Teaching Latin at the sunset of Antiquity: innovation and continuity



Dr Elena Spangenberg Yanes

Posted: 17 July, 2018

Research work on a medieval Latin grammatical manuscript

We fly back in time to the not-so-dark Middle Ages with the next contribution to this months’ blog series on Languages. Dr Elena Spangenberg Yanes is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. She tells us about her work on a new standard edition of a grammar handbook from over a thousand years ago.

‘Is this word masculine or feminine? Or maybe neuter?’, ‘Is this noun uncountable or can I use it also as a plural?’, ‘How do I write it?’. Speakers of every language sometimes experience linguistic uncertainties. They already bothered ancient Romans in the age of Cicero (1st century BC), when his friend Varro wrote De lingua latina (On the Latin language), one of the earliest treatises on Latin linguistics. In the following centuries, beside producing grammatical handbooks and various teaching tools, Roman scholars developed a specialised tradition of works focused on the issue of dubius sermo (‘linguistic uncertainty’), aiming to document as many cases of morphological irregularity as possible. Authors such as Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) and Flavius Caper (2nd or 3rd century AD) registered and discussed long lists of dubious linguistic forms together with the corresponding examples. They drew on an extensive survey of Latin literature, especially of the Republican Age (5th-1st century BC), when language was less standardised.

Let us put now aside the linguistic interests of famous Roman scholars in the early centuries of the Empire and turn to their last heir. We are between the 7th and 8th centuries either in southern France or in Spain; Late Antiquity is fading into the Early Middle Ages, and the command of Latin grammar has considerably declined. An anonymous author – a monk or a teacher or both – runs into a copy of an ancient work about dubius sermo. The text has been transmitted down to him through a series of handwritten copies: it is most likely an abridged, damaged version of the original one. The Anonymous engages with the reading and tries to adapt it to the changed needs of his time. He expands it with entries concerning the genus (gender) and number of nouns, which ancient Romans could decline without hesitation, while his contemporaries cannot. He adds further examples taken from the Bible and late-antique Christian writers. Finally, he makes lots of spelling and grammatical errors. The new work, entitled De dubiis nominibus (On dubious nouns), is the object of my current research project. I start by the study of the medieval manuscripts which preserve the work and can tell us who, when, where, and how read it and copied it. Then I go backwards analysing its content, structure, and sources – and so we come back to the 1st-2nd-century Roman scholars.

Though humble, the De dubiis nominibus is a fundamental witness to more ancient linguistics, as well as to language evolution at its time. Furthermore, it offers exciting evidence about the literary works that were most read in the period (and consequently most easily available). Remarkably, the only classical author directly cited by the Anonymous is Vergil, whom he confuses twice with his Christian female imitator, Proba (4th century AD).

By Anonymous’ time, the Western Roman Empire had collapsed together with its education system, and Latin was being substituted in everyday speech by Romance languages. As Europe was dismembered into a variety of Barbarian kingdoms, the Anonymous struggled to understand and preserve through innovation the ancient scholarship on the language that had been common to the vast territories of the Roman Empire. In this sense he may be regarded as exemplary still today.

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