The Organization of Words

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)


Up to this point we 'have been examining the basic and regular forms of Latin words, verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, infinitives, participles, and imperatives. These collectively forms a body which we may call the "works" of Latin, what the philologist calls the morphology. I have given you a basic set of ideas about their use, but there are larger structures in which the elements you have studied are combined according to pre-set standards, whether basic or stylistic. I am calling this broad class of information Organization.

Organization corresponds to the traditional term Syntax (which is only the Greek schoolmaster's words syn-"together" and taxis, "placing", so it corresponds closely with the term organization, which I prefer as meaning something to you already. The term "syntax" always calls to my mind the remark of the pitcher of the Classic baseball world, Dizzy Dean, who asked, when he heard about syntax, whether they were really serious about putting a tax on that yet (sin tax).

Latin has a style of its own. It tends to employ verb-concepts heavily, whereas in English especially in the present century we seem to favor nouns strongly. Often our textbooks are written in a style which uses only equationary verbs, and the formula of whole series of sentences can be no more involved than: ......... so and so                (Predication)
   Joe ..and...Henry...and Mary went..and they did...(Strung on....)
The Romans did not talk like that because they do not think like that. Latin sentence structure is unusually varied, as it can well afford to be in a language where word-items are tagged as to function by "endings", and artistic mixing of the words in a complex sentence is considered a mark of intelligence and artistry, rather than confusion. English uses word order to determine grammatical function, as noted above, and the simplicity of our basic structure, which puts subject first, verb next, and object after that, is neat enough in its way, but by no means the only way humans think. English itself would not have gone this route if it had not lost its noun and verb endings a thousand years ago as the result of a heavy stress accent on the first syllable of every word.

With its free style word order, as it appears to us, Latin is initially confusing, and the natural thing for an English speaker to do is scan through the sentence for subject, then locate the verb, identify the object, and finally round up all the straggling parts of speech and fit them in somehow all together. This is completely wrong, it not only prevents you from perceiving how Romans thought, but it actually prevents you from learning to read. If you are going to read, you must take the words as they come, since only in that order do they represent the author's mental processes, let alone style.

There are some extremely complex sentence structures which the poets develop in the Augustan period. I am thinking of Horace's odes, Book I, #5, where the order of the words in the first stanza seem to be duplicating almost as if it were a painting, the positions of two lovers flounced on a bed of rose petals, mutually entwined, the girl equipoised at the fulcrum of the sentence. This is a fine poem indeed, but a certain kind of high art which would probably have been incomprehensible to a Roman in the street. A sentence in a Ciceronian oration which rolls itself out self-consciously over a full page of small type may seem outlandish to one accustomed to the terse and stripped utterances of American presidential candidates for thirty years now. But an American a century ago would have had a good ear for the Congressional Record, which is Ciceronian almost to a fault. Times and tastes change, and we must try not to judge Romans by our current sense of stylistics.

Not that all Romans were longwinded, just note Caesar's military Commentaries, which are intended as an antidote to the verbal cornucopia, and are as terse and crisp as any general's style could ever be. Only if you read him slowly with a grammatical pedant for a teacher by your side, will you think him tedious and boring. Caesar is the clearest example of Roman stylistic simplicity, and well worth looking into, once you have developed enough speed to read right along with the General.

Latin has a relatively small vocabulary, with less that four thousand words in general, current use. Greek has three times that number, modern English prescribes 10,000 for a college student, 50,000 for a teacher, and there are half a million words available one way or another. One reason that Latin vocabulary is so small is the loss of probably ninety percent of written output (the French scholar Bardon has written a two volume work on just what we know to have been lost).

Secondly, Latin was early standardized for school use through the Roman Empire, and the localisms were removed. But this small word-supply or pure words has problems: there are fewer words to learn, but each will have a variety of apparently thinly derived sub-meanings. Half an hour with the large Oxford Latin Dictionary and its multiple sub-meanings will make this quite clear, and reading Latin often is a matter of making choices as to whether something means this...or that. It slows down even an experienced reader.

Romans read slowly as a historical fact, and furthermore always phonated when reading, to the extent of having to read in private rooms. They were apparently incapable of not reading out loud, and this certainly slowed their reading rates considerably. It is doubtful whether an educated Roman would read more than ten or fifteen pages in an hour, which compares oddly with the fifty pages hourly rate which a college student needs just to keep up with class assignments. Speed reading courses can get you up to over 125 pages an hour....for what its worth. You do skim off the meaning, often fairly accurately, but the sound and tone and form of the wording is winnowed off like wheat chaff in the Roman farmer's backyard.

Since the Romans read slowly, they absorbed the sounds and rhythms as well as the meaning, they mulled and mused, and authors wrote in what seems to us an unusually dense and packed style. This denseness is one of the features of ancient writing, both Greek and Latin, and it is no idiosyncrasy, but the care, caution and polish with which all ancient authors prided themselves . No print-culture, no verbal overkill schematizing on blackboards, billboards, and television screen bothered their slow craftsmanship, they were attuned to the slow art of putting together the right words in a special way. This shows through even today, and you must not only read Latin sentences as they appear, you must read them as the Romans did....... which is very SLOWLY.

Always read out loud. Not only will this open the doors of your ears to subtleties built into Latin writing, it often makes clear a meaning which on paper was not apparent. Reading a difficult phrase out loud once or twice has a strange way of telling you what it means, but you have to try this many times to be convinced.

English has what has been called a "strung on" style of speaking and writing, an example of this might be:

George decided to go to the store, and put on his boots, adjusted his greatcoat, went down the stairs, and out into the street. He waited for the bus a while, and soon found himself traveling down Oak Street. He decided to get off at the shopping center and have a look at the new records. He bought one, and started for home again...
The Roman, if he could have been induced to reproduce something so banal, would possibly have done it this way:
George, having decided to go to the store, when he had put on his boots and adjusted his toga, having done down the stairs and proceeding into the street to await a public char, thought to himself while riding down Via Appia, whether he should inspect the bookstores, or go to the baths, which last having been done, he returned home.
Both examples are somewhat overstated, but the general sense of a careful comparison will be that English runs things along one after the other, while Latin subordinates things to others with a variety of specialized clauses. These can be complex in structure, and at times hard to follow, but they do represent a way of thinking, a hierarchy of organized statements which stand in some sort of order of importance. This is a basic characteristic of Latin style, and you must go halfway to deal with it if you are going to read Latin intelligently. A people with the organizational talents of the Romans, (witness only the vast system of roads, the hospitals, the system of law, the military, and the table of organization of Diocletian which became fossilized in the present-day Catholic Church) ---- why should such a people not demonstrate order, organization, and a regular system of subordination in their spoken and written style?

If the manners of a culture seem foreign, its written documents will be foreign equally. And recall that when we study Latin we are looking for the interesting differences, not the familiar threads which run through what we like to claim as our proprietary academic subject: Western Civilization.

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