The multifarious Conrad of Varieties of Unreligious Experience, dissatisfied with Latin’s “lexical conservatism” and “resistance to fancy,” has dug up “two attempts to make Latin interesting—the first in seventh-century Ireland, the second in High Renaissance Italy.” The Italian stuff is well worth looking at (“the legendary 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii” and “Teofilo Folengo, aka. Merlin Coccaius, a favourite of Rabelais’s”), but the one that caught my fancy was “the work of the mysterious Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, a grammarian of sorts from 7th-century Britain or Ireland”:

His treatises, the Epitomae and Epistolae, are full of odd collocations and deliberate perversions and obfuscations. He has been commonly taken as a parodist, though Vivien Law reads him rather as an arcanist. Words in his text are like gnostic spellwords, little observing Latin morphology—at one point he lists Twelve ‘Latins’, his jargon spewing out in a torrent of letters: assena, semedia, numeria (nim, dun, tor, quir, quan, ses, sen, onx, amin, ple), metrofia (dicantabat, bora, gcno, sade, teer, rfoph, brops, rihph, gal, fkal, clitps, mrmos, fann, ulioa, gabpal, blaqth, merc, pal, gatrb, biun, spadx), lumbrosa, sincolla, belsavia, presina, militana, spela, polema. Elsewhere he deliberates about the declension of ego, and specifically about its vocative case (how do you say “O I”?). He writes of word-scrambling, scinderatio fonorum—as if from Greek φωνη—

Scinderatio autem litterarum superflua est, sed tamen a glifosis sensuque subtilibus recipitur; unde et fona breuia scindi magis commodius est quam longa, ut Cicero dicit: RRR SS PP MM N T EE OO A V I, quod sic soluendum est: Spes Romanorum perit.

Somehow I’m not at all surprised that a speaker of Old Irish, the weirdest language I’ve ever studied, came up with those delightfully mad inventions.

Incidentally, it seems to me that some blogger I read regularly recently discussed the first-person vocative (“O I”), but I can’t remember who it was. Step forth in the comment thread and I will link to you forthwith.

The first-person vocative was recently discussed by Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat, who quotes Eco, who is referring to none other than the mad Irishman quoted above.


  1. it seems to me that some blogger I read regularly recently discussed the first-person vocative (“O I”)
    Why, it was none other than Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat whose brilliance is overshadowed only by his modesty, hence my ratting out on him :o)

  2. Your link is bloggered. I’m going to just print it out since I’m apparently too tired to make the link correctly myself:

  3. Regretfully, Eco’s reference (which Lameen cites) is in fact to Virgilius.

  4. Thanks, all—I’ll add the link.

  5. Here’s an interesting article (a review) on Virgilius, if you read German. Footnote nine, page 2: „9 Epit. 11 (215, 33 sq.). Es versteht sich fast von selbst, dass das Zitat bei Cicero nicht zu finden ist.“ hah. And of course it regards Virgilius as a parodist, explicitly.

  6. Vivien Law recently wrote a full-length book about him, viz.:
    PS Lojban can do a first-person vocative with “doi. mi”.

  7. Alas, it’s not very good–more of an appetite-whetter for the real thing than serious analysis.

  8. John Emerson says

    Conrad, and I don’t mean this sarcastically, perhaps this is the opportunity you’ve been looking for.
    Old Ireland (like Tibet and Iceland) is the kind of nook and cranny of civilization that really fascinates me. They all made major cultural contributions without either a stable form of government, urbanization, great wealth, or a large population. (Iceland especially, which has never had even half a million people).
    This is the kind of thing I was trying to get at when I called Prague a “second-rate city”, BTW. (I probably should have said second-rank). My point was that there were lots of people in Prague dreaming of Vienna or Berlin or London or Paris but unable to go their, but few trapped in the larger cities dreaming of Prague. My ultimate point is that the great capitals both make culture possible and suffocate it.

  9. John Emerson says

    Law’s book looks like it’s worth a look. It ought to be remaindered soon, but not yet apparently.
    This strikes me as the kind of topic where contemporary methods of responsible serious scholarship would tend to be ruinous. Possibly Law’s book is a case of such. You wouldn’t have to go full-Borges or full-Pynchon on the guy, in fact those temptations should be resisted, but at least you need to have an appreciation that what he’s trying to do is by our standards extraordinarily eccentric and give it an appropriately complex literary-cultural reading. (It would also seem to me that this work especially requires the fluent, light-handed application of several methodologies, and placement in multiple contexts, while still respecting the work itself and not just using it as a springboard for your own eccentricities. I’m not in touch with literary scholarship today, but what I see often seems terribly monoparadigmatic and heavy-handed.

  10. This is the Grammarian Formerly Known as Virgil of Toulouse? I’ve always wanted a copy of his book (“always” = “since I first read about him last year”). I think Raymond Queneau mentions him somewhere too.

  11. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    I’m curious as to how Old Irish was the weirdest. I’ve never studied it myself, though I hope to someday*, but I am a pretty fluent speaker of Modern Irish.
    * If dratted UCD ever brings back their full evening Arts degree programme.

  12. Modern Irish has its little quirks, but it’s basically a normal European language. Its ancestor is a nightmare if you expect language learning to be an efficient process; if you delight in irregularity and unpredictability, it’s an endless joy. The thing is, it started out as a normal ancient Indo-European language, much like Latin, but then it underwent a merciless process in which unstressed vowels disappeared and words were squished into unrecognizable remnants of their former selves, and closely related words no longer looked like they had anything to do with each other. Dogoa ‘chooses,’ for example, has a participle tuigse, and conic ‘can’ has a verbal noun cumacc; the “prototonic” forms of verbs are notoriously unrecognizable (deuterotonic as-berat ‘say’: prototonic -ebret; con-osna ‘rest’: cumsana; do-rona ‘do’: derna, etc.). The good news is that knowing Modern Irish gives you a real leg up in understanding the grammar; in fact, the reason I studied Modern Irish is that they told me at the Dublin Institute that I’d never really be good at Old Irish without it. (They said Rudolf Thurneysen, the grand old man of Irish studies, could tell a prototonic form a yard away, but to the end of his days had trouble with the difference between “is” and “ta,” the two verbs that get translated as “to be,” which you get under your belt in the first week of Modern Irish class.)

  13. Was Rudolf Thureynson the model for the intolerable Saxon Celticist in “Portrait of the Artist”?

  14. Is and Ta – can anyone tell me why Spanish has this exact same disctinction with the exact same etyma, when we all know that there is no trace of Celtiberian to be discerned in either Galician or other languages in Spain?

  15. David Marjanovi? says

    Many Romance languages use descendants of the Latin words for “be” and “stand” for the function of English “be”, either as separate words with a confusing distribution (like Spanish), or as one irregular verb (like French).
    Now, does Welsh, say, have that, too?

  16. No, I think Welsh just has one verb ‘to be.’

  17. Which Romance lanagues besides Spanish use two verbs? Neither French nor Italian do; they make do with etre/essere. Portuguese? That wouldn’t be surprising, or prove that it was common to Romance either.

  18. Jim, Italian does have a verb stare which can be used as an auxiliary analogous to the use of Spanish estar. e.g. It. sto cercando lavoro ‘I am looking for work’ cf. Sp. estoy buscando trabajo. Also note It. come stai? ‘how are you?’
    Portuguese seems to have the same pattern as Spanish judging by this page: http://www.easyportuguese.com/Portuguese-Lessons/To-Be.html

  19. Wikipedia: Romance copula.

  20. Portuguese definitely has the same pattern.
    But back to the 1st person vocative: in English, isn’t it “you?” When I talk to myself, I address myself as “you”.

  21. “Also note It. come stai? ‘how are you?’
    Good enough for me. Did Latin have such a pattern? Can it really have arisen independently in all these languages, given the geographic proximity or continuity and historic contacts? Let’s say the pattern is a general inheritance; then we have too explain instead why it’s missing in French and Welsh.
    The half-negative is a similar puzzle.

  22. Let’s say the pattern is a general inheritance; then we have to explain instead why it’s missing in French and Welsh.
    As the Wikipedia article that MMcM cites makes clear, Modern French être descends from both ESSERE and STARE, which were estre and ester respectively in Old French. Not surprisingly, they were confused and blended, with ESSERE forms mostly winning: the exceptions being été rather than *étu and the set phrases ester en justice/jugement. English stay is also from ester according to both WP and AHD4.
    Note that Iberian ser contains elements of SEDERE, especially in Portuguese.
    But I don’t think the Irish verb duality has anything to do with Romance. is mostly from the same *bheu- as English be, and I presume that Irish is is from *h1es-, like English is, though it’s peculiar that it is invariable (it’s also peculiar that the s is broad; can anyone enlighten us?). So there’s probably nothing to explain about Welsh.

  23. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    John, it looks as if the copula in Old Irish had a full range of verb forms (sic?) but later only survived in the third person singular. The other present tense forms almost all seem to have started with “a” so maybe the vowel sound of the 3rd sing had changed without the consonant having done so? (I have no basis for this, of course.) Anyway “leathan le leathan, caol le caol” has a few other exceptions, like aréir.

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