Monday, June 30, 2008

ad discendam linguam Latinam...

To learn Latin...

Head over to LatinLanguage, and follow Chris's weeklong series on Latin grammar.

tractum ex annotationibus

Drawn from comments.

Remarking on my previous post, Stephen inquires:
Do you have a source for this? I feel like it would be unlikely that the original [u:] sound of υ would be preserved in English. It would almost certainly have come into English via Latin, which merged it with 'i' at a fairly early date and other words that derive from Greek roots show the change already to have happened (The only example I can think of right now is "priest" which is from "presbyter", that doesn't show a remnant of [u], but that's gone through several stages before it got to "priest" so i'm not 100% sure about that).
He is right to wonder about a source; my etymological suggestion was rather speculative. The logic behind his concern is flawless, but I do not think not it applies here. There is a real lack of evidence that this came to English via Latin. The OED entry has "ptooey" attested only as early as 1930, with etymology and citations as follows:
ptooey, 19- ptui. [Imitative. ComparePFUI int., PHOOEY int., and also PTISH int., PSHAW int., etc.]

1930 O. LATTIMORE High Tartary xxvii. 273 Ptui! Wrong again! Will you ever be fit for Official life? Ptui!’ Thus the Great Man, pursuing his orderly with a flying gob of spittle. 1977 Rolling Stone 5 May 5/2 Ptooey! Who'd stand for it? 1993 Albuquerque (New Mexico) Jrnl. 26 Aug. F6/1 What do you think this is, Lollapalooza? Ptui.

This first form [pfui] only has roots in German. The rest are of even more uncertain origin, and often falsely attributed to Yiddish. The Latin verb "spuo-to spit," which is connected to Gothic speiwan (LSJ), seems to have no correlation to any of these forms. Nor does Latin have any alternative onomatopoeic rendering for this expression. In fact, the OED seems to have little evidence definitively showing the roots of "ptooey" in any language besides English.

And so I return to my initial point which, having been forced now to think it through more thoroughly, is in need of clarification. I should not have said this expression is derived from the Greek verb; there is no concrete evidence testifying to this hypothesis. But I do not see any evidence to the contrary either. Therefore:
  1. "Ptooey" was formulated in English independent of the Greek verb, and perhaps free of the influence of any other language. It is a direct onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of spitting.
  2. My original hypothesis was correct, and "ptooey" is a borrowing of a Greek onomatopoeic rendering, a best-possible English imitation.
I don't think I can prove either one. But a bit of further speculation, just for fun...

I would briefly draw your attention to the earliest attested form in English. What is is about that name that looks strangely familiar? The famous Owen Lattimore, post-WWII public intellectual, Far-East scholar, and notable author is the brother of Richmond Lattimore, the renowned Classics translator of Iliad and Odyssey among others.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, Owen Lattimore was well-versed enough in the classics to be familiar with the Greek onamatopoeic verb, and attempted to render the sound in English.

Before climbing out onto a yet thinner and more treacherous limb, I will rest my case here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

ὀνοματοποιία εὐθύς;

Onomatopoeia directly?

Is our English colloquial "ptooey" or alternately, "ptooie" a direct onomatopoeic rendering of the sound made when a person spits?

It seems more likely it is derived from the Greek onomatopoeic verb "πτύω-to spit."

A fun and relevant passage:

Xenophon Cyropaedia 1.2.16

αἰσχρὸν μὲν γὰρ ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἐστι Πέρσαις καὶ τὸ πτύειν καὶ τὸ ἀπομύττεσθαι καὶ τὸ φύσης μεστοὺς φαίνεσθαι...

For it is even now shameful among the Persians to spit or to blow one's nose or to appear flatulent...

Friday, June 20, 2008

potestas frumenti et benzi

The power of grain and oil.

Apparently, not I alone am interested in the connection between oil today and grain in ancient Rome, about which I wrote earlier. Chris Jones at LatinLanguage has a thorough and fascinating discussion of annona, the market supply and price of grain in the city. He concludes [emphasis added]:

[T]he annona was an issue that always haunted Roman politics through the Republic. A repetiton of this basic pattern is seen in the Gracchi Brothers, Saturninus, Caesar and Clodius, cases where self-serving demagoguery is not always so clear a motive.
Though the unelected emperor didn’t need to worry as much about the plebs, the wiser emperors knew the power of public opinion and the role of the annona in swaying it (after all, it’s half of Juvenal’s famous panem et circensis). The most startling example is Vespasian’s victory in the Year of the Four Emperors (68 ACE); while Galba, Otho, and Vitellius raced to Rome to be crowned and deposed in succession, Vespasian moved to occupy Egypt and secure Rome’s breadbasket.
Oil is arguably as important to the modern American economy as the annona was to ancient Rome’s. It’s always dangerous to press historical analogies too hard, but their study can often provide a new insight.

I agree with nearly all of this. Power over a limited and valuable resource lends heavy political clout. The masses who rely on obtaining this resource within their budget schema are much more inclined to support a politician who can guarantee stable, cheap access. In the Year of the Four Emperors (68 AD), Vespasian wisely came to this same conclusion, and his occupation of grain-producing Egypt was instrumental in his victory.

But this last argument, I believe, would be a very difficult one to make. Oil is an integral part of the American economy. We depend on it to such an extent that our demand for gas, even with prices in excess of $4-per-gallon at the pump, remains relatively inelastic. Nevertheless, we do have some leeway, and are exercising these options. We are driving less (HT: MarginalRevolution) and using mass transit more often.

The Romans did not possess the same limited flexibility. As remains the case in poor and developing nations today, a shortage of grain did not mean changes in routine for the urban poor...more likely, it meant starvation and death.

Indeed, I think this final argument that Chris is not voicing particularly strongly. He rightly identifies the powerful allure of a closer comparison, and here likewise rightly resists it. His greater point about the politics is still quite correct. Just as the grain supply for Romans, gas is an essential part of the lives of millions of Americans, and so will feature prominently in political campaign (as it already has, most notoriously with the foolish "gas-tax holiday" pandering).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

scholares linguae de lingua Latina dicunt

Linguists speak about the Latin language.

The bright fellows at Language Log have been hard at work of late dispelling myths about Latin.

Mark Liberman patiently teaches Graham Young of The National Forum that the Romans did not invent grammar:
The earliest systematic study of a linguistic system that has come down to us is that of Pāṇini (4th or 5th century BC), whose commentators reference several earlier accounts of Sanskrit grammar, such as Śākaṭāyana (8th century BC). The goal of this tradition was to preserve knowledge of the language of the Hindu religious canon, bccause in Panini's time, the language in everyday usage had changed so much (since the composition of works like the Vedas) that correct recitation and understanding of the sacred works could not be assured without explicit study.
He likewise takes it upon his shoulders to correct some false Latin etymologies offered by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1887 Zur Genealogie der Moral:

Most of the specific etymologies that Nietzsche offers are nonsense; for example:

The Latin word bonus [good] I believe I can explicate as “the warrior,” provided that I am correct in tracing bonus back to an older word duonus (compare bellum [war] = duellum [war] = duen-lum, which seems to me to contain that word duonus). Hence, bonus as a man of war, of division (duo), as a warrior. We see what constituted a man’s “goodness” in ancient Rome. What about our German word “Gut” [good] itself? Doesn’t it indicate “den Göttlichen” [the god-like man], the man of “göttlichen Geschlechts” [“the generation of gods]”? And isn’t that identical to the people’s (originally the nobles’) name for the Goths?

In fact, according to current scholarship, Latin bonus came from IE deu-2 "To do, perform …", through the sense “useful, efficient, working”. And for German "Gut", see the discussion of good above.

Nietzsche's thoughts about Latin malus pile racism on top of anti-semitism:

In the Latin word malus [bad] (which I place alongside melas [black, dark]) the common man could be designated as the dark- coloured, above all as the dark-haired (“hic niger est” [“this man is dark”]), as the pre-Aryan inhabitant of Italian soil, who stood out from those who became dominant, the blonds, that is, the conquering race of Aryans, most clearly through this colour.

It's true that (e.g.) Lewis and Short identify mălus as related to "Sanscr. mala, dirt; Gr. μέλας, black"; but even the earliest Latin citations don't suggest any connection with dark-haired people, or with the lower classes of society either. Latin mĕlas, borrowed from Greek μέλας, just meant "a black spot on the skin". Liddell and Scott's entry for Greek μέλας does indicate that it could mean "of men, dark, swarthy", but none of the related Latin words seem to have had such a meaning. And other sources suggest that Latin malus came from IE mel-3 which already meant "False, bad, wrong" before the Romans went to Italy.

Of course, the logic of Nietzsche's argument from etymology is faulty, independent of the validity of its premises. (See "Etymology as argument", 6/18/2005, and the other posts listed here.) Still, the carelessness of his scholarship may serve to indicate the overall quality of his ideas — and it would be worth investigating, some day, why people who advance etymological arguments are so often wrong about their etymologies.

Both posts are well worth reading in their entirety. We are all in the debt of these Language Loggers, who take up the heavy burden of informing an oft-misinformed public.

Monday, June 9, 2008

καί μιν φωνήσας ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα...

And he addressed him speaking winged words.

This from the Iliad, in Book 13 line 750 (and of course, elsewhere).

I am quite cheerful for two reasons.
  1. Zmjezhd at Epea Pteroenta has kindly consulted the real experts, and produced a series of more detailed etymologies for tenebrae. Check it out.
  2. My intuition was not too far off. The consensus that emerges on the evolution of the [n] in tenebrae seems highly speculative, and so I believe I was right to be a bit skeptical about the derivatives offered in L&S. Nevertheless, Chris's argument remains elegant.

Friday, June 6, 2008

quod cum nocte advenit. et omnia contegit.

That which arrives with the night and conceals everything.

Chris Jones at LatinLanguage has a very interesting post about the semantic differences between three Latin words for darkness: obscuritas, tenebrae, and caligo. As usual, he has some excellent examples to illustrate his conclusions. I myself was doubtful if the etymology of tenebrae extends all the way to temetum and temulentus, but indeed, it is linked to Lat. timeo, from there to Sanskrit tamas-darkness, and finally to these more uncommon words.

A good linguist, I am sure, could offer some insight as to how tenebrae evolved from timeo. Alas, it is a better linguist than I.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

ars Aegea

113 Knossos throne room
Originally uploaded by winninator
Aegean art.

The artwork of the earliest civilized peoples of Greece, the tribes of the Aegean, is beautiful and unique. I can describe vases, statues, architecture and other creations of the era c. 1600 BC and the pinnacle of Cretan influence in the Mediterranean as breahtaking, but Mikhail Rostovtzeff can actually convey this sense with the elegance of his description:

M. Rostovtzeff Greece p.28-29:

Aegean art, so live and sparkling, is all full of humanity and individuality; it is free from the oppressive magnificence and majesty of the god-king, before whom his subjects are pitiable grains of desert sand before the sun; it bubbles like a fountain with vivacity and merriment; it thirsts for life and delights in life; it is intoxicated with sea and sun, trees and flowers, sport and war. These men reproduce life on their household utensils, on the walls of their houses, and in works of art; their fancy is not for separate figures or portraits---no portraits have been bequeathed to us by them---but for groups; and these groups are not rows of identical figures but related to one another and full of movement. The ornament is lively, impersonal, capricious, and infinitely various, finding models everywhere, both in the elegance of the geometric spiral and in natural objects, such as flowers and marine animals, and the odder these are, the better---cuttle-fish, flying fish, sea-shells.

This why the productions of Aegean art, sometimes sketchy and impressionistic, often childish in their simplicity, impress us so strongly after the splendid monuments of the East---the refinement of Egypt and the dramatic power of Babylon...But Aegean art carries us beyond the limits of the palace, and shows us other lively pictures; bulls caught with nets in the forest; the attack on a fortress by enemies who come from the sea; the ship carrying a statue of a horse (it recalls the horse of Troy); a funeral procession and rites performed at the grave. Their is not a trace of conventionality or tradition throughout, and there is hardly any repetition. The brightness and variety of the colours is surprising; their arer laid, one on another or one beside another, in the most unexpected combinations, with a constant endeavour to get novel tints.

Moreover, this allows me the excuse to post this picture of gryphons. Our favorite mythical beasts adorn the the throne room at Knossos c. 1450 BC.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from user Winninator.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Demo-archy? (Think oligarchy or monarchy.)

Michigan's Josiah Ober's 2007 paper questions today's perceptions of democracy:

In modernity, democracy is often construed as being concerned, in the first instance, with a voting rule for determining the will of the majority. The power of the people is thus the authority to decide matters by majority rule. This reductive definition leaves democracy vulnerable to well-known social choice dilemmas, including Downs’ rational ignorance and Arrow’s impossibility theorem. What I propose to do... is to look more closely at the original Greek meaning of “democracy” in the context of the classical (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) terminology for regime-types. The conclusion is that democracy originally referred to “power” in the sense of “capacity to do things.” “Majority rule” was an intentionally pejorative diminution, urged by democracy’s Greek critics.

The paper is entirely interesting. Ober distinguishes between -arche and -kratos suffixes to differentiate control of the government and the capability to exert influence. The absence of monocracy or oligocracy testifies to the natural strength and capability of the individual or privileged few. By examinining the rights inherent to Athenian democracy---ἰσηγορία-equal access to address, ἰσηνομία-equal protection under law, and ἰσηψηφία-equal vote---and the use of ἰσοκρατία as periphrasis for δημοκρατία, he makes a compelling argument that democracy is originally and at its most basic level

the empowered demos” – it is the regime in which the demos gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm. And so it is not just a matter of control of a public realm but the collective strength and ability to act within that realm and, indeed, to reconstitute the public realm through action.

This thoughtful piece could, inter alia, lead to some reconsideration of recent neologisms. Since we have a thriving punditocracy*, what would a punditarchy look like? Can we even begin to fathom a government in which political appointments and power was invested solely in the hands of our favorite---and most detested---political pundits? Can one argue that we have an indirect version of it?

These are big questions. I'll leave them to the real pundits.

Update: I somehow forgot to include the link to the paper.

*Can you believe there is no Wikipedia entry for this term?!