Barbara Newman, in her LRB review of Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475, edited by Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter, has a nice passage on the medieval idea of grammar:

Grammar, the foundation of the medieval curriculum, covered far more ground than moderns understand … under that rubric. It extended from memorizing phonemes through morphology, syntax, figures of speech, and the avoidance of solecisms all the way to ethics, poetics and literary criticism. … ‘Grammatica’ herself was personified as a matron, sometimes warm and nurturing but more often wielding the birch. In a bizarre but enduringly poplar textbook, The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Martianus Capella portrayed her as a dental hygienist with sharp metal instruments: ‘by gentle rubbing she gradually cleaned dirty teeth and ailments of the tongue’ picked up through careless speech. By the late Middle Ages grammar had developed at its furthest reach into a theoretical discipline, called ‘modist’ or ‘speculative grammar’, that treated the modes of signification. Akin to such contemporary fields as linguistics, semiotics and the philosophy of language, it anticipates the theory of universal grammar, more controversially developed by Chomsky.

She goes on to compare medieval grammarians teaching Latin, nobody’s mother tongue, to “the fresh-faced college graduates who today fan out across the globe, teaching English as a Second Language in Tokyo, Budapest or Dubai. But … Latin as a textual language always took priority over speech, even though a more colloquial Latin remained the sole lingua franca by which Germans and Irishmen, Parisians and Bohemians could communicate. … When early grammarians felt the need to compare a Latin construction with examples from another language, they chose Greek (though they seldom really knew it) rather than their own vernaculars.” She has fun with Donatus, who “explained in his elementary textbook that Latin has four genders: masculine, feminine, neuter and common. His sole example of common gender is the noun sacerdos (priest), as every Catholic priest in training learned for a thousand years — but I have yet to find the form haec sacerdos ‘this (female) priest’ in a medieval Latin text.”

I’m not crazy about one bit, though. After talking about “the medieval conviction that language is a comprehensive, fully rational system, in which any part may be logically derived from the whole,” she goes on to say “Not so distant is the belief underlying genuine historical linguistics, a creation of the 19th century. Like its sibling disciplines of the same era (history of religions, comparative mythology, folklore studies), it posits that, to learn the deepest meaning of such phenomena, one must trace them back to their most ancient historical roots. In principio veritas.” This is rhetorical flimflam. The distance between premodern ideas of mystical coherence (as exemplified by Isidore‘s Etymologiae, the jumping-off point for her discussion of this subject) and modern historical linguistics, with its scientific demands for verifiable laws rooted in facts on the ground rather than ideas in the imagination or traditions repeated unquestioningly for millennia, is very great indeed, and it does no service to anyone but wild-eyed postmodernists to fudge it.


  1. Bathrobe says

    Hat, I’m not sure there is a need to take exception to what she says. She acknowledges the fact that modern historical linguistics is concerned with “scientific demands for verifiable laws rooted in facts on the ground” when she uses the expression “genuine historical linguistics”. What she appears to be talking about is the drive to learn the deepest meaning by tracing phenomena back to their most ancient historical roots. After all, modern scientific methods are not congenitally programmed to seek truth from ancient historical roots; they can be (and are) used to find many other patterns and realities in language that are quite unrelated to historical linguistics.

  2. “[Historical linguistics] posits that, to learn the deepest meaning of such phenomena, one must trace them back to their most ancient historical roots. In principio veritas”.
    I’m not aware that historical linguistics has ever “posited” that. Citation?

  3. marie-lucie says

    I too am surprised about that definition of the object of historical linguistics. The discipline is concerned with tracing (from available sources) and reconstituting (by well-founded inference) the evolution of related languages from a common ancestor, not with the “deepest meaning” of … exactly what “phenomena” does the author have in mind? It that is the object of “genuine historical linguistics”, I wonder what non-genuine histling is about.

  4. Pau Amma says

    I don’t think Languagehat is making (or endorsing) the claim that “[Historical linguistics] posits that, to learn the deepest meaning of such phenomena, one must trace them back to their most ancient historical roots.” With that in mind, the request for citations may be better made of Barbara Newman herself.

  5. marie-lucie says

    PA, Reread the post. LH was citing Newman, not making that claim himself.

  6. Barbara Newman’s bizarre (mis)understanding of historical linguistics, unfortunately, is far less egregious than several other comments of hers that show that she has no business reviewing anything related to linguistics or Medieval Europe.
    1-Anyone who writes that “memorizing phonemes” was part of the medieval curriculum either knows nothing of medieval curricula or has no idea what a phoneme is. To be fair she may be ignorant of both.
    2-Comparing Medieval Latin grammarians to college graduates who go teach English abroad for a few years is ridiculous: the latter, as a rule, have no specialized knowledge of English grammar (beyond their intuitions as L1 speakers), doubtless explaining their utter inability to teach any aspect of English to non-natives.
    3-“Latin as a textual language always took priority over speech”: actually, the very fact that Medieval grammars of Latin are written in Latin and assume a rather extensive vocabulary on the part of the reader/learner has been argued to indicate that the learning of Latin was, initially, strictly oral, and for ought we know may well in many instances have remained a purely spoken language for many learners, perhaps even for a majority.
    The fact that texts in Latin, unlike speeches in Latin, can survive to the present may explain why some people today perceive Medieval Latin as a written more than a spoken language. How on earth can she overlook such as basic methodological point? In my experience first-year undergraduates have no trouble grasping this.
    4-To treat Latin as “nobody’s mother tongue” is to overlook the fact that, in Romance-speaking Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages, Latin and the vernacular were not perceived as separate entities: to literate Romance speakers Latin was “lingua nostra”, the written form of their vernacular. Indeed, many of the errors in spelling and grammar in Latin written by Early Romance speakers are very reminescent of what semi-literate speakers of English produce in writing today.
    5-A letter on the LRB website takes her to task for claiming that vernaculars were held to wholly lack rules and grammar, and reminds her of the existence of the Old Irish Medieval grammatical tradition. I would add that several other Medieval languages (Old Provencal, Middle Welsh, Old Icelandic come to mind) likewise had such a tradition.
    I could go on, but I trust I’ve made my point.

  7. marie-lucie says

    You certainly have, Etienne. “Memorizing phonemes” is particularly egregious nonsense, and no.2 is bizarre.

  8. I agree with m-l (“memorizing phonemes” bothered me when I read it, but I just chalked it up to ignorance of linguistics). Your point is well made and devastating.

  9. Greg Lee says

    In comparing medieval and modern grammar, some allowance should be made for differing ideas of what “grammar” consists in. Reading what ancient writers said about what they called “grammar” gives you the idea that they had a rather odd and overly literal way of thinking about language. But then compare the Port Royal Grammar with the Port Royal Logic (The Art of Reason), and you’ll see that the latter is much closer to our idea of what the study of grammar as we think now is like. Or even back further, reading Aristotle’s Categories gives a parts of speech theory that sounds quite modern, so long as you think of it as an essay on Standard Average European grammar, rather than the ontological probing it was thought to be for several thousand years.

  10. The great art historian Wittkower once devoted an article to the iconographical history of grammar: Rudolf Wittkower, ‘’Grammatica’: from Martianus Capella to Hogarth’, in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2 (1938-1939).

  11. Anthony says

    This post reminds me of the passage in Eco’s _The_Name_of_the_Rose_ where one of the protagonists describes two monks coming to blows over the proper vocative of ‘ego’.
    I’m not entirely sure why it reminds me of that, though.

  12. Swords, not just blows.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Were monks supposed to carry swords? Perhaps the ego-maniacs were not monks? I read the book but don’t remember this episode.

  14. It’s a single sentence dropped by William of Baskerville:

    “Those were times when, to forget an evil world, grammarians took pleasure in abstruse questions. I was told that in that period, for fifteen days and fifteen nights, the rhetoricians Gabundus and Terentius argued on the vocative of ‘ego’, and in the end they attacked each other, with edged weapons.”

    The times in question are the seventh century: the characters have been discussing Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, a mysterious figure who wrote in a Latin mostly of his own devising. From that link:

    Although written in a similar style to late antique grammatical texts and incorporating some genuine grammatical material, there is much baffling and outlandish material contained in Virgilius’ writings: he discusses twelve kinds of Latin, of which only one is in regular use, and attributes much of his lore to grammarians up to a thousand years old, who debate questions such as the vocative of ego and write texts such as De laudibus indefunctorum (In praise of the undead).

    They have found his books in a section of the library devoted to Hibernian works, not because Virgilius was born in Ireland (rather in Toulouse), but because by his temperament he should have been. Which reminds me of this anecdote of Oscar Wilde in prison. One of the warders asks him privately:

    “Excuse me, Sir, but Marie Corelli, would she be considered a great writer, Sir?”

    “This was more than I could bear,” continued Oscar [telling the story], “and putting my hand on his shoulder I said: ‘Now don’t think I have anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here.'”

  15. Trond Engen says

    Were monks supposed to carry swords?
    Were monks supposed to indulge in sworded pleasures?

  16. The supposed ban on clerical types using edged weapons is a 19th- or 20th-century invention. Monks, however, were dead in law and could own no property, so they were unlikely to own swords. “In the eye of ecclesiastical law the monk who became a proprietarius, the monk, that is, who arrogated to himself any proprietary rights or the separate enjoyment of any wealth, committed about as bad an offence as he could commit” (Pollock and Maitland). Anybody can equip themselves with a stick, however.

  17. marie-lucie says

    JC, surely the ban is older than that. On the Tapisserie de Bayeux, made shortly after the Norman Conquest and full of interesting pictorial detail about the period, William’s brother, a cleric (who later became a bishop) carries a kind of mace, probably made of wood, rather than a large sword as the warriors do.
    Perhaps some countries only paid lip service to the ecclesiastical ban?

  18. Marie-Lucie: By “invention” I mean invention: there never was such a regulation in canon law. I do know about the Bayeux Tapestry, and about Turpin’s mace as well. But note that at Roncesvalles, Turpin was fighting with sword and lance, not with his mace. Furthermore, many non-clerical fighters also adopted maces around that time, because the development of first superior chain mail and then plate armor made edged weapons less versatile. The Knights Templars certainly didn’t restrict themselves to clubs, and they were military monks.
    The no-clerics-with-edged-weapons meme was popularized by Dungeons & Dragons, and now many people believe that it was an actual canonical prohibition. But it wasn’t.

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