"Barbarisms" in Speech and Writing
Bill Long 3/22/08
From Aelius Donatus (4th Cent.) and Isidore (7th Cent.)
This is the second and third in a series of essays summarizing what we know of ancient grammar, focusing specifically on how to speak properly. Grammar was considered, by the ancients, to be the necessary prerequisite for speaking well, which is a two-word definition of rhetoric (i.e., "speaking well"). These two disciplines, grammar and rhetoric, comprise the first two of the seven "liberal arts" of antiquity and the Middle Ages.
In this and the next several essays I will focus on grammar as articulated in the first instance by the 4th century writer Aelius Donatus, supplemented by the 7-th-8th century Bishop Isidore of Seville. Donatus' work on grammar actually consisted of two parts: an ars minor and an ars maior. The former became the foundational work on what we would call parts of speech. In fact, his division of parts of speech into eight categories (noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection) became the classic division until well into the 20th century. When I learned English grammar beginning in the early 1960s, I unknowingly learned the system of Aelius Donatus.
But my concern here and in the next several essays is his ars maior, his "greater" or "major" grammar, which is not so concerned with naming words as with showing how words can be used properly and to one's advantage in communicating. Donatus' ars maior, which is online both in a Latin version and English translations, forms the basis for Book I of Isidore's Etymologies, though Isidore's Book I includes far more than Donatus does in his treatment. I will devote an entire essay to Book I of Isidore soon enough. Suffice it to say that for the rest of the essay and the next I will examine the way that Donatus and Isidore treat the first grammatical topic: barbarisms. Subsequent essays will look at: (1) other grammatical faults; (2) metaplasm; (3) solecism; (4) rhetorical devices; and (5) figures of speech. This will prepare the way for our consideration of rhetoric, which is Book II in Isidore.
Aelius speaks of de barbarismo. The word "barbarism" is first attested in English in 1579 and means "the use of words or expressions not in accordance with the classical standard of a language..." Donatus begins helpfully. Barbarism is when prose language is corruped. When corruption of poetic language is in view, it is called metaplasm. Our dictionaries confuse the meaning of the latter, but I won't point that out in detail until we get to the subject of metaplasms. Isidore gives a nice explanation of the origin of the word.
"It is called 'barbarism' from barbarian (barbarus) peoples, since they were ignorant of the purity of the Latin language, for some groups of people, once they had been made Romans, brought to Rome their mistakes in language and customs as well as their wealth," I.32.1.
When a foreign word is brought into "our" tongue (Latin is meant), however, is is called barbarolexis. The translators of Isidore render the word as "borrowing." While Donatus seems not to explain barbarolexis clearly, he gives the examples of mastruga ('sheepskin,' a Sicilian word), cateia ('club,' a Celto-Germanic word), and mangalia ('hut,' a Punic word), all of which were used in Latin speech and writing but were "borrowed" from other languages. Barbarism can occur in two ways: (a) in pronunciation and (b) in writing.
There are, according to Donatus, four types of barbarism: "addition, subtraction, changing and transposing of letters, syllables, tones and aspiration (i.e., breathing)." I think this is to be read as (1) addition of letters, syllables, tones and aspiration; (2) subtraction of letters, syllables, tones and aspiration, etc. Isidore also says that the types of barbarism are four in both speaking and writing. He says, in language very similar to Isidore:
"In written language it occurs in four ways: if someone adds, changes, transposes or removes a letter in a word or syllable," I.32.3.
But, in speech, barbarism can occur in:
"length, intonation, aspiration and other ways that will follow."
They are both hovering over the same territory, even if we need examples to see what they are saying. So, let's turn to examples of barbarism.
Examples of Barbarism--from Donatus First
As an example of addition of letters, Donatus gives us the phrase reliquias Danaum ("remnants of the Trojans"), while we should only use the singular reliquia ("remant"). An addition of a syllable occurs when we say nos abiise rati (Aeneid 2:25), "we thought they had gone," instead of the proper form abisse. He doesn't then go through all 16 of the permutations that his definition really requires; he simply illutrates a few more "barbaric" examples. Actually, this kind of disappoints me, since I was ready to follow him through all 16 categories with clear examples of each. That is one of the pains of reading other people's work (and often my own): promises are given that aren't fulfilled. So, he then gives examples of "long and short vowels," which isn't very helpful for us as English speakers.
Then he turns to "subtraction," where he gives the example of someone writing infantibu parvis ("to small children") instad of infantibus... Sometimes people will also drop off a syllable, such as salmentum for the correct salsamentum ("fish sauce"). Examples of letter replacement are olli for the correct illi. Transposition of letters, such as Evandre for Evander, or of a syllable, such as displicina for disciplina, are not just examples of ancient dyxlexia but of barbarism. We can tell that Donatus wants to hurry along, because he quickly adds "many examples offer themselves, if someone asks..." He simply finishes by giving the following sentence with no examples: "There are also poor transitions, that is cacosynthesis, which some consider to be barbarism; in it we find mytacism, labdacism, iotacism, hiatus, collisions and other utterances which more or less are rejected by educated ears. He explains none of the last group of words, though Isidore does. Let's turn to Isidore, to see how he "improves upon" or lays out his treament of barbarism.
Let's turn to Isidore's consideration of barbarism.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long