16 December, 2006

Latin: an alternate history

I never trust a language without palato-alveolar sibilants. But this could just be the Jew and Teuton in me. You need a thickness in a tongue, a roughness, and the closest Latin comes is a labiodental fricative, although the voiced variety would arrive only in the first century AD, when the Latin V started becoming consonantal. The sibilant deficiency gives the language a cold, precise quality, a mood augmented by its elaborate inflectional system, and (in contrast to Greek) by its syntactic brevity—a rhetor like Demosthenes could deploy a full panoply of articles and particles, lacking in Latin, to organise and embellish his thoughts.

What I most dislike about Latin, however, is its lexical conservatism, a resistance to fancy quite alien to our (my) sensibilities. Homer could roll out elaborate compounds like the rhododaktulos and koruthaiolos with which we're familiar; Pacuvius, Ennius' nephew, tried to do the same in Latin, as in a line preserved by Quintiliannerei repandirostrum incurvicervicum pecus, 'The flock of Nereus snoutuplifted, neckinarched'—but it didn't catch on. Indeed, Quintilian sneers at Pacuvius for such an attempt, calling the effect 'harsh' [dure]. The orator then offers a classification of different compounds—the sort of thing we have Sanskrit names for now, delightfully—listing those built from different languages, of two or three elements, etc. He concludes:
But compounds are better suited to Greek than to Latin, though I do not think that this is due to the nature of our language: the reason rather is that we have a preference for foreign goods, and therefore receive κυρταύχην with applause, whereas we can scarce defend incurvicervicus from derisive laughter.
Interestingly, Quintilian denies that compounding is not suited to the nature of Latin; but the history of the language suggests otherwise. One can talk about the nature of a language not in any existential, Hegelian terms, but just insofar as Quintilian himself discussed consuetudo, ie. that which the speakers of the language are accustomed to doing. True, there are compounds, even some in verse, where metrical difficulties apply—such as Vergil's auricomos, 'golden-tressed', applied to the Bough—but it is not the norm. L. J. D. Richardson's essay, 'Virgil and the Homeric Epithet', Greece and Rome 1943, examines some of the issues involved.

The mainstream history of Latin through the Middle Ages and Renaissance is a history of dogged adherence to classical models, falling away, and then again reviving, an adherence which reached its peak with the cult of Ciceronianism in the 16th century. Erasmus makes fun of these classical pedants in his dialogue Ciceronianus (1528), whose stock fool Nosoponus has compiled an alphabetical lexicon of all the words and phrases used in Cicero's works, a lexicon to which he limits himself in his own writing. It was not so far-fetched—the real-life humanist Nizolius had already compiled his Thesaurus Ciceronianus for the same purpose. (An old tutor once accused me of being a 'Nizolian engrosser of blotted pie-dish linings', an insult which for some reason has lingered with me.) Within 100 years, Justus Lipsius and Joseph Hall would be channelling Seneca in Cicero's place, terse instead of fully periodic.


But there have been at least two attempts to make Latin interesting—the first in seventh-century Ireland, the second in High Renaissance Italy. By 600 classical Latin had definitively given way to mediaeval—Gregory of Tours is sometimes taken as the first 'bad Latinist'—and in the British Isles the language remained a somewhat alien commodity. It was here, after all, that scribes began adding spaces between words to aid reading, something unknown on the Continent. It is quite possible that Adrian of Canterbury introduced to Britain the North African tradition of decadent Latin found notably in Apuleius. Graves notes in the preface to his tight-arsed Golden Ass:
In my translation I have made no attempt to bring out the oddness of the Latin by writing in a style, say, somewhere between Lyly's Euphues and Amanda Ros's Irene Iddesleigh [Graves is obviously thinking of this essay]; paradoxically, the effect of oddness is best achieved in convulsed times like the present by writing in as easy and sedate an English as possible.
These words were written in 1947, eight years after Finnegans Wake, in the dusk of High Modernism, by a snivelling reactionary. But Apuleius, with his rhyming alliterations and occasional unusual forms ('famigerabilis') is quite tame compared to the verbal bestiaries of the seventh century Isles. I've already written about that bizarre Irish grammar of this period (or a little later), the Auraicept. The body of Hiberno-Latin poetry known as the Hisperica Famina, available in a modern edition with translation by Michael Herren, preserves many such oddities:
Uelut innumera apium concauis discurrunt examina apiastris
melchillentaque sorbillant fluenta alueariis,
ac solidos scemicant rostris fauos.

Titaneus olimphiam inflamat arotus tabulatum,
thalasicum illustrat uapore flustrum
flammiuomo secat polum corusco supernum,
almi scandit camaram firmamenti.
Or glaucicomantes cellium, 'bluemantled hills'. Apparently there's some Hebrew loaning in here too, but I don't remember where. From these roots, historically speaking, grew the literary tradition in England—most scholars read Aldhelm, the first great English writer (of Latin), as a writer in the 'hisperic' tradition, though this is disputed.

Still more interesting is the work of the mysterious Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, a grammarian of sorts from 7th-century Britain or Ireland. His treatises, the Epitomae and Epistolae, are full of odd collocations and deliberate perversions and obfuscations. He has been commonly taken as a parodist, though Vivien Law reads him rather as an arcanist. Words in his text are like gnostic spellwords, little observing Latin morphology—at one point he lists Twelve 'Latins', his jargon spewing out in a torrent of letters: assena, semedia, numeria (nim, dun, tor, quir, quan, ses, sen, onx, amin, ple), metrofia (dicantabat, bora, gcno, sade, teer, rfoph, brops, rihph, gal, fkal, clitps, mrmos, fann, ulioa, gabpal, blaqth, merc, pal, gatrb, biun, spadx), lumbrosa, sincolla, belsavia, presina, militana, spela, polema. H. A. Strong, better known as the translator of Hermann Paul, wrote a marvelously speculative 1903 article on these words, which if you have access to JSTOR is available here. Elsewhere Virgilius deliberates about the declension of ego, and specifically about its vocative case (how do you say "O I"?). He writes of word-scrambling, scinderatio fonorum—as if from Greek φωνη—
Scinderatio autem litterarum superflua est, sed tamen a glifosis sensuque subtilibus recipitur; unde et fona breuia scindi magis commodius est quam longa, ut Cicero dicit: RRR SS PP MM N T EE OO A V I, quod sic soluendum est: Spes Romanorum perit.
With these examples, Latin is played with by outsiders. In humanist Italy it would be played with again. The relationship of Latin to Italian—specifically, to Tuscan, unquestionably the queen of Italian dialects—had been of great interest since Dante's De volgare eloquentia (1305). In 1435 a debate was held at the Papal Chancellery in Florence. All the greats were present—Flavio Biondo, Poggio Bracciolini, Leonardo Bruni, and so on. Bruni argued that Tuscan had evolved out of the vernacular Latin spoken by the ancients; Biondo, on the other hand, argued that Tuscan had arisen from the clash of Latin with the tongues of barbarian (Lombard) invaders in the early Dark Ages. The debate was politically charged, of course—Bruni the Florentine, whose earlier work had established Florence as heir to the Roman Republic, and Biondo, based at Rome, the man who had coined the 'Middle Ages', desperate to restore classical Latin free from impurity. Biondo was right, in any event.

The debate was still going with Machiavelli in the next century. So when works started being written in the 'Macaronic style', mixing Latin and Tuscan in the same sentence, it must have been a rude shock. As the humanists were gaining a historical consciousness of their language and culture, so the Macaronic poets would dissolve history in their linguistic conflations. The first great monument of the style is the legendary 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii:
Peritissimamente quivi la dulciloqua Logistica fece alquanta narratione: physiculabonda laudava la praestante factione et la nobilitate della materia et arte et inveto (quale non se trovarebbe in Muriano) et vituperando la sua natura, et dixe. . .
A first edition of this work is still available on abebooks for $185,000; alas, I could only afford the modern translation. Like Graves, Joscelyn Godwin admits in his introduction to having made no effort to reproduce the book's style in English, only his reason is laziness, not pointed stylistic conservatism.

The canonical writer in the genre, however, is Teofilo Folengo, aka. Merlin Coccaius, a favourite of Rabelais's. When I was last in Florence I walked into an Einaudi, and my eye alighted on a copy of Folengo's great epic, Baldus. It was a beautiful edition, with a facing-page translation into modern Italian, and illustrated with contemporary paintings in full colour. The clerk was amazed that I wanted to buy it, especially as my Italian was only barely adequate to make the purchase. Later I spent an entire evening in my hotel-room, deciphering the first page with a bad Italian dictionary. It was fun!
Magna bachiocheries hominis, ratione dobati,
et cui soletto fazza levata datur,
velle per has tenebras orbum seguitare mulazzum.

Grande è la coglioneria dell'uomo, pur di ragion vestito, se pur lui solo in su la faccia rivolge al cielo, quando per le tenebre si mette a inormar le peste di un mulaccio cieco.
This is a typical excerpt, three lines from Folengo's lyrics Zanitonella, XVIII, with an Italian prose gloss. We see here, as in the Hypnerotomachia, the conflation of Italian (fazza, seguitare) and Latin (ratione, datur) forms, the combined form (mulazzum) as well as the plain weird (bachiocheries).

Of course, this material is all immensely difficult, and at the last count beyond my meagre capabilities. It pleases me, however, to know it exists, and some day I'd be interested to explore further. Why were these two places, the early mediaeval British Isles and flourishing humanist Italy, so diametrically opposite in culture, the twin loci for such verbal experimentation? Was it the heightened conflict, at each time, of elite Latin with the thriving vernacular? The degree and direction of cultural appropriation is difficult to discern in both cases. None of the above writers has given Latin palato-alveolar sibilants (although by this time Ecclesiastical Latin had provided a tch for the hard classical c); nor have they diminished its inflections, nor increased its verbosity. But they have provided a new rhythm, allowed not just new words but new ways of forming words, and put the slangiest of speech into written letters, just as Rabelais would allegedly comb the French shores for unrecorded billingsgate.

I leave you with this modern hispericum, C. A. Carruthers' Latin rendering of Lewis Carroll:
Est briligum: tovi slimici
In vabo tererotitant;
Brogovi sunt macresculi,
Momi rati strugitant.
Update: Languagehat links; further discussion of the vocative I, unexpectedly, at Jabal al-Lughat, which cites a reference to Virgilius from Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Update 12/08/07: "zmjezhd", née Uncle Jazzbeau, links, with more to say on macaronism.


John Cowan said...

Nizolian engrosser of blotted pie-dish linings

A wonderful insult, right up there with Chip Delaney's line from Dhalgren: "naugahyde rimmer of rusty '56 Chevy exhaust pipes".

On a slightly more sober note, look to the Latin of tenth-century León for wild wonderfulness, though of a very different flavor (okay, Menéndez Pidal was a nut, but the texts themselves are still interesting).

And so it's no surprise, really, that the Romance languages generally are rather hostile to compounds, with the partial exception of Romanian, which fell under the Slavic spell when the shepherds came down at last from the mountains where they had hidden themselves.

One wonders what a Romance language thoroughly imbued with (East?) Germanic, a sort of anti-English, would be like; we already know what a Romance language surviving on British soil would have been.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Nice link. Tell us more about tenth-century Leon, John; I must admit that Spain has always been something of a blind spot for me.

"Q" the Enchanter said...

"Est briligum: tovi slimici
In vabo tererotitant;
Brogovi sunt macresculi,
Momi rati strugitant."

I don't know. Sounds like nonsense to me.

FSJL said...

Why is Robert Graves a 'snivelling reactionary'? I'm just curious.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Graves was consciously producing old-fashioned and traditional materials in reaction to the literary experimentation around him. That said, you could arguably see him as a radical against modernism. I must admit to disliking Graves' aesthetic, although his White Goddess is undeniably a conservative's masterpiece.

Raminagrobis said...

Once again, your savantissime lucubrations nos docent and nobis placent. To retractate the sermons of the inclyte limousin scholasticus, icelluy blog est apte nate a despumer la historia de la verbocination latiale, et par veles et rames il se enite de nous locupleter de la redundance latinicome.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Polloi gratiariationi, bellamie.