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On dressing well in a dead language

A Review of Giuliano Bonfante, La lingua parlata in Orazio (Venosa, 1994).

di KIRK FREUDENBURG (Ohio State University)

Some books seem to take a lifetime to appear. This one actually did. A Horatian lifetime, to be precise. The study that began in 1935, inspired by the bimillenary anniversary of Horace's birth, has recently appeared in a series marking the same anniversary of Horace's death. The book is, in fact, a translation of the author's Los elementos populares en la lengua de Horacio (Madrid, 1937) - with core results appearing first in "Emerita" volumes 4 and 5 (1936 and 1937). That book, B. explains in his preface, fell victim to political revolution in 1937 and was lost in the shuffle of the Spanish civil war. Its "publication" (if it can be called that) consisted of 15 copies sent from Spain to Italy in 1938. The few copies that arrived at the author's doorstep he distributed among friends and sent off for review. Further copies were never printed. No review was published. The book deserved better, obviously, and the point of its being re-published now seems to have as much to do with honoring Bonfante at the end of a long and illustrious career as it does with marking the anniversary of Horace's death. This stylish new Italian translation goes far in making up for lost time. Though clearly a product of an earlier time and expressive of older (but not unsophisticated) views of what language is and how it works, the book contains numerous valuable insights into the overall dictional preferences and practices of most major Latin authors. Even 60 years later it is well worth reading.

A great deal of work has been done in the area of Latin linguistics since the appearance of Los elementos populares: scores of new commentaries and lexical sources have been made available; graffiti, inscriptions, and papyri of all types have been discovered; treatises on "Volkssprache", "Freedmen's Language", and "Unpoetische Wörter" have appeared, and new editions of known and obscure Latin texts have proliferated. In his helpful introduction, Nicholas Horsfall covers these developments in some detail as a way of bringing the reader up to speed on these issues. The book itself, he points out, has not been updated, only "retouched", so his introductory comments and bibliographical notes must be regarded as an indispensable supplement and cautionary guide to the pages that follow. He ends with a few examples of what he claims are "popular" incursions into the language of Virgil, chosen to illustrate the validity and usefulness of Bonfante's work. Yet in these same examples, I think, Horsfall underscores just how questionable some of the book's major premises and methods are and, consequently, how weak and potentially uninteresting are some its principal results.

For example, on p. 18 of his introduction Horsfall notes that the verb fricat (classed as "common" by Bonfante p. 75) at Verg. G. 3. 256 is neatly suited to its subject, i. e. a wild boar rubbing against a tree. That is to say, frico would automatically have been heard as something drawn from everyday speech, the low equivalent of its "aristocratic" counterpart tero,which occurs with some frequency in Virgil and other so-called "good" authors, and so it is only natural that a boar should scratch itself with frico rather than with tero. There is an awful lot of this sort of talk in the book. Behind it is the idea that words point to realities that exist "out there", as it were, detached from and unaffected by the various situational, emotional, and ideological resonances that are bound up with individual usage. Thus frico and tero can be regarded as meaning, in essence, the same thing (as if energized by the same Platonic form of "Rubbing") but as belonging to distinct and easily isolable classes of language, one being an everyday word, the other more elegant and "aristocratic". It is not that they mean anything different, it's just that they mean "it" differently: frico dresses in denim, tero in silk. Same guy, just different clothes.

Obviously there are bones to pick here. The basic problem I have with the frico/tero example cited by Horsfall has little to do with the idea that frico might have sounded more common than tero. I think it rather likely that it did (or better, that it may well have in certain contexts). Instead, I question the way in which these words (as so many others in the book) are set up as synonyms, posited as "in essence" the same, just oppositely dressed. In my semantics the clothing matters: situations, intentions, values, etc. , are the stuff of meaning. Further, I find it hard to believe that the "commonness" of frico is one of the word's most salient qualities, inextricable from it and apparent with every usage, and that this quality might so overwhelm the reader that, in reading G. 3. 256, he/she stands back and says «a rather low word, isn't it? But then it's a wild boar after all. Good stroke, Virgil!». Here, as in so many other cases argued in the book, the clear gap that B. posits between a so-called "common" word and its "aristocratic" counterpart is cluttered with usages that disturb the easy elegance of his schema of polar synonyms. In many cases the gap is, in fact, non-existent, or so slight as to be hardly worthy of notice. The difference in usage between frico and tero is clearer than most. Even so, it cannot be assumed from this that Latin writers used frico to attain a flair of the everyday, or tero to attain a level of elegance from which frico was always locked out. Nor can it be assumed that the commonness of one word, or the cultured detachment of another, were stable entities, or that every time a writer used tero he did so to "avoid" frico, or vice versa. There are simply too many cases that fail to prove the point, e. g. Lucil. fr. 356 W contritis arbore costis (of a pig); and Accius fr. 431-2 W fricatque corpus atrum occulte abstruso in flumine (in a messenger's speech, describing Meleager's boar). One expects the tragic boar to "brush" itself, and satire's pig to "scratch". Being pigs, though, they end up relieving themselves wherever and however they like. Frico and tero,in the end, prove nearly as intractable as the animals they describe. They exist in that rather large gray area (in which most diction exists) where tendencies in usage, while discernible, are never quite clear enough or consistent enough to merit fixed conclusions about which word is "elevated", which one is "base".

These are the main theoretical objections I have to the book. Since in most cases specific problems I have with B.'s treatment of this or that particular word stem from these larger concerns (directly or indirectly), I will simply list here some of the more obvious cases that, I think, require special caution and reconsideration. First, there are quite a few places where B. posits synonym-pairs that are awkwardly balanced or only faintly suggestive of synonymity. The most glaring examples, to my mind, are aemulus/riualis, pp. 128-9 and crassus/solidus, pp. 67-8 (and I have to wonder whether, in the case of capsa/arca, scrinium, pp. 52-3, an etymological play on capio might not inform Horace's use of capsa, i. e. directing the listener to think of it as a particularly "capacious" kind of bookcase: whenever he uses capsa, the context is negative, i. e. the kind of case that careless and unusually prolific poets put their books in; cf. Porphyrion's note ad Ep . 2. 1. 113, defining scrinium as a particular kind of capsa ). Next, there are several cases of words categorized as "common speech" despite evidence that is either too scant or unsuggestive for any clear judgment to be made. Such is the case, I think, with beo, p. 44, accendo, pp. 35-6, and operor, pp. 116-17. B.'s main evidence for the commonness of accendo ("put fire to"), for example, seems to be that Caesar never uses it, though he frequently has incendo ("set on fire"). Yet, as B's statistics make abundantly clear, Caesar uses the Latin language as no one else: his vocabulary is theoretically charged and hyper-restrictive. Just because he does not use accendo, it does not follow that the word can be judged "common" in any general sense. In fact, a quick scan of the OLD entry under accendo shows the word occurring with remarkable frequency in all types of literature, with no general tendencies of avoidance in writers of so-called "higher" genres. B.'s claim that Cicero uses the word only once in his speeches (Pis. 5) is wrong; in fact, he uses it eleven times - nearly half of his total usage. Thus, the case for the commonness of accendo is unconvincing at best. Other cases where B. takes more than the evidence will allow include penes se esse, p. 119, and non sileas, p. 114. The former cannot be established as a popular expression since the evidence points towards its being a unique usage. As such, it may well have sounded strange even to its original audience (something B. never allows for in the book). The latter is probably a case of missed punctuation; cf. Shackleton-Bailey ad S. 2. 5. 90-1 ultra 'non', 'etiam' sileas. Further, there are cases where evidence for a split in usage between "common" and "cultured" equivalents is fairly good, but where B.'s efforts to establish these categories in strict terms seem over-argued and too quick to relegate unwieldy usages to one class or the other. In this category I place his treatment of fluuius , pp. 88-92, grandis, pp. 95-8, and lassus, pp. 105-6.

Other terms dubbed "common" by B. that deserve reconsideration here are words and phrases with possible or distinct literary histories (such as moechus , popellus, purgata auris) and/or aesthetic resonances (e. g. crassus, nugae, cutis, limatior) that put them, at once, inside and outside the category of everyday speech. Many of these were, as B. rightly asserts, words in common use. The point to be made, though, is that, in certain contexts, their commonness is their least important feature, since their use was routinely charged with learned and uncommon effects. To simply class them as common, then, hardly begins to explain anything significant about them. Here, of course, popular culture's influence on art, and the reverse influence of art on culture are fundamental problems. I raise these issues here not to answer them (not that I could) but to call into question the way in which B. so often draws a clear line between "literature" and "life", treating "common" words as an alien substance that penetrates into literatures of different types, when in fact many of these same words can be demonstrated to have begun their lives in a so-called "literary" realm or to have developed a full and rich life in the critical language of poets.

The question of art's influence on culture was brought home to me recently by an article in a local newspaper treating the latest fads in women's hairstyles. In the article a stylist complained that fully half the teenaged women that went to her salon in Columbus Ohio asked for the "Jennie Garth haircut". Jennie Garth, it turns out, plays a character in a television show popular with teenaged women (Beverly Hills 90210). The show purports to reflect the way life is lived by good-looking teenagers with "real-life" problems in southern California. When I read about the Jennie Garth haircut, I had to ask «is it from art, or from life?». In other words, does it belong to the show as that character's unique signature, the look that she designed (or was designed for her) to make her look good and set her apart from everyone else both on-screen and off (i. e. art detached from life)? Or did the show's producers give her that look because they thought that that's the way southern California blondes tend to look or are supposed to look (i. e. art trying to reflect life)? Secondly, and this is the more important question, at what point, if ever, does that particular look become dissociated from the television character and get a life of its own as just another haircut, like a "pageboy", withoutthe Jennie Garth name and the television pedigree? Or could it be that in southern California stylists have been cutting hair that way all along and that there the haircut has a different name and different associations altogether?

Silly questions to be asking about a haircut. Granted. Yet some of these same questions, I think, need to be asked of several words that B. assigns definitively to the category of "common speech" and talks of as "penetrating" literature, as if they were an alien substance and not closely wrapped up with literature. Take moechus, for example. B. has it that this Greek word was somehow ingrained in the urban vernacular as the popular equivalent of the aristocratic adulter. This was one of the more fascinating revelations I had in reading the book, that is, that Greek language was as much a part of low culture as it was of high; that every butcher in the street could rattle off some Greek without running any risk at all of sounding sophisticated. Still, the case of moechus is unclear, and it may be that the word possessed qualities that set it apart from its Greek siblings in the urban vernacular (e. g. gyrus and charta). For, as B. himself points out, the early use of the term is restricted to comedy and mime: the word is common in Plautus and Terence, but only in the late first century does it seem to have a life off-stage. Even then the term is often used with direct reference to the comic stage or in contexts strongly suggestive of the situations and characters of comedy. This, I would argue, is true of every use of the term in Horace's Satires (where it occurs six times), and so I have to wonder whether moechus might not be the ancient equivalent of a Jennie Garth haircut, tangled up with some of the same confusions and requiring some of the same questions: did Plautus use the word because it was in common use and suited his desire to play to his audience?Or does his use of the term (or that of an earlier comic poet) explain its subsequent life in everyday usage, art becoming enmeshed with life, as seems to be the case with words such as Simo and parasitus? If that is the case, at what point, if ever, does the word cease to have these associations, becoming just another low word for adulter? Again, it is not that I have clear answers to these questions, it is just that the questions need to be asked, and B. never gets around to asking them.

A case related to that of moechus, and with similar problems, is that of purgata auris, p. 127. Before its use at Horace Ep. 1. 1. 7 the phrase occurs only at Plaut. Miles 776. Later it is used by Persius (5. 63) in apparent imitation of Horace. That is the sum of our evidence for its ancient usage. Still, B. would have it that the phrase is "sicuramente volgare". It seems just as likely, though, that the phrase is a Plautine invention or an adaptation of something he (or another comic writer) found in a Greek source, and that its appearance at Ep. 1. 1. 7 is tinged with literary associations now all but lost. Greek had the phrase katharoîs osín, "with cleansed ears", and Greek comic writers frequently spoke of dullards as having ears blocked up (see The Academic Papers of Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Oxford 1990, 169). The evidence, in other words, points away from colloquial urban Latin to the phrase's having a previous life in poetry or on the Greek comic stage, perhaps even in colloquial Greek. Unlike the case of moechus, there is nothing to support B.'s assertion that the phrase had a secure foothold in everyday urban speech. The same doubts can be raised over his treatment of popellus, a word occurring only in Horace and Persius (as suspendere naso, not treated by B. ).

A category related to that of stage words in common use is that of everyday words with parallel lives in the literary critical terminology of poets, i. e. second lives that, in certain uses, set them apart from ordinary speech. In this class are words such as crassus and nugae, whose significance as Callimachean metaphors of style is by now too obvious to require mention. What I find interesting and useful in B.'s classification of nugae as "common speech" is the idea that Catullus' word for his peculiar brand of poetry may have possessed a distinctly streetwise, "trashy" tone perfectly matched to its sense. Still, questions have been raised recently over the term's early history as a designation for mime routines (see J. K. Newman, Roman Catullus, Hildesheim 1990): its earliest use is from a mime-actor's tomb of the late third century B. C. (where it apparently means "fast-talking nonsense" or "huckstering", CIL I. 2. 1861), and when Horace uses the term at S. 1. 9. 2 he quotes a mime of Laberius (fr. 132 Bonaria, nescio quid nugarum). The evidence, as I see it, suggests that the word's commonness is a side-issue, since its classification as an element of everyday speech goes almost nowhere in explaining how or why a particular author might choose to use it. Much the same, I think, is true of cutis ("skin"), which, though it has no traceable prior history as a literary metaphor, can be judged to possess clear potential as a metaphor of style: Horace, at any rate, routinely uses it to mean something much more than just "skin" (see esp. Ep. 1. 4. 15, 1. 2. 29).

These are some of the main issues I wrestled with in reading Bonfante's book. These shortcomings, as I have stressed, have mostly to do with the absurd gap that separates the writing of the book from its first "real" publication, that is, with the questions it does not ask and the problems it does not face because, sixty years ago, Latin linguists were about an entirely different business. If used with a sense of these limitations, I think the book is still quite remarkable in what it achieves and in the overall accuracy of its results. What it taught me about Latin usage, for example, in cases such as canto , doctor, facies, and taceo (to name just a few), and the way it caused me to rethink the whole category of "la lingua parlata", was well worth any qualms I felt in reading a book that even Latin linguists had long forgotten.

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Last technical revision December, 8, 1995.

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