LATIN: A LINGUISTIC INTRODUCTION

by Renato Oniga, ed. and trans. by Norma Schifano

OUP (2014) 345pp £24.99 (ISBN 9780198702863)

How to bring together Chomsky and Latin? The concept of this book (a translation, incorporating minor changes, by Norma Schifano of Renato Oniga’s Il Latino: Breve introduzione linguistica [Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2004]) is an ambitious and laudable one: to bring modern linguistic theory to bear on Latin, and to do so in a way that is accessible to students brought up on traditional grammars and unfamiliar with twentieth- and twenty-first-century approaches to linguistic analysis, especially the generative tradition of which Chomsky has been the most notable proponent.

In three sections, this book considers the phonology (chapters 2 to 5), morphology (chapters 6 to 16, covering both inflection and derivation), and syntax of Latin (chapters 17 to 28), intentionally taking its order of treatment and scope from that of traditional grammars but describing them by means of modern theory. This means framing the description in terms of abstract units, patterns and processes, shared with all other languages, that are claimed to underlie the forms actually seen in the Latin corpus.

In view of this actual aim, the book’s title is apt to mislead, for despite its primer structure this is far from what might be expected as a linguistic introduction to Latin. For a start, it is hardly an introduction to Latin: despite including the usual tables of declension (with gen. after nom. in classical rather than British order), lists of numerals, etc., most of the description demands a high level of familiarity with the language and its texts (textual references follow the abbreviations of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae!); one who knows little or no Latin already will struggle to make much of this book and could well reach the end not much closer to being able to understand any Latin sentences other than those quoted, and having little idea what Latin sounded like and who used it where, when, and for what. What it seems to come closest to instead is a Latinist’s introduction to generative linguistic theory; in this respect it is more successful, but then its concentration on applying theory only to Latin is not wholly satisfactory or convincing when the basis for that theory (which typically lies outside Latin) is left unclear.

The book is bold in pursuing its theoretical focus, and so it deals in detail with, for instance, the synchronic formation of nouns and verbs from roots and affixes, and the formation of simple sentences from subject, verb and object. However, by contrast, many areas feel surprisingly underexplored (final clauses get just six lines with two examples, consecutive clauses little more; Classical pronunciation has just half a page, though ‘Humanistic’ pronunciation gets a whole page). Some areas one might expect in an introduction to a language are scarcely touched on: the existence and nature of variation in Latin (whether over time, or by geography, class, genre, style, medium, etc.) are largely sidelined, and ‘Latin’ (rather than Classical Latin) comes across as a largely monolithic entity of unclear definition, with sporadic instances observed of archaic or other stylistic alternatives (especially in phonology and morphology). In the syntax section, examples are drawn seemingly ad hoc from literary authors from Plautus and Ennius to Suetonius and Aulus Gellius, though with a preponderance of Cicero and Caesar. Even if variation, which is characteristic of natural languages (cf. p. 4, ‘After all, Latin is a natural language’, part of the justification for applying modern theory to Latin), could not have been fully captured in a work of this scale on Latin, its existence requires some acknowledgement because otherwise the examples chosen are fundamentally undermined: can they be considered representative or comparable?

There are other areas that might be picked out as problematic, but ultimately this book emerges overall as a slightly unhappy collision between a school primer and a linguistic theory textbook. Those seeking the former are advised to remain with the existing tried and tested grammars; those seeking the latter should equally look elsewhere. However, for those already familiar with both Latin and linguistic theory, there is some limited potential for interest here, and those teaching undergraduate courses in the synchronic description of Latin may well wish to consider whether to recommend it as background reading.

Richard Ashdowne—University of Oxford

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