Friday, July 21, 2017


Bianca Liebermann, Lateinische Präpositionen: Verortung und Valenz. Studienbücher zur lateinischen Linguistik, 1. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 2016. Pp. x, 290. ISBN 9783875487404. €26.90 (pb).

Reviewed by Ville Leppänen, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (

Version at BMCR home site

Bianca Liebermann's book about Latin prepositions is the first volume to appear in the new series Studienbücher zur lateinischen Linguistik of Buske Verlag. One of the main goals of both the book and the series is to provide up-to-date insights into the Latin language by the application of modern linguistic theories.1

The book is divided into three major sections. The first one (Ch. 1, pp. 1‒50) consists of an extensive theoretical introduction into valency-oriented grammar ("valenzorientierte Grammatik"), a type of dependency grammar, where the linguistic units of a sentence are connected to each other by directed links (dependencies), and the concept of localisation ("Verortung"), which depicts the spatial relations of constituents. The adopted meta-framework is cognitive linguistics. The introduction is followed by a detailed semanto-syntactic analysis of almost all Latin prepositions (but see below), constituting the bulk of the work (Ch. 2, pp. 51‒275). The analysis is followed by an extremely short conclusion (Ch. 3, pp. 276‒277), which merely sums up the most important theoretical points and predictions made already in Ch. 1. A bibliography and an index locorum conclude the work.

Liebermann's approach is based on previous applications of valency-oriented grammar to Latin syntax; the framework is strictly synchronic. The focal point here is not only the functional spectrum of the individual prepositions but also the syntactic role of prepositional phrases in sentence structure. Central to the analysis of prepositional functions is their localisation, i.e. how various syntactic constituents are localised by prepositional phrases, based on three components: Trajector (the object that is being localised), Landmark (the prominent static entity) and Point of View. The various localisation schemes ("Verortungsschemata") that are used in the main analysis are explained in the introductory chapter (pp. 14‒34). Individual prepositional functions are further classified according to three types (pp. 38‒40: local, temporal, and abstract) and five semantic roles (p. 35: locus, directio, origo, via, and comitativus). The prepositions themselves are classified into five categories according to their relation to the Trajector and Landmark (p. 45). Lastly, the semantic base values of case forms in prepositional phrases are discussed, followed by the generalisation (pp. 49‒50) that the ablative occurs when the Landmark is the starting point for the Trajector, or both the Landmark and the Trajector are conceptualised as a single static and coherent entity, and the accusative when the Landmark is the direction or goal, or when it is autonomously conceived as an area or a point and, thus, the Landmark does not constitute a single static and coherent entity with the Trajector.

The data of the study consist of hundreds of example sentences collected mostly from Classical Latin literature: the majority of examples are from Caesar, Cicero and Livy. It is stated (p. 44) that the analysis is mostly based on Latin prose, but metrical texts such as those of Plautus, Vergil and Ovid are also occasionally cited. Although the data include texts spanning almost 400 years, from Plautus and Cato to Gaius and Gellius, the chronological dimension is not discussed, i.e., whether the usage of prepositions changed with time (which requires further inquiry elsewhere). Moreover, the dialogues of Plautus or the satirical imitation of spoken language by Petronius are stylistically and in form and content quite unlike the polished prose of Cicero and Livy; yet there is no discussion as to whether the stylistic differences have any effect upon prepositional usage.

The concepts introduced in Ch. 1 are put to good use in Ch. 2: all prepositions are analysed by way of selected passages according to the principles of valency-oriented grammar and the localisation schemes. This analysis is arranged under the five categories mentioned above. The localisational function of each preposition is illustrated by a figure where the components (Trajector, Landmark, Point of View) and their relations are shown as a graphic representation. This is followed by a detailed analysis of each usage according to the level of abstraction, syntactic structure, and syntactic role. This part of the book resembles a reference work rather than a study book. And the repetitive nature of the analysis ensures that the reader will quickly internalise the most important principles of Liebermann's approach.

The book ends quite abruptly: there is no proper concluding chapter per se, since, as pointed out above, Ch. 3 is but a two-page summary of the most important theoretical points.

The book is written in modern scholarly German; the author must be complimented for exceptional clarity and precision of expression. To fully understand Liebermann's framework, a good command of German linguistic terminology is required, since none of the terms is translated into English, and the references are mostly to German-language theoretical literature. The publisher has produced a high-quality print product. The text includes blue-coloured font for chapter titles and example sentences as well as blue boxes for summaries and for highlighting important theoretical issues and generalisations. For a paperback, the book is quite robust and will probably stand the test of time well. Proofreading has been effective: I could not find a single typographical error, and only one minor inconsistency—the summary of sine on p. 82 is not enclosed in a blue box.

Liebermann's book succeeds in delivering a coherent and extensive analysis of Classical Latin prepositions and prepositional phrases as an alternative to more traditional approaches. Apart from minor details, my main criticism concerns two issues: the metatheoretical status of modern linguistic theories vis-à-vis traditional grammar, and the explanatory principles of prepositional phrase case government.

Traditional Latin grammar is ultimately based on the writings of Roman grammarians, who translated and adopted Greek terminology and applied it to Latin, their native language. In the 19th century, this was complemented by the comparative grammar of Indo-European languages. This framework is evident in such monumental works as Hofmann & Szantyr 1965 and Kühner & Stegmann 1976, and of course in the historical grammars of Latin such as Meiser 1998 and Weiss 2011.2 The novel linguistic theories developed in the latter half of the 20th century have generally been adopted rather slowly by Latin linguists. While it is certainly true that the classical grammatical framework ought not to be imposed on unrelated and typologically dissimilar languages,3 it does not follow that traditional Latin grammars are outright obsolete in that language. In fact, grammatical descriptions based on native intuition and actual language use are synchronic grammars par excellence, and should be taken seriously even by the most modern theoretical linguist. There is no room here for more elaboration of this topic, but it is not unthinkable that such grammars possess a surprising amount of psychological reality. My main point is that traditional grammars cannot simply be dismissed as obsolete and replaced by more "modern" descriptions. Hence, Liebermann's analysis of Latin prepositions is in no way a replacement for the traditional (synchronic) and historical (diachronic) accounts, but is rather a welcome addition or complement to them.

A recurring problem in the description of Latin prepositional phrases is the assignment of case. Beyond the two groups of prepositions that govern exclusively either the accusative or the ablative, there is a mixed group of only four items (in, super, sub, subter) that govern both with an accompanying distinction between a static and a dynamic notion of location. From the diachronic perspective, the cause for this state of affairs is well known: Latin prepositions have grammaticalized from adverbs and particles that were used to strengthen the local notions of pure case forms. But in an exclusively synchronic framework, the issue is much more complicated, since there appear to be no unambiguous semantic or syntactic criteria for case government, apart from the rule of thumb that the accusative expresses movement 'into' or 'towards' something while the ablative expresses a state 'in' or 'at' something or movement 'from' somewhere. As noted above, Liebermann approaches the problem by assigning a semantic base value to the cases. She then refers to this generalisation as an explanation ("Erklärung") for the choice of case. However, this kind of argumentation is circular, since the semantic base values are ultimately based on their use in the prepositional phrases themselves. In my opinion, without reference to external factors (such as language change, linguistic typology, psycho- or sociolinguistics, etc.) it is not possible to offer a satisfactory explanation. Moreover, precisely the aforementioned kind of evidence indicates that the governed case in Latin prepositional phrases expresses not a particular semantic function but merely the syntactic function of subordination.4 Liebermann's generalisation, however, may be useful for translation, textual interpretation, and language learning.

As the title suggests, the book is not about Latin adpositions but exclusively about prepositions. Hence, postpositions such as causā and gratiā are not examined. Rare prepositions, such as subter, tenus, fini, foras and retro (and several others), are not mentioned. Due to the book's focus, the internal structure and constituent order of prepositional phrases are not discussed, for example, in such cases as magna cum laude vs. viris cum summis, and post multos annos vs. multis annis post, etc.

On some occasions (e.g. on pp. 84, 211, 221), "xxxxx" and "yyyyy" are used as placeholders instead of the usual "x" and "y" without explanation for how these notations differ.

There is very little discussion of previous analyses of Latin prepositions. Some standard works are occasionally referred to (such as Kühner & Stegmann 1976, Touratier 2013, Pinkster 2015),5 but the reader must otherwise rely on his or her previous knowledge of the field. Consequently, the bibliography is relatively short and is in no way exhaustive.

The undisputed merit of Liebermann's book is its nature as a study book for advanced learners: although knowledge of linguistic terminology and good command of Classical Latin are required, the reader is not expected to possess previous knowledge on valency-oriented grammar, localisation schemes and syntactic roles, since these theories and concepts are explained in the introductory chapter. The analysis itself gives the reader a clear picture of how Liebermann's approach works in practice. Perhaps the most instructive lesson one can learn here is how prominent a role prepositions have in Latin syntactic structure and how functionally similar prepositions (such as pro vs. prae) differ from each other in theory and in use. Despite the rather minor problems that I have pointed out in this review, I would recommend the book without hesitation for anyone interested in prepositions and localisation. And I certainly hope that Liebermann and her students and colleagues pursue this line of analysis further, perhaps by adding more fine-grained historical, stylistic, sociolinguistic and typological modes of explanation to complement the synchronic analysis.


1.   This agenda is also evident in Liebermann's previous publications: she has, e.g., translated the Latin grammar of Christian Touratier into German (Touratier, Christian. 2013. Lateinische Grammatik: Linguistische Einführung in die lateinische Sprache. Transl. by Bianca Liebermann. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft).
2.   Hofmann, J. B. & Szantyr, Anton. 1965. Lateinische Syntax und Stilistik. München: C. H. Beck. Kühner, Raphael & Stegmann, Carl. 1976. Ausführliche Grammatik der lateinischen Sprache. Zweiter Teil: Satzlehre. 5th ed. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Meiser, Gerhard. 1998. Historische Laut- und Formenlehre der lateinischen Sprahce. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Weiss, Michael. 2011. Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin. 2nd, corrected printing. Ann Arbor, NY: Beech Stave Press.
3.   Cf. e.g. Itkonen, Esa. 2009. 'The true nature of typological linguistics'. In: Zlatev, Jordan et al. (eds.). Studies in Language and Cognition, pp. 19‒29. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
4.   See Alho, Tommi & Leppänen, Ville. 2016. 'Roman brick stamps: evidence for the development of Latin case syntax', Glotta 92, pp. 3‒15.
5.   Pinkster, Harm. 2015. The Oxford Latin Syntax. Volume I: The Simple Clause. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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