BMCR 2019.09.33

Left-Dislocation in Latin: Topics and Syntax in Republican Texts. Amsterdam studies in classical philology, 28

, Left-Dislocation in Latin: Topics and Syntax in Republican Texts. Amsterdam studies in classical philology, 28. Leiden: Brill, 2018. ix, 253. ISBN 9789004302471. €99,00.


What is “left-dislocation in Latin,” and why does it merit a book? Left-dislocation describes a feature of word-order in which a word or phrase is placed at or towards the beginning of a sentence when it might be expected to occur later, resulting in the use of an additional word or words (usually a pronoun) later in the same sentence. A well-known fragment of Cato the Elder (discussed on pp. 212-213) illustrates the phenomenon: Leonidas Laco, qui simile apud Thermopylas fecit, propter eius virtutes omnis Graecia gloriam atque gratiam praecipuam claritudinis inclitissimae decoravere monumentis.1 Leonidas and his relative clause are in the nominative, but Leonidas is not the subject of the sentence — omnis Graecia is, and eius provides the link between the opening nominative and the otherwise complete sentence. The left-dislocated word or phrase may occur in any case, however, with or without an associated relative clause and with a variety of relationships to the syntactically-complete main clause that follows. “Left-dislocation in Latin,” as the subject of this book, then, represents the aggregation of different linguistic constructions previously studied as separate syntactic or literary devices (“in addition to nominativus pendens and attractio inversa, constructions that can be analysed as left-dislocation have been called anacoluthon, prolepsis, nominativus absolutus, hanging case, fronting and an abundant use of pronouns” [3]). While any given example may be interpreted using more than one of these terms, Halla-aho argues that these constructions, approached as variants of the phenomenon of left-dislocation, illustrate aspects of Latin linguistic development, including the use of relative clauses. This is an economically-written study built upon the analysis and comparison of a rich trove of examples, with close readings of longer quotations supplemented by further evidence in tables and notes.

Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) offers the rationale for the study, some cross-linguistic parallels, definitions, an overview of the relationship of relative-clause-structure to the phenomenon of left-dislocation, and a survey of the methods and evidence deployed (including a discussion of genre and register, and the question of the influence of spoken Latin on early texts [6-15]). Plautus provides the vast majority of examples (72; the next in line is Cato’s de Agricultura at 21), and the overall total for the study is small (151 examples) but large enough to support the argument that there is something worth exploring here. At the same time, the sample is idiosyncratic, “representative, if not exhaustive” (14) because it results from the author’s reading of texts, and thus also selection of texts to read.2 It emerges that left-dislocation as a deliberate syntactic choice is relatively rare, more associated both with early Latin syntax and with the spoken language than its more formal written patterns, and fairly readily eclipsed by alternative “topical” constructions (such as de with the ablative or quod -clauses). To return to the question with which we began, then, why does left-dislocation merit its own book? Subsequent chapters provide their own answers, but here, the author makes clear that there is something better explained than explained away.

In Chapter 2 (“Defining Left-Dislocation”) Halla-aho provides an expanded foundation of her study in formal semantic terms, situating her terms and methods in relation to those of other scholars beyond Classics. A relatively high level of specialized knowledge and vocabulary is assumed, and the first half of the chapter is challenging. For readers dissatisfied with citing (e.g.) Allen and Greenough, full stop, to answer questions of ‘but why…’ with regard to pronoun case or verb agreement, the sections on relative clauses, attraction, and potentials of Latin word-order (38- 51) suggest more profitable avenues of interpretation. To choose but one question explored here, it is interesting to consider the ways a language constructs “headers” or topic markers without a semantic imagination grounded in text, and interesting, too, to consider how the advent of literacy and textual formatting (as with inscriptions) leads speakers, writers, and readers to reconceive the isolation or integration of those topic markers.

Chapter 3 (“Left-Dislocation in Comedy (with an Appendix on Lucretius)”) presents seventy-seven examples (five from Terence, all associated with a relative clause; seventy-two from Plautus, all but ten associated with a relative clause). By examining each example in context, Halla-aho argues against explanations grounded in the flexibility of Latin word-order or the colloquial expectations of the genre; that is, words dislocated to the start of a sentence or sense-unit should not (automatically) be re-located or translated within the clauses where they are represented by resumptive pronouns. An example deployed at several points comes from a speech of Hanno in the Poenulus (1068-69): nam mihi sobrina Ampsigura tua mater fuit; / pater tuos, is erat frater patruelis meus. Plautus gives us Hanno’s relationships to Agorastocles’ mother and father in two different ways, and left-dislocation ( pater tuos, is erat…) allows for both an artfully chiastic arrangement and a bit of humor in the variation of kinship terms. As Halla-aho suggests, this is not (or not only or always) a colloquial idiom or a stylistic device indicating a colloquial register (or emotion or aspect of character).

Chapter 4 (“Left-Dislocation in the Epigraphic Material”) considers examples from Republican and early Imperial inscriptions, primarily inscribed versions of legal texts or decrees (such as the Senatusconsultum de Bacchanalibus) but also a few epitaphs and curse tablets. The material is intrinsically interesting, but not an obvious set like the Plautine corpus, and thus the conclusions proffered here are more general. In keeping with suggestions raised in Chapters 2 and 3, Halla-aho argues that left-dislocation is better understood as a feature of earlier Latin than one reflective of speech patterns. Context can suggest if a left-dislocated noun or phrase should be read as a ‘topic header’ or as a means of emphasizing or clarifying the referent of the main clause.

Chapter 5 (“Left-Dislocation in Republican Prose”) takes Cato’s de Agricultura as its main text, with some discussion of other authors (Sallust and Varro, primarily). Halla-aho suggests that Cato uses left-dislocation in several distinct ways: to clarify more complicated discussions (especially comparisons), to anticipate an element when a new idea or topic is introduced for the first time or resumed after a delay, or to “front” a topic that requires explanation before the main action may be conveyed. In discussing a few examples from fragmentary orators and historians, the same interpretive structures employed elsewhere seem to apply equally well; interestingly, Sallust offers something new, and Halla-aho posits that Sallust may use left-dislocation as an efficient means of avoiding a balanced or periodic structure without compromising syntactic clarity. Varro favors “fronting” or topical emphasis, in a style in which the formal classification of such fronting as left-dislocation is less obvious. For the few identifiable cases, the same interpretations obtain as for Cato in de Agr. This is not surprising, but it is worthy of further consideration in light of new approaches to genre and authorial positioning in didactic and technical Latin prose. Ultimately (and in addition to the intrinsic interest of anything that makes us more attentive readers of fragments and works outside the canon), the main contribution of this chapter to the arguments of the book as a whole is to support Halla-aho’s contention that left-dislocation is not a primarily “Plautine” phenomenon.

Chapter 6 (“Conclusion”), at a scant three pages, lists the main points of the book. First, “left-dislocation exists as an identifiable construction in Republican Latin” (233) and its forms vary with context. Similarly, “fronting” does not explain away the phenomenon of left-dislocation, despite being relevant as an explanation in a fair number of examples. Since “left-dislocation without a relative clause occurs in every part of the corpus” (233), the study of relative-clause syntax alone cannot account for the phenomenon. Second, while in both theory and practice the left- dislocated element may be found in any grammatical case, their case is neither random nor (totally) discretionary. “Thematic nominatives,” broadly defined, are perhaps the most immediately apprehensible as examples of left-dislocation, but other examples can be identified as either anticipating the case the noun will have in the main clause or reflecting the case of the associated relative pronoun within its clause. In comedy, left-dislocation most often serves to introduce a new topic or to signal the resumption of a topic after a delay, and these same functions may be found in prose authors as well. Halla-aho ultimately concludes with reference to Plautus’ linguistic creativity, but also emphasizes that the connections between Plautus’ and others’ uses of left-dislocation “strongly suggest that left-dislocation in this form is a genuine feature of republican Latin, not merely an idiosyncratic innovation of Plautus, even if put to artistic literary use by him” (235).

The title of this book announces it as “an old-fashioned book on a modern topic” (ix), but it would be a shame if the specialized nature of the study were to limit its readers to advanced philologists and linguists. The writing is clear and generally precise; the nuances separating related technical terms from different areas of specialization are consistently addressed (but a reader who wishes to be sure to grasp those nuances must read with real care and without skipping ahead).3 I would have been satisfied with fewer examples and appreciated more discursive explorations of the “why” questions, particularly in light of the evidence from inscriptions and the fragmentary historians, but my desiderata are of course not criticisms of this book. That said, the book does not offer a straightforward guide to identifying examples of left-dislocation beyond the sample presented here, and scholars wishing to build upon Halla-aho’s work will need to confirm their subscription to her criteria (or articulate others) before pursuing those more literary-historical explorations. Any Latinist can identify a relative clause, that is, but it is likely that different Latinists would assemble somewhat different corpora of examples of left-dislocation, and many would retain a larger role for such alternative phenomena as attractio inversa or the hanging nominative. Metrical or other motivations, including both real and artificial reflections of vernacular speech or the use or allusion to other classes of idiom, can only be excluded on a case-by-case analysis of context (among other factors), and here too the role of the individual reader likely plays as much a role as any taxonomy can do. Finally, as with all linguistic approaches to early Latin, the integrity of the manuscript tradition is inseparable from the evaluation of any conclusions. This is another area in which scholars may come to different conclusions in their assemblage of relevant texts, although they will be aided in this by Halla-aho’s detailed engagement with emendations in her notes. Thus, this is a book that makes a valuable contribution to the study of early Latin, the relationship between speech and text, and the connections among genres and contexts in Latin’s first century as a literary language. It is not intended to be the first book a reader would pick up on any of those topics, nor does it need to be. Scholars already familiar with those debates will find much here with which to engage, while Latinists at all levels can appreciate the window into syntax as a cultural, as much as a linguistic, phenomenon.


1. Cato F76 FRHist : “In the case of the Laconian Leonidas, who did something similar at Thermopylae, because of his valour all Greece has adorned his glory and exceptional esteem with memorials of the highest distinction” (trans. Cornell).

2. The author has discussed left-dislocation within a selection of later-Republican and Imperial Latin authors: (2016) “Left-detached constructions from early to late Latin,” in J. Adams & N. Vincent (eds.), Early and Late Latin: Continuity or Change? (pp. 367-389). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See also the recent discussion (2018) “Left- dislocation, subordinate clauses and the stylistic difference between Plautus and Terence,”, Arctos 52: 73-94.

3. Typographical errors are rare and generally do not affect comprehension (e.g. “fragmentray,” 250).