January 23, 2007

Milton, Star Trek, and Romulean rules

A few days ago, I made fun of Christopher Orlet for arguing that "a letter written 367 years ago by John Milton to Benedetto Bonomatthai reads much like one composed by a good writer today", when in fact Milton wrote the letter in Latin, and Orlet's quotation was from an 1847 translation by Robert Fellowes ("Scholarship is hard, let's go drinking", 1/19/2007).

But Milton -- at least the 29-year-old Milton who wrote that letter -- did indeed strongly support Orlet's beloved linguistic prescriptivism. His letter to Bonomatthai touches on several of the standard (though internally inconsistent) prescriptivist themes, such as the importance of upholding the standards of an admired past, and the value of establishing arbitrary rules. And Milton suggests strong punishment -- even a metaphoric death penalty-- for disobedience.

In the 1638 Latin original, and Fellowes' 1847 translation:

Nam qui in civitate mores hominum sapienter norit formare, domique & belli praeclaris institutis regere, illum ego parae caeteris omni honore apprime dignum esse existimem. Proximum huic tamen, qui loquendi scribendique rationem & normam probo gentis saeculo receptam, praeceptis regulisque sancire adnititur, & veluti quodam vallo circummunire, quod quidem ne quis transire ausit, tantum non Romulea lege sit cautum.

For I hold him to deserve the highest praise who fixes the principles and forms the manners of a state, and makes the wisdom of his administration conspicuous both at home and abroad. But I assign the second place to him, who endeavours by precepts and by rules to perpetuate that style and idiom of speech and composition, which have flourished in the purest periods of the language, and who, as it were, throws up such a trench around it, that people may be prevented from going beyond the boundary almost by the terrors of a Romulean prohibition.

If you're like most modern readers, the phrase "a Romulean prohibition" will not mean much to you. Asking around at Language Log Plaza, I got responses like "um, something about Star Trek cloaking devices?" and "what, did the FDA crack down on robo-tripping?"

But given the source, we know that this must have something to do with Romulus, the legendary co-founder of Rome -- an example of communication by classical allusion, common in classical Greek and Roman writings, and imitated in the vulgar languages of Europe into the 20th century. The idea of communication by allusion was developed at charming length in an episode of Star Trek, explained in a marvelous post over at TstT ("Darmok", 12/11/1006; more information here). In this episode, the Enterprise encounters an alien species known as the Children of Tama, who seem to communicate by "stating the proper names of individuals and locations". As Data explains,

The Tamarian ego structure does not seem to allow what we normally think of as self-identity. Their ability to abstract is highly unusual. They seem to communicate through narrative imagery, a reference to the individuals and places which occur in their mytho-historical accounts.

To understand the Tamarians -- or John Milton -- you need to know the "mytho-historical accounts" that are referenced. Thus "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" means "friendship as a result of shared struggle". In Milton's letter, the "trench" and the "Romulean prohibition" refer to an episode from the legend of the founding of Rome, and to understand what they mean, we have to tell the tale.

We pick the story up at the point where the twins Romulus and Remus, with their followers, have decided to build a city. According to Plutarch -- as presented in THE LIFE OF ROMULUS . English'd from the Greek, By Mr. James Smalwood, Fel. of Trin. Col. in Cambridge. (in Plutarch's lives Translated from the Greek by several hands. In five volumes. Vol. I. To which is prefixt The life of Plutarch., London : printed by T. Hodgkin for Jacob Tonson, at the Judges-Head in Chancery-lane, near Fleet-street, 1688.):

Their minds being fully bent upon Building, there arose presently a difference about the Place where. Romulus he built a Square of Houses, which he call'd Rome, and would have the City be there; Remus laid out a piece of Ground on the Aventine Mount, well fortifi'd by nature, which was from him call'd Remonius, but now Rignarius; concluding at last to decide the Contest by a Divination from a flight of Birds, and placing themselves apart at some distance, to Remus they say, appear'd six Vultures, to Romulus double the number; others say, Remus did truly see his number, and that Romulus feign'd his [...]

When Remus knew the Cheat, he was much displeas'd; and as Romulus was casting up a Ditch where he design'd the Foundation of the City-Wall, some pieces of the Work he turn'd to ridicule, others he trampled on and spurn'd at; at last as he was in contempt skipping over the Work, some say, Romulus himself stroke him; others, that Celer, one of his Companions; however there fell Remus ...

So when Milton wrote (with a closer translation than Fellowes'):

& veluti quodam vallo circummunire, quod quidem ne quis transire ausit, tantum non Romulea lege sit cautum.

...and surround it with such a ditch that anyone who would dare to cross it will be warned off by an all but Romulean law.

what he was saying, in the language of classical allusions, was this: grammarians should assume by fraud the authority to draw an arbitrary linguistic line in the ground, and respond with murderous rage if anyone should cross it. Let this be a warning to us all.

Now in fairness to Milton, there's a tension between what he says and the implication of the legend he alludes to. What he says we should do is

...loquendi scribendique rationem & normam probo gentis saeculo receptam, praeceptis regulisque sancire adnititur,

...strive to fix unalterably with rules and regulations the principles and norms of speaking and writing that were accepted in the superior age of our nation

Depending on your notions of which saeculum of our gens was most probus, this might mean trying to make everyone speak and write like William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Thomas Jefferson, or Mark Twain, or Virginia Woolf. A wide choice of worthy goals, in principle. But you're not, I'm afraid, likely to succeed in many cases. And this is probably a good thing, because if your chosen saeculum is more than a century or so in the past, your pupils are going to have a hard time of it in later life.

Imagine, for example, offering to modern readers a plan for reforming high school and college written in the style of John Milton's Of Education (1644):

I call therefore a compleate and generous Education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and publike of peace and war. And how all this may be done between twelve, and one and twenty, lesse time then is now bestow'd in pure trifling at Grammar and Sophistry, is to be thus order'd.

First to finde out a spatious house and ground about it fit for an Academy, and big enough to lodge a hundred and fifty persons, whereof twenty or thereabout may be attendants, all under the government of one, who shall be thought of desert sufficient, and ability either to doe all, or wisely to direct, and oversee it done. This place should be at once both School and University, not needing a remove to any other house of Schollership, except it be some peculiar Colledge of Law, or Physick, where they mean to be practitionets; but as for those generall studies which take up all our time from Lilly to the commencing, as they term it, Master of Art, it should be absolute. After this pattern, as many edifices may be converted to this use, as shall be needfull in every City throughout this land, which would tend much to the encrease of learning and civility every where. This number, lesse or more thus collected, to the convenience of a foot company, or interchangeably two troops of cavalry, should divide their daies work into three parts, as it lies orderly. Their studies, their exercise, and their diet.

Although the content of the plan might be excellent, no modern audience would take it seriously if a contemporary writer were to present it in a form like that.

But whether or not upholding the linguistic standards of the distant past is a good thing to do, the fact is that real-world prescriptivists don't try to do it. Sometimes they claim to be preserving the language against modern corruption, but they rarely even bother to try to figure out what the standards of the past really were. And a majority of the commonest prescriptive bugbears are modern innovations: singular "they", split infinitives, stranded prepositions, less with countables, which hunting, the morphology of comparatives, many alleged word-sense changes; and so on.

Although Milton invokes the authority of the admired past, his "narrative imagery" communicates, in a Tamarian mode, the arbitrariness of prescriptive grammar. Remus argued on pragmatic grounds for a city on the Aventine hill; but the boundary of his twin's "square of houses" was an arbitrary choice, with no particular historical or practical justification. Nevertheless, Romulus took the view that once he had gained -- though fraud -- the right to determine that boundary, it should be treated as sacred and inviolate. And he was willing to murder his twin brother to enforce it.

The supposed value of linguistic arbitrariness was argued eloquently by Mark Halpern almost a decade ago ("A war that never ends", The Atlantic, March 1997), reponding to an earlier article by Geoff Nunberg ("The decline of grammar", The Atlantic, December 1983):

One of the points that Nunberg, like all of his school, was most eager to make is that the "rules" of grammar, and of good usage generally, have no scientific basis; they are just someone's idea of what is proper, and that idea changes from generation to generation. The descriptivists are so eager, indeed, to make sure this point has registered that they seldom stop making it long enough to hear the reply: "Yes, we know this; we do not contend that the rules we propose for the sake of clarity and richness of communication were handed down from on high. They are ordinary man-made rules, not divine commandments or scientific laws (although many have support from historical scholarship), and we agree that they, like all man-made things, will need continual review and revision. But these facts are no more arguments against laws governing language usage than they are against laws governing vehicular traffic. Arbitrary laws -- conventions -- are just the ones that need enforcement, not the natural laws. The law of gravity can take care of itself; the law that you go on green and stop on red needs all the help it can get."

Despite the way they like to label themselves, most prescriptivists are really doctrinaire cultural radicals, not conservatives. And their harshness and intolerance are typical of true believers committed to instituting what Friedrich Hayek called "made orders".

[Some more comments on the role of "grown orders" vs. "made orders", in linguistic matters, are here.]

[Update -- Craig Russell writes:

I am sure that the reference is the incident you mention, where Romulus and Remus are founding the city of Rome. The Roman historian Livy, however, tells it with the following detail:

Volgatior fama est ludibrio fratris Remum novos transiluisse muros; inde ab irato Romulo, cum verbis quoque increpitans adiecisset, 'Sic deinde, quicumque alius transiliet moenia mea', interfectum.

The more common story is that, for a joke, Remus had jumped over his brother's new walls; then, by an angered Romulus, after he had said (also scolding him with words), "This same thing to anyone else who jumps over my walls," Remus was killed.

So I imagine it is this actual prohibition that Milton was making reference to.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 23, 2007 06:04 AM