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Bilingualism in an Ancient Empire

There are two kinds of bilingualism: the bilingualism of individuals who speak two languages, and the bilingualism of communities and states in which two languages are used. We know that bilingualism among individuals is nothing new. It has been guessed - it could never be more than a guess - that the majority of human beings, from the origin of our species until the present, have been bilingual or multilingual. But it is difficult to reach firm conclusions about individual bilingualism and state bilingualism in the past, because, by contrast with the present, we cannot do statistical surveys and no one will answer our questions. [...]

Which means that if we want to know about the relations between multiple community languages in a political unit of the ancient past, we have to search hard for our evidence. In Bilingualism and the Latin Language (2003) J. N. Adams has made the search and has come back to us with the results. [...]

Rome, originally a city-state using its own native language, had gradually expanded till it dominated the whole Mediterranean. Latin was always the ruling language of this Empire. Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern provinces and was familiar to many Romans. At least sixty languages were spoken across the vast territory of the Empire. Only Latin and Greek were acceptable in legal documents, though verbal contracts could be made in others languages too: Roman lawyers name specifically Gaulish, Punic and Aramaic as languages in which this was likely to happen. I base this outline on the survey of Rome's languages in my own Language in Danger (2002: see also 'Bilingualism and language loss').

Since traditionally Classics has meant the study of Latin and Greek, excluding other Mediterranean languages regional and local, it's not surprising that misleading assumptions and prejudices concerning the languages of Rome are rife. As Adams rightly says, 'It has long been the conventional opinion that Greeks were indifferent or hostile to the learning of foreign languages' (p. 15), an opinion that has much to do with classical philosophers' haughty dismissal of non-Greek culture and nothing to do with the way Greeks really lived under the Roman empire. It has also been assumed by some that Greek, to Romans, was uncomplicatedly a high-status language. As Adams shows, there has always been plenty of evidence of a far more nuanced state of affairs. Greek was indeed a language of high culture; was it perhaps richer than Latin? It was a language of teachers, of doctors, and even as far back as the 2nd century BC it was the typical language of slaves (on this see especially pp. 351-2, contradicting recent work by H. D. Jocelyn). [...]

Adams provides material in this book for a new generalization in the same area. 'Romans were not much given to learning languages other than Greek' is the way that he puts it on p. 201, but this is a hasty formulation. After referring to a very interesting episode, the state-sponsored translation of Mago's farming manual from Punic, the language of Carthage, into Latin, Adams accepts that 'there was possibly greater knowledge of foreign languages (other than Greek) among the Latin speaking upper classes in the early Republic' (p. 204). We need to go further and to recognise that the number of Romans who learned languages other than Latin and Greek depends on the definition of 'Roman'. In a modern state, those who learn minority or low-status languages generally learn them as mother tongues or in early childhood; for obvious reasons, school and adult learning focuses on high-status, national and international languages. It was surely so in the Roman empire also. Adams gives plenty of evidence for it, and (incidentally) plenty of evidence that mother-tongue speakers of the other languages of the Empire could be, or become, Romans. A better generalization for p. 201 would have been this: whatever their family languages, Romans were unlikely to learn any language additional to Latin and Greek at school or in later life.

Even here, important counter-examples exist, such as St Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa, who knew Latin, Greek, Punic and Hebrew and struggled with Aramaic. Punic, a regional language of Roman Africa that lacked any official status, was not apparently Augustine's mother tongue; perhaps he learned it from his wife, since Augustine's writings tell us than his son was better at Punic than he himself was (pp. 237-240). At this period Hebrew was no one's mother tongue but was learned, by Jews of course and by some Christians, in the course of religious education. Aramaic was a current regional language of the Empire, like Punic, but Augustine wanted to learn it for its importance in the interpretation of the Bible.

It's surprising that in spite of his interest in North African material, Adams gives very little space given to Libyan (pp. 245-7), though he is generous with Punic (pp. 200-245). He remarks on 'the obscurity of the [Libyan] script'; he doubts whether Libyan is the ancient forerunner of Berber, and whether all of the alleged Latin loanwords in Berber are really of Latin origin' (pp. 246-7). It's good to be sceptical, but the example he gives (Latin sagmarius, feminine sagmaria 'packhorse' > Berber tagmart 'mare': note the t-...-t feminine affix typical of Berber) is actually one of the more certain of Latin-Berber etymologies; the Latin word was common and survives in several Romance languages, e.g. French sommier. Some classical scholars tend to be more sceptical, when they focus on languages of the Hamito-Semitic or Afroasiatic family, than elsewhere. Adams' assertion that 'if we know virtually nothing of the ancient language, we cannot begin to attempt to relate it to the modern' (p. 246) helps to make my point: actually that is just how progress in decipherment and comparative linguistics is often achieved. But, admittedly, the Libyco-Berber script poses considerable difficulties to a decipherer: if one is given no vowels, or word-spacing, or punctuation, one finds it difficult to grasp the structure of words and sentences, especially the inexplicit sentences typical of brief stone inscriptions.

Here is one of Adams' own more risky speculations. There is something odd about the Latin phrase seu gens seu Ch[r]istianus 'whether pagan or Christian', found on one of the curse tablets from the Roman shrine at Bath. The singular form gens, with the meaning 'a pagan', is not found in any other Latin source. Does this usage derive from a loan-translation from Hebrew, in which the plural goyyim meant 'the nations, gentiles, pagans' and the singular goi 'nation' eventually came to mean also 'a pagan'? Yes, it might, as Adams suggests (p. 273). Alternatively, a Latin speaker might have devised this semantic back-formation independently, working backwards from the well-known Latin plural gentes, 'the nations, gentiles, pagans', without any knowledge of Hebrew. But such speculations about possible borrowing and interference deserve their space, because even if any one item of evidence may be knocked down by a sceptic, the mass of them, as gathered in Adams' book, are sufficiently powerful to persuade even the least multilingual of scholars that Rome presided over a multilingual Empire.

Which is what Adams succeeds triumphantly in doing. Among the most enjoyable features of his book are the unexpected, sometimes minor and obscure, texts that turn out to provide material for innovative study and important conclusions. Let me point first to the bilingual funerary inscriptions in Etruscan and Latin, showing how the same person (that used to be doubted, but Adams makes it clear that it has to be the same person) might bear two completely different names in the two languages (pp. 169-179). Let me encourage every reader to study the receipt recording the sale by a dealer named Aeschines of a slave-girl to a Roman soldier at the Ravenna naval base (pp. 53-63); Adams gives a masterly exposition of the interrelations of Latin and Greek in this transaction. I have room merely to allude to the two women who apparently worked side by side in a tile factory in central Italy in the 1st century BC and decided jointly to leave a time-capsule for posterity; one scratched her message in Oscan, the other in Latin (pp. 124-7) [...] For Spanish and Italian linguists who weren't certain, till now, how old are the two-syllable names of the letters f l m n r s in these languages, Adams has a special incidental prize: he can show that the names iffe, ille, imme, inne, irre, isse were in use in Latin at the time of the Empire (pp.-42).

Adams, unlike many classical philologists, is well-read in modern linguistics. In his search for evidence of bilingualism he focuses firmly on code-switching (p. 18 and passim) and distinguishes carefully between code-switching and lexical borrowing. He concludes, sensitively, that 'there are no "rules", grammatical or otherwise, which necessitate language mixing (or code-switching) under particular circumstances. Mixing should be looked on as a stylistic resource which may or may not be exploited for its symbolic effect by individuals or groups as they see fit' (p. 244). He makes good use of Suzanne Romaine's Bilingualism (Oxford, 1995) and is often able to draw illuminating comparisons with bilingual societies of today.

Resulting insights will help to advance the study of Rome's languages to a new stage. Adams observes that in official translations into Greek of Roman documents, 'translationese' is not a sign of the translators' poor command of Greek but an assertion of the primacy of Latin phraseology, and therefore of the higher status of Latin (p. 12). He shows how, in at least one tomb inscription, 'the choice of language expresses the ethnic (or, perhaps better, 'linguistic') identity of the deceased, whereas the choice of script is a reflection of the ethnic/linguistic identity of the client' (p. 89). He shows that a Greek accent, in speaking Latin, may in some contexts have been as high-status (or sexy?) as a French accent in speaking English (pp. 16-17, cf. 108-110). Crucially for the corpus of material he is using, Adams is able to demonstrate, with a wealth of evidence, that a bilingual inscription was not usually composed in one language and then translated into the other. 'A bilingual inscription allowed the different categories of information to be expressed in the appropriate language' (p. 223, cf. 292).

I conclude this review article with an example showing that the material gathered and explored in this book might sometimes yield even more than Adams finds in it. Ancient authors already knew that learning a foreign language may impair your performance in your mother tongue (p. 17 and note 49, cf. p. 277); surely it's for this very reason that the ancient educator Quintilian urged that Roman schoolboys' study of Greek should not get too far in advance of their Latin (pp. 435-6). We probably have all observed some evidence of L2-L1 interference. My daughter, phoning from Greece, told me yesterday that she had found a room to rent 'before half an hour' (half an hour ago); her L3, Greek, temporarily impaired her performance in L1. In a different context Adams himself mentions (pp. 20, 275-6) the case of a German, Arminius, long-standing commander of a contingent of fellow-German mercenaries in the Roman army. Arminius was overheard having a political argument in German, his L1, with his brother, who had never fought for Rome. In the heat of argument Arminius kept slipping into Latin, his L2, a language either incomprehensible or infuriating to his brother. This story, told by the historian Tacitus, yields more than Adams realises. It is perfectly credible, and it makes us wonder whether the men who served Rome as mercenaries were of more varied and colourful origins than is conventionally assumed. In that case, there would have been dialect or language mixture even in Arminius's conversations with his own troops; Latin would have come into its own from time to time as a lingua franca, and Arminius's German would have got more rusty than if he were living in an encampment where his own dialect of German was spoken almost exclusively. As Adams himself so compellingly shows, the more we examine the evidence for ancient multilingualism, the more complex, and the more lifelike, is the picture that we find.

Extracts from a review article by Andrew Dalby published in The Linguist vol. 43 no. 4 (2004).

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