerned with specific words or constructions and often takes a diachronic perspective, considering not only early but also Classical and later Latin. Such a diachronic perspective is probably the best way to understand particular words, but Barrios-Lech’s holistic approach, considering all sorts of different phenomena and the way they interact with one another, is clearly the best way to understand the politeness system of Roman comedy. Impressively, he manages both to synthesize the earlier studies into a unified and coherent discussion and to go beyond previous research and identify hitherto unrecognized patterns.

A considerable part of the work (chapters 2-8) is dedicated to a study of commands and requests, covering everything from abrupt, rude orders to the politest of gentle suggestions. This research inevitably overlaps considerably with two pre-existing books on Latin directives, the 1993 one by Rodie Risselada and the 2009 one by Luis Unceta Gómez,3 but nevertheless it is the first large-scale study of this topic to be usable by most of the readership of BMCR: both Risselada and Unceta Gómez take a heavily linguistic perspective and make extensive use of terminology and theory derived from pragmatics and Speech Act theory. Barrios-Lech’s work (which also has a solid grounding in linguistic theory but makes that fact unobtrusive) is also the first to focus on usage in Roman comedy, and the first to be based on really convincing data about Roman comedy: Risselada’s work relies on a corpus that combines a small amount of Plautine data with samples from Cicero and Pliny, while Unceta Gómez’s work has no corpus but is based on examples from a wide range of Latin texts going up to Late Antiquity.

By contrast Barrios-Lech’s assertions about commands and requests are based on a corpus of 6,981 examples in Plautus, Terence, and the fragments of early Roman drama (p. 25, with a superb footnote giving the corpora used by a large number of other studies). This wealth of data allows him to find subtle patterns and to produce both a more detailed and a better-founded, more convincing analysis of early Latin usage than either Risselada or Unceta Gómez (though of course those works remain essential for understanding usage in Classical and later Latin).

The size of the corpus is not the only respect in which the evidence underpinning this work is impressive. The data (both those on commands and requests and some smaller collections on other features) were collected not via electronic searches but by reading through the plays. This method of data collection allows the author to speak authoritatively about features that cannot easily be identified via electronic searches, such as imperatives, hedges, and even indirect requests (ones not actually expressed but inferrable from the context, e.g. ‘it’s awfully cold in here’ used to mean ‘please close the window’). Moreover the data are analysed and the argument presented using both statistical analyses and close examination of particular passages; this is an excellent system and inspires confidence in the results.

The specific results of this study are too numerous to be listed here, so I include only a few particularly interesting ones. Plautus’ ‘clever slave’ characters are politer (specifically, they soften a higher percentage of their imperatives) than other male slaves; this surprising finding seems to be due to the fact that ‘clever slaves’ spend more time talking to high-status people whom they need to trick and cajole than do other slaves (p. 49). The phrase noli + infinitive, which in Classical authors simply expresses a negative command, is polite in Plautus (p. 77). In the long-running debate about whether the ‘jussive’ second-person present subjunctive has the same meaning as the imperative, is more polite, or is less polite, Barrios-Lech sides with the view that this subjunctive does not differ in meaning from the imperative (pp. 64-7). Barrios-Lech also suggests an interesting explanation for the great popularity of the gerundive of obligation, that eternal bane of Latin students: that it is part of a larger pattern whereby impersonal ways of giving instructions (e.g. ‘X is to be done’) are preferred to personal expressions (e.g. ‘Y should do X’) because of an inherent ambiguity about who, in a slave-owning society, should actually be viewed as performing an action: the master who gives the order, or the slave who executes it? Such ambiguity would of course have directly affected only certain kinds of actions, but nevertheless it could have been frequent enough to influence the Romans’ entire attitude to the expression of obligation (p. 97).

The book is for the most part clearly written; technical linguistic terminology is used only when absolutely necessary and then is clearly explained. Nevertheless there are a few points to which readers will find a key useful. Barrios-Lech uses forms of facio as shorthands for similar forms of any verb, so when he talks e.g. about the characteristics of faciamus, he means the characteristics of the first person plural present subjunctive of any verb. When facio itself is not attested in comedy in the form under discussion, another verb is used with the same generalizing function. Thus we find the statement, ‘Indeed, most—77 of the 101 dan-type commands—expect an affirmative response in the form of a compliance’ (p. 84); this refers to commands made by attaching -ne to the second person singular present indicative (das + ne appearing as dan in texts of Plautus).

There are frequent ‘summary’ and ‘conclusions’ sections, which are probably the best place for readers who want a general overview to start. Particularly helpful is a chart (p. 111) summarizing the results of chapters 6-8, which lists some (but unfortunately not all) ways of forming commands and requests with brief indications of the contexts in which they occur, their politeness values (if any), and the types of speakers who use them.

The book has five appendices. The first underpins the statistics on usage by character type, explaining how many lines in each play are spoken by each character type and how this is calculated. The second explains what types of material are included and excluded from the corpus of directives; the corpus itself is not given in the book, which is a pity as it would have been extremely useful to other scholars. The third lists occurrences of politeness phenomena in Roman comedy; this will be very welcome to other scholars. The fourth is a collection of passages in which Donatus discusses the politeness of a phrase or word in his commentary on Terence, and the fifth gives a long list of references to passages supporting specific assertions made in the book. (The fourth and fifth appendices are not in the book itself but can be downloaded from; this URL is given only once in the book, and that not in a prominent location (p. 287 n. 94), so it is easy to miss the fact that these appendices exist at all.) A good set of indices concludes the work.

In short, this book makes a valuable contribution in a number of different areas and will be welcomed by a wide range of scholars.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 He said, she said
1.2 What is linguistic interaction?
1.3 Why Roman comedy?
1.4 Previous work on linguistic interaction
1.5 Some useful tools and concepts
1.6 Overview of this book

Part I: How to command and request in early Latin

2 Introducing Latin commands and requests, or directives
2.1 Introduction
2.2 The directive database
2.3 Identifying directives
2.4 Characteristic speech acts of fac, facito, facias, and faciamus
2.5 Politeness
2.6 Direct and indirect requests
3 Fac, facito (‘do,’ ‘you shall do’): the present and future imperative
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Fac: characteristic speech acts
3.3 ‘Commanding’ women and submissive men in Plautus
3.4 ‘Commanding’ women and men in Terence
3.5 Politeness styles of men and women in Roman comedy
3.6 The future, or -to imperative
3.7 Conclusion: ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ linguistic interaction
4 Facias, faciamus (‘do,’ ‘let us do’): jussive and hortatory subjunctives
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Facias: more or less polite than fac?
4.3 Faciamus: the first person plural ‘hortatory’ subjunctive
4.4 Conclusion
5 Ne facias, ne fac, noli facere, and other Latin prohibitions
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Ne fac and others
5.3 Noli facere: a polite prohibition?
5.4 Summary
5.5 The Latin prohibitions and linguistic characterization
6 Quin facis? (‘Why don’t you do?’): Latin ‘question requests’
6.1 Introduction: using a question to convey a request
6.2 Some Latin ‘question requests’
6.3 Conclusion
7 Aequom est te facere (‘It’s right that you do’) and other Latin impersonal requests
7.1 Introduction
7.2 Aequom est te facere
7.3 Expressions of necessity
7.4 By way of conclusion: the personal request in comedy and didactic prose
8 Potin ut facias? and volo ut facias: possibility and volition
8.1 Introduction
8.2 ‘Can you’ requests in Latin
8.3 The volo command in Roman comedy
8.4 Summary
Summary of Part I

Part II How to say ‘please’ in early Latin, and more: exploring parenthetical particles

9 Fac amabo: how to soften a command
9.0 Overview
9.1 The polite parentheticals
9.2 Blanditia
9.3 Words for ‘please’ and linguistic characterization
9.4 Prayers in Roman comedy
9.5 Conclusion
10 Quin fac!: how to strengthen a command
10.1 Introduction
10.2 The imperative strengtheners
10.3 Summary
10.4 The imperative strengthener and linguistic characterization
11 Pluet cras, ut opinor: how to soften a statement in Latin
11.1 Hedges in everyday talk
11.2 Research on hedges
11.3 Latin hedges
11.4 Conclusion

Part III How to greet and gain attention, and when to interrupt: exploring dialogue signals in early Latin

12 Interruptions and attention-getters
12.1 Introduction
12.2 Interruptions
12.3 Attention-getters
12.4 Conclusion
13 Conversational openings and closings in Roman drama
13.1 Introduction
13.2 Conversational openings in Roman drama
13.3 The social parameters of the Roman greeting
13.4 Conversational closings: the case of numquid vis
13.5 Summary

Conclusion to parts I-III

Part IV The language of friendship, the language of domination

Introduction to Part IV
The language of friendship and domination in imperial school texts
Analyzing talk: methodology
14 Friendly talk
14.1 Introduction: Roman amicitia
14.2 Friendly talk in Roman comedy
14.3 Friendships between slaves
14.4 Conclusion
15 Talk between masters and slaves
15.1 Introduction
15.2 Courtesans and the scin quid question in Roman comedy
15.3 Masters and slaves and the imperative
15.4 Greetings between masters and slaves
15.5 Summary: master and slave interactions by the numbers
15.6 Masters and slaves: beyond statistics
15.7 Conclusion

Part V Role shifts, speech shifts

16 Trading roles, trading speech in Captivi
16.1 Overview
16.2 Ambiguity in Captivi
16.3 Trading roles, trading speech
16.4 Conclusion
17 Changing speech patterns in Terentian comedy: Eunuch and Adelphoe
17.1 Introduction
17.2 Eunuch
17.3 Adelphoe
17.4 Conclusion

1 Speech and character types in Roman comedy
2 The directives database
3 Politeness phenomena in Roman comedy
Index rerum
Index vocabulorum et locutionum
Index locorum potiorum


1.   Disclaimer: I commented on this book in draft form (for which service I am thanked in the preface), but did so in a wholly unofficial capacity and have no personal acquaintance with the author.
2.   Used e.g. by J.N. Adams in Social Variation and the Latin Language (Cambridge 2013).
3.   R. Risselada, Imperatives and Other Directive Expressions in Latin: a study in the pragmatics of a dead language (Amsterdam 1993); L. Unceta Gómez, La petición verbal en latin: estudio léxico, semántico y pragmático (Madrid 2009), reviewed in BMCR 2012.09.24.

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