Sunday, May 5, 2013

"A Little Latin and Less Greek"

No, I'm not talking about Shakespeare--I am speaking of myself. I did study Latin--four years in high school--and Greek--two semesters in college--but except for the fact we've been attending the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite of the Latin Liturgy the past few years, of course, I've forgotten it all.

This article reminded me of one of parts of translating Latin in high school I enjoyed: the Greek names for all the figures of speech like metonymy and synecdoche, litotes, polysyndeton and asyndeton. We would play with these figures of speech in English and try to write sentences using them to great rhetorical effect--trying to emulate Cicero (see image) in our periodic sentences. Yes, I was a wild child in high school (meiosis!).

One of my favorite uses of polysyndeton, by the way, is this prayer by Blessed John Henry Newman:

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.

Columnist Bryan A. Garner has this article in the May issue on the ABA Journal:

Have you ever wondered what it’s called when a speaker adds a superfluous syllable to the middle of a word, as by pronouncing athlete as /ATH-uh-leet/ instead of /ATH-leet/? Or Realtor as /REEL-uh-tur/ instead of /REEL-tur/? There’s a word for it: epenthesis (/ee-PEN-thuh-sis/). Just knowing this term could have a preventive (not “preventative”) effect on mispronunciations.

There are nuanced layers of technicality within the astonishingly large English vocabulary. For vowel epenthesis, as with the schwa sound that some speakers insert in athlete and Realtor, the more precise term (I kid you not) is anaptyxis. And what’s the word for the vowel itself—the one that gets thrust into the middle of a word so needlessly? We had to go to Sanskrit to import a word into English, and now it finds itself nicely ensconced in unabridged English dictionaries: the svarabhakti vowel (/swahr-uh-BAHK-tee/).

Like the Molière character who didn’t realize he’d been speaking prose all his life, you may not have known that you’ve been hearing (perhaps even pronouncing) svarabhakti vowels all your life: mostly the epenthetical schwa.

Garner also sites Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric which I have posted on before:

If you delight in technical terms and are an aficionado of classical rhetoric, check out Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric. The dean at the University of Texas law school, Ward Farnsworth is perhaps the world’s leading expert on classical figures of speech.

Farnsworth doesn’t shrink from using big words and teaching about them. The very first word in his very first chapter I’ve long considered my all-time favorite since discovering it at age 16: epizeuxis (/ep-i-ZOOK-sis/), meaning emphatic repetition of a word. Think of Hamlet’s answer to Polonius, who asked what he was reading: “Words, words, words.”

And what if it’s a phrase that gets repeated, not a single word? That’s called epimone (/ee-PIM-uh-nee/). Think of perhaps the greatest 19th-century lawyer, Daniel Webster, speaking on the Senate floor in 1833: “The cause, sir, the cause! Let the world know the cause!” Or, if you prefer, the character Tattoo in the 1970s series Fantasy Island: “The plane! The plane!”

This website lists many of the classical tropes with some examples.

UPDATE: I watched just a few minutes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on C-SPAN this Sunday. I was so impressed by his humble gratitude to those at Holy Cross, as he said, who knew more than he did and told him what he needed to learn, including Latin. He regretted that he did not study more Greek and some other subjects. This contrasts so much of what I hear so often from those taking classes in those degree completion programs (the ones with short duration courses with adjunct instructors and once a week meetings). What they usually say is "give me my A and leave me alone! Next class, please!".


  1. I was at a Mass recently which was bi-lingual. Alas it was in English and Spanish. I thought what a wonderful thing if we had retained the (traditional) Mass which was tri-lingual, Latin, English and Greek. The dumbing down of the Mass.

    1. When we have attended Sunday Mass in Paris, we have usually attended the Messe Gregorienne at Notre Dame: tri-lingaul Latin, French, and Greek! Novus Ordo! Beautiful!