BMCR 2005.05.44

A Linguistic Commentary on Livius Andronicus

, A linguistic commentary on Livius Andronicus. Studies in classics ; v. 5. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (xxi, 95 pages).. ISBN 0203505298 $65.00.

If the title of this book were not completely misleading, I would not have undertaken to review it. As Livingston says in her two-paragraph introduction, the book is not exhaustive. That is an understatement: it is a discussion of eighteen morphological items that happen to occur in the fragments of Livius Andronicus, ranging from the vocative formations filie and Laertie, which L. reasonably concludes are linguistic innovations rather than archaisms, to an unconvincing explanation of the alternative ablative plural dextrabus to a valuable exposition of the origin and meaning of the adverb topper. An appendix on formations of the type luculentus is the longest single discussion in the book; it is not, unfortunately, an item to be found in Livius. The only general pattern mentioned by L. — and it covers by no means all the items discussed — that emerges is that some of the more peculiar forms are innovations rather than Indo-European survivals; but while some of L.’s discussions may illuminate Latin or Indo-European word formation, nothing that she says has anything in particular to do with Livius Andronicus, and I see nothing that is helpful for understanding archaic Roman poetry.

Most of the formations that L. discusses are, not surprisingly, anomalous; and the arguments that she uses to explicate them range from analogical innovation within Latin to fairly elaborate searches for possible cognates in other IE languages. Like much other speculative historical linguistics, L.’s arguments are not consistent with one another, at times invoking phonological rules as absolutes, at other times making exceptions to those rules on semantic or other grounds. I am not a historical linguist, and cannot assess L.’s technical arguments fairly; but all too often they smack of ignotum per ignotius. Anomalous forms are, almost by definition, not explicable by normal patterns of morphological or phonetic change; if they were, they would not be anomalous. Explanations therefore invoke specious regularities, extraordinarily complex sequences of changes, or — anomaly. And, all too often, all the phenomena that might be explained as parallel to a given transformation are used in order to explain it — and the arguments, not surprisingly, tend to circularity. Perhaps, however, as a non-expert, I am seeing difficulties where none exists. To the best of my knowledge, L. is indeed expert at what she does, which is the analysis of early Latin (or proto-Latin) morphology. When she moves beyond the discussion of a single word to discern patterns, what she says is often instructive about Latin itself — as, for instance, with her explanation of nouns in etum (e.g. pinetum) or the appendix on luculentus and its parallels. But most of what L. says can be of interest only to linguists, not to students of Latin language, grammar, or style.

What is abundantly clear about this monograph is that, in so far as Livius holds any interest for L., it is not as the earliest identifiable Latin poet, but as the earliest identifiable Latin poet. It rarely crosses her mind that poetry, rather than anomalous morphology, might lie behind the choice of forms or words; so far as I can see, the only place that poetry enters the picture is when she suggests that Livius might have chosen to write dextrabus rather than dexteris at Od. 46W in order to avoid the statistically less common short penult in trisyllabic words after the caesura Korschiana, something I seriously doubt was on the poet’s mind. That Livius may have made lexical or morphological choices deliberately rather than simply providing evidence for archaic survivals was argued some years ago by George Sheets;1 whether or not one accepts his specific arguments, there is no doubt at all that Livius, as well as being a very early Latin poet, is also clearly influenced by contemporary Hellenistic poetry; he is a conscious literary artist and not simply a naive native informant about third-century BCE Latin.

To find a reference to Sheets’s article in this volume, however, or to Gabriele Erasmi’s 1975 dissertation on Livius’ language,2 it is not to L.’s chapters that one must look, but to preface supplied by Michael Weiss. It is Weiss, not L., who supplies a serviceable and intelligent summary of what is known (and not known) about Livius; it is Weiss who tries — with some difficulty — to justify the publication as a book of what ought surely to have been a set of periodical articles, and to place this work in context. One has the sense that L. has no interest in anything more than the words, and that it was necessary to ask someone else to explain where they come from. What is even odder is that Weiss’s bibliography is separate from L.’s (although they overlap) and that the addenda and corrigenda to L.’s work appear between Weiss’s text and footnotes in a manner that suggests that he, not L., did the correcting. My sense is that L. has some intelligent things to say about particular word-formations; my regret is that she has nothing to say about Livius Andronicus.


1. G. Sheets, “The Dialect Gloss, Hellenistic Poetics, and Livius Andronicus,” AJP 102 (1981) 58-78.

2. G. Erasmi, Studies on the Language of Livius Andronicus, Diss. Minnesota, 1975. I owe my knowledge of this work to Weiss’s preface.