God’s Will

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

  • Bilingualism and the Latin Language by J.N. Adams
    Cambridge, 836 pp, £100.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 521 81771 4

A poor gardener in Macedonia was riding a donkey when a soldier addressed him in Latin, asking him where he was taking the beast; unable to understand the question, he said nothing, whereupon the soldier knocked him off his mount. The gardener humbly explained in Greek that he did not know Latin; the soldier repeated his question in Greek, and received his answer. So runs an episode in the Golden Ass; although in the end the gardener beats up the soldier, the story indicates the need for subjects and citizens of the Roman Empire to know some basic Latin for their own sake. It also shows the soldier, even though he can speak Greek and is in Greek-speaking country, using Latin in order to remind the natives who is master.

This familiar narrative is cited in J.N. Adams’s splendid new book, which surveys the knowledge and use of Latin by native speakers of other languages and the knowledge and use of other languages by native speakers of Latin. Adams brings to his subject the linguistic skills already displayed, within a smaller compass, in his monographs on Vulgar Latin texts (Anonymus Valesianus II and Claudius Terentianus) and on the Latin vocabulary of sex (1982) and veterinary medicine (1995). It complements the volume on Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Word, edited by Adams, Marc Janse and Simon Swain.[*] Together with Bruno Rochette’s Le Latin dans le monde grec (1997), which is mainly concerned with literature, these books have placed the study of language in the Roman Empire on a far firmer footing.

Until recently, most classical scholars had been content with the superficial impression, presented by the higher literature of Greek and Latin, that educated Romans were perfect in their Greek, whereas educated Greeks knew little or no Latin. In the last few decades it has become apparent that Greeks knew more Latin than they cared to admit; the suggestion that imperial Greek authors adopted themes from Roman literature is no longer taken for a slur on their ethnic integrity, and some scholars are willing to admit that Latin authors were capable of mistranslating and misunderstanding Greek. Juvenal used scribendi cacoethes to mean ‘compulsive scribbling’, unaware that a cacoethes was in fact a malignant tumour; he may claim the forgiveness of all who suppose that an inferiority complex is the mark of a wimp or that a quantum leap is long.

One of the easier mistakes in translating from a foreign language is giving a word the sense most familiar in one’s own day. It is therefore small wonder that the Greek hupatos, used by the author of the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise On the Cosmos in the poetic sense of ‘supreme’, should be rendered in the Latin version attributed to Apuleius by its current meaning of consul; Adams’s comment that ‘even Greeks themselves may have had problems in understanding earlier literature’ is borne out by the trouble that Dionysius of Halicarnassus has with some not very difficult Thucydides. A much more striking example of incomprehension, which has left its mark in modern languages and which Adams does not mention, concerns the Greek diatheke, a general term for ‘disposition’ but most commonly a will (as our lawyers speak of ‘testamentary disposition’). This was rendered by an unknown Christian, whether a Latin-speaker misunderstanding Greek or a Greek-speaker misinterpreting his own language, testamentum, as if God could die and leave a will, as the none too bright Heracles imagines Zeus might do in Aristophanes’ Birds. However, although Adams discusses Jerome, Augustine and other Christian authors intermittently, there is no general consideration of the effect on the Latin spoken by Christians of subliterary Greek, itself subject to Hebrew or Aramaic interference; valuable work on that has already been done by the Nijmegen School, even if one does not believe its hypothesis that Christian Latin was not merely Latin with a few strange words and expressions, but a separate language (which would logically exclude it from consideration in a book concerned with the pagan tongue).

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[*] Oxford, 494 pp., £65, November 2002, 0 19 924506 1.