LINGUIST List 13.3162

Tue Dec 3 2002

Disc: Roger Bacon Quote

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Michael A. Covington, Re: 13.3156, Disc: Roger Bacon Quote

Message 1: Re: 13.3156, Disc: Roger Bacon Quote

Date: Tue, 3 Dec 2002 00:30:14 -0500
From: Michael A. Covington <>
Subject: Re: 13.3156, Disc: Roger Bacon Quote

Joseph F Foster <> writes:

> With reference to the Roger Bacon quote (Linguist 13.2985 and
> Linguist 13.296), the quote indicates Bacon had some notion
> that grammars of all languages were alike in in substance though
> different in "accidence". Substance is being taken to mean or have
> meant "essential ways" and accidence to mean "non-essential" ways.
> I wonder, not about the translation, but rather about the evaluation
> of such a claim, both then and now.
> Can anybody tell us how many languages Bacon knew, or at least had
> more than a passing acquaintance with? Or even supposed existed?

I'm not sure about Bacon himself, but anything beyond Latin, some
Greek, and a few contemporary European languages (the latter not
analyzed in any detail) would be very unusual. They didn't go in for
comparative linguistics in medieval Europe.

You are right on target in questioning whether his remarks were
empirically based. In the century following Bacon, theoretical
grammar (grammatica speculativa) became a major subfield of
philosophy, but it was concerned mostly with what we would now call
philosophy of language, not linguistics.

A group of grammarians called the Modistae (fl. about 1270-1320)
worked out a rather detailed analysis of Latin on philosophical
principles. They used a dependency model of syntax and were
interested in the syntax-semantics interface. One of them (Radulphus
Brito) even proposed transformations (i.e., proposed that some
sentences are not grammatical in the form in which we see them, but
rather, the grammar sanctions them in a different form and then the
sentences obligatorily or optionally change form).

The movement ended rather abruptly when the nominalists came along and
knocked down the Aristotelian philosophical foundation. The
grammatical theory could have survived but didn't.

For much more about this see my 1985 book, Syntactic Theory in the
High Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press). I am no longer working
in this field; in fact, when I finished that book I had the definite
feeling that I had mined nearly everything that was there. More
recent work by the late Vivien Law tracks the developments in
preceding centuries that led up to the Modistae.

Michael Covington
University of Georgia
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