Thursday, November 20, 2014


Olga Spevak, The Noun Phrase in Classical Latin Prose. Amsterdam studies in classical philology, 21. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. xiii, 377. ISBN 9789004264427. $174.00.

Reviewed by Patrick McFadden, St. Mary's Episcopal School, Memphis, TN (

Version at BMCR home site


One might wonder whether an author who devoted nearly sixty pages to noun phrases in a recent work on constituent order in Latin (see BMCR 2011.06.30 on Spevak 2010a) needs to devote an entire monograph to the subject. Readers of Olga Spevak's newest contribution to the Amsterdam Studies in Classical Philology series will certainly answer with a resounding, "Yes."

The volume under review does not simply deal with the internal ordering of noun phrases, but much more fully and meticulously both describes and classifies the properties of nouns and their modifiers than her earlier work did. It furthermore offers plentiful data derived from multiple corpus studies, which utilize samplings of texts drawn mostly from Caesar, Cicero, and Sallust. Although some principles are naturally reprised, e.g., Hetzron's hierarchical scale (p. 58), and some illustrative examples are inevitably recycled, e.g., Cato, Agr. 2.7 (p. 88), there is also a certain division of labor. Those interested in exploring types of hyperbata or data on demonstratives will find fuller discussions in Spevak (2010a). Further echoes may be heard from her edited work on nominal syntax (see BMCR 2011.10.57 on Spevak 2010b). The current volume offers significant expansion on both previous works and bids fair to become a new standard reference on the topic.

Spevak, as she has in the past, works largely in the framework of Dik's (1997) Functional Grammar (FG). For those less familiar with the jargon, she does provide brief explanations of technical terms as they occur, along with a glossary in the back (pp. 359-62). Pragmatics plays a significant part in her explanation of ordering, as one would expect in a modern study, but semantics takes on a much larger role in her schema. This increased reliance on semantics will no doubt spark scholarly discussion.

The study is divided into five chapters. In Chapter 1, The Noun and Its Modifiers, Spevak lays the groundwork by establishing the parameters for description of nouns and their modifiers, as well as a meticulous typology of each. She applies Lyons' (1977) typology, which separates nouns into first-order entities referring to physical things situated in space and time, second-order entities referring to events, processes, and states of affairs situated only in time, and third-order entities referring to propositional contents like reasons or ideas situated in neither space nor time. This typology, along with semantic features such as specificity and genericity, establishes what types of modifiers each semantic type of noun can admit.

Spevak then applies the implications of the three orders of entities to explaining what FG calls valency frames. Just as verbs require varying numbers of obligatory complements (arguments), e.g., agent only vs. agent, patient, and recipient, so too nouns demand certain obligatory complements. Thus an agent noun like laudator, which encodes the agent, would be "monovalent," and require only a patient, e.g., an objective genitive showing who is being praised. A "bivalent" noun like desperatio , on the other hand, would require expression of both an agent and a patient, i.e., who is despairing and what he or she is despairing about (pp. 27f.).

After classifying nouns, Spevak applies the typology of Rijkhoff (2010) to modifiers. She details which semantic types of modifiers (classifying, qualifying, quantifying, and referential) can combine with each other and which sorts of nouns they may modify. Fine distinctions, as those between omnis and totus, are clearly and usefully explained (pp. 50-54).

Chapter 2, The Noun Phrase, by far the longest, explains the internal ordering of noun phrases. Evidence is drawn from a series of word studies involving modifiers illustrative of different semantic categories together with the nouns representing different orders, semantic features, and valency frames, including vir, navis, familia, dies, religio, memoria, opinio, quaestio, and bellum, among others. These demonstrate the compatibility of different sorts of modifiers and nouns, and their preference for anteposition or postposition.

Conclusions are summarized on pp. 212ff., where the force of semantics is strongly felt. Spevak asserts a three-tiered system of systems, as it were, to explain variation in the placement of modifiers. In the first tier she posits that most adjectives semantically expressing inherent properties of their heads regularly occur in postposition, while those showing a subjective evaluation occur in anteposition.

In the next tier pragmatic features may intervene. Regardless of a modifier's inherent or evaluative nature, Focus function (the most salient element in a sentence) and contextual newness favor postposition, while Topic function (that entity about which the sentence provides information the most) and contextual givenness favor anteposition. Among pragmatic features she also figures in both contrast and emphasis, which favor anteposition. These are complicated. In FG contrast can be a property of either the Topic or the Focus. Furthermore, emphasis is a persistent problem for Latin linguists in that what is properly a feature of spoken language can be argued but not proven in written language. Spevak here follows along paths trod before in modern studies, notably by de Jong (1989).

Although these pragmatic factors account for internal ordering in many instances, as she states, "sometimes they do not apply at all." In the third tier, she argues again for the influence of semantic factors. Specifically, she asserts that modifiers that are more important than their noun or that specify it, e.g., ager Campanus, are "semantically prominent" and favor postposition, whereas those that are not especially prominent semantically, e.g., hominum memoria, form a "referential unit" with their head noun and favor anteposition.

Chapter 3, The Prepositional Phrase, proceeds methodically with another series of word studies covering various semantic categories of nouns and modifiers. These assess the internal ordering of prepositional phrases and show it to be no different from that of other noun phrases. Spevak goes on to evaluate their ordering relative to noun heads in the extraordinary cases when they serve as adnominal modifiers. In such cases, she concludes that their postposition is caused by semantic prominence of the prepositional phrase relative to its noun head and anteposition arises pragmatically to show emphasis, contrast, or Topic function.

Chapter 4, Appositions, scrutinizes the internal orderings of both close (obligatory or restrictive) and free appositions (optional or non-restrictive), again through the use of word studies. In both cases she demonstrates that the first element is to be taken as the head of the construction and the second element as the modifier. This is soundly illustrated with examples involving people or proper names plus their offices. An ordering Sp. Albinus consul uses consul to describe a job that Albinus performs, whereas and ordering consul Albinus specifies the identity of the consul in question. She furthermore enumerates means to discriminate between free and close appositions, e.g., expansion of the first element by a relative clause or indefinite pronoun in the former only.

Chapter 5 is a swift, seven-page outline of the work that restates the objectives and conclusions of each chapter. Particularly helpful is Table 1 on p. 335, which shows the factors Spevak equates with either anteposition or postposition of modifiers. Indeed this would have been preferable in the introduction. While plodding along through the extremely detailed analysis of often confusing data, this reviewer more than once found himself unsure as to what direction the argument was heading, and even what individual sections were seeking to demonstrate. It was easy to get lost down in the weeds, so to speak, without a view of the horizon toward which the author was leading.

In her three-tiered approach the author seeks in a complex way to address the complexity of word order in Latin noun phrases. Some readers will no doubt prefer an explanation that trims away added factors with some application of Ockham's razor for a cleaner, one-faceted explanation. Others may grant that in dealing with word order, Ockham would have been better served by a machete, and that the system of systems Spevak offers hacks away enough to open a reasonable path to follow.

And follow we may. Spevak has generated a treasure trove of detailed data regarding nouns and modifiers of every semantic type and their ordering relative to each other. These data --discussed in every chapter and collected in the appendix-- may serve as starting points for scholars wishing to build upon her findings or to challenge individual aspects of her study.

The study is furthermore pleasantly honest, and in no small number of instances does the author point out that the explanation is difficult or that further studies are needed to explore particular issues. This leads inevitably to some frustratingly inconclusive conclusions, as on p. 212 regarding the ordering of complex noun phrases. Here the expressions "might have an influence," and "might produce anteposition," as well as the statement that there is simply "competition" between three possible orderings are not particularly satisfying. They do, however, rather than camouflage difficulties, set a clear blaze at this and other trail heads from which subsequent scholars and perhaps the author herself may set out.

For a book concerned with such minute detail, it is remarkably well edited, and typographical errors are both few and minor. Most are obvious enough and lead to no misunderstanding. They do, however, become more dense in later chapters. In Chapter 3, for instance, one finds "Table 3 present" for "Table 3 presents" (p. 229); example (93) refers to example (95) (p. 246); and cum aliquod is printed for cum aliquo (p. 253).

One minor criticism concerns the common practice of drawing English translations exclusively from Loeb editions or other more recent translations. The English in many places proves inadequate, given both the nature of the arguments, dealing as they do with subtle distinctions in syntax and semantics, and the intended audience for the translations, presumably linguists with some or no facility with Latin. When trying to demonstrate the partitive vs. the full use of adjectives showing relative position, e.g., "the middle of X" vs. "the middle X," Berry's (2011) translation of Cic. Ver. 5.13, "when their punishment was already under way," (p. 226) obscures the desired feature of e medio supplicio. This is no greater help to the non-Latinist than the example (p. 265) showing that nouns in free (optional) apposition can admit adverbs by using Sutton's (1942) Loeb translation of Cic. de Orat. 2.265 "who once upon a time gave evidence against Piso," to render olim testis in Pisonem. In both of these instances and others, the non-Latinist would be better served by authorial intervention to make the English better represent the syntactic features under discussion.

On the whole this is an excellent volume, and Latinists can be thankful that a thorough, sophisticated, and state-of-the-art study of noun phrases is now available. The subject is complex, and the explanation is equally so. This volume is not, nor does it claim to be the final word on all aspects of the noun phrase in Latin, but Spevak has provided us with elevated parameters, a wealth of data, and so many specific questions to pursue that scholars are positioned to make great advances in the decades to come.1


1.   Bibliography:

Berry, D. H. (2011) Cicero, Political Speeches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dik, S. (19972) The Theory of Functional Grammar, vol. 1-2. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
de Jong, J.R. (1989) "The position of the Latin subject," in G. Calboli (ed.), Subordination and Other Topics in Latin. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 521-40.
Lyons, J. (1977) Semantics, 2 vol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rijkhoff, J. (2010) "Functional categories in the noun phrase: On jacks-of-all-trades and one-trick ponies in Danish, Dutch, and German," Deutsche Sprache 38 (3), 97-123.
Spevak, O. (2010a) Constituent Order in Classical Latin Prose. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.
Spevak, O. (ed.) (2010b) Le syntagme nominal en latin: nouvelles contributions. Paris: l'Harmattan.
Sutton, E.W. and H. Rackham. (1942) Cicero, On the Orator: Books 1-2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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