LINGUIST List 28.306

Mon Jan 16 2017

Review: Latin; Cognitive Sci; Historical Ling; Ling Theories; Semantics: Short (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 31-Aug-2016
From: Berta González Saavedra <>
Subject: Embodiment in Latin Semantics
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: William Michael Short
TITLE: Embodiment in Latin Semantics
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 174
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Berta González Saavedra, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Embodiment is a part of the so-called “second generation” of cognitive science theories (Garbani & Adenzato 2004). It is a theory which emerged in cognitive semantics from the idea that people's capacity to talk about experiences is supported by conceptual structures that are developed by human interaction with the environment we inhabit. In this sense, every abstract thought produced in our minds can have a concrete background based on our interplay with the world. The studies based on embodiment try to individualize the concrete images from which emerge the metaphor that underlies the abstract thoughts.

The volume reviewed is a collection of eight chapters plus an introduction and index, including the main and most recent research about the embodiment theory applied to Latin semantics.
In the introduction, Michael Short talks about the importance of this theoretical approach and exposes the aim of the volume: “Their common interest (of the chapters) rests, moreover, not only in the extent to which universal aspects of human embodiment are reflected in the semantics of Latin, but also in the ways in which Latin speakers capitalize on embodied understanding to express culture-specific forms of meaning” (pag. 1).

The first chapter, “A matter of perspective”, talks about the Latin verbs “venio” and “eo” ('come' and 'go', respectively). In it Andrea Nuti (University of Pisa) presents the data concerning these two verbs in a big diachronic corpus, in order to see how their semantics develops in the course of the years. Data show a change in the meaning of “venio” (but not in “eo”), from marking aspect (in Plautus and Terence “venio” indicates not only ‘to come’ but also ‘to arrive’, so it has a perfective aspect) to marking deixis (in Cicero and other later authors “venio” indicates the movement to the speaker, so it does not involve aspect anymore). This semantic change is not so evident in the case of “eo”, which means ‘to go’, or easily ‘to move’.

The title of the second chapter is “Vertical scales in temporal sub constructions in Latin”, and its content is the study of four different constructions using the Latin preposition “sub” with the nouns “nox” and “dies” in accusative and ablative (“sub” is a preposition that can appear with both cases). The goal of the Erik Knighton (Case Western University) is to reanalyse these constructions, because the traditional translations given to them are not correct, in his opinion. He postulates that the meaning of these constructions is related to the embodied experience of being “sub”, so covered by the darkness and by the light, following the principle that the local expressions are used in most languages to express time (as already shown Martin Haspelmath 1997) with an embodied perspective.

Luisa Brucale and Egle Mocciaro from the University of Palermo are the authors of the third chapter. Its title is “The embodied sources of purpose expressions in Latin” and it is about the underlying metaphors behind the use of the prepositions “per”, “pro” and “propter” and the nouns “gratia” and “causa” to express purpose. The local experience of the speaker is utilized to express abstract thoughts, and in the particular cases of these three prepositions, different metaphors help change their original local meaning to purpose expression (for every preposition a different metaphor is applied). In the case of the nouns “gratia” and “causa”, no local metaphor can be applied to the meaning change, but the metaphor is the shift from reason to purpose.

The author of the fourth chapter is Chiara Fedriani from the University of Bergamo. This chapter, “Ontological and orientational metaphors in Latin”, continues the line already exposed in the preceding chapters about the local experience of human beings applied to the expression of more abstract thoughts. In this case, the study is focused on the semantics of feelings and emotions and the data speak for themselves: the “up-down” metaphor and the “emotions and feelings are objects” metaphor help explain why some nouns related to feelings and emotions appear systematically with verbs meaning “to fall”.

The fifth chapter, “The metaphorical structuring of kinship in Latin”, is an explanation of how the Latin speakers conceive and structure the words related to family. According to Alessandro Buccheri (EHESS, Paris- University of Siena), they conceive family using two images: space and plants. Terms like “cognatus” (with a common birth) or “stirps” (stock) are related to the vocabulary of plants, and other terms like “proavus” and “tritavus” show the conception of family members as locations and as steps in a row of time.

The chapter “Abstract and embodied colors in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History” written by David Wharton (University of North Carolina at Greenboro) tries to refuse the most recent theories about colour in Latin: that Romans did not have words for the colours, but they conceived colour as linked to the materials the Latin words refer to. To do it, he chooses some colour terms and studies their use in Pliny the Elder’s text. He reaches the conclusion that the colour terms can be applied to any kind of object (and not only in a metaphorical way). In the final paragraphs of the chapter Wharton explains some expressions related to colours (change colour, etc.) with the metaphor “colours are liquids”, which at the same time is linked with the dye world, one of the ways Romans interacted with colours.

Courtney Ann Roby’s chapter (Cornell University), “Embodiment in Latin technical texts”, is an application of the embodiment theory to explain the composition of the textual representations of landscapes, instructions to measure fields and other technical activities. She describes the most frequent linguistic resources to achieve the objective, i.e. the involvement of the reader in the activity described in the text: features of verbs, use of the same point of reference in orientation (Rome), among others, so that the reader can feel he is in the geographical situation described by the author.

Last chapter shares the perspective of application of the embodiment theory already seen in the seventh chapter. In it, Jennifer J. Devereaux (University of California) describes the main resources used by Tacitus in Annales to lead the reader to envision the reality he wants to show. Specific vocabulary and other rhetorical effects are used by the author to make the reader/hearer interact with the story and to evaluate the facts according to the author’s will.


The volume is very interesting and well organized. The first chapters talk about local metaphors that help Latin speakers to develop several parts of their thought. In the second part (the last two chapters) the embodiment theory is applied to an extra linguistic field, the way an author makes the reader (or the hearer) follow the narration and involve himself in the action of the discourse.
The introduction provides enough information to the reader to place the embodiment theory in the appropriate linguistic frame, and explains satisfactorily the advantages of this theoretical approach to explain some semantic features that have not been well described, as, for example, the use of prepositions in controversial uses (Silvia Luraghi does it, cf. Luraghi 2003 to see the application of the local theory to explain the uses of prepositions and cases for ancient Greek). However, I miss a final summary and evaluation of the enhancements achieved through applying the theories in this volume to such a concrete part of the Latin semantics.

The first chapter sheds some new light on the semantics of two of the most important Latin verbs, and the data presented here are very explanatory: the meaning change in “venio” is evident. However, I still have a question: is the absence of “eo” in the later authors (Cicero, Caesar, and so on) related to the type of the texts they have written? In comedy, where movement is continuous, the presence of “eo” and “venio” is very frequent, but in letters addressed to families and friends (for example), it would be normal that “eo” does not appear so frequently as “venio”.

The second chapter is very interesting, because in some cases the tradition cannot explain the meaning of prepositional constructions, and in the case of “sub” with “nox” and “dies” the metaphor by which the time is conceived as a place can help explain how this preposition works. However, more could be said about the distribution of cases (accusative and ablative), the implicit movement of the construction with the accusative and the two meanings the constructions can have: being at night or in daylight, and being at dawn or at dusk. Further study of the distribution of cases and meanings of the constructions might be useful.

In the third chapter the embodiment theory is applied in a similar way as in the second chapter, but the purpose of its application is different: The chapter about “sub” tries to clarify the meaning of the preposition in some specific contexts, and in this one the goal is to understand the use of some prepositions. However, in both cases the local metaphors help understand the shift from local to more abstract expressions. The results presented in this third chapter are thought-provoking, because the use of some prepositions in Latin for expressing purpose has not been explained until now. Nevertheless, I do not agree that we should speak of “gratia” and “causa” as postpositions, because the grammaticalization process was never completed in Latin (González Saavedra 2013) and I think its is more correct to talk simply of “nouns”.

Chiara Fedriani's chapter is clear and convincing. As she explains, the metaphors acting in Latin also act in other languages, not only languages from the Indo-European family. Thus the chapter is interesting, not only to Latin scholars, but also to typologists.

The chapter about the Latin terms for family clearly shows how Romans structured kinship. Moreover, when terms are not easy to understand, the author collects all the bibliography related to those words and tries to explain the etymology using embodiment. Once again, embodiment is a way to understand some realities that are not obviously conceived in our minds, in this case, the words related to family steps directly linked to the “ego”.

David Wharton has written an interesting chapter about a topic which is quite well known (the bibliography about colour is very extensive) from a new perspective and the results shed new light on this part of the lexicon. In this case, the embodiment theory helps explain how colour vocabulary is related to the experience of dying, and it conforms to the way colour is conceived.

The content of Courtney Ann Roby’s chapter is not related to the other chapters content. Its perspective is not semantic, but more textual. The data she presents are very interesting and show that the embodiment theory can be applied to different semantic fields, not only to single items. However, I recommend including the translation of Latin sentences and paragraphs, in order to make the chapter also available to scholars without Latin knowledges.

Jennifer J. Devereaux’s chapter is well structured and readable. The contents and the data presented show that this kind of analysis of communicative acts can shed new light by adding a psychological interpretation of the linguistic features used by the writer. The chapter lacks only translations for Latin and Greek sentences embedded in the paragraphs, so the chapter could be read byother scholars interested in text analysis.


Garbani, Francesca & Adenzato, Mauro. 2004. At the root of embodied cognition. Brain and Cognition 56(1): 100-106.

González Saavedra, Berta. 2013. “Procesos de lexicalización en latín vulgar y tardío: causa, gratia y opera en los corpora de Plauto, Marcial y Petronio”, Actas del XXVI Congreso Internacional de Lingüística y Filología Románicas vol. 4, Berlin- Boston: De Gruyter Mouton (551-560).

Haspelmath, Martin. 1997. From Space to Time. München- New Castle: Lincom Europa.

Luraghi, Silvia. 2003. On the meaning of prepositions and cases [Studies in Companion Series 67]. Amsterdam: John Benjamins


Berta González Saavedra has a PhD in Studies of the Ancient World by the University Complutense of Madrid (Spain). Her PhD is a study of the semantics of Latin ablative, the -then suffix in Greek and the Hittite ablative. She has worked as a semantic annotator for the Index Thomisticus Treebank project and at the present time is preparing a paper about Hittite ablative. She is interested in Semantics and specially in grammaticalization processes.

Page Updated: 16-Jan-2017