BMCR 2005.08.34

Il Latino: Breve introduzione linguistica

, Il latino : breve introduzione linguistica. Lingua, traduzione, didattica ; 3. Milano: F. Angeli, 2004. 156 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 8846455649 €14.50 (pb).

The book is short, but a linguistic introduction to Latin it is not. To characterize the contents, little more needs to be said than that the scholar by far best represented in the bibliography (nine items) is Noam Chomsky, ending with his 1995 work The Minimalist Program. The first sentence of the introduction, to be sure, outlines the book’s scope more honestly than its title: here we are told that this is the first linguistic introduction to Latin based on the version of generative grammar known as the “Principles and Parameters” framework. It will occasion no surprise to those familiar with this variant of modern linguistic theory that the book’s “linguistic introduction” fails to introduce, in any serious way, certain major areas of linguistic study and research, in particular phonetics and phonology (both synchronic and diachronic), and historical linguistics more generally. Oniga (O.) does, however, succeed rather well with the more limited goal he has set.

In eight brief chapters, O. hits the high points of basic generative grammar and some specifics of how the “Principles and Parameters” approach applies to Latin grammatical structures, from the level of word and morpheme, to phrase-level syntax and case grammar, up to the syntax of certain types of complex sentences. O. carefully introduces and makes use of a standard arsenal of terminology (valence theory, the projection principle, X-bar theory, unaccusativity, etc.), but jargon-laden discussions are avoided, and copious Latin examples help orient the reader to the meaning and deployment of these terms. There are, moreover, several touches that go beyond a mere application of Chomskyan theory to Latin grammar, partly given the nature of Latin itself and the tendency of modern syntactic theory to give short shrift to languages of its type, i.e. those with complex morphological systems and a high degree of word order variation. At the level of the word, for example, O. provides an interesting and relatively thorough treatment of Latin compound formations (pp. 46-53), an area rarely treated in generative morphology, and a subject on which O. himself has contributed an important book.1 In a similar way, Chapter VIII (“Le infinitive”) explores in some depth a characteristic feature of Latin syntax, namely infinitive constructions (both the familiar “accusative and infinitive” as well as other patterns), a type of syntactic phenomenon about which most handbooks of generative syntax provide only the most superficial information. If the treatment of “L’ordine degli elementi” (pp. 94-103) is less than illuminating, that is a defect not of O.’s presentation, but of the theoretical framework in which he operates. O.’s perfunctory discussion of “topic” and “focus” is an artifact of generative theory itself and gives little indication of just how one would go about accounting for the “vasta gamma di variazioni stilistiche per mezzo della dislocazione di elementi” (p. 100) — a matter of prime interest to Classicists, and one in which significant progress has been made within other linguistic frameworks (i.e. those collectively known as “functional grammar” or “discourse grammar”) that have yet to be properly incorporated into Chomskyan syntactic theory, or which, according to some practitioners of the latter, are antithetical to it per definitionem.

Worth noting, finally, is an additional attractive feature, namely O.’s attempt throughout the book to confront the linguistic issues he treats with corresponding material from the Roman grammatical tradition.2

Classicists seeking a concise, well-informed and relatively painless initiation to mid-1990’s-vintage theoretical syntax (an analytical approach that continues to have a fair amount of currency) will find this to be a useful and sometimes stimulating work. Those hoping for a “linguistic introduction to Latin”, in any ordinary sense of that phrase, will need to look elsewhere.


1. R. Oniga, I composti nominali latini. Una morfologia generativa, Bologna 1988.

2. The book is generally well-produced. The indifferent (and occasionally incorrect) marking of vowel length (e.g. 1 sg. pres. pass. conficio:r, with long -o:- in the final syllable [p. 49]; long vowels before -nf- and -ns- are consistently not marked, thus also e.g. cliens [p. 41]) has few consequences, given the lack of serious attention to phonology; and the rare typographical errors (e.g. “Perlumtter” for “Perlmutter” [p. 151]) pose no serious problems. The book concludes with a full bibliography of works cited, a list of symbols and abbreviations, and a helpful subject index.