On "Barbarism" II
Bill Long 3/22/08
Examples of Barbarism--from Isidore
Isidore defines barbarism as when a word is pronounced with a corrupted letter or sound. I.32.1. One such example is floriet, which is the incorrect future form of florere ("to bloom"). One ought to say florebit ("will bloom"). Examples of corrupted sounds would be if the first syllable is lengthened and the middle syllable is omitted, such as in the words like latebrae ("hiding places"; the "barbaric" pronunciation would sound like LATE brae) or tenebrae ("shadows"; the "barbaric" pronunciation would be TEEN brae). He then gives the four ways in which a barbarism is evident--by addition, change, transpositon or removal of a letter or syllable.
But now we are ready to move to the long list of words where Donatus doesn't "go"--that sentence at the end of his treatment consisting of examples of cacosynthesis or, using Donatus' Latin, cacosyntheta. These are "bad compositions" or "poor transitions." Does Isidore tell us anything of these bad compositions, which Donatus calls "mytacism, labdacism, iotacism, hiatus, collisions and other utterances"? In fact, he does. In I.32.5, he begins with hiatus:
"A barbarism by hiatus, whenever a verse is cut off in speaking before it is completed, or whenever a vowel follows a vowel, as in Musai Aonides."
The grammatical problem of hiatus, then, is where there is no consonant between two vowels coming together in successive words. As the OED tells us, "the break or interval of silence is necessary in order that the two vowels may be separately heard..." We either need a consonant or we expect elision. Since no consonant is forthcoming, if we have hiatus we have the suspension of an expected vowel elision. Looking at the example, Musai Aonides, helps. All the vowels together suggest to us that there ought to be an elision, where vowels from the first word slide over into those of the second. But hiatus is where this doesn't happen, but where a pause is indicated. This leads to very difficult and even jarring pronunciation of the words. We have to stop or go very slowly to pronounce all the sounds. Where language is expected to flow nicely, we have a stream backed up. Therefore, hiatus is not simply a grammatical fault but is an offense against clear speaking. The Greeks, however, didn't necessarily think that hiatus was always bad, as this copious grammar, pp. 80-82, points out.
What Donatus calls a mytacism is called a motacism by Isidore (I.32.5); it is listed in the OED as metacism. We should know the word because it appears occasionally in spelling bees. It is defined by Isidore as follows:
"A motacism (motacismus) occurs whenever a vowel follows the letter "M", as bonum aurum ("good gold"), iustum amicum ("just friend"), and we avoid this fault either by suspending the letter M, or by leaving it out."
The OED makes this a bit more precise: it is the pronunciation of a final m before a word beginning with a vowel or, also, the placing of a word with a final m before a word with an initial m. So, take it to heart. Though your mother may have told you at one time to mind your "p's and q's," we know what she really meant was to "mind your 'm's."
Iotacism, as Isidore tells us, occurs in words with the sound of the letter "iota" doubled, as Troia, Maia, where the pronunciation of these letters should be weak, so that they seem to sound like one iota, not two. The OED gives the example of "Juno Jovi irascitur," where two "i's" come together successively. I reall don't think we have the same hangup in English on this one.
But we may on lambdacism, which occurs as labdacismus in Latin. Isidore defines it as "if two L's are pronounced instead of one, as Africans do, as in colloquium instead of conloquium (the good old Latin way), or whenever we pronounce a single L too weakly, or a double L too strongly." The OED gives two definitions of what it calls labdacism (1) a too frequent repetition of the letter "l" in speaking or writing or (2) a faulty pronunciation of the letter "r," making it sound like "l." This latter use of the word labdacism is also called "lallation" in English, and is illustrated in Burton's 1864 example: "The Popos and Dahomans have the same lallation as the Chinese, who call rum 'lum.'"
Thus, "polished" Latin will avoid using "m's" at the end of words where the next word begins with a vowel; will avoid use of the doubled iota and will also avoid putting together two "l's."
Finally, a "collision," which Isidore appropriately calls a conlisio, so that he won't fall victim to labdacism, is whenever the end of the last syllable is the beginning of the next. The editors of Isidore's volume give the example of "mother earth," which in Latin is mater terra--the "ter" is repeated and should be avoided.
Some of these examples may sound either quaint or amusing, but when you think of them for more than a minute or two, you see what good sense they make. Language is all about persuading people regarding something. You persuade them if you make them do the least amount of mental work or, alternatively, if you can make them thing that they have figured something out. I emphasize this point because many of the lectures I have been forced to hear, or many of the scholars whose works I have read, seem to take pride in or be completely indifferent to readers' feelings, ears, and ability to listen to a presentation. If lectures were sung, people would learn a lot more, I think. These words, then, complex as they seem to be, are indications of good advice--advice that tells people how best to get your ideas across. And, to people of any age, that is welcome advice.
The "bottom line" of all this, whether or not we want to use the term "barbarism," is that there are better and worse ways of communicating meaning. Considering the ways that words "clash" against the ears is one important factor. Whereas in America today we eagerly "borrow" from other languages, and end up by having a language that is anything other than "pure," we still can take care to make sure that the words we say are sheathed in the most pleasant containers available. Our hearers will appreciate it and we will be forced to focus on what we really know.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long