February 17, 2006

Annals of prescriptivism: a Roman instructs the Germans in their own language

It's about 460 or 470 A.D., and Sidonius Apollinaris writes a letter to his friend Syagrius, who's been spending his time among the Burgundians, a German tribe who have set up housekeeping in "Sapaudia", which was near present-day Geneva (or maybe Lyons, different sources tell me different things about this). Sidonius exclaims that

... immane narratu est, quantum stupeam sermonis te Germanici notitiam tanta facilitate rapuisse.
... it's frightful to say how astonished I am that you have picked up knowledge of the German language with such facility.

and he adds that

aestimari minime potest, quanto mihi ceterisque sit risui, quotiens audio, quod te praesente formidet linguae suae facere barbarus barbarismum.
You can hardly imagine how much I and the others laugh to hear that in your presence the barbarian fears to commit a barbarism in his own language.

This is an interestingly complex little joke.

(In passing, note it as another piece of evidence against the idea that linguistic correctness was an 18th-century invention.)

Lewis and Short's entry for barbarismus tells us that the word is borrowed from Greek barbarismos, and gives some relevant history:

    I. an impropriety of speech, barbarism; esp. of pronunciation (acc. to Gell. 13, 6, 14; cf. id. 5, 20, 1, not in use before the Aug. per.; in Nigidius, instead of it, rusticus sermo)

On this story, barbarismus was borrowed from Greek during the Augustan period, and before that the corresponding idea would have been "rusticus sermo", i.e. "hick speech". Thus we start with urban disdain for rural ways of talking, and then move on to make fun of the mistakes made by barbarian foreigners, at a time when the Empire was globalizing.

But I wonder what it might have meant, 500 years later, for Burgundians to fear making an error in their native German in front of a Roman visitor. There's a clue in Sidonius' next sentence:

adstupet tibi epistulas interpretanti curva Germanorum senectus et negotiis mutuis arbitrum te disceptatoremque desumit.
The stooped elders of the Germans are astounded at you interpreting their writings, and choose you as mediator and judge in their disputes.

Nothing is now left of Burgundian except some names, but it was an East Germanic language that should have been pretty close to Gothic, for which we have quite a few texts, e.g. Matthew 6:1

Atsaiƕiþ armaion izwara ni taujan in andwairþja manne du saiƕan im; aiþþau laun ni habaiþ fram attin izwaramma þamma in himinam.
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

The main reason that we have Gothic texts is that Bishop Ulfilas created a Gothic bible around a hundred years before the time of Sidonius' letter, and the Goths prospered over the next few centuries, resulting in enough copies of this work for some to have survived at least in fragmentary form to the present day. Syagrius' Burgundians, meanwhile, had survived a rough century, having been nearly annihilated by the Gepids in around 370, and then nearly wiped out again by Hun mercenaries hired by the Romans in 437.

I don't know much about this period, and there may be evidence to contradict this hypothesis, but perhaps the Burgundians were illiterate in their own language, and were impressed by Syagrius' ability to read the Gothic bible and other Gothic texts. After all, Gothic was associated with a larger and more powerful tribe as well as with the prestige of a written form, and was probably close enough to their own dialect to be mutually intelligible, or nearly so. Ulfilas had been an Arian Christian, just like the Burgundians were, and he was the one who was mainly responsible for converting the Germans who had been in contact with Constantinople during its Arian phase. And it's plausible that Syagrius' Gothic was better than their own, especially in terms of pronunciation, which he could get from the orthography. This might also be true of morphology, where Syagrius could probably reproduce Ulfilas' forms more reliably than the Burgundians could, and even syntax, where Ulfilas' bible is said to have been influenced by Greek patterns.

We might also learn something by looking at Greek barbarismos, which Liddell and Scott gloss as "use of a foreign tongue or of one's own tongue amiss". They point to a section of Aristotle's Poetics where barbarismos used to refer to the results of combining rare words, and is rendered as "jargon" in this version of the passage, translated by W.H. Fyfe:

The merit of diction is to be clear and not commonplace. The clearest diction is that made up of ordinary words, but it is commonplace. ... That which employs unfamiliar words is dignified and outside the common usage. By "unfamiliar" I mean a rare word, a metaphor, a lengthening, and anything beyond the ordinary use. But if a poet writes entirely in such words, the result will be either a riddle or jargon; if made up of metaphors, a riddle and if of rare words, jargon. ... We need then a sort of mixture of the two. For the one kind will save the diction from being prosaic and commonplace, the rare word, for example, and the metaphor and the "ornament," whereas the ordinary words give clarity.

The key to understanding this passage seems to be something that Aristotle writes just before, suggesting that "rare words" often or usually means "words from a different dialect" (or perhaps "from a different time"):

An "ordinary" word is one used by everybody, a "rare" word one used by some; so that a word may obviously be both "ordinary" and "rare," but not in relation to the same people. sigunon, for instance, is to the Cypriots an "ordinary" word but to us a "rare" one.

Note that Aristotle uses glôssa for what Fyfe translates as "rare word":

all' an tis hapanta toiauta poiêsêi, ê ainigma estai ê barbarismos: an men oun ek metaphorôn, ainigma, ean de ek glôttôn, barbarismos.
But if a poet writes entirely in such words, the result will be either a riddle or jargon; if made up of metaphors, a riddle and if of rare words, jargon.

And LSJ glosses glôssa (abbreviated and emphasis added)

A. tongue
         b. g. larungos, = glôttis, larynx
      2. tongue, as the organ of speech
      3. of persons, one who is all tongue, speaker
   II. language; dialect
      2. obsolete or foreign word, which needs explanation
      3. people speaking a distinct language
   III. anything shaped like the tongue

So Aristotle is telling us that text or speech full of obsolete or dialect words will be barbarismos: but surely that is exactly what Gothic would have been to the Burgundians. And also what Burgundian would have been by reference to the norms of Gothic -- especially the Gothic of a century earlier. So if we assume that Gothic had become a prestige dialect from the point of view of the Burgundians, associated with the bible and perhaps other formal writing, then Sidonius' letter makes perfect sense.


Those whose interest is limited to the history of prescriptivism can stop reading here. But there are some left-over goodies that are fun to read, like this from the Preface to the Online Edition of Dalton's translation of Sidonius' letters:

Sidonius Apollinaris was a Roman aristocrat of the 5th century AD. Born around 431 AD, he held estates in Gaul. He pursued an official career under the emperors Avitus (a kinsman), Majorian, and Anthemius, rising to be Prefect of Rome. But all these emperors were murdered in turn by the sinister Ricimer, a barbarian general holding the highest office in the state, that of Patrician, or Prime Minister. Ricimer ostensibly governed in the Roman interest. In reality he pursued no interest but his own, and his murder of the capable Majorian ensured the collapse of the empire.

As Roman rule weakened, the barbarians occupied more and more of Gaul. Sidonius had returned to Gaul under Anthemius. Like so many other aristocrats, he had reluctantly become Bishop in his local town, Clermont in Arvernia. The advancing Visigoths under their king Euric moved into the region; Sidonius helped organise resistance, since none of the Roman forces paid for from the crushing taxation of the time were available to defend them. But after enduring a siege, he found to his appalled horror that the imperial government was plotting to betray the Arvernians, some of their strongest supporters. (His outraged letter to Bishop Graecus, one of the go-betweens, is included in this edition). And so it proved. Sidonius himself was imprisoned by Euric.

States prepared to sell their own allies to appease an advancing enemy have little prospect of survival. In less than a dozen years, Roman rule had ceased everywhere in the West; the consequence of its rulers placing themselves in the power of those whose loyalties were ultimately non-Roman. Sidonius lived long enough to outlive the last emperor, Julius Nepos. He died, sometime after 480, and is canonised as a saint.

There's the stuff of a mini-series there, don't you think?

Here's the full Latin text of the letter (book V, letter V):

Sidonius Syagrio suo salutem.

1. Cum sis consulis pronepos idque per virilem successionem (quamquam id ad causam subiciendam minus attinet), cum sis igitur e semine poetae, cui procul dubio statuas dederant litterae, si trabeae non dedissent (quod etiam nunc auctoris culta versibus verba testantur), a quo studia posterorum ne parum quidem, quippe in hac parte, degeneraverunt, immane narratu est, quantum stupeam sermonis te Germanici notitiam tanta facilitate rapuisse.

2. atqui pueritiam tuam competenter scholis liberalibus memini imbutam et saepenumero acriter eloquenterque declamasse coram oratore satis habeo compertum. atque haec cum ita sint, velim dicas, unde subito hauserunt pectora tua euphoniam gentis alienae, ut modo mihi post ferulas lectionis Maronianae postque desudatam varicosi Arpinatis opulentiam loquacitatemque quasi de + harilao vetere novus falco prorumpas?

3. aestimari minime potest, quanto mihi ceterisque sit risui, quotiens audio, quod te praesente formidet linguae suae facere barbarus barbarismum. adstupet tibi epistulas interpretanti curva Germanorum senectus et negotiis mutuis arbitrum te disceptatoremque
desumit. novus Burgundionum Solon in legibus disserendis, novus Amphion in citharis, sed trichordibus, temperandis amaris
frequentaris, expeteris oblectas, eligeris adhiberis, decernis audiris. et quamquam aeque corporibus ac sensu rigidi sint indolatilesque, amplectuntur in te pariter et discunt sermonem patrium, cor Latinum.

4. restat hoc unum, vir facetissime, ut nihilo segnius, vel cum vacabit, aliquid lectioni operae impendas custodiasque hoc, prout es elegantissimus, temperamentum, ut ista tibi lingua teneatur, ne ridearis, illa exerceatur, ut rideas. vale.

Here's Dalton's 1915 English translation (vol. 2. pp. 48-78):

Book V letter v, to his friend Syagrius, undated:

THOUGH you descend in the male line from an ancestor who was not only consul----that is immaterial----but also (and here is the real point) a poet, from one whose literary achievement would certainly have gained him the honour of a statue, had it not been secured for him already by his official honours,----witness the finished verse that he has left us; and though on this side of his activity his descendants have proved themselves no wise degenerate, yet here we find you picking up a knowledge of the German tongue with the greatest of ease; the feat fills me with indescribable amazement.

I can recall the thoroughness of your education in liberal studies; I know with what a fervid eloquence you used to declaim before the rhetor. With such a training, how have you so quickly mastered the accent of a foreign speech, that after having your Virgil caned into you, and absorbing into your very system the opulent and flowing style of the varicose orator of Arpinum, you soar out like a young falcon from the ancient eyrie?

You can hardly conceive how amused we all are to hear that, when you are by, not a barbarian but fears to perpetrate a barbarism in his own language. Old Germans bowed with age are said to stand astounded when they see you interpreting their German letters; they actually choose you for arbiter and mediator in their disputes. You are a new Solon in the elucidation of Burgundian law; like a new Amphion you attune a new lyre, an instrument of but three strings. You are popular on all sides; you are sought after; your society gives universal pleasure. You are chosen as adviser and judge; as soon as you utter a decision it is received with respect. In body and mind alike these people are as stiff as stocks and very hard to form; yet they delight to find in you, and equally delight to learn, a Burgundian eloquence and a Roman spirit.

Let me end with a single caution to the cleverest of men. Do not allow these talents of yours to prevent you from devoting whatever time you can spare to reading. Let your critical taste determine you to preserve a balance between the two languages, holding fast to the one to prevent us making fun of you, and practising the other that you may have the laugh of us. Farewell.

I'll suggest, by the way, that Dalton mistranslates the last phrase:

... ut ista tibi lingua teneatur, ne ridearis, illa exerceatur, ut rideas

It seems pretty clear that Sidonius is saying that if Syagrius lets his Latin slip, he'll be laughed at by the Romans, but if he continues to work on his German, he can laugh at the Burgundians. So a better translation would be something like

... holding fast to the one so as not to be laughed at by us, and practicing the other so that you can laugh at them.

Whatever the exegesis of who might laugh at whom, this is the earliest description that I've seen of the role of linguistic norms in teasing and other forms of oneupsmanship.

[Note: I came upon the quote from Sidonius on p. 420 of Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire, which I've recently read with pleasure. Heather's thesis, according to the OUP editorial review, is that contact with Rome "turned the neighbors it called barbarians into an enemy capable of dismantling the Empire that had dominated their lives for so long". Apparently linguistic prescriptivism was one of the things that the barbarians learned along the road to success. It's clear that many cultures have independently developed a fear of "artificial errors" in speech or writing -- errors defined by dialect prejudice, by resistance to historical change, or by a self-appointed arbiter's arbitrary fiat. But did the Germans invent this meme on their own, or did they pick it up from the Romans?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 17, 2006 12:03 AM