Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

I can’t believe I’ve never reported on this massive lexicographical project before, but such appears to be the case. Happily, Byrd Pinkerton has done an NPR piece that gives me a chance to remedy the omission:

On the second floor of an old Bavarian palace in Munich, Germany, there’s a library with high ceilings, a distinctly bookish smell and one of the world’s most extensive collections of Latin texts. About 20 researchers from all over the world work in small offices around the room.

They’re laboring on a comprehensive Latin dictionary that’s been in progress since 1894. The most recently published volume contained all the words beginning with the letter P. That was back in 2010.

And they’re not as far along as that may lead you to believe. They skipped over N years ago because it has so many long words, and now they’ve had to go back to that one. They’re also working on R at the same time. That should take care of the rest of this decade.

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae was one of many big, scholarly projects taken on by the German government in the late 19th century.

Through two World Wars and German reunification, generations of Latin scholars have been chipping away at the same goal: documenting every use of every Latin word from the earliest Latin inscriptions in the 6th century BC up until around 200 AD, when it was in decline as a spoken language. Befitting the comprehensive nature of the project, the scholars will also include some words up to the 6th century AD.

That means poetry and history and speeches. But it also means every gravestone and street sign. It means architectural works, medical and legal texts, books about animals or cooking.

There’s a lot more about the history and techniques involved, as well as the people who work on it (and some great photos); I’ll just quote this one additional bit to explain a joke:

Her colleague, Nigel Holmes, a Thesaurus editor, wrote the article for nam, or “for.”

“I have sometimes joked that I still have nightmares from when I was in nam,” he admits. “But it was actually, it was easier than I thought.”

For those too young to remember, “Nam” (rhymes with “ham”) used to be a common way to refer to Vietnam (and the war America fought there), and “when I was in Nam” was a phrase you heard a lot.

Comments

  1. Was Latin really in decline as a spoken language already by 200 AD?

  2. I would have thought “Nam” rhymed with “palm”. AHD allows either.

  3. “I would have thought “Nam” rhymed with “palm”.

    As in napalm ?

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Was Latin really in decline as a spoken language already by 200 AD?

    I find that surprising as well. I don’t know if the sort of Latin Cicero used in his speeches was ever really spoken as an everyday language by everyone, and if it was it had certainly declined by 200 AD. On the other hand I have a book on the history of Spanish that says that Spanish is Latin as spoken today (adding that the same is true of French, Italian, Portuguese and so forth). By that definition Latin is thriving as never before.

  5. And why is the decline of the spoken language used as a terminus? Is the presumption that written Latin was based on the spoken language up to that point, and then became a dead, literary one (beyond the scope of TLL)?

    “Vulgar” Latin (and presumably spoken colonial Latin) started diverging much earlier, but do we believe that Marcus Aurelius spoke exactly as he wrote, as the last of the real patricians?

  6. I would have thought “Nam” rhymed with “palm”. AHD allows either

    That’s probably frequently the case now, since it is the obvious way to pronounce it if you say Vietnam with the “palm” vowel. All I can tell you is that back in the day, I never once heard anyone say it that way.

    I too wondered about the 200 AD thing; I suspect it’s pretty much an arbitrary cutoff date.

  7. Phillip Jennings says:

    If a word was good Latin, it was already attested by 200ce. If it didn’t appear until later, it stands accused of being vulgar.

    This isn’t my argument, but I can respect it.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    I assume that Marcus Aurelius did not write exactly the way he spoke because he wrote in Greek which I do not believe was his L1 or even the usual administrative language of his court. That he couldn’t be bothered to write in Latin itself I guess tells you something relevant about the history of the language …

  9. I’ve never seen 19C German Antiqua (as opposed to German-script) handwriting before. Or rather I have, because it looks exactly like the handwriting I was taught to use in an American school in 1965, and which apparently is still taught in American schools — all loops and no zigzags.

  10. Jim (another one) says:

    “That he couldn’t be bothered to write in Latin itself I guess tells you something relevant about the history of the language …”

    It sure does. I’ve always wondered at the geographical pattern of the adoption of Latin. It seems to have taken hold in previously Celtic-speaking areas. I think Romania was the exception; there was an actual military colony rather than plain old resettlement of retired soldiers scattered thinly.

    But the Romans seem to have had a very lackadaisical attitude about their language.

  11. Latin is the great Celtic-eater, with Germanic only coming in to snap up the leftovers. But no one, Emperor or not, would write philosophy in a language other than Greek unless his purpose was primarily pedagogical, as Cicero’s was.

  12. Back in the day Nam rhymed with “damn” as rendered by Country Joe

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LBdeCxJmcAo

  13. When I took a look at Gaulish recently, I was struck by its similarity to Latin.

  14. Anatoly Vorobey says:

    I liked this jokey response seen on Tumblr:

    “Whoever’s writing a fantasy series at the moment, if you want to include a centuries-old order of scribes dedicated to preserving every written fragment of a dead language that doesn’t even give you magic powers, that’s completely ridiculous and the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is your get out of jail free card.”

  15. David Marjanović says:

    the handwriting I was taught to use in an American school in 1965, and which apparently is still taught in American schools — all loops and no zigzags

    German handwriting today.

    Austrian handwriting very similar to what I was taught and still use on the very rare occasions that I write anything by hand. Unlike Americans, I was never taught to draw printed letters.

    More recent Austrian handwriting – more German-like.

  16. The palaeo-Austrian hand is closer to mine, especially in the upper case, which is much more cursive than the German or neo-Austrian versions. However, my upper case is even more ornate: note the capital G, I, S, and particularly Q.

  17. Yeah, I write them as in the picture that JC linked. (Note the capital Z as well.) Unlike most of my peers, I do actually prefer to use cursive for general purposes.

  18. As usual, Americans are a varied lot: Gale was taught not to write the 2-style Q because her teachers thought it was silly and obsolete, even though that was 15 years earlier. The U.S. has only had national standards for education since 2010, and there is a great deal of formal and informal resistance — they are advisory unless a particular state adopts them, though the national governmet has played their usual tricks of “do it our way [whatever that is at the moment] or we threaten to cut off your federal funds”. As far as I know, this particular threat has never been carried out. In particular, the standards in question make no mention of cursive writing.

  19. siggian says:

    Written English and spoken English are not exactly the same. I don’t see why written Latin and spoken Latin would be any different

  20. Jim (another one) says:

    John,

    “Latin is the great Celtic-eater, with Germanic only coming in to snap up the leftovers. ”

    Yes, but not the great Berber-eater or the great Maltese Punic-eater. That’s my question.

  21. @Jim: Well, as I alluded above, I think the tendency for Latin to assimilate Celtic might be attributable to the particular closeness between Celtic and Italic (pace recent discussions about the unity of the latter). Looking at Gaulish, it’s not hard to see it giving way to Latin.

  22. Jim (another one) says:

    Lazar, I saw that. It makes a lot of sense to me. For all the reluctance to accept an Italo-Celtic branch, there sure seems to been broad and deep similarities between the two groups. If that’s a Sprachbund, it’s a lot deeper and older and pervasive in its effects than Mosan for instance.

    In light of the similarities shown in your link, the situation looks a lot like the replacement of Low Saxon by High German in the north of Germany.

  23. I heard they skipped N because they were afraid of Natura, and possibly Non. Not long words.

  24. George Gibbard says:

    Maltese being Punic is a myth; really it’s clearly and unproblematically Arabic.

  25. George Gibbard says:

    So, for example, Maltese has the definite article (i)l-, as in Western Arabic, but unlike other Semitic languages. “This” in Maltese is dawn, coming from Classical Arabic ðā hunā ‘this here’. While this comes from Proto-Semitic *ð- ‘this’, *ð became z in Phoenician, as we can tell from the history of Aramaic: Early Aramaic preserved *ð-, but spelled it z under the influence of Phoenician (and cf. the same change in Hebrew ‘this’), while later Aramaic shows the sound change *ð > d. We can also tell that *ð > z in Phoenician because Ugaritic maintained the distinction that later Phoenician had lost. We can tell that Aramaic writing was borrowed from Phoenician from the names of the Aramaic letters: Aramaic ʔālaɸ ‘alpha’ whereas regular historical sound change within Aramaic should give ʔălaɸ ‘ox’.

    Proto-Semitic *z, which is reflected as z in Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, is <ż> [z] in Maltese, showing that [d] in dawn ‘this’ has a different origin, namely Proto-Semitic *ð.

  26. I didn’t think Jim (another one) was suggesting that Maltese was Punic but rather that Latin had displaced a form of Punic spoken there long before the Arabic invasion. But if there’s a widespread myth of Maltese being Punic, maybe I’m wrong.

  27. There is indeed such a myth, because it gives (thin and easily exposed, but so what) historical cover to the Maltese “We are not Arabs and do not speak Arabic” self-story. This is historically intelligible, given European attitudes to Arabs for the last ten centuries, but no less false with respect to the language.

  28. Ah, that makes (sad) sense. Thanks, I’m now aware of yet another area of language-related delusion!

  29. Concerning Punic, we know that it was spoken by some people on Malta, as there are inscriptions, but we don’t know whether it was at any point in history the main language of Malta or maybe perhaps only spoken by Carthaginian administrators and traders, while the general populace spoke something else (whatever that was). It’s not even clear whether Malta was fully romanized, there are accounts of the Maltese speaking a “barbaric” language (i.e. neither Latin nor Greek) in the 1st century AD. In any case, it is very much in doubt whether there is even a genetic continuity between the Maltese population in antiquity and its modern population, as Malta and Gozo seem to have been mostly uninhabited during the 7th – 8th century (see my blog post for a bit more detail and my source).

  30. An interesting post, thanks for linking to it.

  31. Many years ago (maybe 30) I read something about Maltese in the language column of an English journal (either The Spectator or Encounter) that has stayed with me. Half of it was what others have said above: that Maltese has an Arabic substrate under a mostly Indo-European vocabulary – an interesting parallel to English. The other half was a little story about hitchhiking in Malta. As best I remember, the author was picked up by a couple of rough guys with guns in a pickup truck, who didn’t speak a lot of English and had a pack of very scary-looking dogs snarling in the back. He asked them where they were heading and they said “hunting”. He asked them what they were hunting and they said “whales”. He was naturally surprised, wondering how even dogs as fierce as theirs would go about catching a whale, or getting their mouths around it if they could, until he remembered that in Maltese Q is silent. (Please don’t ruin my memory by telling me it’s not.)

  32. Maltese q is a glottal stop – close enough.

  33. gwenllian says:

    I’ve always wondered at the geographical pattern of the adoption of Latin. It seems to have taken hold in previously Celtic-speaking areas. I think Romania was the exception; there was an actual military colony rather than plain old resettlement of retired soldiers scattered thinly.

    But almost all of the Balkans adopted Latin. Romania’s just the only sizable bit where it’s survived into the present.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    I agree with others here about the similarity between Latin and Celtic. When I had to teach the history of French I started from the Roman conquest and looked up what I could of the Gaulish language, and was surprised at the structural resemblances with Latin. It can’t have been very hard for the Gauls to learn Latin. The smallish number of Gaulish words surviving in French are almost all concerned with aspects of the natural world, including wild birds, and the realities of rural life. Even if some of those words did have Latin counterparts, the local population would not have heard them much from the Romans concentrated in the cities, and therefore stuck to the Gaulish words.

    In Spain too, there was a Celtic language known to us as “Celtiberian”, which was completely replaced by Latin, probably for the same reasons. In both countries only the Basque language survived to this day, probably protected by its considerable differences from Latin.

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