Sunday, September 13, 2009

Latin for Bloggers

[Author’s note: I started this contribution more than two years ago, but had to set it aside for more urgent undertakings (like a filter for Salon letters), but the recent posting by Joe Klein on Time’s Swampland blog in which he casually inserted what he apparently thought was a Latin phrase, *ad nauseum (I say apparently because he put the phrase in italics, indicating that he didn't consider it English). Since this solecism, while extremely common on blogs, now has the imprimatur of Time Magazine (presumably Swampland doesn’t have an editor, or at least not one familiar with Latin), it is clearly time to dust off this little excursus on the misuse of Latin by bloggers in hopes of, if not encouraging the miscreants to mend their ways and look up things that they don't know (after all it is hard to change the habits of a lifetime), at least heaping well-deserved ridicule and scorn on their pretentiousness.]

Yeah, I know — this blog is supposed to be about English. But English is a voracious language that accepts not only unlimited loan words but also takes over foreign words and phrases wholesale. In fact, according to James D. Nicoll:
We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
— James D. Nicoll

But I digress. Not only was English syntax consciously remodeled after Latin in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the prestige of the classical languages led to a great number of neologisms based on Latin and Greek roots as well as many loanwords taken directly from the classical languages. Indeed, many common abbreviations used in writing were based on Latin phrases (i.e., e.g., loc. cit., etc.). By contrast, English's sister language rejected most of the Latin/Greek etymologies and instead calqued (loan translated) the English into German (E. rhinoceros [‘nose horn’], G. Näshorn; E. exposition, G. Ausstellung; E. television, G. Fernseher, and so on) and uses German abbreviations rather than abbreviations of Latin (d.h., z.B., a.a.O., usw.).

The prestige of the classical languages has also ensured that many Latin phrases and expressions are used in English prose to give status to the author as an educated person (there was a time, not all that long ago, when a knowledge of Latin and Greek was simply the mark of an educated person; no one went to university without knowing Latin and Greek). Indeed, in many European universities dissertations were still written in Latin well into the twentieth century.

Latin (and to a considerably lesser extent Greek) expressions thus find their way into English prose, either because they are well known and familiar, or because writers wish to show, by their knowledge of Latin, that they are educated persons. What then of those who misuse Latin expressions in their writing? — get the wrong expression, misspell them, use the wrong case, or just generally demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of Latin vocabulary, grammar, and syntax? If one is generous, one could just say that they made a mistake — everyone makes mistakes; if one is less generous, one might be inclined to say that they are trying to capitalize on the prestige generated by the use of Latin and mark themselves as knowledgeable and educated when, in fact, they lack the knowledge and education that they are implicitly claiming.

Here then are some of the most common mistakes to be found in the use of Latin by bloggers (and by blog commenters):

Habeas Corpus

  • Most common mistake: habeus corpus (Google gets about 112,000 hits for “habeus”, but is self-correcting in that a search for “habeus corpus” returns habeas corpus as well)
  • Reasons for the mistake:
    • Lack of knowledge of Latin plus a general belief that all Latin words end in -us or -um.
    • There is a natural linguistic tendency for making word pairs, especially when the words are foreign/not understood (i.e., nonsense), phonetically congruent. Thus ‘hocus pocus’, ‘abra cadabra’, ‘jibber-jabber’, and so on.
    • A pronunciation spelling since the final a of habeas is unstressed and hence pronounced as shwa (an uh-sound; [ə]) and thus phonetically matches the final syllable of corpus triggering the spelling of habeas as *habeus.
  • The correct form and interpretation:
    • The expression ‘habeas corpus’ is now fully English. There is no need to italicize it (although it frequently is) and it will be found in practically any dictionary of English. It represents the Latin habeās corpus, “produce the body,”, from habeās, second person sing. present subjunctive of habēre, ‘to have’ + corpus, ‘body.’
    • Using this expression cannot be considered a bid for prestige, since it has no English equivalent, there is no simple English phrase that expresses the concept; for the reason for this, see here. There is, however, no excuse for misspelling it if one is at all familiar with Latin.

Casus Belli

  • Most common mistakes: cassus belli, causus belli
  • Reasons for the mistakes:
    • It is difficult to characterize cassus belli as a mistake because the form cassus does occur in Latin. This is the result of a process that is fairly common cross-linguistically, usually known as metathesis of length or quantitative metathesis. This often involves two consecutive vowel sounds, one short and one long, where the length is transferred from one vowel to the other, but it also occurs between a long vowel and a following consonant so that the vowel is shortened and the consonant is lengthened (doubled). The basic form is cāsus so in living Latin the form cassus is a natural variant. As for English, it has no long vowels (although most speakers don't realize this), so if the pronunciation given by the OED is followed ([keɪsəs], i.e., with the same vowel sound as in English ‘case, cases’), then the spelling <casus> is likely. However, if the more common value of written a ([æ]) is used in imitation of Latin a then the spelling <cassus> is natural (compare the a-sounds in ‘plate’ and ‘platter’) and “cassus” is again a pronunciation spelling.
    • A secondary reason for the use of “cassus belli” is name recognition: Cassus Belli is a well-known rapper from Lyon.
    • The error “causus belli” comes from confusing Latin causa, “cause,” with Latin cāsus, “case,” and then making causa into *causus, again in the mistaken belief that all Latin words end in -us or -um, perhaps abetted by a faint memory of “casus belli.” This mistake is perhaps natural because cāsus bellī is frequently translated, or at least thought of, as “cause of war” rather than the more appropriate “case for war.” There is nothing wrong with causa bellī, “cause of war”; it is perfectly good Latin. But *“causus belli” is not.
  • The correct form and interpretation:
    • The correct English form is casus belli, representing the Latin cāsus bellī, “case for war.” It is usually italicized as a foreign phrase. The phrase came into use in the 17th and 18th centuries as as a technical term as part of the political “just war” doctrine. Anyone intending to wage a “just war” was expected to provide a cāsus bellī or a “case for war.” Thus the term comes from New Latin, rather than from the living language of the classical period and hence “cassus belli” is not a natural variant. The technical term chosen was cāsus bellī and that is what the correct term is. While causa bellī is good Latin, it also is not the technical term used in connection with the “just war” doctrine. And *“causus belli” is nothing but a mistake, pure and simple.

Ad Nauseam

  • Most common mistake: ad nauseum (although I confess to having seen ad nauseaum at least once)
  • Reasons for the mistake:
    • Lack of knowledge of Latin plus a general belief that all Latin words end in -us or -um plus analogy to similar phrases, such as ad infinitum, that properly have the case ending -um.
  • The correct form and interpretation:
    • This one is really a no-brainer. The Latin word for ‘nausea’ is — surprise, surprise — nausea; the preposition ad when it expresses motion governs the accusative case; the accusative singular of nausea is nauseam. Therefore, the correct expression is ad nauseam, “to the point of disgust/revulsion/nausea.”
    • The expression is actually a shortening of a term from logic, argumentum ad nauseam, in which an argument is repeated over and over until your opponent just gets sick of hearing it. There are many such terms based on the argumentum ad … format, and, since many Latin nouns are second declension masculines or neuters and since the accusative singular of both masculine and neuter second declension nouns is -um, those who are unfamiliar with Latin may be led to believe that the object noun in this construction always ends in -um. However, everyone is familiar with the expression argumentum ad hominem (often shortened to ad hominem, but, interestingly enough, never seen as *“ad hominum”) so everyone has the means at their disposal to disprove this belief and realize that the -um ending in this formula is not invariant. Moreover, there are a sufficient number of first declension feminines used in this formula (argumentum ad consequentiam “to the consequence”, ad crumenam “to the purse”, ad ignorantiam “to ignorance”, ad logicam “to logic”, ad misericordiam “to pity”, etc.) that it should be obvious to anyone with any familiarity with Latin or logic or even English that there are more endings than -um possible in the argumentum ad … formula.

I'll call a halt to this here, but there are, needless to say, many other Latin phrases that can be, and are, abused regularly. These are just three of the most common abuses, seen on an almost daily basis and done by those who ought to know better. There is no excuse for this, especially when there are numerous lists of common Latin phrases available on the intertubes. Wikipedia has one and while Wikipedia may not alway be reliable on controversial issues, for straightforward matters of fact they are pretty good. If you don't want to use Wikipedia, there is always “The Google” and you can simply Google “list of Latin phrases” and take your choice.

A writer's use of Latin phrases here and there is expected to give his or her work a certain cachet and accord the writer a certain amount of respect for his or her knowledge and education. But nothing screams ignorance and incompetence more loudly than misusing the very devices meant to demonstrate knowledge and competence.



John Cowan said...

It would be better to say that some varieties of English have no vowel length, notably American English. Scottish English generally tracks Scots and imposes the Scottish Vowel Length Rule, and RP has a marginal contrast between schwa and the NURSE vowel. In Australia, the difference between cup [kap] and carp [ka:p] is entirely one of length. Note that Australian English has no low back vowels at all.

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Yes, well, all sweeping generalizations are invariably false. Most of the time when you make a statement about a language you can find something in a dialect somewhere that disputes it.

Granted that Scottish and Australian English have contrastive vowel length, I'm not sure whether I'd consider Scottish and Australian dialects or different languages. Since there is no objective linguistic criterion by which to distinguish a dialect from a distinct language, the point is moot.

As for the contrast between schwa and the NURSE vowel in RP, besides being marginal, it is not a short-long contrast, but a reduced-short contrast. I didn't say that English doesn't have contrastive vowel lengths; I said it doesn't have long vowels. Besides, American English (and RP to some extent) has allophonic vowel length where a vowel will tend to lengthen before a voiced consonant in the coda of a syllable, but since this is allophonic, it is not contrastive.

I'd be willing to cut my claim for lack of long vowels to RP and American English since Australian clearly has a short-long vowel contrast, but I could also sidestep it by saying that Australian is a different language from American and RP British. Australian is about to American as Switzerdeutsch is to Hochdeutsch. So dialects or different languages?

John Cowan said...

Well, by the criterion of mutual intelligibility, I never find Scottish English or Australian English hard to understand (well, the one time I had trouble with Australian English, it was a video recording made under field conditions with the speaker's back toward the camera much of the time).

I might not understand all the words used in these varieties, as in the famous sign "Please uplift your messages outwith the store", where the Englishman understands only "please", "your", and "the", though the American can do him one better with "store". But I most certainly do understand the language varieties as wholes: they belong to the same language as my own.

The same is not true of Scots itself, nor it is it true as between Standard and Swiss German. When French Swiss and German Swiss interact, they often speak French or English, because even if the francophone speaks German well, it will be Standard German (Schriftdeutsch), which swissophones can read, write, and understand, but rarely speak outside of school. The ordinary person who speaks only Standard German (usually with a regional accent) will have zero comprehension of Swiss German.

(Technically, "Swiss German" is a political term: there is no standard dialect, and the three main dialect groups (Low, High, Highest Alemannic) all have relatives outside the border with which they are more intelligible than varieties from other groups. We call these varieties by a common name because they are all used by their speakers for all purposes and are not stigmatized, unlike their German and Austrian cousins.)

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Well, that's my point, or one of them anyway. "Mutual intelligibility" is what most people immediately glom onto as a criterion for distinguishing a dialect from a language. But, as I say, it is not an "objective linguistic criterion." If it were, one could take any two languages/dialects and calculate an "index of mutual intelligibility" for them and if the index were high enough, say 95 out of 100, declare them dialects of the same language.

Since this can't be done (or at least no one has done it so far), I still maintain that there is no objective linguistic criterion for distinguishing a dialect from a distinct language. Language/dialect is a socio-political concept, not a linguistic one. Years later, Max Weinreich still has it right ("אַ שפראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָט").

But mutual intelligibility is highly subjective, varying from observer to observer. My own experience with the intelligibility of Scottish English came in 1978 when I was returning to London by train from a conference in Berlin. Somewhere around Hamburg, a woman got on who shared the compartment I was in. As she made greetings in English I was looking forward to being able to converse in my native tongue after having spent a week in Berlin having conversations in German mostly go past me. However, she turned out to be Scottish, and although I was able to extract that she had been visiting her husband who was in the military stationed in what was then still the British zone, beyond that, she could not understand my American and I could not understand her Scottish. We finally lapsed into silence by mutual (unspoken) consent.

British speakers who hear Scottish English more often may be better able to understand it (the "dialect-continuum" effect), but to an American with little or no experience of it, it was incomprehensible. Perhaps today, with more experience it would not seem so bad to me. But that's what makes "mutual intelligibility" highly subjective.

And somehow I doubt that I would find it more understandable today. When I watched the movie The Full Monty a few years ago, I found that large sections of the dialog representing the north midlands dialect went by uninterpreted by me.

Karen M said...

Great post, Frankly, My Dear!

I'm only sorry that I did not see it before today, or I would have been promoting it, too.