BMCR 2021.01.17

Word, phrase, and sentence in relation: ancient grammars and contexts

, Word, phrase, and sentence in relation: ancient grammars and contexts. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 99. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. vii, 217. ISBN 9783110687965 $114.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume presents six papers delivered at a workshop held in Verona in 2016, with a preface and good indices. They cover Aristotelian grammatical and rhetorical terminology (Cotticelli-Kurras, Graffi); Hellenistic linguistic commentary (Matthaios); early Roman linguistic thought (Duso / Oniga); ancient grammatical descriptions of transitivity (Meneghel); and Roman grammatical descriptions of relative, indefinite and interrogative pronouns (Defanti). The chronological and thematic range is therefore somewhat disparate. The volume’s preface contains the following mission statement:

“If the look at the alphabetic content of the authors seems to give an inhomogeneous picture we can draw an interpretation line, which allows us to share a common multidisciplinary interest in a deep interpretation of the Ancient linguistic thoughts, methodological approach, and in the syntactic and semantic aspects of language integrating the modern knowledge through the long tradition of the Classical studies.”

The ‘roter Faden’ suggested here is fairly dubious: it shows that the papers are united by a family resemblance, at best. The target audience of the volume is thus elusive. Theoretical linguists will find the book under-theorised (the unaccusativity hypothesis, for instance, is unexplained save by a string of references on 132, which ignores relevant work on Greek and Latin, e.g. Clary 2014). Classicists might read it for background about and orientation in ancient grammatical scholarship, but will need to supplement it with additional literary and cultural knowledge. The most obvious audience are historians of linguistic thought, who may find useful the odd insight into individual problems; but these technical pieces fail to produce a synthesis.

By far the strongest piece in the collection is by Stephanos Matthaios on the ‘analogy vs. anomaly’ debate. This is a good overview of a complex problem, accessibly and intelligibly written, and offering an extremely useful account of the status quaestionis with a full bibliography. Similar to Matthaios’ paper in interest, clarity, and cultural sensitivity is the paper by Antonella Duso and Renato Oniga on Roman linguistic thought before Varro. The paper also gives a brief overview of how some of the views of earlier thinkers may have influenced Varro himself; much of this discussion will need revision or supplementation in the light of de Melo’s 2019 edition and commentary on the surviving portions of De Lingua Latina. But what counts as a thinker? We read that the translation by Livius Andronicus of the Odyssey presupposes a morpheme-by-morpheme analysis. The idea that insece is based on an analysis of ἔννεπε as *en-sekw-e, however, strikes me as radically (not to say suffixally and desinentially) implausible. The choice of the word may depend on a common metrical structure, but hardly on an etymological analysis invisible to the synchronic eye. That the reversal of the order of Camena insece vs. ἔννεπε Μοῦσα is due to a metrical constraint of the Saturnian metre (52) is an unverifiable claim: only the boldest of bold would claim to have a cast-iron criterion of what counts as a correctly scanned Saturnian (and if the authors had such, I am sure we should love to know it!). Livius Andronicus, however, is prima facie likely qua translator to have had some interest in and thought about language, as is more obviously demonstrable in the case of poets like Ennius. The paper is therefore still a useful collection of early Roman metalinguistic reflection.

The other Latin-focussed contribution, by Stella Merlin Defanti, is another strong piece, with a look at how Roman grammarians responded to the morphological and semantic problems of the stem qui- in Latin. The account of modern views gives a neat summary of synchronic and diachronic accounts; one might have added, in keeping with the volume’s alleged syntactic and semantic focus, an account of the findings of Eckert (1992). The Latin grammarians are treated clearly and succinctly: this would be a good paper to read for someone who wanted a swift orientation; the demonstration of Priscian’s status as an outlier in Roman grammatical thought is an interesting result.

Roberta Meneghel’s contribution, on the concepts in ancient grammarians roughly corresponding to our word ‘transitivity’ (μετάβασις, διάβασις, transitio), is a confusing read. The paper abounds with unclear references[1] and peculiar style.[2] The very definition of ‘transitivity’ is not always clear; nor is it obvious when Meneghel is speaking the language of modern linguistics and when she is working within ancient frameworks. While Defanti’s exploitation of Priscian’s Greek intellectual heritage is well-motivated, the attempt to treat Apollonius Dyskolos and Priscian together here is less successful. The rationale (which is nowhere expressed) seems to be an exploration of why Priscian translates two Greek terms with a single Latin term; but we are never reminded that Priscian is translating Apollonius,[3] and since the two Greek terms, assuming they mean ‘transitivity’ (which Meneghel eventually concludes they do, albeit with slightly different nuances), correspond to a single English term anyway, it is not clear why Priscian’s views have a particular hold on our attention. I should have preferred an introduction that set out more clearly what the paper’s strategy will be. The review of the concept of transitivity is unsophisticated; some of the interactions Meneghel dismisses (118) will in fact play a part (or might have done) in the subsequent analysis. The literature review on 126 is also far too compressed: it is hard to interpret the summary that ‘μετάβασις…is connected to the exchanging of persons’ while ‘διάβασις concerns the presence of at least two persons’ (surely exchange requires plurality?) – an example might have helped. Likewise in the conclusion we find an inscrutable account of a notion of transitivity composed of ‘the possibility of signifying a diversity of referents / participant [sic] because of an act of changing (μετάβασις), and, secondly, the opportunity of implying the transfer (διάβασις)’ (145). I do not understand why we need to have a breakdown of the instances of διάβασις and μετάβασις by case (127-8). When we eventually get to the passages (129-30), the translations (which are not always very accurate) are given running interpretations, which makes them difficult to assess: we lack a focussed discussion about the interpretative choices in each case. Nothing in this paper seems to be a substantial advance on the concise and helpful definitions of these words given by Dickey (2007) 231, 246 (a useful book which no contributor to the volume cited); the entries there make it clear that there is some overlap between διάβασις and μετάβασις, but that the overall scope of these terms is slightly different.[4]

Finally, we can take a pair of papers on Aristotelian terminology together. Paola Cotticelli-Kurras’ contribution is a disappointment: the paper is difficult to follow, swollen with long quotations, and in the end dedicated to a very modest objective, namely proving that Burkett (2011) was wrong to suggest that the distinction between λέξις εἰρομένη and λέξις κατεστραμμένη could be described syntactically. In fact, judging from Cotticelli-Kurras’ own quotations, I think that Burkett’s description is misrepresented, and that Cotticelli-Kurras herself fails to provide a coherent account of Aristotle’s rather subtle argument. At 46-47 Cotticelli-Kurras, in a long footnote, cites Burkett at length; the long passage, which she characterises as ‘of high pertinence’, terms Aristotle’s ‘thoroughly rhetorical theory’ opposed to ‘rationalist dualisms’. Burkett does claim that εἰρομένη and κατεστραμμένη (‘linear metaphors’)[5] correspond to parataxis and hypotaxis respectively, but he adds a good deal of more granulated analysis in what follows; it is a mistake, then, to read Burkett as arguing for a narrowly syntactic understanding of Aristotle. Furthermore, albeit that Burkett and Cotticelli-Kurras are correct to see Aristotle’s terms of analysis as rhetorical, the fact remains that the examples of κατεστραμμένη in Rhet. 3.9.7 do all feature subordination; it might be a coincidence, but it cannot be claimed that a syntactic characterisation is a misreading of Aristotle’s examples, which Cotticelli-Kurras herself never analyses, even if it is not a secured interpretation of his theory. In other words, syntax might emerge epiphenomenally from Aristotle, which would be of considerable interest for intellectual history. Cotticelli-Kurras herself is surprisingly careless about the history of scholarship: ‘recent commentators’ encompass an 1898 commentary as well as Burkett (2011) (7, 43). Giorgio Graffi’s paper, a concise and focussed analysis of ῥῆμα and λόγος, is considerably more successful in teasing out fine distinctions between different meanings of these words. The account of ῥῆμα as ‘predicate’ was a particularly successful aspect of the paper. I would have welcomed a better sense of dialogue between Cotticelli-Kurras and Graffi on the meaning of the term σύνδεσμος. Cotticelli-Kurras simply states outright, without argument, what she thinks the word means in the context of λέξις εἰρομένη (16; one misses a reference to Trenkner 1948 to say nothing of more recent work on particles); Graffi is less dogmatic and less forthcoming (89-90). Yet the point is an important contact between the two papers: what does the fact that something can be a unity by means of σύνδεσμος mean for the analysis of the λέξις εἰρομένη?

This reviewer is a fan of physical books. These papers should not have been one, however, much less a poorly proof-read astronomically expensive volume in variable English. As a special issue of a journal, or perhaps as a volume of institutional ‘working papers’, these articles could have been more accessible, especially since very few people will be equally interested in all of them, and would have lent themselves more easily to further work. Perhaps the best thing to be said about this book is that it shows there is much to do.


T. Clary, 2014. ‘The unaccusativity hypothesis and case selection of cognate complements in Latin’, Glotta 90: 87-104
E. Dickey, 2007. Ancient Greek Scholarship. Oxford.
G. Eckert, 1992. Thema, Rhema und Fokus. Eine Studie zur Klassifizierung von indirekten Fragensätzen und Relativsätzen im Lateinischen. Münster. 1992
W. D. C. de Melo, 2019. Varro. De Lingua Latina. 2 vols. Oxford.
N. Lavidas, 2009. Transitivity Alternations in Diachrony. Newcastle upon Tyne.
S. Trenkner, 1948. Le style ΚΑΙ dans le récit attique oral. Brussels.

Table of Contents

Preface v
List of Tables xi
Paola Cotticelli-Kurras, Clause relations in Ancient Greek Grammatical tradition? 1
Antonella Duso and Renato Oniga, Linguistic thought in Rome before Varro 51
Giorgio Graffi, Ῥῆμα and Λόγος in Aristotle: what can (or cannot) they mean? 75
Stephanos Matthaios, ἐμπειρία, τέχνη, and beyond. Recent controversies on the ‘analogy vs. anomaly quarrel’ in historical and theoretical context 95
Roberta Meneghel, On the metalinguistic passage from διάβασις and μετάβασις by Apollonius Dyscolus to transitio by Priscian 117
Stella Merlin Defanti,‘Quis vel qui’. A controversial classification in Latin grammatical sources 151
List of Contributors 203
Index Rerum et Nominum 205
Index Auctorum Antiquorum et Locorum 211


[1] ‘Some similarities can be discovered between the authors: they do not only mention the passage of action’ (117) – are these ancient or modern authors, however, and what does ‘passage of action’ mean, beyond being a calque of διάβασις? ‘This use reflects further the framework that has just been illustrated’, 139, but it is not clear what ‘framework’ this is; ‘the passage in (21)’, 142, seems to show that example numbers have dropped out of the text. ‘Although in a clause the verb is considered the pivot, transitivity is not thereof a distinctive feature, but it regards the whole situation, in linguistic terminology, the state of affairs’ (119): this statement is supposed to illustrate ‘the ancient concept of transitivity’, while drawing on modern theoretical concepts.

[2] ‘The preverbal διά, “through”, implies etymological duality expressing a separative value between two elements’, 127. This is the etymological fallacy, for a start, bolstered with a reference to Beekes’ unreliable etymological dictionary (which is not listed in the bibliography); apparently in the case of Latin trans ‘the nuance of duality is lost’ (138), a confusing and unexplained statement.

[3] The one case of a parallel passage is bafflingly ignored, printed on separate pages, 137 and 140, and left for the reader to discover and explore. It seems rather a missed opportunity to set out the problem that Meneghel is trying to grapple with.

[4] The paper might also have profited from engagement with recent work on transitivity in Greek (e.g. Lavidas 2009), which might have been a useful way to contextualise the semantic distinctions that grammarians might have needed to make, even if modern grammatical description and native speaker intuition do not always align.

[5] Aristotle’s metaphors and the role they play in his thought are crying out for a thorough treatment; there are suggestive remarks in Cotticelli-Kurras’ piece.