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Review of  Esquisse d'une histoire de la langue latine

Reviewer: Germana Olga Civilleri
Book Title: Esquisse d'une histoire de la langue latine
Book Author: Antoine Meillet
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Latin
Issue Number: 22.760

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AUTHOR: Meillet, Antoine
TITLE: Esquisse d’une histoire de la langue latine
SUBTITLE: Troisième édition revisée et augmentée
SERIES: Cambridge Library Collection - Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2009

Germana Olga Civilleri, Department of Linguistics, Roma Tre University

The aim of this classic monograph by Meillet is to sketch the historical
evolution of Latin, which as clearly underlined in the Introduction, has at
least two relevant peculiarities with respect to other Indo-European languages:
its long time span is extraordinary as well as its influential power (as the
language of the Roman Empire).

A relatively short section (Chapters 1-3) is devoted to Latin’s prehistory, i.e.
its relationship with Indo-European. In Chapter 1 the author explains how
Indo-European can be considered a weak linguistic group: first, quite different
linguistic types arise from it; furthermore, Indo-European languages show a
strong tendency to be assimilated into neighboring civilizations. Chapter 2
introduces the close relationship between Italic -- whose main languages are
Latin, Oscan and Umbrian -- and Celtic, which Chapter 3 delves into. Giving
phonological, lexical and especially morphological evidence for the relative
closeness of that connection, Meillet illustrates how Italic and Celtic together
form a branch of Indo-European. Latin seems to have much more in common with
Celtic than with Ancient Greek. The most interesting of the specific
developments of Latin versus Indo-European is the distinction perfectum/infectum
(pp. 28-31). This distinction -- neglected in most Latin grammars -- is a
recurrent topic throughout the book (see pp. 150-156).
Chapter 4 describes the so-called Italic group using phonological, morphological
and lexical data. The position of Latin with respect to the other Italic
languages is clarified in Chapter 5 where the specifically historical (as
opposed to prehistoric) description of the language finally begins. The
consequences of contact with geographically contiguous languages (such as
Etruscan and Ancient Greek) are likewise illustrated: phonological and graphemic
elements demonstrate the influence of these languages (above all of Ancient
Greek) on Latin and lexical data are used as a means of cultural reconstruction
as well. Furthermore, the author clearly underlines a crucial detail: the
language that will be called Latin is the language spoken in Rome, but rural
varieties existed as well (e.g. that of Preneste, attested by several
inscriptions) and influenced in some respect the variety of the Urbs. Thus,
Latin has to be considered the language of a certain town enriched by several
linguistic influences: such complexity would explain its various formal
incoherencies, inter alia the alternation between “dixere” and “dixerunt”.

Chapter 6 deals with the early written attestation of Latin: although the oldest
attestations date back to 5th century B.C., the actual beginning of Latin is
marked by the early literary expressions, i.e. the poetry by Livius Andronicus
and Nevius from the 3rd century B.C. However the early works which have been
entirely preserved are the comedies by Plautus and Terence: they show the extent
to which the origins of Latin literature were influenced by Greek culture.
Meillet mainly emphasizes the creative use of Greek lexical resources in the
comedians’ language, highlighting how Ancient Greek words entered the Latin
lexicon through the language spoken by ordinary people (among them many Greeks).

Since relevant differences exist between the structure of reconstructed
Indo-European and Latin, Chapter 7 attempts to describe both innovative and
conservative features of the latter versus the former. This chapter is probably
the most linguistic stricto sensu.

At a prosodic level, e.g., Latin is marked by a more stable position of the
accent; at a phonological level, the most relevant changes concern the vowel
system, whereas the consonants are simply characterized by a “weaker”
articulation. At a morphological level Latin follows the Indo-European languages
overall tendency towards simplification (e.g. the case system). However the most
original change of Latin is the restructuring of the verb system: the crucial
aspectual distinction (in part inherited from Indo-European) between infectum
and perfectum coalesce with the category of tense. The result is a
well-organized symmetric system without parallel in any other Indo-European
language. Furthermore the rise of the subjunctive offers an extremely powerful
-- but also rigid -- ability to mark syntactic relationships within the Latin
sentence. In general, from a syntactic point of view, Latin is at an
intermediate stage between Indo-European word autonomy and the state of affairs
marking most modern European languages: whereas morphological agreement made
Indo-European words complete in themselves and hence syntactically independent
units, in languages like French, words take specific roles just if linked to
other words of the sentence which they form a close cluster with (ex.: Fr. “un
bel homme”, p. 156). The chapter’s last part is devoted to specific patterns of
Latin word structure. The author particularly insists on Latin’s frequent use of
“expressive” derivational devices (namely suffixation) and claims such
procedures mark the popular character of the Latin lexicon (see below).

Chapter 8 focuses on the extent to which Latin language and literature were
influenced by Hellenistic culture and describes the main features of some of the
most important Latin authors in this respect: having constant recourse to
extracts from authors’ works gives the reader the possibility to verify claims.
After dealing with Ennius, Pacuvius and Accius, more attention is devoted to the
prose of Cicero, who set Latin prose on a permanent basis. Meillet also
underlines the role of Virgil as the poet who provided the Empire with national

Chapter 9 describes the geographical extension of Latin with the expansion of
the Roman Empire. On the one hand such an extension contributes to the general
uniformity of the Empire; on the other the local languages are relegated to
socially lower domains.

In this larger context it is natural that gradual changes of Cicero’s Latin
occur: indeed the rise of so-called “vulgar Latin” is the topic of Chapter 10.
Here, relevant changes in the various vulgar languages are sketched.
Prosodically and phonologically the most significant changes concern the quality
of the accent (which begins to mark sentence rhythm) and the related loss of
vowel length. Morphologically, we find remarkable simplification of both the
verbal and the nominal systems: this strongly influenced sentence structure.
Thus, the overall aspect of the Romance languages is extremely different from
that of Latin at least purely grammatically. In contrast, the lexicon is quite

Finally, Chapter 11 emphasizes the exceptional continuity of written Latin
throughout the centuries as the language of philosophic speculation and, above
all, of the Roman Catholic Church.

Certainly Meillet’s Esquisse does not need my appraisal in order to be
appreciated as one of the classic works of linguistic literature. This work has
several qualities among which -- in my opinion -- one of the most relevant is
the wide range of facets from which the history of Latin is considered. The
evolution of the language is followed through the common thread of historical
events, but in the meanwhile a strictly linguistic analysis is conducted both
from a comparative perspective and -- above all -- with sociolinguistic
interest. The result of these various concerns is a multi-faceted work which
alternates more technical linguistic matters with historical-cultural issues and
as well as a literary and stylistic review. Therefore my impression was often
that the work is poorly organized -- as the term “esquisse” (i.e. sketch) in the
title evokes. The layout of the edition (without division of the chapters into
paragraphs as established by the author himself in 1929) strengthens this

This approach nonetheless provides the reader with the overall situation which
shaped the rise and development of Latin. Through this it becomes clear how
Latin emerges from Indo-European and thanks to which conditions the variety of
Rome is more successful than others.

I particularly appreciated the book’s leitmotiv of Greek influence on Latin,
developed in particular in Chapter 6. The overt expression of such influence
takes place in the people’s spoken language; on the contrary the ruling class
hides such a debt for reasons of social prestige and uses “pure” Latin for
political issues as much as possible. Indeed the more refined a literary genre
is, the more it tries to hide Greek influence: e.g. Nevius or Livius Andronicus,
himself actually Greek, seldom use Ancient Greek terms in their tragic and epic
poetry, whereas in Plautus works using Ancient Greek lexical resources is a
device to provoke comic effects. Thus, lexical choices are sociological signs.

The most fascinating pages are those on innovations in the Latin verbal system
compared to Indo-European (p. 150 ff.). Such a transformation produces
significant changes in Latin syntax, which becomes more rigid but in the
meanwhile expresses the relationship among concepts more exactly (thanks to the
subjunctive and the general symmetry of the new system discussed in Chapter 7).
As a scholar of Classical languages I totally agree with this assertion, but it
should be better supported by linguistic data: throughout the book Meillet
provides the reader with a huge amount of data in order to justify his claims,
but here he gives no examples. And yet this would be very helpful in order to
understand something which is intuitively clear when comparing, for instance,
Ancient Greek and Latin sentence structures. In particular, relative clauses
could offer interesting evidence.

Obviously, looking at this book today modern linguists will see it as dated; the
untidy presentation of prosodic, phonological and phonetic, morphological,
syntactic, etymological and lexical data falls within this kind of problem.
Suffice it to say that even the distinction drawn by Trubeckoj (1939) between
phonetics and phonology was yet to be established when Meillet wrote this book.
Moreover some terminological choices must be read in the light of the era, e.g.
the sense in which Meillet uses the expression “type linquistique” is clearly
not the same as contemporary linguistic typology. Instead of pursuing such
matters, it is more interesting to underline some conceptual defects of the book
which may be a useful starting point for future work.

One of the less persuasive parts of the book concerns the popular character of
the Latin lexicon (Chapter 7, pp.163-190). Meillet observes Latin’s tendency to
renew the Indo-European lexicon by means of many “expressive” suffixes
containing more sounds than the Indo-European suffixes. Such a feature -- which
actually marks all Indo-European historical languages generally (see
Meillet-Vendryes 1966:340-341) -- is considered by the author as highly popular
and its frequent use in the language of the early comedies (in particular in
Plautus) would be evidence of that. However this does not explain why the Latin
lexicon in general should be considered popular. What can be claimed is simply
that the popular language, largely used by early Latin comedy writers, was rich
in expressive suffixes displaying natural trends which would later be developed
in the Romance languages. On the other hand the author himself acknowledges some
early Latin non-comic works lack such a tendency. His subjective comment on the
superior fluidity of Plautus’ language in comparison with that of Ennius (p.
176) does not help his theory. Moreover, although the comic genre of the
earliest complete works may not be a coincidence, there is no evidence for
claiming that Latin was originally mature just for comic works (“Au début, la
langue n’était mûre encore que pour des œvreus de caractère comique”, p. 176).

However, Meillet’s Esquisse should be evaluated in the light of its time.
Although finding weak points of the book is relatively easy from a contemporary
perspective, the volume is still an interesting and instructive reading to the
point that it has justifiably been reprinted in its original form.

Meillet, Antoine & Joseph Vendryes (1966) Traité de grammaire comparée des langues
classiques, Paris: Honoré Champion.

Trubeckoj, Nikolaj Sergeevič (1939) Grundzüge der Phonologie, Travaux du Cercle
de Linguistique de Prague 7.

Germana Olga Civilleri, a graduate student in Classics at the University of Palermo, is now concluding her PhD in Linguistics at Roma Tre University with a dissertation on deverbal nouns in Ancient Greek. Her other research interests include Classical languages, historical linguistics, case systems, the noun-verb continuum, word formation and the lexicon.

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