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Review of  Bilingualism and the Latin Language

Reviewer: Lelija Socanac
Book Title: Bilingualism and the Latin Language
Book Author: J. N. Adams
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Latin
Issue Number: 14.3178

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Date: Tue, 18 Nov 2003 15:49:33 +0100
From: Lelija Socanac
Subject: Bilingualism and the Latin Language

Adams, J. N. (2003) Bilingualism and the Latin Language, Cambridge University Press.

Lelija Socanac, Linguistic Research Institute, Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Zagreb, Croatia.


Bilingualism has become since the 1980's one of the major themes of sociolinguistics. Most research, however, has focused on language contacts today; less attention has been paid to language contacts from a historical perspective. So far, classicists have dealt with bilingualism to some extent, focusing on elite bilingualism in the classical period, involving contacts between Latin and Greek. Those studying bilingualism in Roman antiquity have tended to concentrate on some subjects to the exclusion of others. Loan-words have been investigated to the neglect of code-switching, and lexical phenomena have been studied to the neglect of syntax, morphology and orthography.

This book marks a radical departure from this trend by exploring sub-elite bilingualism in the Roman period (down to about the fourth century AD) as the first work to deal systematically with bilingualism during a period of antiquity in the light of sociolinguistic approaches to bilingual issues. Three major topics are discussed: code-switching, language contact as a determinant of linguistic change, and the part played by language choice in the projection of identity. A number of other topics are also dealt with, such as Roman language policies in the imperial administration and the army, second-language acquisition, the emergence of 'reduced languages', functions of accomodation, concepts of diglossia in specific social settings, language choice as a form of power or as an expression of solidarity, the bilingual dimension to literacy etc. Regional variation in Latin as determined by contact with other languages is one of the major themes as well. In addition, names and name changing as a result of language contact are discussed in a variety of languages.

The book is divided into two parts, the first four chapters being thematic, and the next four presenting case studies devoted to particular places and texts.

Chapter 1: "Introduction" gives a broad overview of the topics presented in greater detail in the chapters that follow. Borrowing, code-switching and interference are defined and discussed, pointing to difficulties in making clear-cut distinctions. Sources of information are presented, including bilingual texts involving a juxtaposition of two separate versions, transliterated texts written in a script appropriate to a language different from the language of the text itself, mixed-language texts combining two languages within a single utterance, and texts implicitly reflecting bilingual situation, i.e. those that are written in one language but showing signs of interference or influence from another.

Apparently, language contacts between Latin and various vernaculars did not result in the emergence of a pidgin since there is no evidence of genuinely uninflected texts or texts that would not have been intelligible to speakers of Latin. Reduced forms of communication do not seem to have been institutionalized to such an extent that the outcome can be described as a new contact language.

Chapter 2: "Languages in Contact with Latin" presents contacts between Latin and a wide range of vernacular languages, including Italic languages (Oscan, Umbrian, Venetic, Messapic), Etruscan, Celtic (Gaulish), Punic, Libiyan, Berber, Aramaic, Hebrew, Germanic and Hispanic languages, Egyptian, Getic, Sarmatian and Thracian. The evidence consists partly of inscriptions and other documents in which two or more languages (one of them Latin) stand side by side, and partly of testimonia which refer to speakers of Latin using another language as well. The texts show borrowing and interference on different linguistic levels, as well as extensive code-switching.

The most obvious contribution made by vernacular languages to Latin was in the lexicon, with loanwords that can be regarded as contact-induced regionalisms. The influence of the Italic languages is found in specific texts, such as "defixiones", referring to certain magical practices. The Latin influence was indisputable in most domains, especially the army and the law. There is no evidence, however, that Romans tried to stamp out regional languages; the initiative was probably taken by the regional upper classes themselves in acquiring the language of the dominant power. There is abundant evidence for primary speakers of vernacular languages learning Latin, but virtually none for Latin speakers learning any of these languages, with the only exception of Etruscan and Punic in the early Republican period.

One instrument of Romanisation consisted of giving instruction in Latin literacy to provincials in the western provinces, accompanied by some suppression of local literacy practices. The old languages came for a period to be written in Latin script, before dying out. The esteem of Latin, combined with an ambition to get on in the Roman world, is seen as the primary determinant of language shift in the western provinces, where there was no competing language of culture to rival Latin. The change of languages usually occurred first at the official level, while in private, informal usage the vernaculars were not dropped so abruptly.

Chapter 3: "Code-switching" presents various aspects of the phenomenon which is defined as "the full blown switches from one language into another within one person's utterance or piece of writing". The main issues under consideration include competence, solidarity, identity and topic or genre. Code-switching (CS) could result either from the bilingual's competence or from a speaker's lack of competence in the second language. Switching through imperfect competence could be committed by second-language learners such as slaves of foreign origin or other immigrants in Rome, for instance. Switching into Greek in Latin literary texts was primarily related to genre. In the formal literary genres such as historiography, oratory and epic poetry switching as a rule did not take place. On the other hand, in less formal genres such as the plays of Plautus, early satire and epistolography it was admitted more or less frequently. It is found most often in the sub-genre of letters to intimates, where it can be regarded as a sort of game played between two members of a self-conscious cultural elite sharing same cultural background. In this sense code-switching was a mark of identity and a means of expressing in-group membership.

Frequent functions of CS include brief characterizations of someone's words (metalinguistic function), as well as distancing or euphemism in an attempt to make more acceptable the discussion of unpleasant matters. Switching into Greek at moments of tension did not involve the creative use of Greek at all, but the citation of Greek literary tags or proverbs.

Among the forms of code-switching, tag-switching was among the most common, since ready-made phrases and cliches do not require any creative skill. Greek words or expressions, especially technical terms from philosophy and rhetoric, were often used to fill gaps in the Latin language. Medical terminology was Greek to a large extent.

When there is pressure on bilinguals to use a public language, code-switching into the mother tongue is often a means of expressing solidarity with fellow members of a minority group. Thus Greek servile immigrants living in Rome retained Greek in the family as a "we-code", while attempting to employ Latin in external communication.

Code-switching is often an act of convergence with an addressee and as such it may sometimes be a means of expressing solidarity, but it can also be a way to exercise power. Latin, as the language of power, was often used in the official contexts to the exclusion of monolingual speakers of other languages.

Chapter 4: "Bilingualism, linguistic diversity and language change" presents factors which were responsible for variation and change in the Latin language, such as the choice of a register and style appropriate to the circumstances of composition, the educational level of the writer or speaker, and the area from which he originated. Bilingualism or language contact was also extremely important in this respect.

As the Roman Empire spread, Latin was carried to different parts of Europe functioning as a "supraregional" or "link" language. Gradually, the link language became "indigenized" as it took on different regional features which were to some extent due to interference from the first languages of the new speakers. Language contacts in different parts of the Empire resulted in the transfer of local terms from other languages into Latin, constituting an important, but largely neglected, regional feature of provincial varieties of Latin. Calques and loan-shifts were also very common especially in technical vocabularies created in Latin on Greek models. Instances of interference on the phonetic, morphological and syntactic levels are also discussed.

The Latin language cannot be treated as a unity where bilingual transfers are concerned; it was rather a collection of language varieties. There was the Latin of native speakers of the language, and that of foreigners (mainly Greeks) learning and writing Latin as a second language. The contact phenomena in these two varieties were very different. Greek lexical loans entered Latin in different social strata and in different varieties of the language. There were learned borrowings, introduced by educated first-language speakers of Latin, and popular borrowings introduced by lower-class Greeks acquiring Latin as a second language.

Bilingualism and language contact were important determinants of the diversification of Latin. Vernacular languages also placed a certain role in this respect, since the entry of substrate words into the local Latin probably contributed to dialectal diversity in peripheral areas of the Empire.

Chapter 5: "Latin in Egypt" focuses on the relationship between Latin and Greek in the eastern part of the Empire. Since Greek functioned as the lingua franca in Egypt, Latin had only a marginal place. The relationship between Latin and Greek was primarily reflected in the army and administration, where Greek was used on the local level, while Latin functioned as a political language for bringing out the Romanness of imperial power. Although the Romans did not officially demand that Roman citizens should speak Latin, it was sometimes expected that possessors of the "civitas" should know the language. Thus certain types of legalistic documents concerning Roman citizens were in Latin even if the citizens did not know the language. As a result, a cluster of documents survived in a mixture of languages, with Latin having the official status, while the Greek version was provided for the information of the Greek speaker. In court proceedings, Latin often provided the official framework of the interaction, while Greek was used to a large extent in the hearing itself. In the army, Latin was used as the language of passwords, receipts, "diplomata" or certificates of discharge of auxiliaries, dedications to emperors and some epitaphs. Since both languages were used for similar functions, there was not only interference from Greek in some Latin documents of military provenance, but also interference from Latin in Greek military texts. According to the author, the old diglossic opposition High-Low cannot be applied to the relationship between Latin and Greek in this context, since both languages enjoyed a high prestige.

Chapter 6: "Bilingualism at Delos" is an interesting case study of bilingualism in a trading community. Delos was the site of the earliest and largest Roman commercial community in the Greek world, where the Roman attitude to Greek was far more deferential than in some other Greek areas. Many inscriptions in Greek, Latin and both languages, bear witness to the activities of bilingual "negotiatores", and raise questions about the relationship between the two languages, the motivations of language choice and the character of the bilingualism of the traders.

The Italians could not be classified as exclusively or predominantly monolingual Latin speakers who had to adopt strategies for communicating in Greek. Neither Italy nor Rome was monolingual in Latin in the Republican period. There were Greeks of diverse eastern origins not only in the servile class in Rome, but also in the Greek settlements of Italy (Magna Graecia). Thus, the traders at Delos were not ethnically or socially homogeneous. Whatever language they used in private, they were willing to use Greek as a formal public language and there is evidence of their immersion in Greek-speaking Delian society. However, in dealing with outside Roman officialdom they were careful to project a Latin-speaking, or at least bilingual, identity.

Chapter 7: "Bilingualism at La Graufesenque" focuses on language contacts in a commercial enterprise. La Graufesenque was an important Gallic-Latin pottery where the labour of local Gallic potters was used. The names of the potters were partly Gallic and partly Latin. Many of the texts are in Celtic, and some are in Latin, while others present a mixture of elements from both languages. They throw light not only on bilingualism in a general sense, but also on language mixing as a stage in language shift. Local elites may have been moved by the prestige of the Latin language and culture to learn the language. The Romans themselves might have encouraged such acculturation in the Celtic provinces. Due to the prestige of Latin and consequent elite bilingualism, the vernacular languages were completely abandoned. Lower-class Gauls were also exposed to Latin and they acquired the Latin literacy along with some Latin. Latin was treated as an international or imperial language, while Gaulish was seen as provincial and unsuited for use in the wider world, showing the polar diglossic opposition High-Low.

Chapter 8: "The Latin of a learner (P.Amh.II.26): a case study" presents learner's errors in a Latin translation of parts of two fables of Babrius and in letters of Claudius Terentianus. Some mistakes reveal the areas of deficiencies in language learning and allow deductions to be made about the order in the acquisition of the Latin morphology.

Chapter 9: "Some Concluding Remarks" sums up the most important points dealt with in the book, such as bilingualism and identity, diglossia, language attitudes,language policies, language death, language contacts in the army, bilingualism and slavery, "Hellenisation" of the Latin language, Vulgar Latin, and literacy.

The book contains an extensive Bibliography, Subject Index and Word Index, including words from Greek, Latin, Oscan, Umbrian,Paelingian,Venetic, Etruscan, Gaulish, Iberian, Celtiberian, Phoenician, Punic, Aramaic, Thracian, Germanic and Berber.


It is difficult to do justice to this groundbreaking study, combining profound knowledge of classical philology with up-to-date approaches to contact linguistics and sociolinguistics. The author offers linguistic analysis of a wide range of diverse texts, often belonging to sub-literary genres, which have received little scholarly attention so far. The book is a very valuable contribution both to classical philology and contact linguistics, and it will be of greatest interest to classical philologists, historical linguists, historians and sociolinguists.


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Lelija Socanac is a researcher at the Linguistic Research Institute, Zagreb, Croatia. She has a PhD in linguistics. She is currently directing the project "Croatian in Contact with European Languages". Her research interests include contact linguistics and sociolinguistics.

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