June 18, 2006

A man and a statue and a codex and a cadaver

In honor of Father's' Day, we have a guest post by one of the Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo.

Now let us take up the `equivoca', in which the perplexity of ambiguity grows like wild flowers into infinity. I shall try to divide them into certain genera. Whether my faculties are sufficient to the attempt, you shall judge. There are first three types of ambiguity which come from equivocation: 1. by art, 2. by use, 3. by both.

I say art for the sake of the names which are imposed upon words in the discipline of words. ...The single utterance which I make, `Tullius' (Cicero), is a name and a dactylic foot and an equivocal. And if someone presses me to define what `Tullius' is, I shall answer with an explanation of any of these notions. For I can say correctly: "Tullius is a name by which a man is signified, a great orator who as a consul suppressed the Catiline Conspiracy." Watch closely now as I define the name. If I could point out that very Tullius, if he were living, with my finger, and if I then had to define him, I would not say: "Tullius is a name which signifies a man"; I would rather say: "That man is Tullius", and then I would add the other things. I can also answer in this way: "Tullius is a dactylic foot consisting of these letters ..." Perhaps one might say: "Tullius is a word by which all those things mentioned above are equivocal and any other similar ones you can make up." ...

Now look at the next type, which, as you remember, comes from usage. We call that usage through which we know words. For who seeks out and collects words for the sake of words? Let someone hear something who knows nothing of the parts of speech nor is interested in meter or any kind of verbal discipline. Nevertheless, he can be disturbed by the ambiguity of equivocation when `Tullius' is said, for by this name the great orator and his picture or statue and the codex in which his letters are contained and whatever is left of his body in the tomb may be signified. For we say in diverse sentences: "Tullius saved the fatherland from ruin" "A golden Tullius stands in the Capitol" "All of Tullius is to be read" "Tullius is buried in this place". For the name is one, but all these are to be explained in different definitions. For this is the type of equivocation in which the ambiguity does not originate from the discipline of words, but from the very things which are signified.

But if it either confounds the hearer or the reader, if it is either from art or usage that it comes, what happened to the third type which was named? Its example will appear more clearly in a sentence: "Many wrote in the dactylic meter, e. g. Tullius." Here it is uncertain as to whether `Tullius' is cited as an example of a dactylic foot or a dactylic poet, of which the first is perceived by art, the second by usage. But in simple words it happens when the teacher pronounces the word to his students, as we have shown above.

These three types differ among themselves by manifest reasons. The first is again divided into two parts. Whatever makes an ambiguity through the art of words can partly be an example and partly not. When I define what a noun is, I can cite it itself as an example. For the `nomen' (noun) which I pronounce is itself a noun, and is so inflected, when we say: `nomen, nominis, nomini', etc. Likewise when I define what a `dactylus' is, it itself can be an example. For when we say `dactylus', we pronounce one long syllable and then two short ones. But when we say what `adverb' means, we cannot cite it as an example. When we say `adverb' this very enunciation is a noun. Thus, according to one way of understanding it is adverb and a noun is a noun, according to another `adverb' is not an adverb, since it is noun. Also `creticus' (a type of foot), when we define it, cannot be given as an example (of itself). When we pronounce it, `creticus' consists of one long syllable followed by two short ones, but what it signifies is a long, a short, and a long. Thus, according to one way of understanding `creticus' is nothing other than a creticus, according to another, it is not a creticus, because it is a dactylus.

The second type, which pertains not to verbal discipline, but to usage, has two forms. Equivoca are either of the same origin or of different origins. I mention those of the same origin which are contained in one name, but not one definition, but derive as it were from one source, e.g. when `Tullius' can be understood as a man and a statue and a codex and a cadaver. For these cannot be contained in one definition, but they have one single source, i.e. the real man himself, whose statue, books, cadaver they are. But when we say `nepos', it signifies from a quite diverse origin, both the son of the son and the spendthrift (Tr.: According to Isidore `nepos' (spendthrift) comes from a kind of scorpion).

[From section X of De Dialectica. as translated by Marchand (the original Latin is here).

Instruction in linguistics was apparently as problematic in fourth-century Rome as it sometimes is today -- according to the Wikipedia entry about Augustine, "He taught in Tagaste and Carthage, but desired to travel to Rome where he believed the best and brightest rhetoricians practiced. However, Augustine grew disappointed with the Roman schools, which he found apathetic. Once the time came for his students to pay their fees they simply fled." It's to avoid this sort of problem that we maintain the famous Language Log guarantee: your subscription fees are cheerfully refunded in case of less than total satisfaction. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 18, 2006 10:10 AM