Ancient and modern

Varro on The Apprentice

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

Budding businesswoman Luisa Zissman, with her A in A-level English, has enquired whether ‘Bakers Toolkit’ or ‘Baker’s Toolkit’ is correct. As usual, the ancients are to blame.

Ancient Greeks were fascinated by language and invented much of the terminology in which we still talk about it: parts of speech, e.g. nouns (which included adjectives), pronouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions; case, number, gender, tense, voice, mood and so on — all words translated by Romans from the Greek into Latin. Greeks also argued intensely about right and wrong usage. Apollonius Dyscolus (2nd century AD) pointed out that, if you examined traditional orthography, you could see that there were historical reasons behind word-formation and spelling. These generated rules. As a result, it was possible to identify spelling errors and correct them. Exceptions, as ever, simply proved that rules existed — otherwise, how could you tell they were exceptions?


But Greeks were not interested in bakers’ selling loaf’s: what could you expect of the plebs? What counted for them was the ‘purity’ of the language written and spoken by the elite, for public consumption. So when Alexander the Great took the Greek language to strange peoples out east, the local elites were desperate to be sure they was talking proper, like. Hellênismos, a Greek ‘faultless in respect of rules and without careless usage’, became their priority. Roman grammarians picked up where the Greeks left off — Varro (116–27 BC) wrote a 25-volume de lingua Latina — and argued the toss just as keenly (no unhealthy foreign influences, please).

When poor Luisa realised that punctuation was a matter of convention, and trademarks have their own conventions, she lost interest in her question. But Standard English has it’s (or is it its?) conventions too. As a budding businesswoman, she ignores those at her peril.

Peter Jones’s Veni Vidi Vici, a ‘witty but wise’ ( The Times) history of Rome, has just been published.

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