BMCR 2007.02.34

Aspects of the Language of Latin Prose. Proceedings of the British Academy, 129

, , , , Aspects of the language of Latin prose. Proceedings of the British Academy ; 129. Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2005. x, 497 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0197263321 $99.00.

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

The volume under review collects the papers offered by the participants in the Oxford colloquium held in April 2003 to mark the retirement of Prof. Michael Winterbottom from the Corpus Christi Professorship of Latin. The contributors are all eminent specialists, and the editors are to be congratulated not only for gathering such a distinguished group but also for the effort to make what is usually a miscellaneous collection of occasional papers into a (mostly) coherent work. In the volume, the linguistics-focused research interests of some contributors (Adams, Langslow, Penney, Pinkster) tie in interestingly with the papers offered by most of the other participants, gradually shading off from language to style; the result is a much more homogeneous and planned collection of essays than Festschriften usually are (with famous exceptions such as Texts and Transmission, the celebrated Mynors Festschrift). Even if the description of the volume as a ‘handbook’, on the jacket cover, is an exaggeration, this is an excellent contribution, containing thorough and stimulating presentations of many different varieties of Roman prose and their problems. Prof. Winterbottom certainly deserved it, but it is nonetheless a fitting tribute and, with its inclusion of essays on Medieval Latin, also representative of the impressive scholarly range of the honorand. The three extensive indexes will help readers perceive the continuity of themes in the volume and will make it a useful tool for reference and research.

The articles are in chronological order; rather than list and assess contributions one by one, I shall highlight what I think are the leading themes in the collection from the perspective of the ‘language’ or ‘languages’ of Latin prose.

The Introduction by the three editors (1-36) is partly a review of the volume contents, partly an extra contribution on its own merits, clarifying definitions, and shedding light on many concepts discussed in the volume. There is some internal dialectics in the collection because the editors do not shrink from taking issue with individual contributors’ theses when they disagree: in particular, many points of this article seem to have been occasioned as a response to Mayer’s piece (see infra). In the section devoted to Classical Latin, the editors dwell on poeticism, diversity, colloquialism, periodicity, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing, archaism, and the role of translation. An important point raised here (under the heading ‘diversity’, 4-7) is that Latin prose writers should not be assessed only against the performance and relatively selective language approach of the two most successful writers of the Latin canon, Caesar and Cicero. Several different sociolinguistic and pragmatic situations have to be allowed for (as well as idiosyncratic and personal habits). Pliny and Varro, two figures of high cultural profile on any reckoning, are conspicuous for their refusal to accept the guidelines of the purist movement, as exemplified in some common features of Caesar’s and Cicero’s writings. Pliny, for example, admitted apparently substandard lexical items productive of Romance developments, such as manducare for edere and auricula for auris.

Another very instructive section is that on ‘periodic writing’ (7-14), highlighting the difficulties of finding strict definitions of the period, and offering a brief outline of its development in Latin. Periods with elaborate syntactic subordination are attested from early on in the history of Latin, and cannot be convincingly argued as an (exclusively) Greek import. Prescriptive evaluation of the most accomplished types (for example, praise of a period closed by a sequence of three main verbs belonging to three layers of embedding) is an entirely modern extrapolation and does not square with what can be observed even in Cicero’s own practice.

Finally, the section on ‘good and bad writing’ has an important discussion of anacolutha, including a list of ancient rhetoricians’ views (p. 16 n. 19). The editors argue that it is one thing to have changes of construction in writers of low literacy (in sub-literary evidence), and quite another to have similar phenomena in, say, Plautus, where anacolutha are high register or focusing devices, or Cicero. Even the label ‘colloquialism’ may not be always adequate to interpret anacolutha in Cicero, as Cicero, in the dialogues, often seems to use them to represent a speaker’s emphasis. (This is what the editors call on p. 30 ‘a sense of excitement outstripping even the requirements of grammar’).

The last section of the book is devoted to Medieval authors writing in Latin, and a significant part of the introduction (26-36) deals with this theme, with an interesting presentation of the problems and objectives of research in this field. The editors remind us that no satisfactory historical outine of the development of Latin prose in the Middle Ages has ever been written and that many texts are still waiting to be edited, and even draw up a list of representative authors from which such a work should start. Here we cross the border between Latin as the written variant of the writer’s own language, and Latin as a cultural acquisition. The editors accept, for the sake of argument, the conventional dating of AD 600 as the time when Latin ceased to be the native language of authors of Latin prose. From now on, for example, the evaluation of phenomena such as anacolutha changes significantly, and an explanation may here be indeed an insufficient mastery of the syntax of long sentences. Other points touched on here, and not always coming up later in individual articles, are: the production of new words in medieval Latin, sometimes from existing Latin elements, sometimes from vernacular words; recourse to archaic words, often from glossaries, rather than from direct access to archaic texts; the pervasive use of Greek terms, also from glossaries (the bilingual ‘hermeneumata’), or from knowledge of some Byzantine spoken Greek. Poeticisms in medieval authors are discussed in great detail in the contributions of Shanzer and Lapidge.

Penney (37-51) concentrates on the origins, functions, and distribution of the connectives et, -que, atque in early Latin, up to the end of the second century BCE. que is the inherited connective in Latin, whereas atque and et are Latin evolutions, in origin meaning ‘in addition’ ( ad-que) and ‘yet, further’ (from reconstructed *eti). P. challenges the view that -que was originally used with closely associated concepts, such as senatus populusque : in his view, it is simply the older, all-purpose connective, which came to acquire this connotation only later, mainly in survivals. A diachronic study of inscriptions and early material, mainly Plautus and Cato, shows also that -que is in recess early on before et and atque. The latter connective is not, in origin, simply a high register synonym of et : predilection for this or that form remains obscure. In comparison with Umbrian texts of similar content (high-register prayers or descriptions of rituals), Latin texts show a marked development towards extensive use of connectives, vs. Sabellian asyndeton.

The issue of archaism comes up conspicuously in Briscoe’s essay on the language of the fragmentary Republican historians (63-72), and in Powell’s on the legal language in Cicero’s De legibus (116-150). Briscoe reacts against the opposite views that these authors were 1) all uniformly and deliberately archaizing, i.e. adopting obsolete words to impart a solemn and lofty ring to their works, and 2) using colloquial features of their day. Powell gives us an instructive lesson on how the clock of linguistic change, in Latin as in all languages, moves at different speeds in different sociolinguistic and pragmatic areas. In particular Powell shows, among other things, that certain archaic features of Cicero’s law code should not be explained as an attempted, and sometimes faulty, pseudo-archaic imitation of Twelve Tables Latin, but as a reproduction of contemporary ‘archaic’ features still in use in the legislation of Cicero’s day.

Adams, on the Bellum Africum (73-96), stresses the inclusive linguistic habits of the work’s anonymous author, who need not have been the ‘vulgar’ or semi-literate writer he is sometimes made out to have been. According to Adams, three convenient labels of Latin studies need re-thinking, that is ‘archaism’, ‘colloquialism’, ‘poeticism’. Adams argues that individual writers may have viewed differently what, e.g., commentators are prone to style as archaism. Varro, in no way inferior in learning to Cicero, stuck to an old style in matters of lexical choices and word formation, even morphology, without presumably being content to be thought of as an archaizing writer. Even more problematic, in Adams’ view, is the label ‘colloquialism’, in his phrase a ‘catch-all for any usage that appears not to be typical of Cicero or high poetry’ (96), too vague to be incorrect but of little informative content. It is often attached to anacolutha, but these need to be assessed case by case, as many are high-register, non-informal, and others serve the need to focus on a prominent new piece of information in the clause (hanging nominatives, typically) and in no way allow passing judgment on a writer as semi-literate, or incapable of writing ‘correct’ Latin. In other words, anacolutha are often rhetorical devices, not substandard usages. In each individual case, we need to reconstruct synchronic reactions and evaluations, which may have been much more flexible and less self-conscious than the idealized, normative, nineteenth-century Latin grammar-books on which some modern approaches to these phenomena are founded.

Perhaps the single most controversial paper, though welcome in its intelligent challenge, is R.G. Mayer’s on ‘The impracticability of Latin Kunstprosa’ (195-210), claiming that the Latin periodic style, excellent as it was in the great writers (who also had their bad moments), set too high a standard for most writers of ancient Rome and caused even the best of them to run into sentences longer than they could manage. Mayer argues his case cleverly and with vast erudition, and his argument runs on two levels, 1) that Roman masters produced too difficult a prose to be suitable for successful imitation, and 2) — as a kind of subordinate argument — that the great writers themselves occasionally gave proof of this by composing convoluted and tortured sentences, of which they lost control, ending up with anacolutha or other forms of syntactical irregularities. I feel that sometimes Mayer has a case, but not all the examples used to prove 2) are convincing. For example, in the Caesar list on p. 203, censure of BG 3.20.1, or 7.20.1-3 seems wide of the mark; at 7.20, the overstretched syntax reflects the rising tide of the accusations levelled at Vercingetorix, reported in indirect speech: it is not that Caesar lost control and was then forced to repeat a participle to resume the supporting construction: he very clearly, and effectively, wanted the period to run in this way, allowing the charges against the Gallic chief to gain momentum and almost have the better of him. Mayer repeatedly says that a given writer had ‘forgotten’ what the original construction — two lines above — was, not always convincingly.1 But does this imply that they were dictating, and that revision never took place? Is this credible? In some of the examples what he regards as a lapse is part of the effect. In my view, even when he quotes the opinion of earlier scholars like Madvig, M. mistakes a judgement based on taste or rather inflexible preconceptions for an evaluation of the correct construction of a phrase and consequent mastery of the periodic style. Mayer’s conclusion is that periodic writing was too difficult, and ‘non-native’, and successors of Cicero, from Livy onwards, including Velleius, overworked it to a point that it was abandoned, with reversion to ‘native’ concision, breuitas. This evolutionary model seems to me unverifiable and unpersuasive. Firstly, there were Ciceronian writers even after Livy: Quintilian, for one, Tacitus in the Dialogus, Minucius Felix, and the survival of Latin is patchy: no Imperial oratory has come down to us. What above all I find difficult to believe is the argument that the periodic style was too difficult for the Romans. For one thing, it was not so difficult for many later writers whose first language was no longer Latin. A change of taste seems a likelier, more acceptable, factor to account for the change.

The issue of the alleged spread of poeticisms in “Silver” Latin is discussed mainly in the contributions of Hine and Harrison.

Hine’s ‘Poetic Influence on Prose: The Case of the Younger Seneca’ (211-237) is perhaps the most impressive paper in the collection, presupposing long-term engagement with the history and development of Latin prose and drawing on a vast collection of data. Hine tests the view, stated in some earlier contributions (Summers, Bourgery), that Seneca initiated sustained use of poetic vocabulary in his prose, thus initiating the ‘Silver’ debased prose style. Using straightforward statistical methodology, Hine starts from the assertion that only words that occur three or more times in verse (and nowhere else), before Seneca has them, are significant in terms of their perception as poeticisms. This consideration allows him to reduce the lists of alleged Senecan poetic words given by Bourgery from 160 to 80, which he then proceeds to analyse in more detail. Further considerations (for example what Hine calls the ‘synonym test’) lead him to strike off some more items from his list (for example technical loan-words, like adamas, for which Seneca could not use a more prosy substitute).2 In other cases, as with letalis, a given term may have undergone weakening, which made it a neutral word, not poetic in a strong sense. Having thus reduced, though by no means eliminated the category of poeticisms in Senecan prose, Hine proceeds to approach the question from another angle, that of the separation between poetry and prose as maintained or not maintained by Seneca in his oeuvre. This move allows him to see farther than Bourgery and Summers, who had looked only at poetic words that entered prose literature in the post-Augustan period. Hine lists 48 words that occur seven or more times in the tragedies and never in Seneca’s prose: he notes that about two thirds of these occur in Cicero’s prose. Hine then argues that various factors may account for these tragic words’ occurrence in Cicero and not in Seneca’s prose: 1) accident (for example regina is not a word likely to occur in Seneca’s dialogues or letters); 2) linguistic evolution ( haud, expromo, abnuo, arbitror, siquidem, interea had fallen out of ordinary use between Cicero and Seneca); 3) proper poeticisms in Cicero. Indeed, a result of this search is that Cicero, perhaps owing to the greater variety of his literary output, is readier than Seneca to resort to poeticisms. The conclusion is that Seneca does sometimes draw on poetic register in his prose, but Seneca’s practice does not vary significantly from Cicero’s and may be even more restrictive.

Apuleius, the subject of Harrison’s piece (‘The Poetics of Fiction’, 273-86), is another obvious candidate for poeticisms. In his case, there is no denying that his prose is full of them, often genuinely archaic ones. While commenting on Apuleius’ different approach to poeticisms and poetic allusions in the novel and in the rhetorical works, Harrison rejects the once standard interpretation of this phenomenon as a sign of the decadence of Latin prose in the ‘Silver’ age and illustrates the varieties and functions of poetic allusion, in the novel, where it serves to promote the interpretation of many passages, enhancing their intertextual connections.

H. Pinkster’s study on ‘The Language of Pliny the Elder’ (239-256) is a description of Pliny’s grammar and language, on the basis of the assumption that the function and content of NH determines many stylistically ‘deviant’ features. For example, the need for brevity explains many omissions of object pronouns, because they can be understood from the preceding words (‘zero anaphora’, common in Latin but much more pronounced here). ‘Zero anaphora’ is found also with omission of nouns in ablative absolute constructions, very irregularly from the nineteenth-century school grammar perspective based on Ciceronian practice. Pinkster also explains how the relative lack of periodic structures is a feature dependent on the non-narrative content of the work. The need to be as economical as possible also explains other cases of omissions of verbs. Other sections deal with Pliny’s use of the cases, for example that notorious omnipresence of the ablative in situations which do not fit school grammar categories (especially noteworthy is the vastly extended use of bare locative ablatives and what Pinkster calls, after Nutting, ‘stenographic ablative’, roughly an ablative of manner). Pliny is also relatively sparing with prepositions, which Pinkster explains as an outcome of Pliny’s concentration on content, not as an intentional poeticism. The sections on sentence structure and word order show that Pliny was capable of elaborate periodic structures, though of a relatively straightforward and unornamented type; his hyperbata, or dislocated word groups, as in 5.155 nec Caesaris dictatoris quemquam alium recepisse dorso equus traditur, are wider than what is normally practiced in classical Latin as regards the number of intervening words (to use Pinkster’s phrase, in Pliny ‘the constraints on discontinuity [are] less stringent’ than in earlier authors, p. 252).

D. Langslow (287-302) challenges the view, encapsulated by André’s definition quoted in the article’s title, that technical languages were ‘langues réduites au lexique’. Langslow argues convincingly that non-lexical features are less evident markers of the technical languages, because they can rarely be exclusive to them (for example the use of collective singulars for plurals, which are characteristic of legal documents), but they can be identified as characteristic in terms of frequency and patterns of use. Nevertheless, modern students of technical languages are sometimes offered evidence ‘on a plate’ in the form of metalinguistic statements, for example in literary parodies, which must reproduce and caricaturize evident, recognizable elements to be effective. Langslow goes on to produce an interesting review of identifiable syntactic and phraseological features of technical languages, mainly law and medicine (for example ellipse of recurrent, predictable terms, such as actio, the ‘forensic’ genitive, the frequent use of habeo followed by a past participle, at a period when this construction seems to have been uncommon, the non-explanatory, end-of-recipe use of enim in medical texts, and so on). Finally, Langslow shows how some non-exclusive, non-technical features which are characteristic of technical languages can also be lexical (cf. in modern English ‘severe’ for pain: not a technical word, but recognizably medical in this phrase). A telling example of how an apparently lexical feature entails characteristic rewriting of entire phrases, thus imparting a distinctive flavour to a technical passage — in this case: ‘medical Latin’ — is the abundant use of deverbal abstract nouns: because they are so frequent, medical phrases typically consist of important nouns, and semantically uninteresting finite verbs, usually esse.

Of the other articles on Classical Latin authors, mostly dealing with stylistic issues, I single out D.A. Russell’s analysis of variations of style in Quintilian (‘Omisso speciosiore stili genere’, 257-271). Russell takes these variations as the residual differences between texts with different origins and functions inside the Institutio, for example original course materials designed for class use and rhetorically more ambitious parts, targeting a more general audience and ‘colleagues’. Here the possibility of reconstructing, or at least of catching a glimpse of, Quintilian’s teaching notes and course materials, and their style, is, of course, a fascinating prospect.

In the Medieval Latin section, the piece which will be of most immediate relevance to Classicists is, in my view, A. C. Dionisotti’s article (‘Translator’s Latin’, 357-75). Dionisotti starts from an analysis of competing Medieval translations of the Greek Life of John the Almsgiver, by Leontius bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus, which she uses to make a wider case for the importance of translation in stretching the limits of acceptable Latin at all periods. Firstly, Dionisotti analyses the overliteral, word-for-word Latin rendering of Anastasius Bibliothecarius, who was a Greek speaker, but capable of writing idiomatic and elegant formal Latin when he deemed it appropriate, for example in his dedication to Pope Nicholas I, Dionisotti has identified 110 MSS of this translation: she thus can argue that Anastasius’ often unwieldy, even unidiomatic Latin circulated widely and for a long time, and the Anastasius example is only one of many. Dionisotti then argues that we need to distinguish three factors in the history of Latin: 1) native developments; 2) outright Hellenisms [acquired by speakers through language contact]; 3) outright translationese, which readers accept, perhaps, sometimes, as literal translation, but are perceived as foreign to the language. But where should one draw the line? For example, the quia so-called ‘recitantis’, used to introduce a quotation in direct speech, is found in Latin translations, typically pre-Vulgate, and in non-translated texts. This means that educated speakers, by whatever means but quite probably through reading, had in time come to regard this feature as acceptable Latin usage. Dionisotti suggests that if the diffusion of this translated Latin were better known, it would be possible to acquire a better understanding of apparently Greek idioms found in untranslated Latin texts and perhaps refrain before concluding that they are native developments not influenced by Greek (she mentions Svennung, Untersuchungen zu Palladius (1935), 500-2, downplaying Greek influence in quia declaratives as ‘echtlateinische Spracherscheinung’). Dionisotti then proceeds to analyse, from unpublished sources (the most interesting of which is a twelfth-century French MS, Paris. Lat. 5602), competing translations of the same Life, which react against what they perceive to be, in Anastasius’ work, incorrect, almost incomprehensible Latin. Her final claim is that throughout medieval Latin, translation is an important test for observing the constant redefinition of what was acceptable as written Latin.

Gregory of Tours is the topic of D. Shanzer’s piece (303-319), in which this author emerges as a much more subtle and nuanced writer than an unfortunate editorial history has made him to be, especially in his appreciation of the differences between prose and poetry. R. Sharpe (339-355) discusses variations of style in Bede, paying attention to his difficult exegetical writings, written mostly in later life and influenced, he says, by Jerome. M. Lapidge (321-337) studies the style of Anglo-Latin pre-Conquest writers, mainly focusing on their recourse to, and awareness of, poeticisms. W. Berschin (377-382) illustrates what he calls a ‘realistic’ piece of Latin writing, the Vita S. Uodalrici by Gerhard of Augsburg, written in the tenth century, indeed noteworthy for its rich Latin vocabulary, including some new words from German roots. R.M. Thomson (383-393) has a fascinating piece on William of Malmesbury’s knowledge of Classical authors and on his very high standing as a Classical scholar ante litteram (he seems to be the first to have planned a collection of fragments, those of Cicero’s De re publica found in quotations of Augustine). G. Orlandi, finally (395-412), offers an illuminating discussion of statistical methodologies used to assess the impact of clausulae in medieval writers up to Petrarch.


1. E.g. p. 204, Munatius in Cic. Fam. 10.18.2: uidebam picking up sciebam seems more an effective anadiplosis, or epanalepsis than loss of control; p. 201, Cicero’s ‘forgetfulness’ at Fin. 4.4 seems to me overstated: the only proof of this is Mayer’s assertion that ‘the -que attached to eas hardly picks up the et before communiter‘; the resumptive uiderent comes rather naturally after two long parentheses; p. 206, on Claudius’ Lyon oration: the clause postquam Romam migrauit, regnum adeptus est can by no means be substituted by a co-ordination for the whole point is that, though a foreigner, an immigrant, Tarquinius rose to the throne — remember that the oration was intended to support the admission of provincials to the Senate.

2. The only point I don’t understand here is Hine’s assertion, concerning prefixed forms such as circumuolito, comprecor, dedignor, obumbro, intabesco, that ‘the new prefixal verbs are [not] likely to have been marked as poetic or elevated’ (the simplex is found, say, in Cicero). The opposite seems to me the case, exactly because there were available synonyms already well-established in prose.