Finiteness in Greek and Latin, then and now

by Dag Haug (University of Oslo)

Finiteness is a crucial notion in modern theories of grammar.  The concept originates in the work of ancient grammarians on Greek and Latin and it has often been thought to be inadequate for other languages. In my talk, I trace a very brief history of the idea and then show that Greek and Latin themselves actually display a number of phenomena relating to the syntax and semantics of participles and infinitives that challenge this traditional idea of finiteness. Thus, there is still a lot to learn from the grammar of Greek and Latin if one is willing to dig deeper than the traditional descriptions.

A video recording of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 13 January, 4.15pm. The slideshow accompanying the paper is available here.

The conundrum of the Deputy Lieutenant

by Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading)

I have recently been informed that my application for UK citizenship has been successful, so I shall have the opportunity to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. This leads to the discovery that when new citizens of the UK swear allegiance to the Queen, they are invited to shake the hand of her Lord Lieutenant for their county – unless that official is otherwise engaged, in which case they shake the hand of the interestingly-named Deputy Lieutenant. One could in theory call this person a lieutenant lieutenant, or a deputy deputy, but since the sixteenth century the title has in fact been Deputy Lieutenant. The Deputy Lieutenant is, apparently, not to be confused with the Vice Lord Lieutenant, though I cannot quite work out whether the Vice-Lieutenant mentioned in the OED is another term for the Deputy Lieutenant or for the Vice Lord Lieutenant.

Similarly, a university may have Pro Vice Chancellors, who may also be called Deputy Vice Chancellors, and some universities even have Deputy Pro Vice Chancellors, but there never seems to be a Vice Vice Chancellor. The Pro-Vicar is an official in the Catholic church, but the Vice Vicar is, as far as I know, unattested.

A few counterexamples can be found: the term Vice Viceroy is attested, though it is rare compared to the Deputy Viceroy (an official in, for example, the early government of Brazil). Some departments of the US government apparently contain a Deputy deputy secretary, a Deputy associate deputy secretary, a Principal deputy deputy assistant secretary, and/or a Deputy deputy assistant secretary. But despite this testimony to extreme bureaucracy, the basic linguistic principle seems to be that the ‘vice’ terms do not double up in a single title: a term already contained in the original title is not normally added to it again.

Explanations for the distinctions between these different terms abound, and no doubt these explanations work for particular titles. Certainly there is a real difference between a university’s Vice-Chancellor, who actually runs the institution, and a Pro-Chancellor who stands in for the Chancellor on ceremonial occasions. And if the Pro-Chancellor were to have a deputy, it would not be unreasonable to call him or her a Vice Pro-Chancellor and distinguish that official firmly from a Pro Vice Chancellor. But on a larger level the construction of such titles cannot be determined primarily by distinctions of meaning, since if it were, we would more often see the same term used twice in a row.

In Latin, as far as I can ascertain, the question does not arise. Despite the impressive nature of the imperial bureaucracy, there do not seem to be titles containing more than one iteration of the idea ‘acting for’. The proconsul is readily to be found, but he is joined neither by the official acting pro proconsule nor the one in vicem proconsularis. So why does English act as it does? Is the difference primarily linguistic or cultural? What do other languages do? This is a type of question to which Philological Society members are uniquely qualified to contribute, so I look forward with interest to their contributions!

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.

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