Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)

by Wolfgang D. C. de Melo (University of Oxford)

I must begin this blog post with a little confession. As an undergraduate and to a large extent still as a graduate, I found it hard to get excited about the history of linguistics. Of course I respected the great achievements of the Neogrammarians and of early phoneticians like Henry Sweet or Daniel Jones; but I was more interested in the results of their work than in how they got there. Any linguistic work written before the nineteenth century left me cold. Like any other classics undergraduate, I read through various grammarians. I liked the fact that they preserved so many quotations from early literature that had otherwise been lost. But beyond that I could not see anything of value in them. To me, Nonius was an encyclopaedia of errors; Isidore made me shudder; and, as Eduard Norden, the great authority on Latin style, told us, Varro had the worst prose style of any Latin writer before the Middle Ages.

In view of all this, it came as a bit of a shock to me when I was asked by OUP whether I would be willing to edit Varro’s De lingua Latina, our earliest extant treatise on Latin grammar. I had to think long and hard about it before I said yes. One thing that I consider vital for a text like this is a translation and a commentary. They are necessary because the text is both fragmentary and technical. I have now been working on Varro for a few years, and during this time I have come to respect, admire, and even like him.

Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC) was born in Reate, modern Rieti. He was politically active and had his own farm, and yet, despite all this, he managed to write several hundred books on philosophy, history, agriculture, and language. An ancient book corresponds to a modern book chapter in length, but even so this output is astounding. Of course, quantity is not the same as quality, and there are indications that Varro often wrote in haste and could have produced better quality if he had written in less of a hurry. However, on the whole he is an original and thoughtful writer with many valid and interesting insights.

Originally, the De lingua Latina comprised twenty-five books. An introductory volume was followed by six books on etymology, six on morphology, and twelve on syntax. Sadly, we only have fragments of the books on syntax. What we do have in almost complete form is books 5-10, that is, the second half of the etymological part and the first half of the morphological part.

Of the etymological books, the first three covered the theory of etymology. The three books that we still have deal with the practical side. Book 5 gives us hundreds of etymologies of places and things; book 6 deals with the etymologies of times and actions; and book 7 discusses all these concepts in poetry.

Varro did not know that sound change is regular, and of course he had never heard of the comparative method. It comes as no surprise that many of his etymologies are, by modern standards, ‘wrong’. But wrong does not equal stupid. His method is surprisingly sound. He identified loan words, and did so by and large correctly. Among native words, he looked for words that are similar in sound and meaning. This approach enabled him to find many etymological connections that we can confirm today with the help of the comparative method.

Perhaps a few examples will show more clearly how Varro’s mind works.

In 5. 120 we have one of the rare instances where he failed to realize that he was dealing with a Greek loan. He derives magida, a kind of large platter, from Latin magnitudo ‘large size’. Varro had studied Greek literature and had spent time in Greece. Why did he not see that magida is Greek? The answer is that presumably he was more familiar with the classical language than with the Hellenistic variety spoken in his own day. The classical form of the word is magis, while magida is the result of morphological change. In 5. 4, on the other hand, Varro correctly demonstrates the importance of morphological analysis for etymology. Impos ‘powerless’ is divided into the negative prefix in-, with assimilation, and the form –pos ‘powerful’, which does not exist in isolation. Varro adds that it makes sense to look at the oblique forms. The accusative im-potem shows that pos is distinct from pons ‘bridge’, which has the accusative pontem. In the nominative, the two forms sound almost identical because nasals are lost before fricatives. And in 5. 162, Varro asks why cenaculum means ‘attic’, when it should really mean ‘dining-room’ because it is derived from cena ‘dinner’. His answer is that the word does mean ‘dining-room’ in various dialects, and that this must therefore be the original meaning. But in Rome, people started to have dinner in other parts of the house, while still referring to that part as the cenaculum where their ancestors used to dine.

Of the six morphological books, we do no longer have the practical discussion contained in books 11-13, which must have included paradigms. Books 8-10, which we do have, contain the theory of morphology. However, this theory of morphology is very different from what one might expect. The big question for Varro is whether language follows analogy or anomaly. Analogy is essentially morphological regularity. Anomaly refers to morphological irregularity. In a surprisingly modern way, Varro argues that we could not learn a language if every word followed a different inflectional paradigm; lexical items can be added or lost, but the set of inflectional endings must be limited and regular. While discussing the question of regularity, he draws many distinctions that we consider vital even today: inflection and derivation; sex and gender; count nouns and mass nouns; verb stems and verb endings; and so on. He even discusses how loan words are integrated and shows awareness of Greek, Gaulish, and Phoenician morphology.

Cicero once said that he thought he knew Rome, the city he lived in, until he learned to see it with different eyes after reading Varro’s historical account of the place. After reading and re-reading Varro’s account of the Latin language, I now see Latin linguistics with different eyes. I very much hope that my book, when I finish it, will also help others to look at the Latin language the way the Romans did.

For his project “Varro’s De lingua Latina: edition, translation, commentary”, Wolfgang has been awarded a Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust in 2016.

One thought on “Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)

  1. He even discusses how loan words are integrated and shows awareness of Greek, Gaulish, and Phoenician morphology.

    Gaulish and Phoenician morphology? Now that’s impressive!


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