Sunday, November 13, 2005

Getting in trouble with ancient Rome

I am no Latinist, and my connection with the ancient Romans is tenuous at best, even if I am in some sense an heir to the culture of Middle-Earth (No, it's not what you're thinking - it's just the English translation of "Mediterranean", sorry, my precious!)

But I have found something in my reading and have, after long thought and prayer, decided I have to blow the whistle - maybe I should say Pan-pipes? - on the ancient Romans.

It is well known to home-school kids, some Catholics, lawyers, and even some scientists, that Latin is what is called an "inflected" language. (No, that's not infected!) That means various words of that language require endings which indicate certain attributes or qualifications of the root meaning of the word. English is partially inflected - we have the "s" suffix for plurals, "-ed" and "-ing" but not much else - otherwise, we're periphrastic (that's a vocabulary word, kids, write it down.) On the other end of things, Vietnamese is completely UNinflected - it must use word order and additional words to handle tense, agreement, and the other mechanisms of meaning.

Latin, like ancient Greek, inflected just about everything - its nouns and its verbs, its pronouns, its adjectives and adverbs. (Not much left, then, is there?) So there are whole books listing the proper endings one must use to say things like "you (plural) (maybe) were being fortified" = muniremini. And there are all kinds of wierd irregularities - so many that there is even a special word for the words which are regularly irregular (the word is "deponent"). There are even strange anomalies, like the verb adolesco (= "I grow up") which has no passive, so it is not possible for a Roman to say "I am grown up" (which is perhaps why I don't say it either!)

Now, in reading a number of rather curious books, I have recently discovered a secret that the ancient Romans worked very hard to conceal. And you can look in the amazing "Lewis and Short" or in the handy "Wheelock" or any of the other very good books on Latin and you won't find it. For, I am growing more and more convinced, these writers knew this secret too, but they were in on the take, and decided to conceal it, in the forlorn hope that their support of this over two thousand year old conspiracy, a few more hardy souls might decide to learn Latin.

And now (brace yourselves!) here is the secret.

There are really SIX declensions in Latin.

The sixth one was called the declinatio secreta, and if you read long enough you will find it sneaking in here and there, even in popular writers like Cicero and Caesar - and even Virgil.

When the idea is raised, scholars usually try to divert suspicion by explaining the odd give-away endings as "copyists' errors" or other excuses. The poor monks of the 7th and 8th centuries get blamed for so much - and for what? To hide a rather dumb trick of some long-dead grammarians? How long did they think they could hide such a thing, anyway!

OK, so - about the secret declension. It actually occurs between the second and third declensions, but the Romans did such a good job in hiding it that EVERYONE thinks there are only five. The Greeks tried to do this same trick with their alphabet, but scholars have long ago been pushed into admitting the existence of digamma and yod.

(Man, like you can really hide letters of the alphabet! How would they have made computer keyboards back then? "Ok, then you press the secret letter key - no, no - not THAT secret letter, the OTHER secret letter!" Whew! Thank God we're not stuck with that kind of hassle in our modern era - we just have those squiggly letters to type into our bloggs if we want to add a comment... Then again, there is that confounded "any" key, which one has to press if one wants to continue...)

Anyhow, just why did they want to hide a whole declension, anyway? Well our best guess is that there was an ancient and long-running contest between Latin and Greek about this sort of thing. And the Greek of the Greeks had the Latin of the Romans beat as far as verbs were concerned: they both had active and passive, but Greek had the Middle Voice as well - big score, right there, a whole extra voice, that's one whole big chart of extra endings to learn - and then there was that wacky "Aorist" gimmick (for even more endings!!!)... and then they scored big by making the "negative" word ou or me, which both mean "not" in English) depend on how it was to be used!!!

So the Romans really had to struggle if they wanted to make their language really difficult to learn - and then they thought up the most amazing trick! What if there were a whole class of words that nobody knew how to decline? Behold! The Sixth Declension!

Now, I am sure you are curious to know just what words belonged to the Sixth Declension. OK, so let's see, here are some examples.


But (ahem!) now that I think about it, I really like pizza. And spaghetti. And lasagna. And salami, and provolone, and mozzarella, not to mention the wine, and the bread...

OK, well (rats!) maybe there is some wisdom here. I mean, even Aquinas didn't tell! So I guess I will go along with my ancestors and the Latinists...

Non! Non dico! I won't tell. Won't! Yeah, threaten me as you will, I won't reveal any of those words... (Though it still amazes me how no one ever noticed before...)

Sorry to get you excited. Just press the "Any key" and go on to another blogg...


At 13 November, 2005 13:18, Blogger rhapsody said...

Geez, I'm having a difficult time posting to-day...

Am not a kid, but I'm still running for the dictionary...

I know what pizza is!!!

I'll work on the rest:)

At 13 November, 2005 21:05, Blogger Nancy C. Brown said...

Sounds like a new novel "The Secret Life of Declensions" or "The Declension Code." Intrigue, murder, long held secrets, whole groups of people hiding the knowledge, well, you've got it all right there for it.

At 14 November, 2005 06:50, Blogger rhapsody said...

& if you should decide not to divulge the secret, you could write the neverending series!

At 14 November, 2005 19:39, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Well, there are certainly enough "neverending series" - and not only in math!

But (wait for the GKC quote)...

"There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or a determinist story; for every story, yes, even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgment.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:378-379]

Another day I will post about the stories which end by not ending... (It's like a computer thing, as you may have expected.) And you already know about Michael Ende's The Neverending Story but there is another one, for which you can read the "cover blurb" near the end of the book of Revelation: something about "I John saw a new heavens and a new earth..."

At 14 November, 2005 22:09, Blogger rhapsody said...

I really can't imagine it-

It would be fascinating to read a book about how things are to be.

If someone took a careful, well-thought-out educated guess...

With pictures, of course!

(Illustrations would be the icing!)

Just thinking out loud...


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