Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Nikolaos Chr. Konomis, Από την ιστορία της λατινικής γλώσσας [From the History of the Latin Language]. 5η έκδοση αναθεωρημένη και επαυξημένη. Athens: Syllogos pros Diadosin Ophelimōn Vivliōn, 2012. Pp. 356. ISBN 9789608351646. €30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Panagiotis Filos, University of Ioannina (panagiotis.filos@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This is the fifth, revised and augmented edition of a book which for many years has served as practically the only scholarly modern Greek account of the history of Latin. The book title itself (From the History of the Latin Language) is revealing: this book is not exclusively a standard linguistic narrative of the development of Latin from its Proto-Indo-European origins to the Middle Ages, including the gradual development of its regional 'vulgar' varieties into proto-Romance languages. It is also a classicist's distilled look at the corpus of Latin literature, with the aim to highlight topics that present a broader linguistic interest, e.g. Latin metre (classical-medieval), Latin grammarians (and their theories), etc.

The structure of the text and its overall presentation bear the marks of an introductory book. As the author himself notes in the preface, his work was originally conceived as a concise textbook for Greek undergraduates back in the late 1960s (later editions in 1979, 1993, 2003 and now 2012), and that original aim is still reflected in the main features of the book. Many of those characteristics can be assessed in a rather positive way given the target readership of the book, however atypical they may seem in comparison to other introductory works nowadays:

(i) limited use of technical jargon (e.g. in phonology, morphosyntax, etc.), which facilitates understanding by a more general readership, but leaves the description/analysis of some phenomena at a distance from current linguistic terminology: for instance, there is hardly any mention of the term 'grammaticalization' (mod. Gk. γραμματικοποίηση) in the discussion of certain late Latin/early Romance phenomena, e.g. adverbs in -mente (originally abl. sg. of mens, mentis), e.g. sola mente > It. solamente, or in the analysis of some emphatic negations, e.g. ne…mica 'crumb' or ne… passus 'step, pace', etc. (cf. French ne…mie, ne…pas respectively) (pp. 148, 180-181). Moreover, readers accustomed to modern linguistic terminology may feel perplexed when they come across ordinary modern Greek words like φωνή '(strong) voice' in lieu of the standard phonological term ηχηρότητα 'voicedness'; or more so, when the difference between voiced and voiceless plosives is primarily discussed in terms of mouth articulation differences rather than in relation to the different degree of glottis aperture and the subsequent (conversely) unequal intensity of vocal fold vibration (p. 22);
(ii) discussion of various topics, which may often be interesting, but not standard in similar works, at least not to this extent: e.g. Latin metre, Latin grammarians and their works, etc.;
(iii) long lists of data and examples -note also here the numerous footnotes- which on the one hand, constitute a treasure trove of all kinds of information for the uninitiated (and often for those more versed in the subject too), but on the other, may make the text look rather long-winded sometimes;
(iv) an overt goal to draw parallelisms with Greek (in particular) and other languages, modern and ancient alike, whenever possible.

The book is made up of nine main chapters (often subdivided into smaller sections) which are preceded by an 'Introduction' and a small chapter on the ancient Greek and Latin grammarians (including their contributions to grammatical theory), and followed/concluded by a short epilogue (ch. 10). By and large, the nine main chapters correspond chronologically to the major stages of the development of Latin; but at the same time, there is a discernible thematic dimension in many chapters.

The short 'Introduction' is actually a brief discussion of the Latin alphabet (and its relationship to the Greek model), with a few remarks on the phonemic value of the Latin letters (see above). A proper section (at least) on phonology would be fitting here (despite the information provided on Latin phonology in chapters 4, 6) since the description of early Latin spelling and its subsequent changes may be problematic otherwise: note e.g. the rather odd statement (p. 22) that Gk. <υ> [in fact <Y>] was initially 'sidelined' (sic) by Latin <u> [in fact <V>] and only at a much later time was a special letter <y> [in fact <Y>] introduced. Here, one ought to keep in mind that several early Greek loans were of Doric origin, especially from certain Magna Graecia colonies (and occasionally transmitted through Etruscan), where <Y> would probably correspond to a high back rounded /u/ rather than a high front rounded /y/ as in fifth-century Attic.1 The first three chapters (with some thematic overlap between ch. 1 and 3) set up the broader linguistic context of Latin, from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) through Italic down to Latino-Faliscan. Chapter 1 constitutes a sketchy linguistic map of Italy (and Sicily) in the first millennium BC, with particular emphasis on the Italic linguistic group of which Latin was a prominent member. The proposed classification is the standard one, i.e. basically a Latino-Faliscan and an Oscan-Umbrian (Sabellic) branch are assumed within Italic - the latter branch also including some minor languages of central Italy. (Nonetheless, the Italic 'language tree' table on p.74 looks odd since e.g. Venetic (plus Sicanic, a language spoken in Sicily!) appears (?), probably in accordance with older theories, as a sub-branch of Latino-Faliscan rather than as an independent language within (or outside perhaps?) Italic). But note that unlike other minor linguistic varieties, N. and S. Picene are not mentioned, in (or even outside) the context of the Umbrian group. Finally, Etruscan is characterized as an 'undeciphered' language (p. 66) although we know a lot more about this language nowadays.2 The following chapter (ch. 2) is actually a very basic introduction to Indo-European while the equally short ch. 3 examines the relation of Latin with the other Italic languages, but also with Celtic and Greek. Recent research in the field is taken into account (although the etymology of some obscure loanwords in ch. 1-3 may need some reassessment): for instance, Latin and Celtic, despite their common features, are no longer considered a particular branch of closely related IE cognate languages, at least not in the same sense as e.g. Balto-Slavic or, even more, Indo-Iranian.3

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the development of Latin and opens with a discussion of the (in)famous Fibula Praenestina, an inscription often characterized as a fake in the past, but probably not nowadays. Other important archaic Latin inscriptions and fragments (through later authors) are briefly discussed too (e.g. the Duenos inscription, the L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus tomb inscription, etc.), especially with regard to Archaic Latin phonology. The latter part of the chapter is dedicated to the early Latin lexicon, with a particular discussion of the earliest loans from Greek, e.g. (Doric) Gk. μαχανά > Lat. mac(h)ina, Περσεφόνη (or some alternative Greek form) > Etr. Φersipnai > Lat. Proserpina (note also some possibly earlier loans on the basis of /w/, e.g. ἐλαίFα > oliva), but also of some loan Greek suffixes like -issa, -iz-are. Of particular interest are some proper and common nouns which probably relate etymologically to earlier agricultural life in Latium, e.g. Lentulus (lens, lentis), cernere 'to sift' > 'to distinguish' (pp. 127-129).

Chapters 5 and 6 follow up chapter 4, with the former examining colloquial Latin and the latter discussing the emergence of the proto-Romance varieties from regional vulgar forms of Latin. In fact, ch. 5 focuses on later Latin works (but cf. also earlier evidence in Petronius and other classical authors) with particular reference to phonological, morphological and semantic changes, borrowing (especially from Greek, Celtic, Germanic), new formations like diminutives (e.g. castellum), compound adverbs (e.g. Fr. avant < Lat. ab ante ), etc. Chapter 6 provides a good and balanced overview of the changes on all linguistic levels of vulgar Latin (phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon), which ultimately led to its transformation into proto-Romance: e.g. loss of vowel length as well as of many case endings (plus the demise of the neuter gender), emergence of the definite article, use of periphrastic tenses, prepositional phrases (esp. with in) in lieu of oblique cases (e.g. for time, place), neologisms (e.g. new derivatives), etc.

Chapters 7 and 8 stand out by referring to classical Latin poetry and prose respectively, though not from an entirely linguistic viewpoint. The former discusses in some length the fundamentals of Latin metre (note that terminology is rather traditional, e.g. syllables are called long (μακρά) vs. short (βραχεία) rather than heavy (βαρεία) vs. light (ελαφρά)); its latter part is dedicated to the language of poets like Lucretius and Virgil, with an emphasis on word-formation and lexicon. The second chapter (ch. 8) is dedicated almost exclusively to the contribution of Cicero to the formation of classical Latin prose, particularly in his lexicon.

The penultimate ch. 9 discusses medieval Latin, with a special focus on the role of Christian Latin, which was often characterized by a more colloquial idiom -cf. e.g. St. Augustine and particularly St. Jerome (Vulgata) . One may point here to honorifics, the increasing use of the plural (politeness formula), neologisms, especially in religious vocabulary, numerous loans/loan translations (mainly from Greek, e.g. ἀνάστασις > resurrectio), etc. The last part of the chapter is dedicated to an analysis of the most common types of medieval Latin metre. Finally, ch. 10 is an epilogue on the Latin legacy in modern times.

There are conveniently select references in many footnotes and at the end of each chapter (arranged in rough chronological order!), alongside a comprehensive list (in alphabetic order) at the end of the book. The bibliography has been updated and includes many important works from the previous decade although the update is not always reflected directly in the main body of the text. Finally, there are some interesting appendices (common Latin abbreviations and phrases) and helpful indexes at the end.4

The language is very straightforward (but the wider use of modern linguistic jargon would not have jeopardized its lucidity by any means) and written in polytonic Greek. There are hardly any noticeable typos or mistakes -but the use of the Latin letter <v> in place of <u> would better have been avoided, at least for classical Latin- arguably a noteworthy feature for a book of such length and complexity.5

In conclusion, this new, updated edition of a book which has served for decades a Greek readership with an interest in the Latin language beyond Cicero and the other masters of classical Latin literature is - despite any minor shortcomings - a very welcome addition to the virtually non-existent modern Greek bibliography in the field. Hopefully, further works like the forthcoming modern Greek translation (Athens, 2014) of the J. Clackson and G. Horrocks, History of Latin (Oxford, 2007) will provide Greek readers with alternative viewpoints and will enhance the interest in the underdeveloped field of Latin linguistics in Greece.6

Table of Contents [in translation]

Ancient Grammar
1. The 'Italic' dialects/languages
2. The ancestors of Latin
3. Latin and cognate languages
4. The development of Latin
5. Spoken Latin (sermo cot(t)idianus or familiaris)
6. The development of the Romance languages
7. Classical Latin poetry
8. Latin prose
9. Medieval Latin
10. The Roman legacy
Appendix [two parts]
Index auctorum - verborum


1.   See F. Biville (1995), Les emprunts du grec au latin. Approche phonétique, vol. II. Louvain-Paris, pp. 264ff.
2.   See e.g. R. E. Wallace (2008), Zikh Rasna. A Manual of the Etruscan Language and Inscriptions. Ann Arbor.
3.   For a concise description of the linguistic map of Italy in the first millennium BC, see e.g. J.H.W. Penney (1988), 'The languages of Italy', The Cambridge Ancient History IV, 2nd ed., Cambridge, pp. 720-738. For Sabellic in particular: R. E. Wallace (2007). The Sabellic Languages of Ancient Italy. Munich.
4.   Add now: M. Weiss (2009), Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin. Ann Arbor; J. Clackson (ed.) (2011), A Companion to the Latin Language. Malden-Oxford; J. N. Adams (2013), Social Variation and the Latin Language. Cambridge.
5.   Some minor addenda-corrigenda: p. 98. l. 9: the PIE root for 'wolf' is *wḷkwos (cf. Skt. vṛka or modern English-German wolf) rather than *luqwos (sic), which lies behind Lat. lupus (via Oscan, cf. p instead of the expected qu) and Gk. λύκος; the latter root (*lukwos) is considered an alternative (euphemistic/apotropaic?) PIE form; p. 130, fn. 3, l.7: Ὁ → Ἡ; p. 181, l. 3: modern It. pericolosamente rather than periculosamente; p.250, l. 9 to the end: read 'in' in lieu of 'ad' (+ ablative).
6.   Note e.g. E. A. Skassis (1969-1975), Ἱστορικὴ γραμματικὴ τῆς λατινικῆς γλώσσης, 2 vols., Athens, and particularly the Greek translation (Athens, 2009) of A. L. Sihler (1995), New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. Oxford-New York.

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