Terms for ‘stupid’ in Latin

In the introduction to his Cambridge edition of Terence’s Eunuchus, John Barnsby compares Terence to his forebear Plautus. He mentions in passing that Plautus had employed seven different Latin words for ‘stupid’ in a single line, Bacchides 1088. This line reads stulti, stolidi, fatui, fungi, bardi, blenni, buccones and is a metrical tour de force. I thought it would be interesting to look these up in Michiel de Vaan’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages.

Vaan notes that the first two words, stultus and stolidis have been derived from the same PIE root *stel ‘to place’, with the shift of meaning ‘standing’ > ‘inert’ > ‘insensible; stupid’.

Latin fatuus is ascribed a complex etymology by which Fatuus, an alternative name for the oracular god Faunus, has come to be used pejoratively as ‘silly’. (Cf. how English genius can be used as a term of abuse.)

Latin fungi and blennus are not found in Vaan’s dictionary at all, but their etymologies are straightforward. Lewis & Short’s dictionary lists the former under fungus ‘mushroom’, so it is supposedly an extension of that. Latin blennus is a loan from Greek βλεννός ‘idiot’.

For bardus Vaan notes that two earlier commentators have assumed a loanword, possibly from Etruscan. Finally, He considers buccō under bucca ‘puffed, filled out cheek, mouth’, which has often been considered a loanword from Celtic.

’lentil’ as a Romance loan into Common Slavonic

While reading Ronald O. Richards’ The Pannonian Slavic Dialect of the Common Slavic Proto-Language, where the author reconstructs Pannonian Slavic on the basis of loans in Hungarian, I was struck by the comparison Common Slavonic *lętja ‘lentil’ > Hu. lencse, as we must be dealing with a Romance loan in Common Slavonic. The Latin word for ‘lentil’ was lens, lentis, also a feminine noun. Richards notes that this lexeme is found natively only in South Slavic, spreading to East Slavic only in the 13th century.

As the Latin word persisted in Romanian as linte, one might be inclined to posit this as a word out of the Romanian/Aromanian Urheimat (presumably southern Serbia) that was brought far enough north to pass into Hungarian. On the other hand, Richards points to the presence of *lętja in both Slovenian and Bulgarian, and as those two languages are descended from South Slavonic dialects that moved in opposite directions out of Pannonia (Slovenian from Pannonia to the southwest, Bulgarian southeast through Transylvania and Wallachia), it’s hard to see how they could have each taken the loanword from one and the same language. I suppose there are three possibilities here:

  1. South Slavic unity managed to persist across the entire Balkans for some time, so that a word picked up by the South Slavic speakers in Serbia would easily spread to both Slovenian and Bulgarian;
  2. Contact with Romance occurred in multiple places in the Balkans, so that Slovenian borrowed ‘lentil’ from early Dalmatian, and Bulgarian from Romanian/Aromanian, and the forms just happen to look like they go back to Proto-South-Slavic;
  3. Or should we forget about positing a Dalmatian/Romanian/Aromanian origin for ‘lentil’ and instead consider this one of the very early Latin loanwords into Common Slavic, presumably dating from the time of the Roman presence in Pannonia? Unfortunately, since *lętja is not attested in North Slavic like some of those early Latin loanwords (e.g. *kolęda ‘carol, first day of the year’ < calendae), it’s hard to securely date it so early.

The lesser-known W. Sidney Allen

Any student of classical languages with a linguistics bent will delight at discovering W. Sidney Allen’s books Vox Latina and Vox Graeca that reconstruct the pronunciation of Classical Latin and Greek, respectively. Cambridge University Press has published them in relatively cheap paperbacks. However, there are two more works by this scholar that that don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve, even though they are logical next steps.

The first is Accent and Rhythm: Prosodic Features of Latin and Greek (Cambridge University Press, 1973). Here W. Sidney Allen takes the linguistic reconstruction of Greek and Latin one step further from Vox Latina and Vox Graeca to encompass suprasegmental aspects of these languages. This book does demand a greater understanding of theory (whereas the earlier books expected little more than some knowledge of IPA), and it takes some work to apply Allen’s insights to one’s own enunciation.

The second book treats what is historicaly the third important classical language for Indo-European studies, Sanskrit. Allen’s Phonetics in Ancient India (Oxford University Press, 1953) was published years before Vox Latina and Vox Graeca, and is organized somewhat differently in that it is mainly a retelling of the already very detailed ancient Indian sources for Sanskrit pronunciation. However, Allen does engage in some detective work to clarify matters obscure in the ancient grammarians, such as the pronunciation of the visarga.

A schoolboy mnemonic that’s still fresh

One of my regrets when studying Classics was that I didn’t learn very many of the old schoolboy mnemonics that helped successive generations learn Latin and Greek paradigms. The only one I really remember is “Dick’s fat duck’s fur” for the irregular Latin imperatives dic ‘say!’, fac ‘do!’, duc ‘lead!’ and fer ‘carry!’.

It recently struck me that this mnemonic is useful not only for Latin, but for Romanian as well. While there is no reflex of Latin ferre, the remaining verbs still have irregular imperatives two millennia later: zi ‘say!’ instead of the expected *zice, ‘do!’ instead of the expected *face and du ‘take’ instead of the expected *duce.

Linguistics and classical teaching

The Winter 2007 issue of The Classical World featured a collection of papers under the heading ‘The Linguistic Edge: Using Linguistics to Enrich the Teaching of the Classics’:

  • Joshua T. Katz, ‘What Linguists are Good For’
  • Egbert J. Bakker, ‘Time, Tense and Thucydides’
  • Mary R. Bachvarova, ‘Actions and Attitudes: Understanding Greek (and Latin) Verbal Paradigms’
  • Rex Wallace, ‘Using Morphophonology in Elementary Ancient Greek’
  • Robert J. Littman, ‘Linguistics and the Teaching of Classical History and Culture’
  • Gregory Nagy, ‘The Fire Ritual of the Iguvine Tables: Facing a Central Problem in the Study of Ritual Language’

These have some useful insights for those who are learning (or, in my case, re-learning) Greek with a background in linguistics. After reference to Spanish’s use of the se pronoun in verbs, Bachvarova’s paper gives a list that I wish I had as an undergraduate:

One can find the corresponding activities of all these verbs of course, but the fact is that this active form, the form one looks up in the dictionary, is usually much more rare than the middle form for actions which can be conceived of as spontaneous events, which causes my students, who are used to thinking of the active voice as the ‘basic’ voice, no end of trouble in recognizing and finding verbs in the dictionary, as with naturally aoristic event-types. This has therefore become one of my key points in introducing the middle: certain situation-types are more or less naturally middle, and even if you are forced by grammar books and dictionaries to learn its active form, you should not expect to see it very often, and sometimes there is no active form at all; these are deponent verbs.

(13) Typically Middle Situation-Types:
Grooming/body care ἀλείφομαι
Nontranslational motion τρέπομαι
Change in body posture καθίζομαι
Translational motion οἴχομαι
Naturally reciprocal events διαλέγομαι, μάχομαι
Indirect middle κτάομαι
Emotion middle φοβοῦμαι
Emotive speech actions ὀλοφύρομαι
Cognition middle οἴομαι, πυνθάνομαι
Spontaneous events φύομαι, τήκομαι

Greek and Latin verse composition

For the past several weeks I’ve been working with North and Hilliard’s classic Greek Prose Composition to brush up on my Greek. It has only now occurred to me that if all those composition workbooks I encountered as an undergraduate thought to specify prose composition, then there must have been exercises of writing verse in Greek and Latin as well. Indeed, an old post at Textkit has an ample list of verse composition books published during the golden age of English classical studies.

The textbooks of this era are now in the public domain, so they might be available from various digitalization projects. For example, Gepp’s Progressive Exercises in Latin Elegiac Verse of 1880 can be read at Google Books.

These might provide hours of entertainment for those who can’t get enough composition exercises. I however, being something of a modernist snob who doesn’t believe poetry even really existed before the late 19th century, would not find it enjoyable to write within all those musty old metres.

The Praenestine Fibula debate doesn’t go away

Several years back Michael Weiss, an Indo-Europeanist at Cornell, offered on his website a fine outline of the evolution of Latin grammar from PIE to the classical era. Weiss recently published this Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin (Ann Arbor: Beech Stave Press, 2009), though regrettably through a no-name press that isn’t even available at Amazon. Just as interesting as the Outline itself is Weiss’ OHCGL Addenda and Corrigenda blog.

Back when I was heavily invested in Indo-European linguistics as an undergraduate, I enjoyed reading about the debate over the Praenestine Fibula, that Roman artifact whose inscription MANIOS MED FHE:FHAKED NVMASIOI was long unquestioned as the oldest attestation of Latin. Arthur Gordon’s article in Classical Journal 78 (1): 64–7 and Eric Hamp’s in the American Journal of Philology 102 (1981) 151–153 list the major linguistic doubts that arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Subsequent studies treating the history of Latin have tended to consider the fibula an outright fake, e.g. Gordon in his 1983 Illustrated Introduction to Latin Epigraphy p. 76, Baldi in his 1988 Foundations of Latin p. or Szemerenyi in his 1990 Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics p. 10.

Weiss’ blog reveals that debate over the artifact’s authenticity has arisen afresh. In a February 2010 post titled ‘Numasioi Vindicated’ he mentions recent work by Hartmann that, if not proving the fibula authentic, at least suggests that earlier scientific testing was flawed. He then makes reference to a recent Etruscan monument that might provide independent attestation of the name Numasios. The later post ‘Numasioi Vindicated? Maybe not’ contains an update.

So, the matter of the fibula is still unsettled. I don’t like being reminded that in historical linguistics in general, all conclusions are rather tentative.


It occasionally happens that a word newly encountered, which I suppose to be completely defunct and perhaps even a hapax legomenon, is met again soon after somewhere very different. While reading Saint-John Perse’s work Amers, his long poem in honor of the sea, I was not sure of the definition of one of the terms in this dizzying list:

Et c’est la Mer qui vint à nous sur les degrés de pierre du drame:
Avec ses Princes, ses Régents, ses Messagers vêtus d’emphase et de métal, ses grands Acteurs aux yeux crevés et ses Prophètes à la chaîne, ses Magiciennes trépignant sur leurs socques de bois, la bouche pleine de caillots noirs, et ses tributs de Vierges cheminant dans les labours de l’hymne,
Aves ses Pâtres, ses Pirates et ses Nourrices d’enfants-rois, ses vieux Nomades en exil et ses Princesses d’élégie, ses grandes Veuves silencieuses sous des cendres illustres, ses grands Usurpateurs de trônes et Fondateurs de colonies lointaines, ses Prébendiers, et ses Marchands, ses grands Concessionnaires des provinces d’étain, et ses grands Sages voyageurs à dos de buffles de rizières.

Amers, ‘Invocation’, 6

I had no idea what a prébendier might be, but I was too lazy to find a French dictionary and look it up. Perse is known anyhow for Frenchifying classical terminology otherwise rarely attested in the language, and I wasn’t sure if such a word would be in any commonly available French dictionary.

But oddly enough, the only other work of literature I’ve taken along for my current travels in the Middle East, the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, uses the word in English in its chronology of the author: 1742 (8 January) Admitted as prebendary of North Newbald.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as: The holder of a prebend; (formerly) a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church who obtained income from a prebend; (in later use) an honorary canon in any of various Anglican cathedrals.. A prebend according to the OED is Originally: the estate or portion of land from which a stipend is derived to support a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church, or a member of its chapter (more fully corps of the prebend).

The etymology, again according to the OED, is lit. “things to be supplied”, use as noun of neuter plural of gerundive of classical Latin praebēre to present, show, to offer, to provide, supply, contracted < praehibēre to provide, supply (Plautus) < prae- PRE- prefix + habēre to have, hold.

Finally, prebend was clearly reborn out of classical literature. The descendent of the Vulgar Latin neuter plural of the gerundive of praehibēre came down to us as a different word but somewhat more often read, namely ‘provend’, having undergone a characteristic b > v shift in Middle French.

When Hungarian was almost Romance

In the second volume of a Festschrift for Oswald Szemerényi published in 1979, I found Adam Makkai’s paper ‘Latinate Diglossia in Finno-Ugric’ that is one of the few examples of “speculative linguistics” I know of. Latin was almost like a native language for the Hungarian gentry in Austro-Hungarian times, but eventually the Language Purification Movement came out on top. Makkai writes:

Yet things could have taken a different turn and Latin could only be vigorously alive; it could, in fact, have penetrated the language deeply enough to create yet another brand of Eastern Romance. Admittedly this is somewhat speculative and there were, as we now know, more forces against such pidginization and later creolization than for it, but that it could have happened diachronically can be shown from the synchronic situation in Hungarian today.

The synchronic situation to which the author refers is the speech of the oldest generation at the time of writing, which was a product of the Austro-Hungarian education regime. Makkai tape-recorded the following judgments of a Hungarian academic, aged 75, about an American colleague:

Micsoda implauzibilis szituacio! Ez a pasas nem gavaller, hanem szadista frater. Patriotismus es szolidaritas? Semper fidelis? Numquam fidelis… Nem kapiskalja, hogy aquila non captat muscas. Palam et publice impertinens, agressziv, kleptomaniakus, retorikaja extrem es abszurd. Antifeminista, antiszocialis, kriminalis tendenciai vannak. Hogy antialkoholista es antimorfinista is? Ja, noch schön… aber… imposszibilis teoriakat fabrikal, obskurus, misztikus obfuszkaciokkal alteralja a szocialis milieu-t… Intolerabilis antiracionalista, aki denigralja az universzitas-beli akademikusok konfraternitasat, amor patris-at, optimizmusat

‘What an impossible situation! This guy/character [from French passager] is no gentleman [from Spanish caballero] but a sadistic gangster [from Latin frater ‘friar’]. (regarding) patriotism and solidarity? Always faithful? (why, he is) never faithful… He doesn’t understand [from Italian capisco] that ‘ the eagle doesn’t catch flies’ [Lat. proverb of high frequency in Hung.]. In full public view [frequent Latinism in Hung.] he is impertinent, aggressive, kleptomaniacal [from Gk. ‘to steal’], his rhetoric is extreme and absurd. He is an antifeminist, he is antisocial, and he has criminal tendencies. That he is also an antialcoholic and an antimorphinist? Well, that’s the saving grace…but… [German interjection] he fabricates impossible theories; keeps altering the social milieu [French] with obscure and mystical obfuscations… He is an intolerable antirationalist who denigrates the fraternity of university academics, their love [of their] country and their optimism

Makkai makes the interesting point that after Latin declined in popularity, and ‘pure’ Hungarian formations became the standard, the younger generations could hardly understand classically educated old people.

The last sections of the paper are mainly in jest, example texts in the conjectured Romance language that Hungarian might have become. Nonetheless, the matter reminded me of a remark by Anthony Fox in his textbook Linguistic Reconstruction: An Introduction to Theory and Method

A more radical conclusion is drawn by Trubetzkoy (1939), who suggests that, since features may be shared by unrelated languages, the idea of a language family as a group of languages derived from a single source is actually unnecessary. Terms such as ‘Indo-European’ merely cover groups of languages sharing a number of features, and as a result it is possible for a language which acquires the appropriate features to become Indo-European.

The Trubetzkoy work is ‘Gedanken ueber das Indogermanenproblem’, Acta Linguistica, 1: 81–9. I haven’t read it yet, but I would like to find it soon and see how this seventy year-old idea of languages changing families jives with contemporary notions about genetic affiliation and contact phenomena.

Extreme sound change

I am fascinated by cases where multisyllabic words are worn down to a nub. In his textbook Historical Linguistics (London: Arnold, 1996) Larry Trask gives the following as the introduction to an exercise in Chapter 3:

This is thought to be the history of the French word cent over the last 6000 years or so: [km̥tom] > [kemtom] > [kentom] > [kentum] > [kentũ] > [kentu] > [kento] > [kʲento] > [tsento] > [tsent] > [sent] > [sen] > [sẽ] > [sɑ̃]

My favourite, however, is the modern Romanian word for ‘today’. Vulgar Latin *ecce-ista diēs had, count ’em, six syllables. It passed into early Romanian as aceasta zi [atʃʲasta zi] and in contemporary colloquial speech it has ended up as the monosyllabic azi [azʲ].

DEX, the widely appreciated but somehow dubious Dicționar explicativ al limbii române gives an alternate origin of azi, namely Latin hac die. However, I think that it is just as likely that the word ultimately comes from *ecce-ista diēs, for its modern literary descendent, astăzi, is already almost there.