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.

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