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Review of  Formal Linguistics and the Teaching of Latin

Reviewer: Jason Doroga
Book Title: Formal Linguistics and the Teaching of Latin
Book Author: Renato Oniga Rossella Iovino Giuliana Giusti
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Latin
Issue Number: 22.4963

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EDITORS: Renato Oniga, Rossella Iovino and Giuliana Giusti
TITLE: Formal Linguistics and the Teaching of Latin
SUBTITLE: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives in Comparative Grammar
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2011

Jason Doroga, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Wisconsin-Madison


This volume contains a selection of 24 papers that were presented at the
international conference ''Formal Linguistics and the Teaching of Latin'' held in
Venice from November 18-20, 2010. The main theme of the conference was exploring
how achievements in modern formal linguistics may help explain the syntax of
Classical Latin (CL). Taken as a whole, this volume champions a generativist
approach to language instruction because it encourages the development of
meta-linguistic competence and understanding of grammar. Additionally, the
authors included here demonstrate that the comparative method (i.e. comparing
the grammatical system of modern languages to that of Latin) is a productive
teaching practice. This volume is divided into three sections: i. syntax and
morphology; ii. semantics and pragmatics; and iii. methodological pedagogy.

In the Introduction (1-20), Giuliana Giusti and Renato Oniga argue that the
universal properties of sentence structure restrict the number of options for
arranging the elements of discourse. They argue that traditional notions of
'subject' and 'predicate' do not reflect the reality of how languages code
grammatical information, and that even beginning students should be introduced
to the formal properties of syntactic structure. Ideally, language instruction
increases the meta-linguistic awareness of the learner by articulating the
parameters of the native language first, and then highlighting the differences
in the parameters of the target language with the native language of the student.

Section I is the most extensive section of the volume and is dedicated to syntax
and morphology (21-224). It focuses on crucial problems of Latin grammar such as
word order, phrase and clause structure, prefixation, and word composition. Two
exploratory studies provide an overview of Latin word order. Giampaolo Salvi
(23-50) rejects the notion that Latin word order is substantially free, and
suggests that even without the ability to determine the spoken intonational
patterns of Latin, the study of the possible permutations of word order should
be connected to the study of pragmatic functions such as focalization and
topicalization. Another overview of the study of Latin word order is provided by
Concepción Cabrillana (65-84), who summarizes the major contributions of
structural, typological, and functional approaches to word order. The author
recommends an integrated theory that takes into account pragmatic and semantic

Rossella Iovino (51-63) looks specifically at the syntax of Latin
demonstratives. Despite the apparent arbitrariness of pre- and post-noun word
order, she demonstrates that these pronouns always occupy the specifier position
of a functional projection, both in marked and unmarked cases. This hypothesis
is supported using data from modern Romance languages (especially the Romanian
demonstrative article 'cel') as well as evidence from other Indo-European

The aim of Imre Szilágyi's study (85-100) is to explain the factors that
contribute to the decline of CL accusative with infinitive structure (AcI) (e.g.
PUER DICIT SE LIBRUM LEGISSE 'The boy says that he has read the book'), which
consists of a main/governing verb, an infinitive, and an accusative subject. The
overwhelming preference in Romance is the control infinitive structure (e.g. ''Il
ragazzo dice di aver letto il libro''), in which the interpretation of the
unexpressed subject of the infinitive is controlled by one of the constituents
of the main clause. CL demonstrated a certain vacillation between AcI and
control constructions, though the author identifies the contexts that favored
the latter, including the interaction of impersonal verbs with an indirect
object and ellipses of the infinitive. Francesco Costantini's article (101-115)
looks specifically at the IUBEO ('to order') construction and points out that it
does not conform to the behavior of other AcI-selecting verbs when used with
agentive subjects. By demonstrating the monoclausality of IUBEO structures, the
author concludes that in some cases IUBEO is a causative verb that does not have
full lexical value, similar to the FACERE + infinitive construction that
survives in modern Romance.

Anna Pompei (117-132) analyzes the semantics of relative clauses in Latin. The
differences between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses in Latin are not
marked by suprasegmental features, such as intonational contours (as far as we
can tell), nor by morphosyntactic constraints, as they are in English. However,
this article suggests that a third category of classification applies to Latin,
namely 'maximalizing' relative clauses that are compatible only with universal
quantifiers, are resistant to stacking, and may be introduced by the quantifiers
QUISQUIS and QUICUMQUE ('whoever'). These types of clauses are internally
headed, and the semantic content of these relative constructions lies solely
within the relative clause.

Silvia Pieroni (133-149) studies the absolute gerund construction in CL and
addresses the problem of identifying the subject of the gerund in these types of
sentences. Focusing on the active/middle/passive opposition, she argues that a
traditional approach that relies on morphology to determine subject/object
relationships must be 'decomposed' in order to focus on the relationship among
the syntactic elements of the sentences. Only by looking at the opposition of
passives and non-passives from a syntactic rather than a morphological point of
view can the subjects of gerunds be correctly interpreted.

A contrastive study in mood selection in Greek and Latin is the focus of
Konstantin G. Krasukhin's study (151-171). Using numerous textual examples to
illustrate his main conclusions, the author determines that the subjunctive is
partially grammaticalized in Latin, whereas in Greek, it is more semantic.
Additionally, Greek relies on aspect for tense selection rather than on the
sequence of tenses, which is one of the most characteristic features of Latin
syntax. A final difference is that iterative sentences in Latin always use the
indicative, whereas in Greek, the optative (subjunctive) is used.

Karin Tikkanen (173-186) studies the genitive case in Latin and Oscan/Umbrian
(grouped collectively here as 'Sabellian languages') and finds that the syntax
of the genitive case in the Sabellian languages shows particular characteristics
that are different from Latin. For example, two constructions in Oscan are not
attested in CL: i. the absolute genitive; and ii. genitives with adpositions.
She argues that phonological and morphological factors (including the
maintenance of the locative in Oscan) help explain the discrepancy within the
syntax of the genitive case.

Word formation and derivation are the focus of the final three articles of
Section I. Vladimir Panov (187-199) surveys the role verbal prefixes play in
aspectual semantics. He demonstrates that the prefixes in PER-FICERE ('to
complete') and COM-PLACERE ('to please exceedingly') are grammaticalized forms
originating from prefixes of motion that have acquired perfective meanings, a
phenomenon richly attested in Slavic verb morphology. Ágnes Jekl (201-214)
focuses on the modern Italian reflexes of the CL prefix EX- and demonstrates
that it has lost the semantic sense of 'upward movement' (EXTOLLO 'to lift up')
and 'change of state' (EXCANDESCO 'to become hot') in modern Italian. She also
demonstrates that the most prototypical meaning of EX- has shifted from
'separation' in CL (EDUCO 'to draw out') to 'negation' in modern Italian
('scaricare', 'to discharge'). The author concludes that the only productive
reflex in modern Italian is s-, which has become one of the most productive
prefixes in the language. Finally, Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead (215-224) looks
at the origin of Latin compound nouns (VERTICORDIA 'turner of hearts';
FLEXANIMUS 'moving, touching') and shows that Greek nominal compounds were
borrowed less often than other morphological types, thus disproving the alleged
Greek influence of Latin compounding. Her corpus-based study reveals that a more
formal register is a significant predictor of higher frequency of concatenative

Section II (227-315) is dedicated to studies on semantics and pragmatics, with a
special emphasis on figurative language. William Michael Short (227-244)
demonstrates that a large part of the Latin lexicon expressing mental activity
is expressed metaphorically in terms of movement in physical space. The author
demonstrates that Latin speakers regularly used expressions such as ANIMUM
ADVERTERE ('turn the mind toward') to describe 'acquiring information' or
'paying attention'. The author exhorts language instructors to highlight the
benefit of this metaphorical competence because it is crucial for competency in
a language.

Ioana-Rucsandra Dascalu (245-254) demonstrates the importance of contextualizing
different figures of speech, such as metonymy and hyperbole, in order to
understand Latin love poetry. Furthermore, David B. Wharton (255-277) addresses
the semantics of HORROR and how it is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Latin
(ODL). He suggests that the order of the definitions for HORROR is misleading
for the modern student. The first definition provided by the ODL is not the most
prototypical, nor is it the most frequent. Wharton suggests that dictionaries
mark context-dependent uses in entries so as not to present a distorted picture
of the word's internal semantic relations.

The next article, by Sophie Van Laer (279-299), explores new possibilities of
Culioli's (1991) work on the classification of French nouns into
/discrete-dense-compact/ categories. In this system, traditional count nouns
(e.g. 'book', 'cat') are members of the /discrete/ category, nouns that are
continuous entities that cannot be divided are /compact/ (e.g. 'sadness'), and
continuous entities that can be divided or quantified are /dense/ nouns (e.g.
'milk'). This article shows that this tripartite division applies to Latin nouns
and helps us understand the quantification patterns of CL. She also extends this
classification to Latin verbs, suggesting that it may explain the variation in
meaning displayed in frequentative verbs. Ilaria Torzi (301-315) concludes this
section with a study of the early commentaries on Virgil, in particular, the
various pragmalinguistic interpretations of Virgil's transition words (such as
POSTQUAM, AT, INTEREA) in his epic.

Bernard Bortolussi's (319-342) article opens the final section of the volume
with the provocative hypothesis that there are no exceptions in a generative
grammar of Latin (333). His article explores the role of Latin examples in
formalizing Latin grammar and understanding the difference between competency
and performance. The generativist tradition does not rely on isolated corpus
examples to create a grammar, but rather on the 'anti-example' (i.e. an
unattested, recreated example) to verify linguistic hypotheses.

The concept of Universal Grammar and its role in language acquisition is
summarized by Ugo Cardinale (343-353). Language instruction (for both classical
and modern languages) should focus on understanding how the mind organizes
grammatical relationships first, and then on showing how individual languages
encode that information. This approach is also applicable to improving
translation competence, a fact that is highlighted in the article by Andrea
Balbo (371-392). A third article about the mental mechanisms of language is by
Davide Astori (355-369). He presents a model for teaching some aspects of the
Latin case system within a Universal Grammar framework that is successful in an
Italian high school curriculum. Finally, Piervincenzo Di Terlizzi (393-399)
outlines a practical syllabus for integrating terms and concepts of Generative
Grammar into a high school classroom.

The history of Latin instruction in Slovenia is discussed by Matjaž Babič
(401-412). Even though Tesnière (1959) outlined his verb-oriented model of
syntax over fifty years ago, Babič still finds it relevant for the classroom
because of its unified approach to syntax. Similarly, Evalda Paci (413-427)
discusses the history of Latin instruction in Albania, highlighting scholarly
publications on Latin pedagogy and translation from that country.

Anna Cardinaletti (429-444) concludes the volume with a summary of the
contributions of formal linguistic theory to language pedagogy. She describes
how a new approach to language acquisition is possible as a result of formal
linguistic theory from the past fifty years. Specifically, language instruction
that utilizes the principles and parameters theory, coupled with a comparative
approach to language teaching, facilitates acquisition by activating ''rules''
that are already present in the mental grammar of the learner. She also argues
for a greater consistency in terminology to describe the same linguistic
phenomena across languages.


This volume has two main goals: the first one is to explain long-studied
problems of Latin syntax from a generativist point of view, and the second one
is to improve the teaching of Latin by including formal linguistics as part of
the curriculum. There have been few previous attempts to combine these two
different areas in a single volume, but for the most part these two goals are
not integrated successfully here. In general, the articles that deal with formal
linguistics and the instruction of Latin are more successful than the articles
on Latin syntax.

One of the most important achievements of formal linguistics is providing a more
accurate understanding of grammar as it is conceptualized in the mind, and many
of the articles in Section III suggest that introducing the basics of syntactic
structure in language courses is an efficient technique that may facilitate
language acquisition. For example, Cardinale (347) demonstrates that the
traditional notion of 'subject as agent' is inadequate for understanding the
simple Latin sentence SERVUS VAPULAT ('the servant is being caned'). As he
points out, this example can be better explained by using thematic theory, which
describes syntactic phenomena as a more precise (and more logical) way. The more
successful articles in this volume demonstrate that teaching with traditional
notions of grammar often leads to needless confusion and provides no
satisfactory explanation for seemingly straight-forward sentences. Language
teachers need to present grammar in a way that reflects the way information is
organized in the mind of the speaker (or writer). This idea is repeated in
several articles and is the most important contribution of this volume as a
whole. Additionally, the volume rightly observes that the widening gap of
classical and modern language instruction should be closed. For obvious reasons,
CL will never lend itself to a communicative approach; however, modern language
instruction should not necessarily shun the inclusion of formal syntax.

There are several reasons why the first goal of the volume is not as successful.
The main reason for this is a lack of a clear explanation of how the
generativist program may help clarify traditional problems of Latin syntax. For
example, the articles devoted to explaining Latin word order (a notoriously
thorny problem from any approach) offer few specific conclusions and do not
provide enough evidence from a generativist perspective to support the tentative
conclusions offered. As several articles rightly point out, pragmatic and
stylistic issues are core concepts that must be addressed as part of a
discussion of word order. For example, Cabrillana (65-84) notices that
verb-initial sentences (as opposed to the more frequent verb-final sentence)
often indicate a narrative discontinuity. Additionally, it is well known that in
highly stylized texts there is great variation in word order, especially in
works of poetry, where the rigors of meter often play a decisive role in
determining word order. However, these important points are not sufficiently
addressed here. For example, the conclusions in Iovino's study on the syntax of
Latin demonstratives are supported by textual examples from Latin prose writers,
with the majority of the examples taken from Cicero. It would be beneficial to
include examples from Latin poetry in order to strengthen the main conclusions.

Another criticism is that some of the contributions seem to merely repeat
concepts of generative grammar that were presented over half a century ago
without adding any new analyses. Most generativists who read this volume will
find little new information. It should also be noted that in some articles Latin
glosses are not provided. Even for those with reading proficiency in Latin, the
arguments made by the authors are rendered less effective, as a nuanced reading
of the examples may not be possible for some readers. Although the editors
present a polished final publication, a consistent presentation of bibliography
and citations is lacking.

This volume is primarily intended for Latin teachers who seek to make concepts
of the grammar more meaningful to students, though a wider audience of modern
language instructors will find these proceedings valuable as well. The ideas
outlined help present grammar in a more cohesive and less passive way. These
proceedings specifically address the need for scholarly articles that explain
techniques for teaching grammar from a formal linguistics perspective.


Culioli, A. 1991. Structuration d'une notion et typologie lexicale. À propos de
la distinction dense, discret, compact. BULAG 17, Université de Franch-Comté, 7-12.

Tesnière, L. 1925. Elements de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.


Jason Doroga is a doctoral candidate in Hispano-Romance Philology and Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current research focuses on the grammaticalization of the past participle in compound tenses in Spanish and Portuguese. He also studies the morphology of unaccusative-type participles in perfective constructions.

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