LINGUIST List 22.760

Tue Feb 15 2011

Review: Historical Linguistics: Meillet (2009)

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        1.     Germana Civilleri , Esquisse d’une histoire de la langue latine

Message 1: Esquisse d’une histoire de la langue latine
Date: 15-Feb-2011
From: Germana Civilleri <>
Subject: Esquisse d’une histoire de la langue latine
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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

SUMMARY 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 poetry.

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 occur in Cicero's Latin: 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 conservative.

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.

EVALUATION 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 impression.

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 ?vreus 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.

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

Trubeckoj, Nikolaj Sergeevi? (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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