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).

As even this example shows, there are other forms of linguistic competence, both active and passive, than the ability to compose, or appreciate, works of literature: while we need not believe, as the Florentines of Petrarch’s day did, that St Paul wept at Virgil’s tomb, neither should we suppose that, even though his Roman flock spoke Greek, he could get by in that city without understanding a word of Latin. Nor indeed, although it has virtually monopolised the study of Roman bilingualism, was Greek the only foreign language with which Latin came into contact: Romans had dealings with the related Italic languages such as Oscan and Umbrian, the more distantly related Gaulish, and the unrelated Etruscan; no less important was Punic, the language of Carthage, longstanding trading partner turned bitter enemy. Other subjects of the expanding Empire spoke such languages as Iberian, Germanic, Egyptian and Aramaic; even if Romans could largely ignore the local speech and have their way by shouting loudly enough in Latin (or Greek), the speakers of those languages could not escape the influence of the master tongues.

Adams’s focus is on languages as used by non-native speakers, rather than the permanent effect of one language on another even as spoken by monolinguals. However, this principle is not applied over-rigidly. Take the example of loan-words, which, as Adams remarks, ‘as often as not are used by monolinguals and are thus not necessarily relevant to bilingualism’. English-speakers may talk about goulash and hussars without knowing Hungarian, and few know that coach has the same origin, namely kocsi, ‘made in Kocs’, as for a time the best coaches were. Similarly, most of the Latin terms for wheeled carriages were of Gaulish origin but had become fully naturalised, and so, in Gaul itself, were words meaning ‘beer’, but in other cases there is more sign of awareness that certain words were Gaulish, even if their users did not themselves speak that language: only a Gaulish slave could be called ambactus.

In general, literary Latin took little notice of languages other than Greek, though a late Roman epigram complains that no one can produce good poetry amid Goths hailing each other and calling in their own language for meat and drink to be supplied; the Gothic words – eils, scapia matzia ia (jah, ‘and’) drincan – though somewhat mangled, are easily recognisable. Adams quotes this poem, though not those that Venantius Fortunatus wrote in sixth-century Gaul exhibiting the Germanic rhuna (‘rune’), harpa (‘harp’) and the name of the British crwth or fiddle, crotta.

The epigrammatist and Venantius were writing for people who might be expected to know what the words meant. Far more remarkably, in Plautus’ comedy Poenulus (‘The Little Carthaginian’) the native speaker Hanno is allowed to deliver speeches in Punic, which Semitic scholars take seriously; Adams seems unnecessarily impressed by the suggestion that they were borrowed from the Greek original. Even if an Athenian playwright could find a Carthaginian to provide a Punic text, he could not expect the audience to endure more than the odd line, like the line of Old Persian that some scholars think they can find in Aristophanes; at Rome, after the Second Punic War, not only could Plautus have easily obtained an informant, but there would have been Carthaginian freedmen in the audience. How widespread knowledge of Punic was among Roman veterans is another question; Adams is right to read little into the possible derivation of the Roman greeting ave from Punic hawo ‘live’, since most English-speakers can recognise bonjour and guten Tag even if they do not know French and German, and many of them use ciao without knowing either Venetian (in which it is properly the word for ‘slave’) or Italian (as it is now thought correct to call the standard language), which has adopted it as a salutation.

Not only words might be borrowed, but structures. Since Romans associated the peoples of central Italy with magic, it is no surprise to find curse-tablets or defixiones in Oscan before they appear in Latin, and providing models of expression (‘may he be able neither to speak nor utter’) that the Latin texts imitate; conversely, later Oscan legal inscriptions seem to translate characteristic Latin formulae word for word. Unfortunately we have little idea how these things might have been expressed in Oscan before Latin influence made itself felt, in contrast to the Greek documents, especially those from Republican times, in which the unidiomatic and barely grammatical transference of Latin phraseology is painfully apparent even to us and must have been more so to those who received them.

A good example of contact phenomena is afforded by men’s names. The Italic peoples had all adopted the Etruscan system of personal and family names, but had different means of indicating the father’s personal name: in Latin it stood in the genitive after the family name and was itself followed by f. for filius; in Oscan it followed without a word for ‘son’; in Umbrian it was made into an adjective and stood before the family name. However, some later Umbrian inscriptions use the Latin system, some Oscan inscriptions the Umbrian order, and some Campanian Latin texts omit f., as in Oscan. Etruscans did not always bother with the father’s name in their own language, but added it to the Latin text of bilingual inscriptions; on the other hand, they frequently named their mothers, and carried the custom over into Latin. In Greek, where the family name did not exist, the father’s name would simply be added in the genitive; official Roman texts in Greek, which translate f. in Roman names as huios, usually leave Greek names in the correct form, but sometimes insert huios there too. Dedication inscriptions on Delos vary in usage: sometimes Greeks erecting statues to Romans would give them their huios, sometimes Romans in their own inscriptions would leave it out.

In recent years, linguists have paid considerable attention to code-switching, the change in mid-communication from one language to another. Here literary evidence forms a greater part of the whole, since Romans who would have shunned Greek in the higher genres were happy to drop into and out of it in less exalted writing such as letters. This has sometimes been seen as a mark of intimacy and jocularity; Adams shows that although it is often found in such contexts, the true facts are far more complex. Cicero’s readiness to drop Greek into his letters is sometimes a function of his addressee’s attitude to the language; did the individual in question regard the use of Greek as the mark of superior cultivation or of cultural cringe? The abandon with which he uses Greek to Atticus suggests not merely a free and easy friendship, but also the two men’s standing joke that Atticus, by virtue of his cognomen and his fluency in the language, was an honorary Greek. Sometimes the Greek is a literary quotation, sometimes a philosophical or other technical term, in either case asserting (sometimes from politeness) a cultural equality between writer and reader; in other letters Cicero uses Greek of his son in order to persuade the reader (and himself) that the young man is turning into the intellectual he wished him to be. On other occasions again Greek affords a euphemism for medical or other unpleasantnesses, just as Latin or French has done with us; literary Greek may also be used for security, as when ho Krotoniates, ‘the man from Crotone’, whom an uneducated letter-bearer would not know as the great athlete Milo of the sixth century BC, is used to denote the contemporary politician T. Annius Milo. Sometimes, too, the sheer richness and ease of word-formation that distinguished Greek from Latin made the Greek word more expressive or convenient than any Latin equivalent. This is a very rich chapter indeed, all the richer for the awareness of the distinction between literary and current Greek; Adams cites the theory that Caesar’s last words, kai su teknon, literally ‘you too, my child’, mean not ‘so even you have turned against me’ but ‘to hell with you too, lad.’

Whereas Greek was the language of higher culture, Latin was the language of superior power; this manifests itself in many ways, from the Latinised Greek already noted in official inscriptions to the inclusion, within texts written by native speakers in Greek and other languages, of Latin dates and numerals. It was not only a soldier in a novel who asserted authority over a Greek-speaker by addressing him in Latin that he did not understand: Romans of high position in Republican times delivered their speeches to Greeks in Latin, leaving their subordinates to translate them. Cicero, indeed, was attacked for letting Rome down by not doing likewise at Syracuse. (Augustus used Greek at Alexandria, but having become master of the Imperium Romanum by force of arms he could afford to.)

On the other hand, using the subjects’ language could also be regarded as a display of superiority; that is Adams’s interpretation of the third language in Pilate’s inscription over the Cross, ‘an act of offensive accommodation . . . meant to annoy the Jews’. One could wish to be told which Jews (the priestly authorities? Jesus’ remaining followers?), and in what way they were to be annoyed; not everyone who passed by Golgotha could be presumed capable of reading Greek, let alone Latin. Perhaps the point was to remind the Jewish leadership that it was they, not Pilate, who had procured Jesus’ execution; but in his separate chapter on Latin in Egypt Adams finds no such insult in Gallus’ use of Egyptian along with Greek and Latin on his inscription at Philae; and, as he also notes, different people may interpret the same action in different ways. (Dr Johnson wrote of ‘the insolence of condescension’; but in more hierarchical days the implication was sometimes not insolence but graciousness.) Nevertheless, Pilate – who, as a protégé of the disgraced Sejanus, may have felt under pressure of denunciation (‘thou art not Caesar’s friend’) to a paranoid and somewhat pro-Jewish Emperor – made an exception to the Romans’ normal practice of treating Greek and Latin as the only languages of the Empire. In any case, Adams is right to point out that this ‘Hebrew’ must have been Aramaic; he cites an article by Joseph Geiger, but the fact was already known to Rubens, who exhibits the correct language in more than one of his Crucifixions, though not to the crude forger whose handiwork, together with its authentication by Pope Alexander VI, is proudly displayed at S. Croce in Gerusalemme at Rome.

In the later Roman Empire Greeks were under increasing pressure to learn Latin; their efforts produce substandard Latin of a very different kind from that of poorly educated native speakers, as Adams shows by comparing translations of two Greek fables by Babrius with the letters of Claudius Terentianus (the bilingual soldier from second-century Egypt on whom he wrote in one of his monographs) and others from Vindolanda. The translations bear all too much resemblance to those produced by less able or willing schoolchildren in any age; but whereas their work is written down only once, by its hapless authors, the Latin renderings of Babrius were transcribed by another hand, which introduced further errors. Adams cites a parallel, an attempted Latin-to-Greek vocabulary of the Aeneid; but one would like to know rather more about how such things came to pass. Nevertheless, it seems ungrateful to ask for more when there is no space here to register all the wealth of learning displayed in this book on matters ranging from syntactical interference between Greek and Latin in dedications to the potters’ texts from La Graufenesque, many of which switch repeatedly between Gaulish and Latin.

The relations between Latin and other languages resist simple summary; it is greatly to Adams’s credit that he does not attempt to impose an artificial pattern on them, but only to bring out certain themes, from the various types of interference between languages to the use of Latin script by native speakers in place of the inherited writing system. The reader who completes this book will have ranged over a broad field from the sociolinguistics of code-switching to late Latin genitives in –aes instead of –ae, learning an immense amount and unlearning many errors (such as that the army insisted on Latin); despite its steep price, it is essential for all who would study the linguistic situation in the Roman world.

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