Three things I hope the next pope will do

I’m not a Roman Catholic, so it’s really none of my business who will be chosen as the new Pope in the next week or two.  But I can’t resist mentioning that there are three things I hope the new papacy will bring:

1. An effort to promote the Latin language.  I’m a Latin teacher, among other things, and among the major institutions of the world the Roman church is the likeliest to do something to drum up interest in the language.  So I’m hoping that the cardinals will choose a leader who will support such an initiative.

2. Make Insight more widely available.  Between 1960 and 1983, a Paulist priest named Ellwood Kieser led a group that produced an anthology of 30-minute morality plays that were distributed to television stations and shown in Catholic schools around the USA.  This series, titled Insight, reminds many viewers of The Twilight Zone; indeed, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling himself wrote a couple of episodes of Insight.  Like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, Insight deals with serious moral issues from a distinctly 1960s perspective.  To the extent that the show offers answers, therefore, they are dated; but that’s part of the charm.  The questions are still there, and by the time we figure out how the show might look different if it were done now we’re wrestling with them.

The Roman church owns the copyright to Insight, but has never made any of them available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or any streaming video format.  They did issue some VHS tapes with a handful of the 250 episodes back in the 1980s, but even those are hard to find.  Most of the episodes are available on kinescope in UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, so if you’re in Los Angeles you can go have a look.  And a few episodes have, no doubt illegally, been uploaded to YouTube.  Paulist Productions is currently raising money to make Insight available again, but that effort doesn’t seem to be making much headway.  It needs a push from someone in a prominent position.  So that’s the second thing I hope for from the new pontificate: Put Insight online!

3. There is one important thing we might realistically hope the next pope will do: have a funny name.  Sure, calling Pope Joseph Ratzinger “Papa Ratzi” might be good for a chuckle, but the cardinals can do better.  I was bitterly disappointed in 2005 when they passed up the opportunity to promote Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, archbishop of Bologna, to the papacy.  Not only is he named Biffi of Bologna, but he had spoken out against vegetarianism.   I suppose he could have taken the name Pope Carnivorus I.  Now Cardinal Biffi is  too old.  But don’t despair; the bookmakers’ favorite is the Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Cardinal Scola (also spelled Sicola,) who would become Pope Sicola.  Pope Sicola hits the spot!

I mentioned these three points to Mrs Acilius the other day.  When I summed them up by saying “So, when the cardinals call and ask for my advice, that’s what I’ll say,” she laughed.  Maybe she doesn’t think they’ll call?  I don’t know.

A possible etymology of the name “Acilius”

I’ve long used “Acilius” as my screen-name, in tribute to Gaius Acilius, a Roman historian who was alive and doing interesting things in 155 BC.  It never occurred to me that anyone would know the etymology of the name “Acilius”; it was quite an old name among the Romans, and they did not really keep track of that sort of thing in those days.

A couple of months ago, I happened onto a post on the blog “Paleoglot” which led me to wonder if there might not be a way to explore the question of where the gens Acilia found its name.  Blogger Glen Gordon analyzes various occurrences of a stem acil- in Etruscan.  In his conclusion, Mr Gordon offers these definitions to cover the occurrences he has discussed:

I think we could define the English translations of the whole word family much better as part of a grander morphological design:

*aχ (v.) = ‘to do, to make, to cause’
> acas (v.) = ‘to craft, to make’
> acil (n.) = ‘thing, act; rite, holy service’ (> acil (v.) = ‘to do rites, to worship’)

The implied underlying verb here, *aχ, reminds me very much of the Indo-European *h₂eǵ-, as if borrowed from Latin agere ‘to drive, lead, conduct, impel’.

This intrigues me very much.  If the Etruscans borrowed such a word from Latin, that would suggest that the usual story about the relationship between Etruscan religion and Roman religion is misleading.  Rather than a situation in which the Etruscans molded the religious practices and ideas of their subjects, the early Romans, the presence of a Latinate word in Etruscan religious vocabulary would suggest a reciprocal relationship between the hegemonic Etruscans and their vassals.

On the other hand, if the similarity between acil- and agere is a mere coincidence, another possibility presents itself.  This is where the Acilii come to mind.  Perhaps the name “Acilius” is a combination of the Etruscan root acil-, with its sense of performing holy service, and the Latinate suffix -ius.  A fairly exact equivalent could be suggested, as chance would have it, in the English name “Priestley,” where the borrowed word priest is combined with the indigenous suffix -ley.  So perhaps all these years I’ve been unwittingly associating myself with such distinguished polymaths as Joseph Priestley and J. B. Priestley.

Two items of interest to Classics types

When the world was young and I was in grad school, many of my classmates went to Rome to hang out with Father Reginald Foster.  Reggie, as they all called him, is an American priest who at that time was in charge of translating official Vatican documents into Latin.  His schedule was light in the summer, so Reggie ran a summer institute in conversational Latin.  Granted, there aren’t any native speakers of Latin around to converse with, but there is a substantial body of permanently interesting Latin literature, and it is easier to read the language if you can also speak it.

Reggie moved back to Milwaukee after Pope John Paul II died.  He teaches conversational Latin there from time to time.  No future generations of graduate students will be studying under him in Rome, but two current graduate students have revived the Rome summer program  They call it the Paideia Institute Slate magazine ran a piece about it recently.

David Graeber

Also of keen interest to classicists is this recent interview that economic anthropologist David Graeber granted to the website Naked Capitalism.  Graeber summarizes Adam Smith’s hypothesis that money originated as an advancement on barter systems that had prevailed before its adoption.  He then points out that in the 235 years since Smith published that hypothesis in The Wealth of Nations, observers have examined thousands of cultures in search of examples of pre-monetary barter economies, and that they have yet to find one.  Graeber concludes that Smith’s hypothesis is thereby defeated.  Societies which have not invented money do not organize markets around barter; they do not organize markets at all.  Money and markets arise together, and barter becomes widespread only when currency systems collapse.  Non-monetary societies distribute goods and services, not through markets, but through hierarchies in which obligations are based on force.  The king or chief or whatever he is has what he has because everyone else is indebted to him for protection and status, and they have what they have because of their relations with him.  When multiple authorities lay claim to the same person, they need a way of sorting out whose claim comes first and which authority is entitled to demand what deference or service.  Sometimes they develop a way of sorting those claims that involves quantifying them and making them transferable.  Once claims on a person’s deference or service can be quantified and transferred, there is a need for tokens to signify the quantification and contracts to enforce the transfer.  That is to say, there is money, and with it the dawn of market society.

Graeber makes some remarks that are similar to points that come up in some classes I teach.  For example:

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.

When I’m talking to a class, I’m rather more emphatic than Graeber in saying that in this conclusion Aristotle was a man of his time, and that our view of wage labor as a form of freedom may be as legitimate in its own way as was the Greek view of wage labor as a form of slavery.  Partly that difference in views stems from the fact that so many slaves in ancient Greek cities were paid wages, and that those who labored side by side with free people in big workshops were paid exactly the same wages as those (nominally) free people, while American slaves were generally denied access to money.  Still, I do have a lecture that unnerves them when it ends with my remark that Aristotle would not have thought that we moderns have abolished slavery, but that we have abolished freedom.

I can’t resist quoting another bit of the Graeber’s interview.  After he derides the idea of money as a development subsequent to a barter economy, we have this exchange:

PP: You’d be forgiven for thinking this was all very Nietzschean. In his ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that all morality was founded upon the extraction of debt under the threat of violence. The sense of obligation instilled in the debtor was, for Nietzsche, the origin of civilisation itself. You’ve been studying how morality and debt intertwine in great detail. How does Nietzsche’s argument look after over 100 years? And which do you see as primal: morality or debt?

DG: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been sure if Nietzsche was really serious in that passage or whether the whole argument is a way of annoying his bourgeois audience; a way of pointing out that if you start from existing bourgeois premises about human nature you logically end up in just the place that would make most of that audience most uncomfortable.
In fact, Nietzsche begins his argument from exactly the same place as Adam Smith: human beings are rational. But rational here means calculation, exchange and hence, trucking and bartering; buying and selling is then the first expression of human thought and is prior to any sort of social relations.

But then he reveals exactly why Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers would be making transactions through the spot trade. Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn’t paid up.

But in that case, one of the parties is a criminal, a deadbeat and justice would have to begin with the vindictive punishment of such deadbeats. Thus he says all those law codes where it says ‘twenty heifers for a gouged-out eye’ – really, originally, it was the other way around. If you owe someone twenty heifers and don’t pay they gouge out your eye. Morality begins with Shylock’s pound of flesh.
Needless to say there’s zero evidence for any of this – Nietzsche just completely made it up. The question is whether even he believed it. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I prefer to think he didn’t.

Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that’s where you end up with.

If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.

Nietzsche may once have been overrated as a political thinker, but I believe that he is now seriously underrated in that wise.  So the bit above made me happy.

Cicero would have been great on Twitter

 That’s what Forbes magazine says, anyway.

What is a word for “grandparents of the same child”?

A simplified chart of Latin kinship terms

At Language Log, a post asks whether many English speakers use the expression “brothers-in-law” to refer to men whose relationship is that their wives are sisters and “sisters-in-law” to refer to women whose relationship is that their husbands are brothers.  So would it be idiomatic to say that my wife and my brother’s wife  are one another’s sisters-in-law?  Commenters on that post have mentioned the poverty of English vocabulary in kinship terms as compared to other languages.  One linked to a Wiktionary article about the expression “co-mother-in-law,” an article which ends with sixteen examples of languages which do have words in widespread use that mean “the mother of one spouse, in relation to the parents of the other spouse.” 

For a long time it’s struck me as strange that English has so few kinship terms.   About 14 years ago, I was in graduate school and I read an article that was then already rather old, “What does Latin tell us about the Romans?” by Carl R. Trahman.  If you have access to JSTOR, here’s a link to Trahman’s article; if you don’t, you can go to the nearest research library, look up volume 67, number three of The Classical Journal (February/ March 1972,) and turn to pages 240-250.  Here’s one thing Latin told Trahman about the Romans:

Perhaps the most telling evidence, in the case of the Romans, that the vocabulary of a language will lead to an understanding of its users lies in the terminology of Latin for family relationships.  In English we are content to speak of “in-laws,” of “cousins once removed,” of “uncles on the father’s side.”  Latin has specific words for all of these and for dozens more such affinities.  Your great-great-grandmother is your abavia; your uncle on your father’s side is patruus, but on your mother’s side is avunculus.  Your mother-in-law is socrus.  The hated step-mother is noverca and the stepson privignus.  Does your husband have a sister?  The word is glos.  Does he have a brother?  The word is levir.  In such matters, the Romans truly had a word for it.  They actually possessed a word to denote the relationship of two women married to two brothers: they were ianitrices.  Now what is the significance of such precision?  It indicates the immense importance of the family in Roman life.  If we had no other testimony of this feeling for family, which can hardly be overstated, this amazingly rich terminology would be more than enough.  It is interesting that two of the phrases used for our word prejudice, for which as I have said Latin had no proper word, are iudicia iam facta domo (Cicero) and domo adlata opinio (Seneca.)  They suggest family councils at which policy was determined and the stand to be taken by the gens on public issues yet to be debated.  (page 244)

Writing in the early 1970s, Trahman devoted a fair bit of space to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an idea that the structural limitations of a given language are in some way commensurate with the range of thoughts available to the speakers of that language.   In its most extreme form, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be identified with the view that a people whose language lacks a word for a given concept must therefore lack that concept.   Trahman himself clearly does not go to that extreme.  In the passage quoted above, Trahman identifies the concept expressed by Latin phrases like iudicia iam facta domo and domo adlata opinio with the concept that we express by the single word prejudice.  So he believes that they had the concept, even though they lacked a specific word for it.  Trahman does seem to suggest that something like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was already familiar to the ancients.  He quotes the Roman poet Ennius who said that because he spoke Latin, Greek, and Oscan he had three hearts; Trahman elaborates, “The word he used was cor, which in his day meant not only ‘heart’ but ‘mind and soul’ as well.  So [Ennius had] it all, and it could not be improved upon.” 

So we can’t say that English speakers have a poorer set of concepts for family relationships than did Latin speakers just because we have so much poorer a vocabulary through which to express those concepts.  What we can say is that the Romans probably talked about those relationships more often than we do.  This isn’t surprising.  Most people in the developed world today live in nuclear family households and see members of their extended families only occasionally, so it isn’t especially likely on any given day that you will have to explain that someone is your spouse’s sibling’s sibling’s spouse.  If it takes several words and repeated case-endings to identify that person, you probably won’t lose much time over the course of a long life.  But in the ancient world it was more usual for several generations of a family to live under the same roof, grandparents and their siblings, parents and their siblings, one’s own siblings and their spouses and children and grandchildren, one’s own spouse and children and grandchildren, etc etc, and to spend all day working side by side with other members of that population.  So of course you would need single words that could express those relationships quickly and easily.  Not only might it become tiresome to have to speak a lot of words every time you had to clarify a family relationship, but it would certainly be taxing to have to listen to a lot of convoluted phrases connecting one kinship title to another.  If you tell me that some person is your spouse’s sibling’s sibling’s spouse, I’m likely to come away thinking that the person is your sibling’s spouse’s sibling’s spouse unless I concentrate.  If we have a word like ianitrix in common, we can relax. 

So why does it strike me as strange that we have fewer kinship terms in English than the Romans had in Latin?  For one thing, because English has such a huge vocabulary overall; for another, because it doesn’t seem English was particularly rich in kinship terms even when most English speakers lived in extended family groups.  But most of all because there are a number of relationships that really are quite important to English speakers that have no simple names in English.  For example, I would think it was safe to say that most grandparents would agree that they have something important in common with their grandchildren’s other grandparents.  Yet they have no single word to express that relationship.  And a Google search for “grandparents of the same child” brings up just two hits, as I write this.  “Co-grandparent” produces hits for laws concerning grandparents in the state of Colorado (postal abbreviation CO,) for “The Grandparent Company,” and for a number of uses of “co-grandparent” meaning something like  “honorary grandparent.” 

At about the same time Trahman was writing his article, Archie C. Bush published an article in the journal Ethnology under the title “Latin kinship extensions: An interpretation of the data.”  Here’s a JSTOR link; the citation is Ethnology, volume 10, number 4, (Oct 1971) pp 409-432.  Bush opens with a list of Latin names for 110 family relationships, sorted into six grades of consanguinity.  The system of grades derives from Roman law; a text attributed to the jurist Julius Paulus listed 448 family relationships. 

Strikingly, there is no Latin word for “grandparent of the same child” on Bush’s list or in Paulus, nor can I come up with such a word in any of the dictionaries to which I have ready access at the moment.  This is really amazing.  Most marriages in the ancient world were arranged by the couple’s parents in order to build a kinship relation between one household and another household.  In that sense, one could say that the basis of marriage in those days was the hope of the parents of the bride and groom that they would be bound together as grandparents of the same child.  One could hardly imagine a more highly valued relationship.  Yet it was a relationship with no name of its own.

Pattern recognition

Friend of the blog Armelle Europe has posted a couple of hilarious videos by Alfred Williams at her website, Ukulele and Languages.  If you like puns, you’ll like “I Can’t Think of Any Jokes“; if you like visual puns, you’ll like “Trinidad Looks Quite Like Wales.”  Some time ago, Armelle embedded a video of Alfred Williams performing “Love Machine” in Latin, which I include below.

Machina Amoris

Ukulele and Languages

ukulele and languagesUkulele and Languages collects ukulele videos in (you’ll never guess!) various languages.

The latest post includes a couple of videos of Danish songs; this one, by “EvertParkLars,” is particularly likable.

Voodoo Marmalade is apparently Portugal‘s answer to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  They are off to a good start; considering that UOGB has been at it for 24 years, I hope no one will think I’m being sniffy if I say that Voodoo Marmalade has some way to go before they match them. 

This page of eastern European ukuleleists ends with a video in Polish called “Ukulele Kajaki” (“Ukulele Kayak.”)  I don’t understand a word of the lyrics, but the guy’s voice sounds like it’s saying something hilarious.

Is there Latin?  Of course there’s Latin!  Here’s “Love Machine” redone as “Machina Amoris.”

President-Elect Obama

It’s appropriate that Election Day should come so shortly after Halloween.  As the ghosts and ghouls vanish into their occult places when day breaks, so the bogeymen and superstars of the campaign season pass out of view once the election is over.  It’s back to Alaska with Sarah Palin, back to work for “Joe the Plumber,” back to the political science textbooks with the Bradley Effect, back to a museum of the 60s with the Weather Underground.  Four years from now another set of entertainments will rise from some unknown quarter and haunt us for a season. 

The candidates themselves do not go anywhere; they cease to exist.  The winning candidate is replaced by the office holder, the losing candidates are replaced by somewhat older, somewhat sadder versions of the people they were before they ran.  That’s why there’s a richer vein of literature about losing contenders for power than about winners.  Try to dramatize the winner and the best you can do is hint at what Shakespearean actors call “the man inside the king.”  The king is a symbol, he is power, he is majesty, he is order, and he is empty.  Art and literature can focus on the king only when the symbol fails and the human being emerges.  I think the Horace illustrates that process in his Ode 1.37.  As long as she is a contender for power, Cleopatra is at best a monster.  Defeated, she is one of us. 

Here’s Cedric Whitman’s translation of that poem.  Robert Frost defined poetry as “that which is lost in translation”; I’m afraid Whitman does not manage to defeat that definition.  But it does show the major gestures in Horace’s original, and unlike some other versions it is possible to read Whitman’s aloud.  I’ve appended Edward Wickham’s edition (from his Oxford Classical Text) of the original below. 

Drink, comrades, drum the ground, now it is time

for freedom’s dance; and call on all the gods

to come, lay out their gorgeous couches,

and let them recline at the feast of Mars.

It had been crime till now to pour good wine

from the crypts of our forefathers, while ruin poised

over the Capitol, and fevered madness

was winding cerecloth round our realm-

Dreams of the queen of half-men, girt by her crew

of sickly shame, and drunk with delirious hopes

grown fat and reckless on easy fortune!

But all that glare of frenzy waned

When scarce one vessel of her fleet sailed home

unscorched by flame; her mind, long tranced and dazed

on heady Egypt’s wine, now waking

to terror’s truth, found Caesar’s oars

hard pressing on her flight from Italy,

swift hawk on downy dove, hunter on hare

in snowy fields of Thrace, and ready

to fling her into chains, a beast

of ominous wonder.  But she had loftier thoughts,

to find out death; blades could not make her cheek

blanch like a girl’s, or drive her flying

with huddled sails to lurking shores. 

Her courage soared; with placid face she scanned

her fallen palace, and valorously reached

her hands to rasping snakes, sucking

their venom’s blackness through her limbs.

Once death was fixed, the fiercer grew her mind:

Indeed, she scorned his cruel galleys, and men

who would have had her walk uncrowned,

no spiritless woman, in triumph’s pride. 


Wall Street Bungles and Bailouts

Here‘s a succinct account of the current difficulties big US financial firms are facing.  It’s from Nuntii Latini, the Latin-language news service from Finnish radio. 

And here is an argument that the bailout the treasury and Federal Reserve have proposed is, in the literal sense of a much-overused term, fascism.

And as usual, Tom Tomorrow has summed it all up quite well.

Radiophonica Finnica Generalis

For almost 20 years, Finnish radio has been running a daily news program in Latin.  It’s on FM in Finland, on shortwave everywhere else.  Here’s their page about that program, with some old broadcasts available on RealAudio.