~ Reviews: A Natural History of Latin
The Times of London has a review of Tore Janson. A Natural History of Latin: The Story of the World’s Most Successful Language. Not sure how accessible this one is outside the UK, so:
Once upon a time it was normal to learn Latin without taking a view of whether its earliest speakers were good or bad people. We could say amo, amas, amat without wondering whether I had been faithful, you had been a good wife or he, she or it had run off with the femina next door. Julius Caesar could divide Gaul into three parts without us worrying about the Gallic men and women who had been carved into three parts by his legionaries. An agricola produced food from his land and, if he had help from XII or so servi or captivi, that was nihil to us.
Latin is not so simple today. Tore Janson is a Swedish professor who represents the fashionable “terrific language, pity about the speakers” school of thought. He gives vocabulary lists that would satisfy the most traditional master. He adds a useful list of common phrases, ranging from “amicus certus in re incerta cernitur” (Ennius: 239- 169BC: “a friend in need is a friend indeed”) to “odium numquam potest esse bonum (Spinoza: 1632-77: “ hatred can never be good”. But his sensibility to the shortcomings of ancient life makes him an awkward companion through this section of linguistic history.
Janson’s aim is to write “A Natural History” that is “a suitable blend of useful information and entertaining anecdote”. His stated model is the pioneering writer of science in Latin, Pliny the Elder, the man whose commitment to his own “Natural History” during the eruption of Vesuvius made him the world’s first victim of the science of vulcanology.
Janson makes no claims to skill in literary criticism, so his readers will struggle to grasp why the Latin arts are important in the first place — the allusive ironies; the glancing lines of Horace, Persius or Martial. Neither, however, does he match Pliny’s enthusiasm or wry restraint. Indeed, in the opening pages it is a surprise that the sensitive professor can keep writing at all.
“Repulsive” is his word for the Roman farmers of the 2nd century BC as he introduces us to Marcus Porcius Cato whose work De Agricultura is one of the oldest extended pieces in the language. According to Cato, it is a mark of the highest praise to call someone a “bonum agricolam”. According to Janson, the slave-owning farmer Cato is “a heartless and inhuman profitmonger”. Next we meet the legendary Roman hero Mucius Scaevola, who, in a scene much loved by later European painters, is said to have held out his sword-hand into a fire as penance for his failure to finish off the Etruscan king Porsenna; then Titus Manlius Torquatus, the consul who sentenced his son to death for engaging the enemy contrary to orders. “Personally,” says the professor, this all “makes me feel sick”.
By the time we find Julius Caesar in Gaul it is no surprise to be told that his rampages through Gaul would today merit the charge of “genocide”. Alexander the Great, by contrast, is credited merely “with an extraordinary series of conquests”. But then he is part of that superior Greek civilisation that had made such “unique progress while Rome was still just a small town”.
There is nothing very original in such views — even if the fate of Persepolis under Alexander was hardly less sickening or repulsive that that of the Gallic towns from Caesar. They do, however, seem somewhat odd in the context of a book about a language. What have the low morals of farmers or the small mercies of generals to do with Latin itself? What is the garotte to do with grammar?
Did the sins of the language’s first speakers, camped around the Tiber some 2,700 years ago, pass down to those later great Latinists, Charlemagne, in 8th-century France, or to Janson’s own distinguished countryman, Linnaeus, in 18th-century Sweden? Was there something in the vowel sounds? It is a tricky question how the transmission of language might transmit or reinforce patterns of behaviour. But it is not asked or answered here. As for those civilising speakers of Greek, the genocided Gauls and those quickly squashed Italic-speaking rivals to Rome, the Oscans and the Umbrians, they were not less keen to fight and exploit others. They were simply less good at it at the time.
::Saturday, November 27, 2004 7:03:17 AM::
~ On the Origins of 'Uncle'
The Arizona Republic has one of those question-and-answer columns which today considers (inter alia) the origin of the phrase 'Uncle' (when you're getting pounded on or whatever):
We're wondering where the term "uncle" came from. As in, "I surrender." Why not, "Aunt"?
Aunt? You're getting beat up and you're going to yell, "Aunt?"
Mind you, I've known some fairly formidable aunts in my time. For instance, my Aunt Laura, actually my Great-Aunt Laura, had a voice like a foghorn. Or at least she did on the telephone. She was of that generation that believed you had to shout to be heard over such a contraption. But I don't necessarily know that I would have called on her if I were near the point of surrender in some crisis. My Aunt Dorthy might have kicked some butt in a pinch, but she's really more of a baking kind of aunt than a butt-kicking kind of aunt.
The origins of crying uncle to surrender are a tad hazy, but the most common explanations I found go back to the days of ancient Rome. Supposedly when ancient Roman bullies would be walloping on smaller ancient Romans for their lunch money or whatever, the victim would submit by crying, "Patrue, mi patruissimo."
This is Latin for, "Just take all the leftover cranberry sauce you want and let me go." No, it isn't really. It seems to mean "Uncle, my best uncle."
Why this is a formula for surrender isn't quite clear. It may have been a sort of ritual way of admitting you needed an adult to help you.
Like if I were getting beat up, I could have called on Uncle Willie, Laura's husband, to come and help me. I don't know. He was a sweet old guy who looked a bit like Elmer Fudd, but I suppose he might have come through in a pinch.
The other theory is that among your ancient Romans, "uncle" was a title of much respect. Your uncle was pretty much like your dad. So crying "uncle" was like admitting your assailant was your superior, as in the phrase, "Who's your daddy?"
If we had more space I would tell you the story of my Aunt Laura and the Christmas cards from beyond the grave, but for now all I can say is, "Just take all the leftover cranberry sauce you want and let me go."
That explanation, by the way, is all over the internet, clearly cut and pasted from one site to another ... on that basis alone I'd be skeptical (I've read somewhere, by the way, that the phrase has its origins in the French 'encule', which I won't bother glossing here).
::Saturday, November 27, 2004 6:56:48 AM::