The hideous weakness of the modern classicist

A chance tweet by @theo_nash has had an intemperate effect on my reading as of late.[1] I naturally went straight to the inaugural lecture, which may be found here. As far as such things go it is not as entertaining as Wilamowitz’ zukunftsphilologie or as erudite as Housman’s UCL accessional, it is certainly interesting.[2]

“But we have lived to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists…it could even be argued that Latin  gave to some parts of the classical heritage a far more living and integral status in the life of those ages [the dark ages]  than the academic studies of the specialists can claim in our own… if one were looking for a man who could not read Vergil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the 20th century than the 5th.”

The essay is not all doom and gloom. It is a sombre (if at times self-aggrandising!) narration.[3] It anticipates some of the debates we are currently having, which we have always been having, on the degeneration of skills amongst humanities specialists, the exclusion of the public, and the utility of periodisation.[4] Where it stands out against modern screeds, however, is the evident love of its subject. There is no talk of burning down here.

I thoroughly recommend you read it and, as usual, if you have limited time and the choice is between that and this blog post, click the little x in the corner and go and read Lewis.[5]

I did say it had an intemperate effect on my reading, I was inspired enough to re-read his The Discarded Image. How much more I got from it as an adult! What a beautiful book! It is passim outdated, and Lewis and I clearly come at literature from directly opposite angles,[6] but near every page oozes erudition in the best of the humanist tradition. It is also beautifully written and recently led me to ponder why so many Classics’ books are so turgidly written and to try and crowdsource a list of beautifully written ones, available here. Once again if you have any suggestions please add them. Anyway, Lewis. Having re-read The Discarded Image, I found myself moving on to his fiction.

Lewis, like Tolkien, was a member of the now famous literary discussion group the Inklings (this is as boring as it is seemingly mandatory to add in any blog, essay, or fucking tweet on these guys) and like his colleagues he wrote a mixture of fiction (whether poetry or prose – all poetry is fiction because all poets praeter Homerum are filthy liars) as well as more academically focused non-fiction. Like all the Inklings, the line between his fictive and factual literary works was a blurry one and (post/)Christian themes are liable to animate both sides of his literary production. Consider the way one can trace a direct line both from Tolkien’s interest in Germanic philology and his Catholicism all the way into his Lord of the Rings. Lewis’ fiction perhaps evinces this more evidently than that of the others, as anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia can tell you. It is common now for the chattering classes to speak disparagingly of the Christian elements of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, calling them obvious, lame, and preachy allegories whilst lauding whatever moronic book the NYT is hawking that happens to reaffirm their faith more fiercely than any expounder of homiletics would dare.

One of these is a thinly disguised allegory pushing a particular moral outlook. The other has a talking lion.

But why am I justifying my choice to pick up some fiction to you idiots? After all, as Lucan says:

Ὥσπερ τοῖς ἀθλητικοῖς καὶ περὶ τὴν τῶν σωμάτων ἐπιμέλειαν ἀσχολουμένοις οὐ τῆς εὐεξίας μόνον οὐδὲ τῶν γυμνασίων φροντίς ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς κατὰ καιρὸν γινομένης ἀνέσεως – μέρος γοῦν τῆς ἀσκήσεως τὸ μέγιστον αὐτὴν ὑπολαμβάνουσιν – οὕτω δὴ καὶ τοῖς περὶ τοὺς λόγους ἐσπουδακόσιν ἡγοῦμαι προσήκειν μετὰ τὴν πολλὴν τῶν σπουδαιοτέρων ἀνάγνωσιν ἀνιέναι τε τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἔπειτα κάματον ἀκμαιοτέραν παρασκευάζειν.

Those who are interested in athletics and the care of their bodies are concerned not just with keeping themselves in good condition and well exercised, but with timely relaxation: indeed, they regard this as the most important part of training. In the same way, I think it does students of literature good, after hard and serious reading, to relax their minds and invigorate them further for future efforts.

Lucian True History 1.1 (trans D. Costa (2005))

Anyway. I found myself picking up his That Hideous Strength (whence the bastardised title of this piece). The book, as we shall see, has some very interesting things to say about humanistic learning and the modern academy in general. First, a general sketch. Spoilers? Probably – I am trying to avoid them but must therefore tread the line between scuppering your (potential) enjoyment and indulging in a seemingly nonsensical rant. THS reminded me very strongly of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim as both novels share a few notable elements:[7] the young, ambitious academic in a state of precarious employment whilst simultaneously grapplng with problems with the opposite sex. I think Lewis’ Tolkien Ransom is the more interesting protagonist of the two. I am not sure either book handles the female sex well. Both books contain fantastical elements. Amis’ eponymous Jim is meant to be in some manner likeable or at least sympathetic: Lewis has Merlin and extra-terrestrial magic beings.  But aside from its (perhaps prurient) use of spoken Latin, what does this book have to say about Classics and its would be guardians/parole officers? My copy is full of highlights and notes (not all of them laudatory, mind you), but I would like to use this blog to offer a small selection.

One common theme is the essential hollowness of the (then) modern man. He has no learning, he has no faith, he has no roots. I am sure that Lewis is writing from a predominantly Christian context (I am deaf to much of this), but he could basically be describing the death of any real engagement with the Classics. Look at the way the protagonist’s education is described:

“It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical-merely “Modern “. The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”[8]

This is no mere old man yelling at clouds. Whilst, yes, nefarious forces are aligned against poor Mark, much of his difficulty is compounded by his own moral failings and the empty caverns of his unexercised synapses. He knows nothing fully but has the careerist shrewdness that characterises his profession (he is, of course, an academic). Mark is a Sociologist, a student of a made-up subject for the lesser able, but I dare say the modern Classicist is on no more stable ground. How many Classicists now possess any “exact knowledge” of their discipline? How many bachelors, masters, doctors are there who have never read through even Homer or Virgil but are full to the brim of whatever recently published nonsense is on their reading lists? i.e enough to do “well on Essays and General Papers” with little risk of being exposed to actual difficulty or the nobility (or baseness!) of their subject?

Lewis likewise seems to have anticipated the attempt to transform or deconstruct the Classics, often disguised with words like “reclaiming” or “retelling” (some would more honestly say subverting or even ruining). He uses a very striking, visual, metaphor for this. At some point Mark finds himself in the beating heart of the dreaded “institute” and takes a moment to examine some of the art on display and what follows is one of the best portraits (lol) of the modern school I have recently read.

“Their peculiar ugliness consisted in the fact that they kept on suggesting it and then frustrating expectation. He realised that this was another trap…

Some belonged to a school with which he was familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could feel that hair. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset.

… the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture, had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind.”[9]

The whole passage is brilliant, and I was struck forcefully enough to immediately re-read it. What is this describing but most modern scholarship? Mind withering. A half-hidden ugliness to it that is always suggesting, and very rarely out in the open. The work produced by the classicistuli is like this. Close enough to real Classics that it almost passes muster, but the little divergences that are at first unnoticeable bit by bit build up an uncanny valley effect of revulsion before they smack you in the face. Sure, perhaps you honestly think Alaric is a sympathetic figure akin to the modern refugee, perhaps you genuinely think the sexual impulse and modern gender identities were the driving force behind a millennium of Byzantium art (to name two recent examples), but such things are so divorced from the source cultures we study, so far from the evidence offered by the texts, but I cannot really believe it. Perhaps the classicistuli are like the main character, hollow chested “strawmen, glib examinees”, rather than the deliberately sinister perverters who work at the evil institute. Perhaps. It makes no difference; the effect is the same.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

We are everywhere told to be on our guard against the “appropriation” of the Classics. As if 90% of current academic work is anything but! I look at sites like, for example, Pharos Classics and though I find them more histrionic than accurate half the time it astonishes me that not one of these people ever stops to ask themselves why. Why is there this unsatisfied hunger for the Classics? Why are so many people turned off by modern secondary texts (or, indeed, the academics themselves who author them)? Perhaps there are indeed some racists, fascists, white supremacists and so on. I can credit such things. But to the extent these places are claiming? We must admit that there is some ugliness in a lot of these modern Classicists. There is something unseemly about a spindly armed gentleman damning the Spartans as losers for Thermopylae whilst comfortably drawing on a public sinecure. Something off-putting.  Is it really surprising more and more people are looking elsewhere for their classical fix?

This is indeed a problem. But the primary/secondary dichotomy should be a false one. Secondary reading should be a product 10% or so of your study.

Similarly evil too is the institute’s tendency to never really say what they mean. Words are twisted into new meanings or any straight answer hedged and buried within a wall of text. Truth can be warped by evil and neutered by bullshit, basically. Sometimes this is blatant as in the acronym naming the agency – N.I.C.E – sometimes slightly more subtle as in the set-piece speeches of the mysterious deputy director (note that, always eschewing taking real responsibility, he is the deputy director), whether in English or Latin these speeches are worth studying. Seriously, if there are any teachers or lecturers reading this, use some of these speeches in your English to Latin exercises.

The effect of these speeches on the reader is quite something, by the way. Again and again we find ourselves subjected to these long winded speeches that move between vacillation and vacuity, where words are redefined seemingly halfway through being employed. The genius is that we, at first, sympathise with poor Mark who clearly does not want to make a fuss but it quickly becomes apparent that this aberrant language use really is just an exercise of power over the protagonist and, vicariously, the reader. I was reminded not just of the kind of recent scholarship whose foundations wither away once you consult the primary texts in their own language, but the novel of a very different Lewis.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass[10]

Socrates:ἔχεις τι;
Humpty Dumpty: οὐδέν γε πλὴν ἢ τὸ πέος ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ.

“But Croc!” I hear you say “surely none of this matters? Who reads modern scholarship anyway? It’s not as if they are going to take the Classics themselves anyway…” Well first off handsome reader, I must say it very much does matter. If nobody reads any of this scholarship then why on earth are we subsiding it with tax dollars better spent on coding camps or cookery classes? I know, I know, terribly old fashioned to expect public institutions to benefit the public. The fact is accessing and understanding the ancient world is hard and good scholarship is a boon. It is why, however much I hate the moderns, I honour men like Porson and Bentley and Wilamowitz etc etc. They should be honoured. I do not think they deserve more honour than the skilled carpenter or mason, but we should be grateful for their work. The same can not be said for their self-appointed epigones.

Whenever complaints like this are brought up – that modern humanities academics are producing work that obfuscate rather than illuminate, that they tell us more about themselves than their subject matter – the usual tuiterati affect a supercilious posture and exclaim “well nobody is taking away your Classics you know!” and nod and smile to one another about how stupid we, the plebs, are. Let us not mention any of the recent articles talking about the removal of classical texts from school curricula and be real for a moment. You see, the average person does not enter school at 5 and stay there for the rest of their adult life. There is a finite window of opportunity for them to have time to learn about something that does not relate to their fiscal wellbeing. All you have to do is frustrate access a little, push people away a little, and the effect is compounded across time.

Nobody is taking away your real Classics. You just can’t teach it or talk about it

There is something to be said for the hope that even through all the distortions and perversions people will still flock to the actual ancient texts. Lewis certainly seems to think so. After all, despite his lengthy stay in that room full of demented art the protagonist begins to think of haler things.

“after an hour, this long high coffin of a room began to produce on Mark an effect which his instructor had probably not anticipated. As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose. up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight”

But of course Lewis thinks this! Of course he has this annoying optimism! For Lewis the lines between scholarship and religion are consistently elided, crossed, confounded. Here is a hilariously characteristic example. A character undergoes some sort of deeply religious experience and another remarks, apparently in all seriousness “how much better you will now understand the seventeenth-century poets!”. For Lewis it may be (going back to his inaugural) enough to be a co-religionist with Boethius to understand him, but I do not think that really offers us enough of a connection to really understand on any deep level. After all, that would mean that by his own criterion he could never hope to understand Homer, Apuleius, Virgil etc. I think sort of a thing is a major weakness in Lewis’ argument. You constantly confuses understanding with deriving benefit from. The average Silicon Valley bro has a laughable understanding of Stoicism on any deep level, but they certainly derive a benefit from it. This is no mean thing.

I suspect that this is where Lewis and I could diverge. He would damn me as a man neither Christian nor Pagan, and reprimand me that good morality not only surpasses good scholarship but encapsulates it, may even be required for it. Certainly he has argued this elsewhere, e.g in his Abolition of Man.[11] I obviously do not think this is true. There are, have been, very many great scholars of abominable personal character. Leaving aside some of the modern allegations, you only have to look back to men like Bowra and Dover – brilliant scholars, but catty and corrupt. On the bright side, producing good men is a difficult and uncertain process (what does Jesus say? οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός.)[12] but producing good scholars is something we have centuries of success in. Lewis is right, however, about the importance of beauty when dealing with our subject matter, and that’s the main lesson of the book. For me at least.

The other lesson is to try and focus on doing. However ultimately ineffectual. Donate books to schools and local libraries, write and talk about the texts you love in as engaging a manner as you can. Make as good a case as you can, whenever you can, even if ultimately futile.

Anyway, enough of my meandering. How does this – and the novel – end? I have made reference once or twice to men of straw, to hollow men, and it is from the novel that this is pulled. Published some time in the 40’s I dare say Lewis would have been familiar with the poem by Eliot of the same name. Anyone who reads this blog will probably know how that poem ends, it is horrendously over cited, and I now join my midwit brethren and likewise cite it:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

Well, it does, and it does not in the novel’s case. There is very much a bang, both literal and metaphorical (seriously, the theology of love in this book is…odd, to say the least). But as for the Classics as a discipline? There will be no bang, no fire, no conflagration. When they have twisted all that is good and fascinating and beautiful in the texts to something mean and ugly, when they have pushed everyone away by their conduct and their impenetrable prose, when they make us think love for the past is really hatred, then we will end. Not with a bang but a whimper.

[1] I freely admit that this was supposed to February’s blogpost.

[2] Does anyone have a good link to a transcription of Housman’s lecture on accession to the Kennedy chair? You’d think those fucking tsigounides at Cambridge would put it up gratis, but…

[3] Lewis claims for himself and his generation a particular affiliation with the past (“I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours…I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”) which does not hold up to scrutiny. He has, at best, something of an affiliation with those post-scholastic humanistae (ironic!). He is a fine critic, but there is no more of the classical in him than there is in most of us. Far less than in the Italian olive farmer or the professional athlete. Calm it the fuck down Clive.

[4] Lewis seeks to re-organise our literary periodisation, especially the breach between the Medieval and Renaissance eras (which was first put in place by the followers of Petrarch themselves, to be fair). He offers instead pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian. I obviously disagree with this.

[5] I myself cannot vouch for this, but here is a lecture on the text and his book, more on which below: . Alright crocklings 15:26 into this video and not only have I clicked off. I remain convinced I could lecture more engagingly on any classical topic than >85% of current professionals. Yeesh.

[6] See note 4 above. More separates Lewis and me than unites us, to be frank, but I applaud and share in his sheer love of literature.

[7] At my most charitable I can agree with W. Somerset Maugham’s judgement of K. Amis, but very much suspect that the latter belonged to the kind of men against whom Lewis was taking aim in this book. For Amis’ movement see:

[8] Chapter 9 p118-9 in my battered old edition.

[9] Chapter 14 p206

[10] IDK I just use the freely available version of Project Gutenberg:

[11] Happily available here: (yes, I read that too).

[12] Mark 10:18.

*h₂ŕ̥tḱos gon give it to ya: Indo-European Bear Taboos

This is hardly the blog post I have been planning to sit down and sketch out over the past three weeks (on the coronavirus, naturally) now but needs must. You see, lector carissime, I have done it; I have defeated the final boss of Indo-European philology. Look at this glorious meme:

This is it. The height of #cheekychariotbois philology. I want to commemorate this moment in a blog post. They say nobody has ever saved a joke by explaining it, this is true, but – jocularity aside – I do want to expand on it a little. You see, there was no Indo-European bear taboo. There was a bear taboo in certain Indo-European languages (see the meme, above), but that is not the same thing as one being present in the parent language.

I: Proto-Indo-European taboos

What do we mean by taboo? Please forgive the “the dictionary defines this as…” vibe – taboo (antiquated spelling tabu) is a Polynesian word first brought to Western attention by Captain Cook in the 18th century;[1] it is a form of avoidance speech.  If something is marked as taboo it is not to be said or mentioned. It has, at least in Maori, as an antonym noa – we might say a euphemism or perlocution. Think of the logic behind this as something similar to Plautus’ nomen est omen. It’s not so much that naming defines/predicts, but naming something can either summon it (oh no, a bear!) or profane it (Jewish cultic avoidance of the name of god). Noa words therefore arise in order to avoid catching something’s attention, profaning it, or perhaps as a way of appeasing it. Such as the Greek habit of referring to the furies as eumenides (“kindly ones”) or the Black Sea as the euxine (< Εὔξεινος Πόντος, friendly sea).[2]

Actually, I am glad I took the time to define it. Look at the Google NGram results, from Cook’s time onward. Clearly in a society where you can pay people to pee on you in a nightclub in Berlin (seriously Germans? θεός νύ τι καὶ τὰ νεμεσσᾷ), we need to be reminded of the concept of a taboo. Now that is a taboo Hesiod (Works and Days, 758-60) should have listed.

μηδέ ποτ’ ἐν προχοῇς ποταμῶν ἅλαδε προρεόντων

μηδ’ ἐπὶ κρηνάων οὐρεῖν, μάλα δ’ ἐξαλέασθαι:

ἐναποψύχειν: τὸ γὰρ οὔ τοι λώιόν ἐστιν.

Do not ever into the streams of rivers into the sea pouring

or into springs, urinate; much better to avoid it

it is not seemly to relieve oneself therein.

Did the Indo-Europeans have taboos? In the linguistic sense I mean, all cultures have taboos in the physical/cultural sense. Some of these are so deeply embedded they clearly go back to a deep evolutionary kernel long before speech (think of the story of Oedipus), others can not be much younger (the typical Eurasian reaction to the consumption of dogs and cats), whilst others still are evidently much younger and more culturally conditioned (touching wood, Friday 13th). The initial tweet and Hesiod quote show that these were broadly present across the daughter languages. Being a philological blog, we naturally want to discuss words.[3]

One of the strongest pieces of evidence is the development of divine and theophoric names. Whilst some correspondences are apparent across a broad range of languages (PIE: *dyḗws-ph₂tḗr; IIr: *dyā́wš-pHtā́; Greek: Ζεῦ πάτερ Italic: *djous patēr, if you were wondering how the Romans got Iuppiter), in other situations we are left with functionally and cultically cognate deities without tenable reconstructions. It is a fundamentally untestable, but eminently reasonable, that in some cases divine taboos have rendered us unable to find the proper roots and correspondences.

This is best illustrated by Greek, but as I said above it is a requisite of good methodology when working with compranda to illustrate points across language families. We need to be able to distinguish being Indo-European (as in pertinent to the original parent – Proto-Indo-European) and daughter cultures, which are Indo-European in their phylogeny. I am guilty of being loose with my terms here, but I like to think my readers can prise the mens from the madness.

Let’s take Indra, as I have said before my favourite of the Indo-European gods (I swear this is relevant to bears, eventually), as an example of PIE taboos confounding. He is occasionally referred to as Parjánya. Scholars have postulated correspondences with the Slavic Perun and the Baltic Perkūnas we could add to that the Norse Fiorgynn (which requires a glide). The entirety of this data set goes back to associated words for striking (*per) and the oak (*perkʷ-). We might even try to hypothetically recreate a PIE god, *Perkʷuni(y)os.[4]

From a philological standpoint, this is nonsensical. We require special pleading for the Germanic (god, don’t we always?) and such a root in Sanskrit would give us not Parjánya but *Parkunya. The situation is made even more untenable when you look at Baltic variations for Perkons and Perkūnas (in dainos, in Old Prussian, Lettish etc etc). Do we do violence to the our older, better, evidence in order to support our younger and weaker ones? Ordinarily, no. But there is a strong semantic framework involved (especially between Baltic and Indic), and if we allow possible PIE taboos to have existed, we solve some difficulties. We can even account for *κεραυνός as a cultic name with mutation from π/κ as being part of the same divine semantic field. [5]

There may, and I know I am stretching this now, have been some form of taboo avoidance/noa usage in the PIE habit of rendering inanimate objects as deities (fire, friendship/bonds, water etc), but I would not be willing to put money it. This is, briefly, covered in my review of Il Primo Re here.

I think that the Indo-Europeans had linguistic taboos, just like their descendent ethnolinguistic groups, I also think these may have operated enough force to confound philologists. They could therefore conceivably have applied it to the bear, but it is my contention that they did not.

II: The chonkiest of bois: Proto-Indo-European Bears

Famously, we may reconstruct a PIE word for bear. The eventual decipherment of Hittite and other Anatolian languages allows us to render, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos.[6] A perfectly functional o-stem noun. The descendants of this word are particularly widespread: Hittite: ḫartákka; Greek: ἄρκτος; Latin: ursus; Sanskrit: ṛ́kṣa; Brythonic Celtic: arth[7] etc.

The presence of such a productive reflex in Anatolian is significant due to the relative chronology of various Indo-European subfamilies. Anatolian (Hittite, Luwian, Palaic) isn’t just the oldest preserved branch, it represents a very early form of PIE: The laryngeals still have consonantal reflexes (sadly, Saussure did not live to see this), the noun is divided into animate/inanimate rather than the later m/f/n, and the PIE perfect is used to form present tense verbs (which will make sense if you have ever wondered at οἶδα or how the sequence of tenses in Latin works).

You may recall a few paragraphs earlier where I mentioned the importance of moving across language groupings when reconstructing things. Something only present in Greek is not necessarily inherited. Something in a relatively well attested isogloss, like Greek and Sanskrit, may not got back much further than the posited isogloss (sometimes called Greco-Aryan). Likewise, something in historically convergent areas – like Latin or Greek, or Germanic and Celtic – may only represent a much later, shared innovation.[8] The latter ought not ever to be underestimated. The famous centum-satem split is perhaps the most famous example of an innovation taking over an incredibly large area.

Tying this back to bears, the fact that the *h₂ŕ̥tḱos may be found across so many different languages make it 100% certain that the parent language had this word. Meanwhile, let us look at the languages which practice linguistic taboos. We have Germanic words, like our bear, allegedly descending from a root *bʰer- which means something like brown. I say allegedly, because *bʰer- scarcely looks Indo-European. Ringe has argued for a link instead to *ǵʰwer-, wild animal (cf Latin fer; Greek θήρ)[9]. As usual, Germanic requires a host of special fucking pleading. As I have said before, I blame Matt Scarborough.  The taboo here is obviously strong within each culture but cannot be said to hearken back to the parent language or culture.

Bear brother

Next, I’m taking Slavic. Not Balto-Slavic, you wisely ask? Indeed not, as will become clear. The Slavs have arguably the most charming perlocution in all the PIE languages, *medvědь. The actual compound etymology is something like *medu-ēdis from PIE *médʰu and *h₁édti, rendering honeyeater. The charm comes from a folk etymology I wish was the real thing; *médʰu and *weyd- giving us honeyknower. Serious images of Winnie the Pooh.[10]

Baltic is, to be fair, also interesting. In Latvian we have lacis, in Lithuanian lokys which folk etymology sometimes renders from the verb to lick (PIE *leyǵʰ-, Lithuanian laižyti). I am reminded of the classical/medieval myth of bear cubs being born formless and having to be licked into shape by their mothers. Actually, I recently read a poem by someone on this. If you know whose it was, please comment, it was charming. Anyway, an etymology from licking or lapping (Balto-Slavic *lakti) is formally impossible. The presence of an Old Prussian variation with an anlaut in c or t – clokis/tlokis allows us to render an etymology of “hairy one” or “bristly one”. Less poetic, but more descriptive.

So, whilst the Indo-European languages broadly confirm to a word for bear, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, German has a word of uncertain providence and actual meaning, but is conventionally taken to mean “brown one”; Slavic has “honeyeater” and Baltic has “bristly one”.

Incidentally, yes, we can follow the sound changes in each language to work out what the words would be. The Germanic form would give us something like *urhtaz (if we follow Ringe in allowing the metathesis of /tḱ/ > /ḱt/, modern English would have *ourt) and the Balto-Slavic *irśtvā́[11]. I suppose you’re welcome to go around Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic yelling out these words. No guarantee you won’t get eaten by an *ourt though.

Before I go on to wildly hypothesise how bears were conceived in PIE culture, let us reiterate why we cannot speak of an Indo-European taboo. First, there is a perfectly reconstructable root present in the majority of the languages right from the earliest stages of the language. We know this to be the case because Anatolian is behaving. Secondly, the languages with the taboos all have wildly different noa words.[12] This does not make sense in the case of an inherited taboo. But the strongest piece of evidence is that Slavic and Baltic both, somehow, have different words. Balto-Slavic clearly form an isogloss, and therefore if the taboo had present at any early stage these two at least should share it.

Let me state clearly: in each and every case, the taboo is an unconnected innovation.

The converse just beggars all logic and requires special pleading several orders of magnitude beyond what Karl Popper would allow on his fanciest cocaine binge. It requires that PIE had a bear taboo, that not a single of our genuinely ancient languages inherited, but it may be found amongst our weirdest and of our youngest testified ,[13] moreover not only are all these words different, but an isogloss does the unprecedented thing of creating (at least) two versions of this taboo. A taboo allegedly so strong as to go back to the mother tongue. Hmm.

I’m not going to entertain the idea that the PIE word itself has undergone taboo transformation; that puts far, far, too much weight on the Indo-Aryan evidence. The thinking seems to be that there is a connection with Sanskrit rákṣa (destroy). Except there is no taboo whatsoever about mentioning the various demons given this name, the usage is restricted to Indo-Iranian, and the parent word spreads just as easily – amongst those who don’t have bear taboos. Just as sensible to posit a taboo of hyper protective bears with a root in rakṣ (protect).

So, we can conclude that whilst certain Indo-European peoples had a bear taboo, it was not an inherited one. We can even look at the map and hypothesise that is because they were more likely to run into bears (though that brings the Welsh and the Albanians into questions, what? Where they just…not scared of them?). Which seems sensible. I’d be far more scared of coming across a bear den (berloga in Russian!) on foot in the German forest than I would on horseback out on the steppes…

But can we say anything about bears in Proto-Indo-European culture? After all, the lack of avoidance language does not at all preclude cultic engagement, mythology, and all sorts of ursine goodness.

III:  *h₂ŕ̥tḱoes?? néh₂u h₁moí?? kʷod!?! It’s more likely than you think!

 Little can be said, by me at least, about the Hittite religion. Hittite culture arose in a confluence of “indigenous” Hattic and Indo-European speakers, locally, whilst at the same time partaking in the wider Mesopotamian (Sumerian and Akkadian, later, the Egyptians too; hence Qadesh and Amarna) koine. Sources speak of “thousand gods of Hatti” and they are not wrong! Some gods are transparently PIE,[14] others are simply names of rivers or tutelary deities, others – like the goddess Belat or the god Enlil – are imported, others still must be “indigenous” Hattic deities. So, yes, complex.

Hittite culture seems to be surprisingly legalistic, with firm categories in place between the animal world (divisible into domestic and wild), gods, and men. But such strictures only serve to make liminalities saucier. That said, there seems to be little crossing in a religious sense with animals (and bizarrely well thought legal strictures contra bestiality; was it such a big problem!?). One text speaks of a “bear man”, hartagga, being shot at by a female archer.[15] The text is obviously ritualistic/religious/magical in nature, but there’s nothing about bear veneration here. My gut tells me the main aspect here is to do with the subverting of norms more than anything.[16] Moreover, the text itself is full of Hattic words and may not represent anything at all very Indo-European.

There are examples of theriomorphic deities (or similarities to them) in the Hittite tradition, which certainly have PIE parallels. As in Indic and Baltic, the bull represents the storm god; the god of the hunt/wild, (K)Runtiya seems to be cerviform.[17] But the bear seems not the play a role.

 Hittite has played such a prominent role in this section because, as I said, of the relative chronology of its divergence within Indo-European cladistics. Do not misunderstand: the complicated context (above) would not have exonerated any parallel from the usual philological and structural rules, if anything it would have exacerbated exactitude – but it would have made postulating something in the proto culture a little easier.

Sanskrit (rkṣāḥ; RV 1.24.10) and Greek share an ursine root in their name for the Ursa Major constellation, though the former later replaces it a name meaning “seven seers” with a new myth to match. The Greek name has a myth to go with it (the story of Arkas), I am unaware of any Indic parallel. Doubtless one must have existed at some point. The story of Arkas should be, I think, well known to readers of this blog. Folklorists have long noted that several other cultures have a similar myth of a bear hunt interrupted or pictured in stasis. The broad distribution in time, space, and language rules out even the laxest of areal spreads, we are clearly dealing with several cases of independent invention. Whilst the story (in all its variations – though the Finns win this one) is interesting, it doesn’t tell us anything particular about the Indo-Europeans.

It is a shame that we don’t have an Indic version to compare the Greek to, but as mentioned earlier that would at best give us a Greco-Aryan mytheme and not necessarily one shared by other PIE descendants. #isoglosses matter. A final note on Greek, before I close this section, and the goddess Artemis.

A number of non-specialists unaware of the dialectical variety of Ancient Greek (sadly not just neopagans, esotericists etc, but nowadays even linguists working from data sets rather than learning languages) try to tie Artemis to the root for bear. Alteration of the vowels from i/e (a in Boetian! Unless an error) renders this untenable. Mycenaean iirc even has the variation with i. When Greek does simplify the cluster further, it is the dental that gets eaten.  I don’t have it to hand, but I 100% bet Beekes will say it’s pre-Greek… No idea, but the name can’t come from bear.

But but but what about the sanctuary at Vravrona? Whilst Artemis Brauronia has a heavy bear element (maidens played the part of little bears) it hardly holds that one epichoric shrine, in defiance of all evidence and method, holds the real meaning. I do think there is an element of folk etymology involved, though I dare say if we could question an Athenian priest they would rightly remind us that the major elements of this cult are all to do with its role as a centre of initiation. I do think that divergences amongst the aetiological myths and imagery are really interesting. They just have nothing to do with PIE bears.[18]

 Well. This has been a monster post. We could continue picking individual PIE cultures, but it seems that in addition to there being no inherited taboo, there are scarcely any wide-ranging parallels. Our best candidate – the myth of Arkas (sometimes called “the cosmic hunt” by folklorists) – seems to be so widely prevalent as to tell us little. I hope this has at least been interesting!

Some housekeeping

Perhaps like me you find bears charming. Well, there’s a way you can help! Since 1992 the Greek charity Arcturus has been rewilding bears in Greece. You can head over and see what they have done to date – and what they’re doing (despite fire, economic depression, and now the Corona Virus) at If you like what they’re doing, you can donate. For just £20 you can cover the daily needs of your near own bear. How cool is that? Artemis would be proud.

Waving Bear GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

I am thinking of changing the look of the blog. Long-time reader(s) can probably tell that the cheekily bad photoshopped header images have gone and the posts are slowly becoming more multimedia and linked as I learn. I liked the initial design (especially the main page banner), but think the pages are appearing increasingly cramped with this much text and footnotes. Let me know.

Lastly, if you found this interesting, have questions, absolutely must castigate it…feel free to do so in the comments below. If you *really* like it, like and retweet. At the very least you’ll be able to recruit a bigger mob against me. Pitch forks are cheaper in bulk order. 


 Endlings and suchlike

[1] As per Cook’s diaries (free online and worth your time), he took the word from the Tongans who pronounced it tapu. There are obvious variations across the Polynesian and Oceanic languages with regards to the (de?)voicing of the consonant and the quality of the vowels.

[2] This last may be slightly more complicated. It may be a reaction against the local Iranian name axšaina, blue/turquoise/dark, which sounds as if it has a privative alpha in Greek, Ἄξεινος, unfriendly. This Iranian hydronym does seem fairly widespread see e.g the old name of the Vardar, Ἄξιός, which must come from the same root.

[3] That said through comparison of Latin and Sanskrit sources, we can uncover a staggering amount of ritual taboos, especially as they apply to the Roman flamen and Indic brāhmaṇa.

[4] Should interest exist, I would like to return to the thundergod. Easy enough to write pages and the vast, vast, majority of material online has been written by morons who would benefit greatly from a basic course in Latin.

[5] Hence the master Jakobson on his study of the Slavic god Veles: “a rigorous, pedantic application of…grammatical rules to… hieratic onomastics would be sheer fallacy” in Jakobson, R., & Rudy, S. (1985). Contributions to comparative mythology; Studies in linguistics and philology, 1972-1982. Walter De Gruyter. pp 44-5. Neither free nor online, certainly worth your time.

[6] The importance of Anatolian to this reconstruction can not be overstated, but it absolutely can be boring. No less a luminary than Brugmann argued that the word required a thorn cluster in position final. Anatolian put paid to that and eased our reconstruction for other such important words like the one for earth/ground. Burrows had a fantastic article on this whose name I can’t recall.

[7] I am not as current with my Celtic philology as I should be, I suspect the aspirate is a Brythonic thing and that the o of the o stem should be kept, giving us *art(i)os or *art(i)us. We have an inscription from a Romanised Celt to the deae artioni in the suspiciously convenient city of Bern in Switzerland. Hmm.

[8] This is not the place, but I am nailing my colours to the mast that whilst I think Italo-Celtic is a bs grouping, the widespread genitive singular –i is due to areal convergence. I’d also like to note that all Messapians are cowards. Fuck you.

[9] Ringe, D. (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-germanic: a linguistic history of English: Volume I: A linguistic history of English: OUP. p106

[10] Sanskrit, of course, always be flexing with an actual epithet of honeylicker madhulih, but this is more of a joke. If you’ve watched The Jungle Book, you’ll be familiar with the character baloo (Hindi bhalu) which goes back to Sanskrit bhallūka. This has the sense of ‘lad’. Who the fuck, in ancient India, saw a bear and went “lad”? IIRC it can sometimes be used of cats or dogs too, but that makes it weirder. How can anyone confuse those animals? I say this knowing full well I am destined to die at the hands of a bear, a gypsy cursed me in 2011 with this.

[11] I think Ringe’s comment that these changes causing “baroque alternations” within paradigms is just perfect, by the by.

[12] As usual, Odin himself could not tell us wtf is going on with Germanic.

[13] Even Albanian keeps the root word! art/h

[14] As so often, we risk a false dichotomy here, or at least one that obscures the complexity of reality. PIE *deywós survived in Hittite cult not as a sky or thunder god, but as a god of the sun (Siu-summin or “our sungod”), whereas the god of the storms, Teshub, has his name from the local language despite his PIE trappings: he is a bull, he slays the serpent Illuyanka etc.

[15] Ever after going through Elements of Hittite I *still* have no idea how specialists catalogue their materials. Just search for KUB 58.14. It’s part of CTH 500 (fragments of festival and summoning rituals from Kizzuwatna). You will find it.

[16] Bros, can you imagine what Frazer or Graves would make of it? “A Neolithic survival; the ritual is meant to symbolise some sort of sympathetic magic to bring back the bear – a prime source of early sustenance – the archer is female to the underlying worries about fertility and gestation” etc. Pass the port, chap.

[17] I mention in part (largely) because he lived on well into the Roman period and was often associated with Hermes/Pan. Luwian versions seem to make him capriform, hence Pan. Yes, it’s interesting. You’re welcome.

[18] If you’re interested generally in the cult, Kahil, L. “L’Artemis de Brauron: rites et mystere” AntK 20 (1977) 86-98 if your best start.

Socrates in Love

SOCRATES IN LOVE opens (or rather, is bookended) with a charming vignette: the author as don instructing his tutees. I’d like to offer my own experience, if only to lend some context to my interest in this book.

We were meant to write on the differences and similarities between Xenophon’s and Plato’s accounts on Socrates’ apology. This was probably meant to be our serious introduction to philosophy. I, of course, biffed it: I spent two pages comparing their prose styles and then finished with some inanities on Athenian Law and how it might relate. One colleague (seems too industrious a term for us…) trying to prove himself a wit, made a comparison with Jesus.  

“After all. Both Jesus and Socrates were craftsman. We know nothing of their early lives – before Potidaea and the ministry – both write nothing and had conflicting accounts produced by their students”.


So that’s the challenge D’Angour has chosen to take up. There are precedents. Though Diogenes Laertius’ account has sadly been lost, enough fragments and traditional material survived to provide inspiration for several medieval and renaissance accounts. Perhaps the most famous, Giannozzo Manetti’s Vita Socratis et Senecae, is little read today but a great example of facts never getting in the way of a story.

D’Angour neither writes in that fanciful tradition, nor in line with the recent(ish) popular craze for biographies.[1] Nor, even, is this like Lefkowitz’ magisterial treatise on Greek biographic tradition.[2] It is a wonderful mixture of fact, quellenkritik, and good old-fashioned classical philology (in its proper broad sense). You owe it yourself to get this book. I was constantly in awe not only of his grasp of the material, but his ability to weave it into coherent argument. Even where I remain unconvinced, I am more pensive and thoughtful.

The book stakes out two main claims. One, that the traditional image of Socrates as barefoot, ugly, and lower class is a fanciful construction – a literary trope – made to enforce his image as a philosophical archetype. That the real Socrates was in many ways like the real Alcibiades. Two, that Diotima was actually…Aspasia.

The first seems intuitively true, though I had never considered it in detail before. We know that the ancients often imagined portraits and speeches, and we know that there were all sorts of odd theories about physical appearance and character. Just look at the way Cleopatra is described vs her (probable) numismatic portraits.

D’Angour lays all this out brilliantly, with especial attention to the staging of Aristophanes’ Clouds. I was honestly surprised, I always thought S. looked like your typical satyr in a satyr play (presumably minus the erection). But the reasoning here is unimpeachable.

On his military background, I need no convincing. I still think Plato was playing it up, but service was incredibly important to Athenian men – consider Aeschylus’ tomb stele[3] – and the comic tradition could have been savage to him were he another Archilochus.

D’Angour’s S. has at least quasi oligarchic links. This is, again, intuitive to me: S. was clearly familiar with a wide variety of thought. Most of the ancient world lived fairly subsistence, he would need to be reasonably well off to even stand a chance at encountering the broad swathe of ideas of which he was evidentially familiar. People easily forget this. Stonemasonry was also a considerably skilled trade. Which leads me to the next point, D’Angour’s contextual reconstruction of S’ philosophical training and background is worth the price of admission alone.

We know that S. moved in aristocratic circles anyway – I maintain he was probably killed for his link to Critias – add to that Plato, Xenophon, Pericles (junior), Aspasia etc…it makes sense.

What we are treated to, then, is a tour of how the philosophical archetype was constructed and then a peek under the hood, behind the curtain, in a credible attempt to recover an historical S. The author is in excellent command of his material and we are treated to discussion on the Clouds, Symposium, Republic, and a smattering of other texts. This serves as a great introduction to the intellectual culture of the time. Not the squeaky-clean democratic pastiche moderns think Athens to have beem; but the kind of city where an ex-wrestler could become its greatest philosopher,[4] and a stonemason put to death for atheism, and the son of an aristocrat could make himself strategos for life and claim to uphold the democratic system.[5]

This, for me at least, was where the real value of the book lay.

Now, for the second claim, that Diotima = Aspasia. I think this is very clever, I won’t prejudice you either way here – read the book – but I’m not sure if I am convinced. It is clever. Perhaps more in a NAME OF THE ROSEway than a manuscript stemmatography and that seems to me a problem. It touches the evidence in all the right, if circumstantial, ways, but never quite clicks for me.

What is useful is a reassessment of Aspasia’s status in the Periclean milieu. ‘Hetaira’ in the traditional sense has always seemed unlikely given her aristocratic connections and the legitimate status of Pericles (junior). Its obvious that the status of women in the sources for the era isn’t always clear cut (see also the debate on S’ Xanthippe), and its interesting to see how a more hostile tradition about her arose in the ancient sources. Plutarch, for one, almost seems to confuse her with Neaira or Phyrne.

I have written overlong. There are way too many notes in my copy. I think you get the gist of my review, and I hope I have given a fair assessment without spoiling the arguments therein. D’Angour has produced a wonderful example of stimulating, accessible, scholarship. It is more than the sum of its parts and if its claims are perhaps a little ambitious, they are made in the true spirit of the discipline. You would be advised to read.

[1] Dunn on Catullus and Pliny. Room and Wilson on Seneca. A new translation of Azoulay on Pericles. Natali and (sort of) Hall on Aristotle. Le Bohec on Lucullus.Etc etc.

[2] Anyone interested in how such traditions were extracted from literature, constructed, and propagated, needs to read Lefkowitz.

[3] Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει/μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·/ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι/καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος

[4] Suck it Aristotle. Nobody likes you. You have no friends.

[5] Listen Cicero, not even Plato lived in Plato’s Republic. Romulus’ dungheap is more than good enough.

On Haccents in the Roman World

…sit quaedam certa uox Romani generis urbisque propria…

…there is a certain voice (=accent) peculiar to the Roman people and city…

Cicero, De Oratore 3.44

What can we say about accents in the Roman world? We know, can see around us, that eventually Latin would diversify into the modern Romance languages. Are we then to imagine senators from Gaul twirling their moustachios and swapping out hon hon hon for Plautus’ hae hae hae? What about the inevitable interference from languages elsewhere in the Empire (Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Etruscan etc etc etc)?

You can throw a pin at the Roman map and find something interesting to talk about linguistics wise. Even within Rome itself social stratification would have rendered a few different accents, the same as any city at any time. This is an interesting topic (both in terms of subject matter and in trying to avoid being too technical) and I think it might be one I return to again and again.

We need to heavily narrow the terms of our enquiry and so I’d like to posit we examine aspiration as a loose nexus. In doing so, we can look at the phenomenon within Latin and as affected by non-native speakers. Aspiration seldom occurs alone and so, naturally, we’re going to look a little at aspirated consonants and a few vowels via both literary and inscriptional evidence and attitudes towards this linguistic diversity. This is hardly an essay, but a hodgepodge of connected musings.

Let’s select a passage from Catullus to get us started:

Chommoda dicebat, si quando commoda vellet

dicere, et insidias Arrius hinsidias,

et tum mirifice sperabat se esse locutum,

cum quantum poterat dixerat hinsidias.

credo, sic mater, sic liber avunculus eius.

sic maternus auus dixerat atque avia.

Hadvantages, Arrius would say whenever he meant to say

advantages. Ambushes, too, [he called] hambushes.

Then he was hoping he had spoken wonderfully

when he said hambushes as much as he could

Thus I believe his mother spoke, his free uncle

his maternal grandfather and grandmother.

Catullus 84 1-6

Even without its famous punchline, the humour of the poem is the product of more than slapstick over poor pronunciation (but seriously go read it). The use of imperfect tense suggest a repetitive action, deliberately taken over and over. In colloquial English we might say that Arrius is ‘putting it on’ and are meant to laugh at this parvenu incapable of aspirating correctly.

But what’s the linguistic implication? Either (as seems most likely) Arrius is a native speaker of a Latin dialect which has lost the /h/ sound or he’s a second language speaker unable to replicate the Roman sound. I must say, the latter was my initial reaction. After all, why else the reference to his family speaking the same way? The reference to a ‘free uncle’ clearly is meant to contrast with former slave status. Certain textual critics have even tried (untenable) to correct liber into a non-Roman name. It’s easy to imagine Catullus’ disgust at the product of the recently free making his way around high society and failing to blend in due to his poor speech.

Against that, however, is the fact that this Arrius (Harrius, surely? … sorry) is most likely the Q. Arrius we know from elsewhere, famed for his ostentatious failed bid at the consulship. Under Sulla various ex-slaves did well (cf. Chrysogonus) but it would have been unthinkable to aim for the consulship.

Either way, it seems that his dialect( /interference from first language) gave him trouble with aspirating hence his over compensating. This is a process known in linguistics as hyper-correction (see the link below) and we can safely conclude that there were Latin dialects where the aspirate was inconsistently applied.

In the context of philology, processes such as hyper-correction and analogy are studied as matter of course, but in a sociolinguistic context we might say something about the attitude present. In other words, we’ve established that this variation exists – but why is Arrius so keen to falsify his mode of speech?

The answer, I think, is obvious. He’s trying to fit in with the other upper-class Romans and so needs something approaching Cicero’s vox Romana. Poor aspiration, however, seemed to be a particular signifier of poor speech as a fragment of the grammarian Nigidius Figulus, who was active around the same time, suggests: rusticus fit sermo, inquit, si adspires perperam (speech becomes rustic, he says, if you aspirate wrongly).

It’s notable there’s a kind of urban bias here. M. Clodius Pulcher the “patrician tribune”, famously affected a plebian pronunciation hence his name being Clodius and not, as would be proper, Claudius. Someone of his station could get away with this idiosyncrasy and, besides, he spoke with an accent of the city and not the hinterland. Conversely, in the Imperial period, both Hadrian and Septimius Severus (Hispania and Africa respectively) could be castigated for their speech despite belonging to the upper echelons of society. They were, after all, provincials.

Biases regarding pronunciation are rational in so much as we are able to discern that reasons exist (e.g urban vs rural) but they rarely are logical or reasonable. I want to illustrate this with a brief interlude from Eddie Izzard, which also concerns aspiration.

Not to detract from Eddie Izzard’s joke, but our (British) pronunciation of /h/ here is in fact an ‘error’. The Americans have it right in so much as the traditional English pronunciation should eschew h in the same way we do for honour or when (ostensibly, I don’t personally) pronouncing the name of the letter itself. Yet somehow Izzard’s pronunciation would be seen as more high status. Attitudes trump reality.

The case in Latin is similar. In many cases consistent aspiration amongst even the learned classes was a fairly recent phenomenon. Ennius had pulcer not pulcher, triumphus was originally triumpus (of Greek origin, via Etruscan) and so on. Actually, philology can triangulate interferences between these three languages (Greek, Etruscan, Latin) to note that there is a shift from Greek to Etruscan that involves devoicing (b > p, g > k etc) and therefore conclude that since the Etruscan ear was less sensitive to voiced consonants, they would have likewise struggled with these in Latin.

H seems more or less always to have been weakening in Latin (although even by St. Augustine’s time people are still insisting on it). Many of the word initial h’s had a fuller sound in the parent language: homo, man, was  *ǵʰmṓ in PIE, reduced to *hemo in proto-Italic (nemo, nobody, < *nehemo, it was commonly lost between letters) and of course the modern romance languages have continued this trend and reduced h further: omo (Italian), homme (French, etymological h), hombre (Spanish, etymological h) etc.

Even Cicero (Orator 160) can’t be consistent and ends up following popular usage. Learned speech likewise permits stray h’s via hypercorrection: humidus was properly umidus for example, but anyone pronouncing it was such would have been labelled by men like Nigidius Figulus as a bumpkin.

Poor Arrius! Who can keep up?!

We could go on piece by piece focusing on different sounds in different Latin accents, but let’s keep with the h theme, only this time we’ll look briefly at a foreign accent – that of Greek. Unsurprising, Greek gives us our greatest amount of evidence for second language interference in Latin both in textual and inscriptional terms. Admittedly, most discussions of foreign interference tend to focus on either a) lexical borrowing or b) morpho-syntactical peculiarities (properly termed solecisms) e.g incorrect case usage. That’s just the nature of the evidence, but it is possible to talk a little about accent.

This inscription, or graffito rather, from Pompeii is a good jump off point. I’m…eh…not going to translate it for obvious reasons given what it says:

Tiopilus, canis,

cunnu lingere no-

li puellis in muro

CIL IV 8898

Tiopilus here stands for the Greek name Theophilos; the differences in rendering here are elucidating and we can take them section by section. Given this post’s focus on aspiration, I’m sure we can all see why this was chosen.

Aspiration in ancient Greek wasn’t like its modern counterpart, where θ is pronounced the same as English th. In fact, though I don’t have the figures to hand, this is a rare phoneme hence when jokes are made about German accents in English the definite article is always rendered ‘ze’. Originally, φ, χ and θ were simply aspirated stops: imagine a subtle expulsion of breath after each consonant. Later, these became the fricatives we all know and love. This is why the Romans spelt philosophy philosophia and not *filosofia despite widely employing f: because the Greek sound was different.

So, we can conclude that this is an area where a Greek speaker might have trouble. In fact Quintilian tells us of a case where a Greek witness was unable to pronounce the name Fundianus and came out with Hundianus. This makes sense, f was missing from Greek’s phonemic inventory and his native accent would have permitted poor speakers to utter either *Pundianus or *Hundianus.

The other letters are equally interesting even if not really germane to our h theme. What in Latin script has been rendered as ‘i’ are actually two difference sounds in the Greek (ε and ι). How big a difference existed between these letters in Latin? Learned speech kept them distinct, but even so we know of many instances of ‘e’ standing in for ‘i’ (the historian Livy’s accent would have merged these sounds), the distinction must have been difficult for Greeks.

As for os vs -us for endings well this is a typical equivalent. Even now, everyone knows Latin names end in us and Greek in os e.g Constantinus to Κωνσταντῖνος but this confusion isn’t always learned and occurs elsewhere e.g in the so called Colloquia, remnants of bilingual texts for teaching Latin or Greek, secunda is rendered as σεκονδα or even σεκοντα (ντ for δ is a whole different kettle of fish).

Even in Latin, the distinction wasn’t always obvious. Yes, we all know the myriad ways in which U > O became in Romance but one even comes across inscriptions with spellings like apud loco. Loco? I hear you ask, how can this be? Is this evidence for the later collapse of the case system in Latin?

Well, yes, but more importantly it’s evidence for the phonological underpinnings of these changes. Apud takes the accusative and therefore one would expect apud locum. Interestingly final m is often left off in more casual inscriptions (as in the 2nd line of the inscription above) because m was nasalised. Because the remaining sound wasn’t quite either a u or an o (try it out for yourself) it made sense for less learned writers to shift the spelling this way. This isn’t an error in case usage but an accurate rendering of spoken habit.

Given this propensity to change this vowel sound depending on what follows by native speakers, It’s easy to imagine Greeks not necessarily accurately mapping their u’s and o’s to their Latin equivalents either. After all, subtleties like this are the most common stumbling blocks in language acquisition.

In fact, we can go further. Modern Greek pronunciations of Latin retains some elements of the accents Romans would have heard. Emphasis on some, Greek has experienced its own significant changes, as we’ve had cause to note above. Vowel quantity has been lost, but there is still a sense of breadth to remaining vowels and, yes, including confusion in articulating ‘e’ vs ‘i’ in speech. Most Greek dialects (Cypriot a sometime exception) no longer distinguish between geminated and singular consonants (e.g ss vs s) and we know that Roman writers from the Imperial period commented on this. Ok, two examples are not a lot, it’s easy to overstate the case, but you must admit it’s cool to realise that you can hear something close to what the Romans did just by observing a Latin lesson in Greece.

Can we offer a quick conclusion? We haven’t, obviously, come anywhere near the point in this post where we could posit the full Greek accent of Latin (by what speakers? At which period? etc) or gone into great depth about regional Latin pronunciation (same questions) but I hope I’ve given a reasonably satisfying glimpse of what’s out there. So, when thinking about the Latin heard in Roman streets perhaps now you’ll contrast the ‘correct’ pronunciation we’re taught in school with the unaspirating rustic hawking his fish or the smooth consonant-broad vowelled Greek visitor. Perhaps something for us to come back to.

Further Reading


Any introduction will do but I enjoyed:

Wardhaugh, R (2009) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford

Perhaps the best way into seeing these applied to the ancient world are:

McDonald, K (2015) Oscan in Southern Italy. Cambridge. Especially chapter 2

Latin specifically

Literally anything by J Adams, even his grocery list will probably teach you some hitherto unknown fact about the accentuation of the plu perfect passive by Sarmatian horsemen stationed in Eboracum but my thinking on this subject is specifically indebted to:

Adams, J. N (2007) The Regional Diversification of Latin. Cambridge

Linguistic terms this is a place holder until I find better, specific, links. Until then just ask or consult the brilliant Oxford Linguistics Dictionary.

Ancient Texts

Quintilian and Cicero (especially De Oratore, Orator, Brutus) are brilliant first stops for thinking about how language was used and consequently thought about in the Roman world, besides them there is:

Keil, G (1855-80) Grammatici Latin. Leipzig (8 volumes) = once an absolute obsession of mine, brilliant collection but if you’re new to this start here:

Lord, F. E (1894) The Roman Pronunciation of Latin. Boston, MA. Yes, it’s old and methodologically out of date etc etc κτλ κτλ but the point is, it’s an easy to read collation of sources. Remember! nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset!