Some Linguistic Sobriety from Ibn Ḥazm of Cordoba

"Some people labor under the impression that their language is superior to all others. This makes no sense. The aspects of superiority are known: things are superior either by the work they do or by selection. But languages do not actually do work, and there is no scriptural testimony about the preference of one language over another. The Almighty says: “We have not sent a prophet except using the language of his community so he can explain things to them”, and also: “We revealed it only in your language in order that they may remember it”. With these words God informs us that He only revealed the Qur’ān in Arabic to make the Prophet’s community understand the message. Here, Galen was in error when he said: “Greek is the most superior language, because other languages resemble the barking of dogs or the croaking of frogs”. This is ignorant hokum. Anyone who hears a foreign language he does not understand regards it in the same way as Galen does other languages."

وقد توهم قوم في لغتهم أنها أفضل اللغات وهذا لا معنى له لأن وجوه الفضل معروفة ، وإنما هي بعمل أو اختصاص ولا عمل للغة؛ ولا جاء نص في تفضيل لغة على لغة ، وقد قال تعالى : {وَمَآ أَرْسَلْنَا مِن رَّسُولٍ إِلاَّ بِلِسَانِ قَوْمِهِ لِيُبَيِّنَ لَهُمْ فَيُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَن يَشَآءُ وَيَهْدِي مَن يَشَآءُ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ } وقال تعالى : {فَإِنَّمَا يَسَّرْنَاهُ بِلِسَانِكَ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ } .فأخبر تعالى أنه لم ينزل القرآن بلغة العرب إلا ليفهم ذلك قومه ﷺ لا لغير ذلك ، وقد غلط في ذلك جالينوس فقال : إن لغة اليونانيين أفضل اللغات لأن سائر اللغات إنما هي تشبه إما نباح الكلاب أو نقيق الضفادع . قال أبو محمد: وهذا جهل شديد لأن كل سامع لغة ليست لغته ولا يفهمها، فهي عنده في النصاب الذي ذكره جالينوس ولا فرق

From the Rosae Nomen: Salvatore the Macaronic

Below is yet another passage I managed to transcribe from the medieval Latin Rosae Nomen of Adso Mellicensis. 
The figure of Salvatore in Adso's tale is an interesting one. Half out of his mind, he appears to speak in a garbled mixture of languages spoken in the various Romance-speaking regions he has lived in, as well as Latin. For example "Diavulu" is from central Umbrian, and "Smoardir" (to gnaw) appears to be from some Rhaetian dialect. 
Adso is a native speaker of an Alemannic or Bavarian variety of Middle High German, and of course knows Latin as well. He mentions elsewhere having heard a little Occitan and learned a smattering of a couple Italian Romance varieties, but is unfamiliar with the orthography normally used to write any of these down. Salvatore's speech as recorded in Adso's manuscript thus contains a lot of Romance words whose written form has been improvised by a Middle High German speaker accustomed to writing Latin. 
Many times Adso, in reporting Salvatore's speech, will fall back onto Upper German scribal habits to give a rough phonological spelling of a Romance word whose connection to its Latin cognate is not obvious. By which I mean not obvious to Adso. After all, Adso is unaware that the Romance languages have any historical relationship to Latin at all. Sometime after the diglossic relationship between (what speakers called) written Latin and spoken Latin was severed in the 9th-10th centuries to become a bilingual one between written Latin and spoken Romance, the very idea of any kind of historical relationship between the two disappeared. The fact that Romance languages come from Latin was not realized by scholars until the 16th century, and it took a while to become a matter of uncontroversial consensus. (Dante, who died six years before the date of Adso's story, appears to have believed — as would many others after him — that the Romans too used Latin in educated and written discourse, but spoke something else in quotidian contexts. So natural was the role of Latin in his own day that he failed to apprehend that it had not always been so.) 
Adso's manuscript, as it happens, furnishes us with the earliest attestation of the German idiom "unter der rose" when he responds out of shock in Middle High German vernacular, inducing Salvatore to declaim some verse in the same language about the dangers of confessing your heterodox beliefs to anyone.

Ille plasma retro nos erat specie monachus, quamquam tunica sordida et scisa eum assimulauit uagabundo, et uultus eius prebebat figuram non dissimilem monstris quos nuperrime uideram in capitulis. Nunquam in uita mihi contigit, uelut multis confratris mei, a Diabolo uisitari. Credo autem Aduersarium Nostrum si olim mihi apparet, diuino decreto prohibitum ne naturam suam plane celet quamuis se assimulare homini optasset, haut aliam speciem induturum esse preter illam quam mihi prebuit ipso tempore collocutor noster. Caput eius derasum fuit, set non per penitenciam quin per consequenciam remotam cuiusdam uiscidi eczematis. Frons adeo depressa fuit ut si capilas in capite ullas habuisset, confuse sint superciliis densis et hirsutis. Rotundi fuerunt illius oculi e quibus pupille ostendebantur paruule ac mobilissime. Quorum obtutus utrum innocens esset an malignus nescio, set forsan utroque per uices et momenta diuersa uersabatur. Nasus eius tali nomine dici non potuit, nam tantum fuit ossum quod incipiebat inter oculis set ascendendo a uultu iterum subsidebat in duas cauernas obscuras, nares amplissimas et hirtas. Bucca ad nares per cicatriculam coniuncta, lata fuit et informis, plus ad dexteram quam ad sinistram distensa. Inter labrum superius inexistens et inferius prominens ac carnoso, eminebant innormiter dentes nigri, acuti uelut canis mordices. 
Iste homo subrisit (uel saltem sic credidi) et digitum quasi ad admonendum leuans dixit: 
<Penitenciagite! Retinete en uisiun lu dragun ki es uenidur per rodegarla animam tuam! La morz e sübre nos! Pregi ke uiena lu papa seinte e deliwre nus deu mau de tuz li pecaz infernali! Ai ai, te pleiȥt kiȥta nigromancia deu seniwriws nostre Jesu cristo fiwl lui dumneseo! Ed anco dschüeiȥ mes douȥ e plaseir mes dulurs... Cauete omnes ne sabir e pudir per sagrement dunaz al diauulu! Il sempro me aguaidat in alcuno anglu per me smoardir la cargania. Mai Saluatore nun es idiote, kel sap cum es e tei üœls nella swa testa. Desnatürat son li franȥes che deu afar dieu disun nu, ma bonum e lu monasterium e hic se mania e se ruoga dominum. 
Nu kre ka la mort
Digüs piws em port
Aueir ni arnei
Mas lus faz ke fei.
e lu reste nu uaut stercus in latrina. Ed amen amen ueritatamente. Nu?>
Hic ego, momentaliter mei oblitus, elocutus sum uulgariter <waȥ?> (id est, <quidnam?>)
Statim siluit, tunc oculis me tacite scrutatus respondit <tiu...uidetur ses Alemanȥ...>. 
Cui ego <ia> (id est <ita, recte dixisti>)
Et ille <io nu sape lu teu parladüre ma alguno me diget iȥto olim ueritatamente, memento et tu!
Wann du hast ketzerie getuon,
daȥ niht fiurprüevung kum darvon
under der rosen halte dich,
nuor in din eigen herze sprich.>
Que omnia fere significant nostratim <Si quid heresis fecisti, ne ignis iudicium ob eo patiaris, teipsum sub rosa teneto, noli eloqui nisi cordi tuo>

Why Are Vampires So Stupid?

One thing I never understood about stories set in universes where vampires are real: why can’t humans just set up a bloodbank to meet vampiric needs? Our bodies are capable of producing so much blood, much more than if you just kill us and drain it all in one go. A single human can produce huge amounts of the stuff if they just give a tiny bit every day.

The whole “vampires need blood and therefore are murderous” thing makes a lot more sense in a pre-modern context where we didn’t know (a) that the human body easily replenishes a complete pint of lost blood within a matter of weeks and (b) just how much blood your average adult is walking around with in their bodies. In modern works, vampires who actually kill or turn a person by feeding on them come off as idiots.

A single human being plus a syringe could probably keep you alive indefinitely, dumbass.

But let's assume extremely high consumption needs, much higher than you find in most vampire fiction. Let's assume vampires need to drink as much blood as adult humans do water: about four pints a day. Even at that extreme, a hundred or so humans giving regular blood would (a) meet your needs comfortably while (b) allowing the humans to lead healthy, normal and happy lives (no one would have to do more than give you a pint of their blood every five weeks.) Given that in most fiction the ratio of humans to vampires is quite enormous, even a need like that should be possible to satisfy without anybody getting hurt.

At bottom, you're a person with a bizarre medical need. Finding willing donors ready to give some blood every few weeks to help you live has just got to be easier than a life of stalking victims, hiding corpses and having to lie to everybody about why you need so much damn sunblock all the time.

Sure, maybe you needed to suck people's blood dangerously back in the 19th century when we didn't know shit about how blood works. But it's time to wake up and check your e-mail.

In the 21st century, it kinda puts a cramp in that “ancient horror” mojo when it turns out you know less about human blood than the average junior high student.‬

Poets in the Qur'an

Some thoughts about the portrayal of poets and poetry in the Qur'an (first released as a mega-thread on twitter)

Why are šāˁir and šiˁr the words for poet and poetry in Arabic?

Etymologically, these two words ought to mean "one who knows/perceives" and "knowledge" respectively. And indeed šiˁr does have the latter meaning, particularly in the fossilized phrase layta šiˁrī "would that I knew, would that mine were knowledge (of)". This usage is quite an old one, and occurs in the transmitted Jāhilī material. For example, the Ḥamāsa attributes to Ta'abbaṭa Šarrā's mother a poem containing the verse layta šiˁrī ḍallatan ayyu šay'in qatalak (would that I knew what thing it was that killed you wrongly).

It is likely that this sense of "know(ledge), sense" is old, and the sense of poetry is a semantic innovation. How and why did this happen? One good place to start looking for an answer is the Qur'ān, which uses the words šiˁr and šāˁir. Interestingly, the Qur'anic voice not only disdains the šāˁirs' (26:224 "The šāˁirs have only a following among the wayward"), but is moved on multiple occasions to highlight the fact that the Messenger isn't a šāˁir. (E.g. "we have not taught him šiˁr, nor would it be right for him. This is only a reminder, and clear Qur'ān" at Q 36:69)

Now, it is vanishingly unlikely that Qur'ān could have been mistaken for šiˁr if the word's meaning were at that time identical to what it means in later Arabic, though this is what is traditionally supposed. In later Arabic, of course, šiˁr "poetry" refers above all else to language that is metrically regulated. So much so that even so esteemed a pre-Islamic poem as the muˁallaqa attributed to ˁAbīd b. Al-Abraṣ might be dubbed "almost non-poetry" (kāda allā takūna šiˁran) on account of its failure to use one of the canonically recognized meters. (ˁAbīd's poem uses a meter that was no longer fully understood by the time of Khalīlians. That's an interesting story in its own right, but one for another post.)

If the audience of the Qur'anic messenger had understood šiˁr in this way, it is difficult to see how there would have been any problem. At minimum, whatever šiˁr meant to the Messenger's audience, it included some kind of linguistic performance close enough in form to the Qur'ān to be mistaken for it.

Ergo it was not restricted to metrical language of the kind found in the qaṣīda. Indeed, it has been speculated by Ahmad Al-Jallad that linguistic performance in quantitative verse was unknown to the Messenger's audience. His suggestion that the qaṣīda tradition has its roots elsewhere is very likely, and the possibility that it may have been originally appropriated from some Old South Arabian language(s) is raised to a mighty height by curious archaeological discovery of a South Arabian inscription — largely undecipherable — which appears to be in monorhymed verse (which I am pretty sure is metrical).

But the fact that the Messenger's audience would use the word šiˁr to describe a performance in Qur'an-like form, with cadenced, rhymed (but not strictly metrically regulated) language, does not actually exclude their knowledge of (and application of the same word to) a metrical verse tradition of the qaṣīda-type. So the question of whether the Messenger's audience was familiar with a qaṣīda tradition is as yet without answer. (I myself think that they probably did know of such a tradition, and if they did not practice it, then it must have been current among the non-sedentary populations of the Ḥijāz. The Qur'anic Messenger is allied with an urban population and views the 'aˁrāb with suspicion and hostility, and Jāhilī verse attributed to town-dwellers is extremely rare.)

So what was this šiˁr of the non-qaṣīda type like? There are justified guesses to offer.

There are Qur'anic passages that shed light on what kind of šiˁr was specifically at issue.

"This is the speech of a noble apostle.
It is not the speech of a šāˁir. Little do you believe.
It is not the speech of a kāhin. Little do you believe."

Kāhin and šāˁir are linked by syntactic parallelism, here, and this is not the only place where they lie in close proximity. At Q 52:29 God reminds the Messenger that "By Grace of God you are neither a kāhin nor a madman possessed (majnūn)", and in the subsequent verse the hard-headed are referenced with "Do they say 'He's a šāˁir and we await a foul turn of fate for him'?"

A kāhin is usually thought to have been a kind of soothsayer with some religious function. (Cognates in other Semitic languages often mean "priest" or the like). Many have suggested — rightly, I believe — that the kāhins had a tradition of producing cadenced, rhymed oracular utterances purporting to be the words of the divine, with information about the disposition of the heavens, spelling out what future disasters (or, if proper propitiations are made, delights) lie ahead. It is not hard to see how the Messenger's audience might make the mistake of taking the Qur'ān to be this kind of language. In fact, if anything it would be hard to definitively prove this to be a mistake at all. A true prophet of the Abrahamic tradition would need his Message to explicitly and pointedly distinguish him from those who might well be called "prophêtai" in the pre-Christian sense of thee Greek word.

The Qur'ān does not spell out any formal differences between itself and šiˁr, or between the latter and whatever the kāhins were producing. Rather, the Qur'ān distinguishes itself from these on the grounds of epistemic and technical superiority: the šāˁir and/or the kāhin is a liar who invents things (Q 52:33 et al.) The Messenger does not. His Message really is divine in origin, as proof of which it is stated that nobody can create a single sūra like it (with an explicit challenge to doubters to go ahead and try all they want). But whatever uniqueness is asserted cannot be a generic one. If nothing at all resembling the Qur'an were known to the Messenger's audience, there would be no need for his Message to expressly state what kind of language it was not, nor would there be any earthly sense to the explicit assumption that the Messenger was at risk of being confused with the wrong sort of person on account of his linguistic medium. So, inasmuch as the Message claims linguistic uniqueness, it is a unique excellence rather than unique form.

But the šāˁir and the kāhin are not the same person, though the Qur'an makes a point of distinguishing the Messenger from both. A tradition of non-oracular linguistic art in Qur'anesque form, perhaps involving legendary figures or ancestors, may have also existed and counted as šiˁr. The rhyming habits of the Qur'ān are not haphazard, and Marijn van Putten has shown that they obey well-defined phonological constraints of a kind reminiscent of the "featural rhyme" of Old Irish verse. Such consistently-obeyed formal compositional features do not simply spring into existence out of nothing. This was a type of rhyming whose constraints the Messenger and his audience were already quite familiar with.

For the Messenger's audience then šiˁr probably could be labeled "poetry" in the Modern English sense if not in the Medieval Arabic sense. They likely knew a poetic tradition, one in which verse-length was not strictly regulated, where rhyme was a matter of assonance rather than being built around repetition of the same syllable coda, and where narrative was a major feature (the qaṣīda tradition is conspicuous for just how rare truly "narrative" passages are). Al-Jallad has brought to light a new Old North Arabian inscription, and offered a fresh appraisal of another, with obviously mythological in nature with thematic connections to North Semitic epic narrative verse, in irregular line-length with verse-constituents bound together by loose rhyming. I would suggest that this kind of language may well have been deemed šiˁr by the Messenger's audience. Its purely formal features have much in common with Qur'anic style, but little if any with the Qaṣīdah.

Which brings us back to etymology. If šiˁr was originally "knowledge" or "sense", then perhaps one stage in its semantic development was "lore to be told" or else "that which is sensed, apprehended." A šāˁir might at one time have been either a "knower of tales" or an "apprehender of things". This is completely speculative, of course.

Many different cultures at different times have known a conceptual slippage between the role of prophet and poet, especially inasmuch as the poet too claimed to be godspoken. Much of what we call "Biblical Poetry" is put in the mouths of prophets. An inspiration akin to, or arising from, madness (or "Jinnic possession") may also be part of the poetic package. We may think of the Delphic oracle speaking Apollo's mind in hexameters, or remember that a possessed "Majnūn" composing Arabic poetry out of unhinged feeling is literally the stuff of legend. The connection between madness, poetry and prophecy is nicely expressed in the semantic development of Norse Óðr or its cognates in Latin Vātis, or Old Irish fáith. The flipside of the seer's insanity is his/her status as sage, one who knows, a repository of material which one is better off for having heard.

Quote from Ibn Khaldun

(Translation by yours truly)

"The poet should avoid not only obscure and arcane words, but also those vernacular words banalized by common overuse. This undermines the poem's eloquence. He should also avoid tropes that have become banalized in common knowledge, as this too undermines eloquence, the poem itself becoming banal and approaching the insipid, as when one says "the fire is hot" or "the heav'ns above". A poem's eloquence flows in inverse proportion to such insipidities, which is why poetry on mystical and prophetic themes isn't usually very good. Only masters can pull it off, and then only with difficulty and in small amounts, for the tropes of such poetry are in such common circulation as to have become banal."

وليجتَنِب الشاعرُ أيضاً الحوشيَّ من الألفاظ والمقعَّرَ، وكذلك السوقيَّ المبتذَلَ بالتداول بالاستعمال، فإنه ينزِلُ بالكلام عن طبقة البلاغة. وكذلك المعاني المبتذلة بالشهرة فإنّ الكلام ينزلُ بها عن البلاغة ايضاً، فيصير مبتذلاً ويقرُبُ من عدم الإفادة كقولهم: النارُ حارةً والسماءُ فوقَنا. وبمقدار ما يقرُبُ من طبقة عدم الإفادة يبعدُ عن رُتبة البلاغة، إذ هما طرفان. ولهذا كان الشِعرُ في الربانيات والنبويات قليل الإجادة في الغالب. ولا يحذق فيه إلا الفحول. وفي القليل على العسر لأنّ معانيها متداولة بين الجمهور، فتصير مبتذَلة لذلك.

From the Rosae Nomen: Advice from William of Baskerville

In illo uultu ab odio philosophie uastato conspexi primum imaginem Antichristi, qui non uenit de tribu Iude sicut simulauerint annunciatores eius, nec de regione ulla longinqua. Antichristus nasci potest ex ipsa pietate, de amore Dei uel ueritatis excessiuo, sicut hereticus nascitur de sancto et indemoniatus de uidentibus. Timeto tu prophetas, Adso, et omnes paratos mori pro ueritate, quia regulatim multos alios ad mortem conducunt secum, sepe ante se, aliquando pro se.
Gulielmus de Basceuilla

From the Rosae Nomen: William and Adso Talk About a Strange Man

I have had the opportunity to copy another fragment from the Rosae Nomen. The MS' owner this time only let me turn to a random page, and after that forbade me to touch the book. The paper she gave me was much smaller, and consequently so is the fragment I was able to copy. As I got home with my notes, several bee-themed firecrackers scared the bejeezus out of me by exploding around the door. I found taped to the door-handle a note saying "Best, Humbert". Heretofore it has been odd, communicating with the owner. But what was this in aid of?
I can't decide what is going on. Am I am the butt of a colossal joke? The human gamepiece participating in some resource-rich eccentric's amusements?
Why won't the MS' owner tell me her own name, why did she choose to send that bizarre email to me of all people, why does that strange car of hers have to pick me up with no warning at the most random of unannounced times?

Iterum nauatam centralem perambulauimus et exiuimus per portale quo intraueramus. Ubertini uerba etiamnunc omnia audiebam meas inter aures zonatim bombizancia. <Iste homo> tandem ausi Gulielmo dicere <est straneus>. 
Mihi <est> inquit <aut potius fuit, in multis modis, homo magnus. Set eandemobrem est extraneus. Solum homunculi angusti et minuti prebent speciem normalitatis. Ubertinus potuisset fieri aut unus de ereticis quos ipse comburi fecit, aut cardinalis Sacre Romane Ecclesie. Satis prope accessit ad ambas peruersiones. Quando de Ubertino fabulo aliquatenus habeo nocionem quod Infernus non est nisi Paradisum ab altero latere uisum>. 
Sentenciam eius haut nactus <a quo> inquam <latere?>. 
<Ah sic> recognouit Gulielmus <primum sapiendum est num exstent latera, et num exstet totum. Set noli animaduertere ad me, et pro Dei eterni fidem noli tu respicere in istud portale> acre elocutus est, mihi in nucham leuem ducens alapam dum me respectum uersabar sculpturas quas introeundo uideram <iam nimium ab illis per unum diem horrepilatus es, Adso.> 

This passage, unlike the previous one, contains dialogue. And dialogue of a most interesting character, too. There is a limit to what can be known of the spontaneous Latin speech of 14th c. medieval monastics, as we have no direct access to that kind of language, though there are documents that seem to have been produced from dictation without rehearsal or revision which may offer something close to it, and much of the dialogue in Adso's MS seems to have something of the flavor of that. It is similar in some fundamentals to the spoken business Latin used sometimes in the early modern period, though with a more profound feel of idiom, and a jargon drawn from the scholastic world. It is particularly full of constructions that will cause Ciceronian fanboys to involuntarily relieve their bowels. The (now agèd) author and narrator Adso is a rather learned monk, more learned than he was at the time when the story takes place (as he elsewhere notes, he did not then know Greek, hinting that matters have changed.) The allusions he indulges in make his learning undeniable. He is familiar with the language of classical literature, and draws on it freely, but it is neither his main stylistic model nor his sole idea of acceptable Latinity, let alone in a document of this kind. The conversational Latin used around the abbey in the text, even by learned men like William and Severinus, is of a workaday, practical type with much syntactic calquing from vernaculars. Thus in this passage we have, on the one hand, spoken parts that contain not only the usual medieval suspects (quando used as a relative with an indicative verb, "quod" as a subordinator with notionem habere for a verb-phrase) but also such medievalisms as extraneus in the sense "bizarre". (Whether the aphaerisis of straneus is intentional or not is difficult to say, but it is not without precedent in MSs from this period.) On the other hand, in Adso's narrative parts, there are medievalisms (nucha, a loan from Arabic) used in the same expression as a specimen of ancientry like "alapam ducere" (to give a smack), followed by the learnedry of "dum me respectum versabar sculpturas" (while I was turning to look at the sculptures) where an accusative supine taking a direct object. These monks' Latin speech is not unsophisticated, uneloquent or broken. No matter that Ciceronians may not have what it takes to handle it.

A diplomatic MS transcription:

Rosae Nomen

Below is a transcription of the beginning of a medieval manuscript which I was permitted to view. Directly above the main text on the first leaf the name Adso Mellicensis is written under a stylized rose. Stirred by a whimsical afflatus of I know not what, I bestow on it the title of Rosae Nomen. I transcribe the MS, without altering spellings and without apology for the syntactic vagaries of late medieval Latin, or at least as faithfully as technology allows. The MS, written in assured blackletter minuscules (with the occasional words written rather inexpertly in Greek), is shot through with a rich array of sigla which cannot be easily represented in the fonts available to me on this blog. Enormous though the MS is, the scribe clearly felt the need to economize writing space as much as possible. Here's a picture of what a faithful diplomatic edition would look like:

At any rate, the owner of the MS permitted me to view it only over the course of a single day in the confines of her library's reading room, where I was supervised at all times (sometimes by her, more often by a rather loquacious guard in her employ) and supplied with only a single sheet of legal-sized paper on which to transcribe material. Though I was told I was free to make and distribute further copies if I wished, the single sheet was clearly meant to limit the amount I could copy. Using the the smallest and most condensed shorthand I could summon to my pen, I compressed as much text as I could onto the one sheet. What I was able to transcribe I give below. I have exhorted her to allow me another day with it, if only to transcribe another page's worth, but she has remained adamant, and will only allow me to see it when so instructed by its previous owner, a man she refers to only as Humbert. I do not know when or if I will see the book again, or what circumstances she will insist on if I do.

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat aput Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio aput Deum, et omnis fidelis monachi fuit diatim repetere uno humili psallenti sono illum unicum euentum immodificabilem cui ueritas asseri potest incontrouertibilis. Set uidemus nunc per speculum et in enigmate, et ueritatem non uidemus antequam omnibus signanter in conspectu manifestetur nisi phragmentis carptim (eheu quam illegibilibus) in errore mundi istius. Debemus ideo uix silabatim fidelia signacula eius efferre etiam ubi nobis apparent opscura et uelut intexta uoluntate summum attentissima ad malum. 
Hodie ad uite peccatoris mee occasum perueniens, canicie tamquam mundus senescens, opperiens ut in sillenciose deserteque diuinitatis abisso perdar, particeps lucis inenarrabilis ab angelorum inteligencia fluentis, iam corpore egro et grauato hac in celula charissimi monasterii Mellicensis constrictus, paro huic pergameno mandare testimonium de mirabilibus terribilibusque que accidit ut in iuuentute conspicerem. Nunc omnia que audiui et uidi in scripturam redigam uerbatim, quin ex eis designacionem coligere conar, quasi ita ut subcessoribus meis uenientibus in hunc mundum (nisi Antichristus primum aduenerit) signorum signa relinquam in quibus exerceatur oracio ἑρμηνεύματος. 
Mihi Dominus eterne rei conditor graciam concedat ut transparens perhibeam testimonium de gestis in abbatia cuius de nomine equum est et pium dehinc tacere, sub finem anni domini MCCCXXVII quo descendit Imperator noster Ludouicus in Ytaliam ad Sacri Imperii Romani dignitatem restituendam, iunxta Altissimi consilia et ad confusionem usurpatoris scelesti, simoniaci, eresiarche qui in Auennione sacro apostoli nomini uerecundiam intulit (dico animam peccatricem Iacobi Cadurcensis quem impii sub nomine Iohannis XXII reuerebantur.) 
Vt ea plenius comprehendam quibus me innodatum habui, forsitan oportet primum memorare de rebus extremo seculo excurrente gestis, cum ut tunc me eas uiuente accipiebam, tum ut nunc eas memini aliis istoriis aliquantulum post auditis auctas, si quid est in me memorie que etiamnunc tot euentus confusissimos philatim renectere capiat. Nam, ut mihi iamdudum dixit amicus quidam (de quo postea tractaturi sumus) <libri semper alios libros reuocant; non exstat fabula nisi fabulam narrat iam narratam>. 
Illo seculo ineunte Papa Clemens V cum ipse sedem apostolicam ad Auennionem transtulisset Romam reliquit predam ambicionibus dominulorum localium; deinde est Sanctissima Vrbs gradatim in circum uel lupanar transformata, luctacionibus inter seniores dilaniata. Misera illa ciuitas, armatis cateruis oppugnata et seuitie predacionibusque subiecta, respublica dicebatur set haut erat. Ecclesiastici e seculari iurisdicione elapsi scelestorum greges ducebant latrocinando cum gladiis in manibus et preuaricando et commercia inpiissima ordinando. Quemnamadmodum impediri quominus Caput Mundi iterum fieret meta, ac recte, eius qui studeret choronam Sacri Imperii suscipere et dignitatem restaurare dominii temporalis quod Cesarum factum fuerat totum?
Itaque anno MCCCXIV quidam V principes electores Teutonici in oppido Franconefurde Supremum Caput Imperii elegerant Ludouicum Bauaricum. Eodem autem die ex aduersa Meni ripa Comes Palatinus Reni et Archiepiscopus Coloniensis similliter Fridericum Ducem Austrie elegerant eandem in dignitatem. Ita fuerunt imperatores simul duo sedi unice, ac Papa unicus imperatoribus duobus. Que causa profecto motus attulit permagnos in mundo. 
Duos post annos in Auennione, nouus Papa electus est Iacobus Cadurcensis, senex LXXII annos natus qui, ut superius diximus, nomen Iohannis XXII sibi sumsit. Placeat celo ne pontifex maximus quisquam dehinc nomen adeo bonis inuisum suscipiat. Ille Francicus Regi Francie deuotus (cuius corrupte terre homines  semper suis rebus consulere inclinant, ac nequeunt totum orbem aspicere patriam spiritualem) Philippum Pulcrum contra Templarios subleuauerat, quos criminum turpissimorum (meo quidem iudicio iniuria) ipse rex accusauit qui, conscio istulo ecclesiastico renegato, eorum possessionibus potiretur. Interea se inseruit Robertus Neapolitanus qui ad propriam dicionem manutenendam peninsule Ytalice persuaserat Pape ut neutrum imperatorum teutonicorum agnosceret. 
Anno MCCCXXII Ludouicus Bauariensis concertatorem Fridericum uinxit. Iohannes, unum imperatorem plusquam duo timens, uictorem excommunicauit. Ille inuicem Papam tanquam hereticum denunciauit. Oportet etiam referre ut eodem anno capitulum Franciscanorum generale conuenit Perusie ubi minister generalis Michael Cesenas, instancias accipiens Spiritualium (de quibus dicendi iterum infra occasionem habebimus) pro re fidei doctrineque proclamauit pauperitatem Christi, qui nihil cum apostolis suis possederat nisi in usu facti. Hec autem resolucio dignissima ad uirtutem et puritatem ordinis custodiendam Pape quam maxime displicuit, qui fortasse in ea creuit racionem qua omnia periculo adducerentur que affirmauerat, imperio ius Episcopos eligendi negans et sedi apostolice peculiare imperatorem inuestire asseuerans. His et similibus commotus, Iohannes proposiciones Franciscanas anno MCCCXXIII condempnauit in epistula decretali <Cum Inter Nonnullos>.
In illo uestigio temporis, ut opinor, Ludouicus in Franciscanis, iam Pape inimicis, socios uidit probabiles. Illi, pauperitatem Christi affirmando, quodammodo nociones imperialium theologorum, uidelicet Marsilii Patauiensis et Iohannis de Ianduno, ei confirmabant. Tandem nonnullos menses post que hic enarro, pactus est Ludouicus cum Friderico, et postquam in Ytaliam descendit Mediolani choronatus est.
Ita breuiatim res se habuerunt quando ego, iuuenis nouicius Benedictinus monasterii Mellicensis, de pace claustri subito demptus fui a patre meo qui in commitatu Ludouici pugnabat.  Optimum ei uidebatur me secum ferre ut Ytalie mirabilia scirem et  Imperatoris choronacioni Rome adessem. Illum autem adsedium Pisarum curis militaribus opsedit funditus. 
Ergo solitarius homo relictus, inter Thuscie ciuitates uagantem uitam agere cepi partim ex ocio, partim ex desiderio discendi. Set rudis et indisciplinata hec libertas, ut opinabantur parentes mei, non decebat adolescentulo ad uitam contemplatiuam deuoto. Secuti igitur consilio Marsilii qui me diligere ceperat, tutelam mei committere iudicarunt doctissimo Franciscano fratri Gulielmo de Basceuilla tunc inituro opus quod se ad ciuitates famosas abbatiasque antiquissimas perduceret. Que cum ita essent, factus sum Gulielmo scriba et discipulus simul, quod nullatenus me unquam penituit, quia comes eius plurima conspexi condignissima tradendi, ut nunc facio, eorum memorie qui post nos uenturi sunt.

Written On Somebody's Paper Napkin

Mad paper, go, and on the firewood burn
Spew these rough lines out in a cough of smoke.
I've had enough of you. We can't return
To this. Destruction is the masterstroke.

As ink turns ash, and words turn not a thing,
Affirm what blowhard poets liked to doubt:
That like this earth all supple sonneting
Won't mean one damn when all the lights go out.

Ask in a violet flame like burning fat:
Can lines gleam in a detonated sun?
Or poets claim immortal this or that
When all the cosmos is a shining gun?
Can you believe yourself in shrieking "But
It's enough to have once been"? I am done.

Latin Compounding

The idea that the Latin language itself is (or was) ill-suited to prolific formation of compounds of the kind found in Greek is hooey. Ancient Roman linguistic preferences do not exhaust the possibilities of the language itself.

Quintilian's value judgment:

Sed res tota magis Graecos decet, nobis minus succedit, nec id fieri natura puto, sed alienis favemus; ideoque cum κυρταύχενα mirati simus, incurvicervicum vix a risu defendimus.

Should not be interpreted to be an inexorable result of something intrinsic to the Latin language, as when one scholar suggested that "nominal compounding is not as developed in Latin as it is in other IE languages, since the prototypical length of Latin words is rather short".

The fact that, at least during the empire, Roman-era Latin was not especially given to creative compounds reflects less a linguistic property of Latin than the aesthetic and cultural judgments of those Latin writers whose works survived transmission from antiquity.

 I strongly suspect that resistance to innovative compounding in Latin was BECAUSE it was so associated with Greek, and thus was especially liable to strike the tender nerves of Roman linguistic insecurity. Some words from early Latin tragedy coined on Greek models (sonipes, flexanimo) got entrenched early enough to be grandfathered in.

Some Late Republican writers did coin freely when they wanted to. I think it's no accident that they tend to have been either (a) rather experimentally uninhibited in their Hellenizing or (b) in operating genres held in low esteem by the Roman literary elite. A single poem by Catullus contains such interesting items as hederiger (ivory-bearing), nemorivagus (grove-rover), silvicultrix (forest-tending), erifuga (master-fleeing). And this by no means exhausts the list of Catullan compounds. In the fragments attributed to Decimus Laberius, who worked in a low-prestige genre, there are 46 hapax legomena, and many of these too are obvious compound words. Three nonce-compounds to describe a bull (testitrahus, reciprocicornis, lanicutis) all occur in a single fragment of his. Both the Catullan examples, and those of Laberius, (and even more so comparable coinages found in Lucretius and the fragments of Accius) seem to be inspired by Greek precedent.

Glosses of Greek terms often contain as explanations perfectly serviceable compounds which simply seem not to have caught on in recorded latin. For example πλατυλόγος in one gloss is explained as "latiloquens", which — though a hapax word — is not just perfectly intelligible, but probably near-idiomatic given that that the adverb "late" qualifying verbs of speaking (including loqui itself) was no stranger to the language of Cicero or Quintilian, and that "lati-" as a compounding theme itself is well-attested in words like "laticlavium" and "latifolius."

That "latiloquens" never caught on in accepted literary usage probably has little to do with inherent unsuitability. There is no intrinsic reason why literary Latin could not have taken such a Greek lexical technique over wholesale, much as it did Greek metrical and generic conventions. That it did not do so is an accident of cultural history, and has little to do with the kinds of lexemes the Latin Language itself can or cannot withstand.

Carmen Latinum: Ad Seipsum

Hoc carmen melius priore evasisse dicam. Sed iam in una sententia omnia pertractavi pro eo dicenda.

Ad Seipsum

Quid plebis in rem? Quomodo rusticos
iuvit laborantes, tonitru in sena-
 -tu, Tullius iactationes
  in Catilinam oligarcha ructans.
Rem publicam fur a populo ferens,
Arrisit ori rhetoricā ferā
 mulcato honesti fuste Gracchi,
  proditor impius. O Quirine.
Persanctā acerbus Christi Hieronymus
famē iste Blaesillam modo gratia
 mori subegit, castigator
  quam sacer ac reprehensor orbae.
Noli, Sicandre, odisse magis mala
quam ames bona. Ācri afflatum aquiloni ăcer
 quî, ni imbribus gratis foventis
  caeli alitum, solide resistat?
Etsi Tyrannon sanguine compleas
centum ducentorum ora, cruoribus
 evaseris solis peritus,
  nec sitiens saniem requirit.
Quocumque oberres gentium amiciter
subventitā, nec dic "Sum Alienus Hic".
 Humani amice humanē in omni
  sis generis. Crucem initŏ dogma.

To Himself

What use for the commoners' weal, what help to the slaving rural peasant was Cicero with all his thunder in the senate, an oligarch belching agitations against Catiline. A thief taking the republic from the people, that unholy traitor smiled in savage oratory on the club-shattered face of honorable Gracchus. Oh Quirinus. The harsh Jerome, godawful chastiser and censurer of a bereaved woman, impelled Blaestilla to die of oh-so-holy starvation, just for Christ's sake.
Sicandrus, do not hate evil more than you love good. How can an air-whacked maple tree soundly resist the rough north wind if it is not fed by a favoring sky's welcome rains? Fill a hundred mouths with the blood of two hundred tyrants, and all you will be is carnage-proficient. A thirsty person is not in need of gory fluids. Wherever in the world you wander, proffer friendly help, and do not say "I am a stranger here." Humanely, in each thing, be part of the human race, my friend. Dogma can go fuck itself.

Pluri Versiculi Latini: De Bellis Stellaribus

Narrationem "Bellorum Stellarium" si recoquere numeris Latinis velim, huiuscemodi initium faciam. Utrum aliquando plura scribam necne haud scio. Interpretationem soluta oratione Anglicam adieci in extremo. Quo haud serio animo hos vaniverbosos vermifluos versiculos scripserim nihil, ut spero, attinet dicere.

(If I should want to recast the story of "Star Wars" in Latin verse, I'd begin it like this. Whether or not I'll write more at some point I have no idea. I put a paraphrase in English prose at the end. I hope it goes without saying just how seriously I took this little hexametric fuckton of silliness.) 

 Bella Stellaria Ad Camenae Modos

 Ille ego qui quondam vulgo sermone solebam
 Vertere contextos versus prisco meŏ more 
 Antiquûm virûm. At ecce mihi peregrina Camena 
 Mandavit rudibus plectrum digitis modulari 
 Ausonium. Sed quid faciam hic, inconditus auctor,
 Hac aetate ubi non Latii valet alma loquela? 
 Sis peregrina, Camena. Peregrinemur in orbe
Mortales ubi lustrabunt supra fines superorum.**
 Carmina condamus vatum illibata vetuste.

 Proelia stellarum in medio flammensibus* acta
 Concussis canimus. Quae Vis evorterit ingens
 Astripotens, aciesque galaxiae in orbibus olim
 Longinquae congnatas, quo Crucialigerorum*
 Tot bombardae canderent, cur tot Bōthānōs
 Sȳthānus* Dominus tortos effuderit aspri
 In vacuum spatii exanimans, quousque Aerobatorum*
 Saevirent animi, tu animo mihi volve volenti,
 Dum valeat nobiscum Vis, O Musa novorum. 

 Olle planeta fuit, quem olim insedēre coloni
 Humani: Tatuīnus, circumfusus arenā
 Flaminibus iactatā. Hic Titan torruit ingens
 Terram quam pridem profugi domuēre, coacti
 Iuribus hosteque adhuc infando nomine. Et Arma 
 Aethera supra nunc flagrant. Immanis in omni
 Vis collidit iniqua. Ululantibus ictibus inter
 Fulmina fulminibus concurrunt. Caelicarinam*
 Fulgivomi* concidunt. Cedunt tenuia scuta   
 Instante Astriduellona*...

*Has locutiones excogitavi omnes. 

**Hunc versum feci consulto hypermetricum. 

(I am he who, in my old-school way, once was wont to translate the woven verses of men from auld lang syne. Yet here a strange exotic Muse has charged me to wring rhythm out of the Ausonian lyre with my awkward, untrained fingers. But what am I to do here, a half-baked author, in this age where the nourishing speech of Latium has no sway at all? Muse, be exotic indeed. Let us go alien in a world where mortals will wander in orbit beyond the bounds of the gods, and let us fashion such a song as poets of yesteryear never even got a sip of. 
We sing the battles waged amid the stars at the clash of lightsabers. Of those things that the prodigious star-ruling Force upended, of battle-lines between kinfolk on worlds long ago in a galaxy far away, of what so many X-Wing canons blazed for, of why the Sith Lord cast so many tortured Bothans into the breath-crushing vacuum of cruel hard space, of the end to which the passions and minds of the Skywalkers raged, spin the tale into the mind of willing me, O Muse of the new, so long as the Force is strong with us.
There was that planet, long settled by human colonists: Tatooine, enveloped in gust-hurled sand. Here a great sungod parched a terrain which refugees, forced by laws and an enemy whose name remains unmentionable, tamed. Now, weapons are blazing above its atmosphere. The Force, tremendous in everything, smashes unequal things together. Thunderbolts vie with thunderbolts in shrieking strikes in the midst of things. Laser canons pummel a starship. Weak shields fail as a Star Destroyer bears down.)

Carmen Latinum: De Martini Lutheri King Iunioris Constantia

(Note: I have put a loose paraphrase in English prose at the end.)

Carmen meum primum Latine scriptum tandem mihi confecisse videor. Sic in poese ut in omnibus: quae prima temptantur plerumque evadunt subincondita. Itaque mira sunt ni hoc nugas est. Strophas has alcaicas barbarismunculis locutionibusque insulsis universe scatere haud dubito. Sed quod scripsi, ut praefectus quidam dixisse fertur, scripsi. Eccum vobis. Interpretationem Anglicam soluta oratione in extremo adieci.

De Martini Lutheri King Iunioris Constantia

Forsan nimium optimisticus fui. Nimium forsan exspectavi. 
— MLK, "Epistola ex Carcere Birminghamiae"

Ille hic Lŭthērus quo melius nihil
Sōl Āmĕrīcae vidit ab aethere,
 Bombam feram ferrumque iactum
  Cum superasset, in aequitate
Audax iniquis sistere legibus
Fraudis cutem abscidit stabili Rosā.
 Exercuitque humanitate
  Turbam. Ita turbine mansionem
Albissimam turbavit amorifer.
Non carcer illum, non inimicior
 Dimovit armis turba saevis,
  Nec Tabularii1 atrocis index.
Prosensit autem quid sibi lurida
Morbo parasset patria noxio2.
 Nondum expiatā passione
  Ut cecidit. Facie refracta
Est mortuus. Sollemnia quid ferent?
Tam sunt decoră quam velut antea
 Si suaviaretur Catonis
  Funera putidus Imperator.
Offendor istis: CONTINVAVIMVS
 Quam splendidae in iactatione 
  Vafritiae stomachor ministris.  
Est mortuus. Nunc desine fabulas.
Nil sol videt. Quid volvis inaniter
 Ubi sit Āmērīca "nostra"?
  Hic iacet in tumulo Lutheri.

1Significatur Tabularium Inquisitionum Foederale vulgo FBI appellatum.

2 King, Praside Kennedy nuper necato, uxori suae fertur dixisse "et mihi hoc continget. Hanc tibi dictito civitatem esse morbosam."


On the Constancy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is that Luther, than whom the sun never saw anything better in America from its sky. When he weathered the brute bomb and the hurtled metal, in his right mind bold enough to stand against wrong laws, he cut away the skin of fraud with an unbending Rose. He trained a crowd in humanity. Thus in a whirlwind unsettled that most white of houses, a love-bringer. Him neither jail nor the more hostile mob with its savage weapons, nor the vicious FBI's informant could drive back. Yet he sensed ahead of time what his pale ghastly country, in its virulent sickness, had been readying for him, and sustained a "passio" that has yet to be atoned for. Face-shattered he died. He is dead. What are ritual holidays in aid of? They're about as fitting as a fulsome Emperor kissing Cato's carcass long ago. I loath all the "We have continued the struggle! We can never stop the long march!" The officials so outstandingly skilled at canned histrionics piss me off. He is dead. Leave off myths now. The sun doesn't see anything. Why do you idly maunder about where "our" America is? Here lies it in Luther's grave.

Quidnam Inferorum Sit Latinitas, sive De Inhumanitate Exhumata

Sunt qui dicunt linguam latinam emolumentum habere quo carent aliae linguae, videlicet quod non mutatur. Hanc linguam, quia multa per saecula et hominum aetates tradita et exculta est, aptissimam putant ad humanitatem specie tradendam. Egomet cum istis qui absurdas huiusmodi notiones perhibent, nullatenus consentire possum. Nam nempe mutata est. Sed — inde ab initio mediae ut dicitur aetatis — subiecta est alii generi mutationum quam fortasse expectare solemus cum nobis in mentem subit notio "mutationis linguisticae."

Verbum "fides", exempli gratia, aetate Literarum Renatarum sensum habebat funditus insolitum apud scriptores antiquos. Scholares etiam multa de rebus sociolinguisticis aetate Carolingorum usque adhuc omnino ignorant. Num reapse percipere "voces" veterum nos putemus, velut si praeterita duo millennia, mutationes consuetudinum inferentia, non evenissent? Num tantummodo linguae latinae peritiae ergo?

Disce hinc, quid possit fortuna; immota labascunt,  
 Et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent.

Omnia, ut quidam vates — nimirum tibi lectori notus — recte in rectissime titulato suo libro auguratus est, mutantur. Nec linguam eius hoc processu excipi posse puto, et etiam si posset, nollem. Neque iste Humanismunculus Cocacolaphobus umquam temporum mori potest, nam iam ipse putridum est cadaver. Ut necrophilis ideo relinquatur ad superstitionem excolendam. Ut seipsos interea Aegyptiace condiant literis. Prosit. Fortasse semper in hoc orbe infelice sunt qui mallent mortuos maiores venerari quam maiora vivere.  Quo usque tandem abutentur reliquiis magnificatis? O corpora, o mortes. Sed iam nimis manducavi cicercularum plagiatarum...

Scribere Latine in interrete incepisse videor. Quid mihi accesserit re vera nescio. Sed quidni huic garrulationi finem faciam versibus...

Ad Humanistastrum Quendam 

Sī venerārer stultitiam tū mī deus esses
   Sed retrō mē sīs. Nōn tibi cultor erō.   

Tips for learning to read a new language

1) Proper motivation is key. Ideally there should be something in the language you really want to read. Note I said want, not need. If you just need to read something to satisfy external requirements, that is one thing. If you want to read something, that is another.

2) Do not memorize vocab lists or recycle flash cards. Get used to looking up words as needed. But inasmuch as you need to memorize new words by conscious effort (especially at the very beginning), then the most effective technique is probably to write the word and its definition with some example sentences on a piece of paper, repeat those examples to yourself out loud a few times, and then throw the paper away. Repeat as often as needed. If you compile a vocab list at all, don’t just include the words’ translation. Better to use it as a place to record sentences in context. Never make a vocab list without at least one example usage for every lexical item.

3) Keep in mind that understanding grammatical structure is — in most cases — more crucial to learning than a grasp of all vocabulary. A dictionary can usually tell you what a word means, even if a full sense of its semantic range will only come from repeated encounters in context. But understanding how a sentence is structured is fundamentally a matter of habit.

4) Get comfortable with ambiguity. Learn to read with partial understanding. It’s okay not to get everything right away. As a child learning to read your first language you were probably exposed to a lot of stuff you didn’t fully understand yet. (But never let yourself mistake partial understanding for full understanding, or you will develop bad habits later on.) Reread several times, and think about what you understand and what you don’t. Not all things you don’t understand are equally important. Figure out what things are likely most crucial, and spend your effort puzzling that out. Don’t waste time, especially not as a beginner, trying to figure out why something which you do understand isn’t expressed in precisely the way you expected. If you read “After spending a day in the forest gathering flitterswoggles, they were begroobled by a strange woman”, looking up “begrooble” is a higher priority than looking up the flitterswoggles when you can already guess that it is probably a kind of useful plant or some other inanimate commodity found in nature.

5) Try as early as possible to read at least a little bit of the stuff you REALLY want to read and not just whatever easy exercises are given in the material you are using. Even if you don’t understand everything, even if you get through only a sentence or two, or find no more than an isolated phrase that you understand. The experience of understanding a little of what you want to understand, however partially, can help with motivation a lot. It's a good way to remind yourself that the distance between where you are and where you want to get is not infinite.

6) Bilingual or translated texts can help. Find a text whose content you already know in your own language and see if you can get your hands on a translation of it. This allows you not to worry about figuring out what is being said and to focus on how the saying of it works in your target language. I find Bible translations are ideal for this - for me personally.

7) Remember that learning a language is not an intellectual activity. A language is not a code to be deciphered but a collection of habits to be acquired. Treating every text as a puzzle to be solved rather than a specimen of human communication to be understood as such is not necessarily helpful.

8) Do WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO in order to make the process fun. Myself I like to come up with silly example sentences like “the elephant asked the soldier for a bag of feet”. I also like to take anodyne sentences from learning materials and see if I can alter them to mean something risqué.

9) Use native speakers wisely. Being a native speaker of a language does not make one a competent language teacher. If your target language has native speakers, and you have access to such speakers, then certain questions may elicit more productive answers than others. "What does this word mean?" may earn you a less revealing answer than "what does this sentence mean?" 

Latin Is More Than Roman

I've rambled before about how silly and counterproductive it is that we act these days as if Latin were only or primarily the language of the Ancient Romans. As if it were not also the language of Newton, Galileo, Gauss, Milton, Du Bellay, Thomas More or Caecilia Koch. It's a bit like acting as if English were only the language of the former British Empire, and not also the language of Weina Dai Randel or Joseph Conrad, (or for that matter the language of air-traffic controllers, diplomats, medical researchers and programmers in every country on this little blue marble of ours.) A language is not necessarily any less yours simply because you happen not to be a native speaker of it.

Incidentally, Caecilia Koch — the last name on that list of Latin authors I gave above — is still alive. Writing poems about things like the discovery of a Neanderthal skull or the American invasion of Iraq. (Her Latin pet name for George W. Bush, by the way, is Arbustulus "Little Bush".) Things like this are why I prefer to tell people that Latin isn't a dead language, so much as one that just happens to lack native speakers.

Which is really quite fitting in a way.

The earliest epics and plays in the Latin language to be preserved and transmitted were written by men who were very likely not native Latin speakers. A Greek from Tarentum named Ἀνδρόνικος became a Roman citizen by the name of Lucius Livius Andronicus, and sometime in the second half of the third century BC produced a wildly influential Latin translation of the Odyssey, as well as a considerable number of Latin adaptations of Greek plays. Toward the end of the century a Capanian Oscan-speaker named Gaeus Naevius created his own share of Latin adaptations of Greek plays alongside the Bellum Punicum, an epic about the first war between Rome and Carthage. Thirty years later, some time around 180 B.C. a native Messapian-speaker from the south named Ennius adapted Greek Homeric hexameters to Latin in his Annales, a huge poem which described the history of Rome all the way from the fall of Troy down to his own day. In addition to Latin and Messapian, Ennius also apparently knew Oscan and Greek (both of which he likely learned earlier than he did Latin.)

In a profound way, Latin — even that proportionally miniscule part of Latin literature that can be called Roman — is foreign to itself.

Lots of literatures' earliest recorded specimens consist primarily of translations or adaptations, of course. And the Romans were not alone in creating translations of Greek drama (the Carthagninians apparently translated some of the same plays into Punic), but I know of no real parallel to the Roman situation, where the beginning of a language's recorded literary repertoire is populated so thoroughly by non-native speakers using the language electively. Is there one?

Not unless it's a language like Early Modern Hebrew (where for a while native speakers were rare and non-natives were the ones setting the prestige norms) or Esperanto (where that is still the case).

Readings of Latin Verse

Just a few readings of Latin poetry to illustrate my most recent thinking on the sound of Latin verse in the Late Republic and Early Empire. I follow the standard "Allenian" analysis of most features, though I follow Sihler and Adams on a few things like the distribution of the allophones of /l/.

Virgil: Aeneid 1.1-34

Horace: Ode 1.11

Horace: Ode 4.7

Seneca: Troades 371-408

Martial: Epigram 3.6

The Sacrament of Abraham

The Sacrament of Abraham
By A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite this poem aloud

Bartender! Whiskey straight and whiskey sour!
Sour for the dead fag. Straight to drown the hour.
And tell me: isn't it the truth that love
Before the murder had gone far enough?

I've said it was the Lord's work, as I am
A man. Sure as my name is Abraham,
That was inferno he lit in other men.
It wasn't murder, but a true Amen.

Truth is: Jane saved me when she testified
How I bought an axe to chop those trees outside.
And the truth is what I am setting free:
What I chopped with that axe, it wasn't a tree.

Here's truth: I bought that axe to keep life whole,
To save my name, my marriage and my soul
The Monday after I baptized your Christine...
What I did to him...for what we'd done and been.

True story: God and Gold help judges make
Choices, and wash their hands for Caesar's sake.
Our Christ upon the lynch-cross died for all.
Both for Leviticus, and for St. Paul.

We gouged Dame Justice blind on the witness stand.
Our lawyer poofed up proofs by sleight of hand.
To prove I loved my Jane, it fell to me
To axe the faggot's body like a tree....

Bartender! Whiskey sour and whiskey straight!
Straight for the dead fag. Sour to mark the date.
God damn! Can any hour be drowned enough
When I have kissed and killed the man I love?

An Old English Poem: The River-Barrow of Alaric

A little Old English poem that I found myself writing about the burial of King Alaric of the Goths in the Busento river. The central section is based on — and loosely paraphrases — Von Platen's famous poem, which I read as a kid, long before I read Von Platen's source in Jordanes' Getica, (where, among other things, the Goths are actually described as forcing their enslaved war-captives to dig the grave, and then murdering them all in order to preserve the secret of its location.) I have included a prose paraphrase in Modern English.

Eallerīces Ēahlǣw

  Wōdendrēames  wōþ inblāwende
tungan ond tunglu  tīdum gewylwaþ.
Hwæt eart þū, Swēg,  þe mē selfne spricst?
Eart þū sē dēora  þe Dēor wordode
þe ēaran eft  oferēodest wrǣtlīce
swā reord rōdes?  Sēo rūnung eart þū
þe mid Wīdsīðe  gewerede gēare
þā hē stōd ond stāg  stīðe mōde
wiþ Hreþcyning  heortan wylfedne?
Glēowe fyrndaga  fēr on gemynde
Swā wuldorgim  westrodores,
werod on sāwol.  Wē gehīerdon
hornas hringende  hēah on beorgum
ofer eard ælfa  and ēsa gemynd.
Sweord āscīnaþ  Scedelandum in.
Ēos geærnaþ  Ætlan rīce
þā sumora hring  hwearfiaþ sundor.
Hwæt! Ic þis giedd  of gēardaga
hwīle wille  on hrēðerlocan.
  Cēsentes nēah  under nihthelme
Ymb ȳðdruncne  ōfer Bȳsentes,
bēoþ dēaglu lēoþ  lyfte behlēoðrod.
Æfter ēastrēam  earfoðlīce
scrīðaþ sceadwa  scyldwigena,
Gotena gūðhwætra.  Is him gēomor sefa.
Mǣnaþ Eallerīc.  Hiere eorl sēlest
under ūprodre  ende gefērde,
dogra dægrīme.  Þone dryhtguman
eall tō ārlīce  ond ēðle feor
sceoldon hȳdan hēr  on heolstorcofan.
Ymbe ōfer  ēoredcistum
wæs Gotmæcgum  geador ætsomne
tō gewendenne  wætres þurhrād.
Þā eorðǣdran,  ēaracu nīwe,
grōfon on grunde.  Gōde nyttes,
Innan holge  hærna īdlum,
hrūsan mid īserne  ūp ādulfon.
Dēorne dryhtnēo  dēope sencton
ǣhtwelan on ēo.  Æðelinga gestrēon,
frætwe ond fǣtgold,  ymb feorhscylle,
wrǣtlīc gewǣdu,  wǣrfæst setton.
Þā mid eorðan eft  ealdor beþeahton
ond māþm-ǣhte,  þætte of moldærne
wæterwyrte  wēaxaþ ūtan
hēah on hæleþe.  Hēr gecyrred
ǣrstrēam æthwearf  ōðre sīðe
ond ōsmihtig  on ealdbedde,
flōdes fāmcwic, forþ stunode.
Sungon þā secgas  "Swef þū þengel
hæleþes mǣrþum on holmscielde.
Næfre wihte  Wealhes earges
godwræc gītsung  þīn græf rēafie!"
Swā āsungon.  Sōðgiedd lofsanges
Swēog of herge  Sweord-Gotena.
Wǣgas Bȳsentes!  Wīelte hīe rūme
Wīelte hīe sīde  of sǣ tō sǣ.
  Ac æt ende  ealdspræc āwende.
Sēo sunne rinþ, gesencan onginþ.
Sceadwa ealle ofer ōsstealle
lange licgaþ.  Lēodas arīsaþ.
Hæleþ of heallum  hām onettaþ.
Mǣl is ēac mē tō fēran.  Feorr biþ giedland
and þæt lǣnan gesceaft.  Forloren nū
Is þæt spell sȳllic  swā spearcatell.


The River-Barrow of Alaric

 The eloquence of insanity (literally: "the voice of Woden-Joy"), as it blows through, rolls the tongues and stars together with time. What are you, sound, that speak my self? Are you that Dear One that worded Deor, having come again over my ears to boggle me like the dreamt rood's voice? Are you that secret talk that was Widsith's ally when he stood his ground with resolute soul against the Rethking with a wolfed heart? Cross my mind with the ancient tune, like the westering sun falling sweet on the soul. We have heard horns ringing high on the barrows, ringing onward over the home of elves and over memory of gods. The swords shine in the Shedenlands and steeds race in Attila's realm, as the cycle of summers is flung back. Listen. Let me for a time have in my heart's latch this story from days past.

 Near Consentia under the helm of night by the wavedrunk bank of the Busentus there are faint songs sounding through the air. Along the river in anguish wander the shades of the shield-fighters, the war-deft Goths. There is grief in their souls. They mourn for Alaric. Their best of men journeyed to his end under the skies, the day-count of his days. All too early and far from home, here they were forced to bury that leader of men. The Gothmen gathered on the shore in a brave-band, and dug an earth-artery, a new riverbed to divert the water's course. In that wave-cleared hollow, the honorable men delved up the turf with their iron, and sank the cherished king-corpse deep inside with riches on his steed. Loyally they lay prince-treasures, great trappings and gold ornaments all around his life-shell, a dazzling raiment. Then again they decked their leader and his proud holdings with earth, so that the river plants sprouting from his grave would grow high over a hero. Here diverted again, the ancient river turned back, so that it crashed forth with a foam-live flood, Aesir-mighty in its former bed. And the men sang: "Sleep O lord in hero honors beneath your water-shield. Never may a vile Roman's unholy greed defile your grave." Thus they sang. Praise-song's truespeech sounded forth from the Sword-Goths' ranks. Waves of Busentus, roll that song round. Roll it all over from sea to sea.
 But in the end the old speech (or: old story) departs (or: translates). The sun starts sinking and is off. Over the spaces of the elder gods, the shadows all lie long now. The kings get up. The heroes hurry home from the halls. For me, too, it is time to go. Far now is story land, that borrowed creation. Lost is that tale, weird as a computer.

For the Old English versions of the toponyms used here, I assumed that the Latin words Busentus and Consentia made their way into Early West Germanic via an Early East Germanic intermediary, where short /i/ and /e/ had merged to a single phoneme realized as a high [i] in most environments. Thus Busentus -> *Būzint, Consentia ->  *Kōsint. These are then subjected to Old English i-umlaut, followed by lowering of the conditioning vowel. Thus *Būzint-> *Bȳzint -> Bȳsent, *Kōsint -> *Cœ̄sint -> Cēsent. This seemed right to do given that proper names for non-British people and places in the Old English heroic tradition have all gone through very early sound-changes suggesting that they entered the language not long after the Migration period ended.

The final word, meaning "computer" (literally something like "spark-reckon-thing") is my modification of the incredibly stupid coinage on Old English wikipedia. I posit an otherwise unattested *tell as a deverbal strong a-stem noun from tellan.

This is not an exercise in alternate world-building or anything. It is just me fucking around, taking myself completely seriously and completely not. Like trying to hawk stolen iPhones at a Renaissance Festival by speaking Elizabethan English: nobody has any idea why you're doing it, and you'll probably fail, but at least your eccentricity isn't half-ass.

Voices of Earlier English: Opening of Henry V, by William Shakespeare

Hear me read this in a reconstruction of acrolectal London English ca. 1600. If you've heard David Crystal's reading of this passage, you'll notice that mine sounds quite different. If you want to know why that is, click here to read about all the problems with Crystal's reconstruction.

 O For A Muse Of Fire

O For a Muse of Fire, that would ascend
The brightest Heaven of Inuention:
A Kingdome for a Stage, Princes to Act,
And Monarchs to behold the swelling Scene.
Then should the Warlike Harry, like himselfe,
Assume the Port of Mars, and at his heeles
(Leasht in, like Hounds) should Famine, Sword, and Fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, Gentles all:
The flat unraysed Spirits, that hath dar'd,
On this unworthy Scaffold, to bring forth
So great an Obiect. Can this Cock-Pit hold
The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme
Within this Woodden O the very Caskes
That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?
O pardon: since a crooked Figure may
Attest in little place a Million,
And let us, Cyphers to this great Accompt,
On your imaginarie Forces worke.
Suppose within the Girdle of these Walls
Are now confin'd two mightie Monarchies,
Whose high, up-reared, and abutting Fronts,
The perillous narrow Ocean parts asunder.
Peece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one Man,
And make imaginarie Puissance.
Thinke when we talke of Horses, that you see them
Printing their prowd Hoofes i'th' receiuing Earth:
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings,
Carry them here and there: jumping o're Times;
Turning th'accomplishment of many yeeres
Into an Howre-glasse: for the which supplie,
Admit me Chorus to this Historie;
Who Prologue-like, your humble patience pray,
Gently to heare, kindly to judge our Play.