January 09, 2005

Horace and Quintilian on Correct Language

In writing about William Deresiewicz' review of David Crystal's The Stories of English, and MacNeil and Cran's Do you Speak American?, I complained that it's misleading to say that "the notion of [linguistic] correctness emerged only in the late 18th century".

This is an easy mistake to make, because it's certainly true that a new mass-culture concern about correct English emerged around that time, along with fully standardized English spelling, the use of standard French to establish a national culture after the French revolution, and so on. But that doesn't mean that linguistic norms and evaluation of usage didn't exist before that time, or that people didn't use legal and ethical metaphors in talking about such things.

For example, consider the passage in Horace's De Arte Poetica, written in the first century B.C., which is often quoted against prescriptivists because of its view that words will change "si volet usus / quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi" ("if it be the will of custom, in the power of whose judgment is the law and the standard of language") [English translation here].

Earlier in the same section, Horace writes:

 ... brevis esse laboro,
obscurus fio; sectantem levia nervi
deficiunt animique; professus grandia turget;
serpit humi tutus nimium timidusque procellae:
qui variare cupit rem prodigialiter unam,
delphinum silvis adpingit, fluctibus aprum:
in vitium ducit culpae fuga, si caret arte.

I labor to be concise, I become obscure: nerves and spirit fail him, that aims at the easy: one, that pretends to be sublime, proves bombastical: he who is too cautious and fearful of the storm, crawls along the ground: he who wants to vary his subject in a marvelous manner, paints the dolphin in the woods, the boar in the sea. The avoiding of an error leads to a fault, if it lack skill.

Let's focus on the last line: "in vitium ducit culpae fuga..." (word-for-word = "to fault leads of error avoidance").

Lewis and Short's dictionary glosses vitium as "a fault, defect, blemish, imperfection, vice [and in particular] a moral fault, failing, error, offence, crime, vice"; and culpa is glossed as "crime, fault, blame, failure, defect (as a state worthy of punishment; on the contr. delictum, peccatum, etc., as punishable acts; diff. from scelus, which implies an intentional injury of others; but culpa includes in it an error in judgment)." Particular senses of culpa include unchastity, remissness, neglect and  social faux pas. The dictionary also indicates that vitium is widely enough used to mean "a fault of language" that this is given as a special sense.

So when Horace says that "in vitium ducet culpae fuga" ("flight from crime leads to vice"), he's describing alternative forms of bad writing using the two most loaded nouns for general moral and legal transgression that Latin had to offer.

Horace was writing about style and word choice, not grammar. But the prescriptive "rules" about Correct English are also often about style ("omit needless words", "write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs") or word choice ("don't use hopefully to mean 'it is to be hoped'"). Indeed, Deresiewicz leads off his review by complaining about a student who writes "The following methodology was utilized" rather than "The following method was used" or "This is what I did."

When Quintilian (1st century AD) offered advice about how to raise (male) children to speak correctly, he used the same sort of legal and moral language:

Above all see that the child's nurse speaks correctly. ... No doubt the most important point is that they should be of good character: but they should speak correctly as well. It is the nurse that the child first hears, and her words that he will first attempt to imitate. And we are by nature most tenacious of childish impressions, just as the flavour first absorbed by vessels when new persists, and the colour imparted by dyes to the primitive whiteness of wool is indelible. Further it is the worst impressions that are most durable. For, while what is good readily deteriorates, you will never turn vice into virtue. Do not therefore allow the boy to become accustomed even in infancy to a style of speech which he will subsequently have to unlearn.

... if it should prove impossible to secure the ideal nurse, the ideal companions, or the ideal paedagogus, I would insist that there should be one person at any rate attached to the boy who has some knowledge of speaking and who will, if any incorrect expression should be used by nurse or paedagogus in the presence of the child under their charge, at once correct the error and prevent its becoming a habit.

The Latin original uses words and phrases like vitiosus sermo (for "faulty, [or bad, or corrupt] speech"), recte loquantur ("speak correctly"), vitiose ("in a faulty [or bad, or corrupt] way"), corrigat ("correct [the error]"):

Ante omnia ne sit vitiosus sermo nutricibus ... Et morum quidem in his haud dubie prior ratio est, recte tamen etiam loquantur. Has primum audiet puer, harum verba effingere imitando conabitur, et natura tenacissimi sumus eorum quae rudibus animis percepimus: ut sapor quo nova inbuas durat, nec lanarum colores quibus simplex ille candor mutatus est elui possunt. Et haec ipsa magis pertinaciter haerent quae deteriora sunt. Nam bona facile mutantur in peius: quando in bonum verteris vitia? Non adsuescat ergo, ne dum infans quidem est, sermoni qui dediscendus sit.

... Si tamen non continget quales maxime velim nutrices pueros paedagogos habere, at unus certe sit adsiduus loquendi non imperitus, qui, si qua erunt ab iis praesenti alumno dicta vitiose, corrigat protinus nec insidere illi sinat, dum tamen intellegatur id quod prius dixi bonum esse, hoc remedium.

Quntilian's advice about nurses is nonsense. Upper-class American children today don't grow up to speak with the accent of their nannies, and I doubt that Roman children did either. And there's pretty good evidence that explicit correction of "incorrect expressions" has little effect, at least on young children. So Quintilian's advice is no better than that of his modern counterparts, but he's talking about usage using the same language of good and bad, right and wrong, correct and incorrect. I doubt that all people in all cultures think and talk that way, but it's not something that was invented at the end of the 18th century.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 9, 2005 01:57 PM