Why Learn a Foreign Language?

The following considerations were part of a paper presented at a British Academy Early Careers Regional Event: ‘Linguistic Diversity and Cultural Identities in Europe: Oral Voices and Literary Languages (Eurotales: an Exhibiting and Museographical Experiment)’ on 11 April 2014 in Reading (organised by Dr Nadia Cannata, hosted by Dr Paola Nasti, and sponsored by Prof. Brian Richardson, FBA).

Dealing with the confusion of tongues

Multilingualism and foreign language education are topics that feature regularly in the news.

Most recently, there was the publication of a report that shows how numbers of students who are to take up modern language degree courses at University keep dropping – accompanied by government announcements of sweeping changes to the school curriculum. At the same time, even communication in one’s own mother tongue may pose some interesting challenges.

About time, therefore, to revert to the topic of ancient multilingualism and its evidence in the Latin inscriptions!

A while ago, I published a blog entry discussing the ‘Uses and Benefits of Multilingualism‘, exploring the evidence from a funerary inscription from Roman North Africa. As I pointed out on that occasion, ‘in addition to Rome and some Italic regions, Africa is in fact the sole area of the Roman Empire in which multilingualism seems to have made it into the canon of topoi on funerary inscriptions’.

This may make a lot of sense in the contest of multilingual North Africa. But how does the same subject get presented in Mainland Italy?

Just how many languages did they speak…?

Inscription for Marcus Caesellius. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder.php?bild=PH0008042

Inscription for Marcus Caesellius. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder.php?bild=PH0008042

Let us consider someone, from the city of Rome, who – to say the least – was a good speaker.

Marcus Caesellius was a member of the senatorial class, who lived around the first half of the third century A. D. We know of him from a sizeable inscribed marble tablet (90 x 75 cm survive), discovered in Rome at the Via Appia, by the Casale San Paolo.

The text of his funerary inscription – fragmented, but restored by Géza Alföldy in CIL volume VI 8.3 – reads as follows (CIL VI 41218):

  • First line:

M(arco) Caesellio M(arci) f(ilio) La[eliano?]

To Marcus Caesellius Laelianus (?), Son of Marcus.

  • Left column:

d(iebus) VIII.

He lived 27 years, 7 months, 8 days.

  • Right column:

Curator[i] rei p(ublicae) [- – – sodali Augustali]
Claudiali allec[to inter quaestorios VIvir(o) turmis]
ducendis eq(uitum) R(omanorum) [trib(uno) mil(itum) leg(ionis) – – – IIIIvir(o)]
viis curandis [- – – utriusque]
linguae facu[ndissimo in causis incomparabili]
filio piissimo e[t – – -].

Curator Rei Publicae … sodalis Augustalis Claudialis, co-opted to the quaestorian rank, sevir turmis ducendis equitum Romanorum, military tribue of the … legion, quattuorvir viis curandis … most eloquent in either language, incomparable in legal cases, the most dutiful son and …

  • Bottom line:

M(arcus) Aurelius M(arci) f(ilius) Papi[rius Socrates v(ir) p(erfectissimus) pater filio fecit].

Marcus Aurelius Papirius Socrates, son of Marcus, vir perfectissimus, the father, had this made for his son.

Caesellius, a lawyer among other things, has thus been restored to have been utriusque linguae facundissimus, ‘most eloquent in either language’, i. e. Latin and Greek.

The surviving part of the inscription (in the right-hand column), however, only documents that he was ‘most eloquent in a language’, but does not specify which one (or how many). Caesellius brother, whose inscription also survives (CIL VI 41219), however, has only been described as Latinae linguae facundissimus, ‘most eloquent in Latin’ – an inscription that otherwise is very similar to that of Caesellius.

Considering how Caesellius’ inscription, above, is fragmented, one cannot be absolutely positive that Alföldy’s supplement utriusque (‘eloquent in either language’) is correct. It is possible that Caesellius was ‘just’ extremely good at Latin.

Yet, Alföldy’s supplement is altogether convincing due to the space that needs to be filled, most likely – a measure, which can be calculated from other lines.

Be that as it may, the Caesellius inscription raises a number of important questions:

  1. Why the desire to commemorate someone’s linguistic abilities on a tombstone?
  2. Was the level of multilingualism truly exceptional?
  3. What does this tell us about multilingualism, orality, and literary language – if anything?

And, of course … why would it be noteworthy, in the city of Rome herself, to emphasise one’s ability to speak Latin well…?

Considering the Context

It seems sensible to contextualise the above inscription within the wider context of evidence for multilingualism in the Latin inscriptions.

For the purposes of this presentation, I will not consider texts that clearly are bilingual (as they do not necessarily relate to the honorand’s own abilities).

I will not consider, either, Greek inscriptions that highlight multilingualism, as, under the Roman Empire, at least a minimum amount of multilingualism that involve Latin is to be expected. (It could be rather interesting, of course, to compare varying strategies across the main linguistic divide of the Empire, but that is a different matter.)

It then is important to remind oneself of a few essential issues:

  • Giving an idea of space: the dimensions of the Roman Empire. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ca/Roman_Empire_Map.png

    Giving an idea of space: the dimensions of the Roman Empire. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ca/Roman_Empire_Map.png

    The Latin language was a language actively spoken for almost 1,500 years, taking its name from the region of Latium, the geographical context of the City of Rome. From being the language of a small city state, initially, it eventually became the language of an empire that spanned from Britain to middle East, from Scotland and the Netherlands to the Egyptian desert.

  • We can study the development of Latin, following the established systematic of Eugen Coseriu, from a number of different perspectives: diachronic (throughout time), diatopic (throughout space), diastratic (throughout society), diaphasic (across registers and technical language uses), and diamesic (with emphasis on the medium). Typically, however, scholarship focuses on the first two (variation throughout time and space, with some interest in social variation, with an oversimplifying concept of upper/lower classes).
  • Bi- and multilingualism, across time and space (at the very least) was a fluctuating, complex phenomenon, and we must do away with the simplistic Greek/Latin divide that we are accustomed to. The recent classics on this matter, Bilingualism and the Latin Language as well as The Regional Diversification of Latin, 200 BC – AD 600, both authored by Jim Adams, give an impressive idea of the number of languages that one must take into account as spoken alongside Latin.
  • Language, linguistic diversity, and cultural identity are concepts deeply interrelated. How is this negotiated, how is it regulated? Chances are that, in our evidence, we will but get but a minimal glimpse of the true picture.
  • Literary language, as well as technical languages (in the case of our Roman lawyer, Caesellius), are but reduced varieties of a rather more complex whole, the entity that I would like to call ‘Latin’. While we tend to focus on these, they may constitute not even the most significant part of ancient reality – where much stronger emphasis needs to be placed upon spoken language than today (or so it tends to be claimed).

Looking at the evidence for multilingualism in the documented Latin inscriptions, one soon begins to discover some interesting peculiarities.

The most interesting peculiarity that emerges is what has been stated initially: there are but two (or three) main geographical contexts for such texts: i) Italy (and, as potentially different from that, the city of Rome herself), and ii) Roman North Africa.

There (so far) does not appear to be any evidence for such comments from Britain, Spain, France, or Germany, to cover the main Western (Latin-speaking) provinces, from which one certainly could expect similar evidence.

Could there be an explanation for that? We have considered potential reasons for such texts in Africa. But what about Italy and Rome herself?

Commemorating Bilingualism in Latin Inscriptions from Mainland Italy

Here is the evidence from mainland Italy – minus a mention in the famous funerary poem for Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a high-ranking member of the elite and holder of numerous priesthoods (which, while complex in and by itself, does not add anything to the overall picture).

On average, the date of the following inscriptions falls into the later Roman Empire rather than earlier times.

  • From Rome – a Christian poem (ICUR IV 10888 = ILCV 729 add. = CLE 1964):

Priscorum interpres vatum doctorq(ue) [bilinguis]
Deuterius placida securus pace quiescit.

Translator of old poets, teacher, bilingual, Deuterius rests, free from sorrows, in placid peace.

  • Equally from Rome and again with a Christian background (CIL VI 33929 = ICUR I 1978 = ILCV 742 add.):

Dalmatio filio dulcissimo toti|us ingeniositatis ac sapienti|ae puero quem plenis septem an|nis perfrui patri infelici non licu|it qui studens litteras Graecas non | monstratas sibi Latinas adripuit et in | triduo ereptus est rebus humanis III Id(us) Fe(b)r(uarias) | natus VIII Kal(endas) Apr(iles) Dalmatius pater fec(it).

For Dalmatius, the sweetest son, of utter ingenuity and intellect, a boy whose company the hapless father was not even allowed to enjoy for seven full years, a boy, who acquired Greek and thus acquired Latin, too, even though it was not even shown to him: he was snatched away from this world on 11 February, born on 25 March: Dalmatius, the father, had this made.

  • From Pozzuoli (CIL X 1779):

D(is) M(anibus) | T(ito) Fl(avio) Antonino nep(oti) | Fl(avii) Antonini p(rimi)p(ilaris) font(?) | litter(is) Graec(is) et La|tinis qui vix(it) ann(os) XVIIII | m(enses) II d(ies) XXII parent(es) infelic(es).

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Titus Flavius Antoninus, grandson of Flavius Antoninus, primipilaris (…) in Greek and Latin writings, who lived 19 years, 2 months, 22 days: the hapless parents.

  • From Piacenza (CIL XI 1236):

V(ivus) f(ecit) | C(aius) Terentius | Fructus | sibi et | Attico ser(vo) | qui vixit ann(os) | XX litteratus | Graecis et Latinis | librarius | partes dixit CCC. | in fr(onte) p(edes) XV | in ag(ro) p(edes) XXV.

While still alive, Gaius Terentius Fructus had this made for himself and for Atticus, his slave, who lived for 20 years, well trained in Greek and Latin, book copier, capable of doing divisions by (up to?) 300. 15 feet wide, 25 feet deep.

  • From Alife (CIL IX 2340):

Q(uinto) E(gnatio?) G(allieno?) L(- – -) L(- – -) Tarronio Pisonino c(larissimo) v(iro) | nobili genere nato | [G]raecis ac Latinis litteris | erudito Q(uintus) E(gnatius?) G(allienus?) Perpetuus v(ir) c(larissimus) | pater fecit | annos vixit n(umero) XVIII mens(es) n(umero) X d(ies) n(umero) XXII.

For Quintus Egnatius (?) Gallienus (?) L. L. Tarronius Pisoninus, vir clarissimus, offspring of a noble family, educated in Greek and Latin literature: Quintus Egnatius (?) Gallienus (?) Perpetuus, vir clarissmimus, the father, had this made. He lived 18 years, 10 months, and 22 days by number, respectively.

Making Sense of the Evidence

To be sure, the aforementioned inscriptions are altogether unrelated to one another.

Yet they come with a complex common theme, as far as their mention of multiple languages is concerned: this complex theme can be outlined as follows: they all combine assertion of general education and learnedness with a claim to linguistic competence and reference to social class (or, failing that, age, if the latter is remarkable).

All the texts are document to a certain social aspiration – whether it is the patron who makes a case for his slave, or the father for his young son, or someone for a learned translator of Graeco-Roman poetry.

One must also stress the peculiarity that the evidence crosses the divide of pagan and Christian – noteworthy, as, in terms of education and its relation to Roman pagan upper-class behaviour, Christian instruction occasionally varies rather significantly from its pagan counterpart.

In that respect, one can observe a marked difference from the statements made in these late texts from the Appennine peninsula (where mention of Latin skills should barely constitute praise, unless they are truly exceptional!) and the behaviour that was established for the African counterpart: in mainland Italy, multilingualism, where it reaches a certain level, is a value that one may promote even in the context of funerary inscription as a claim to superior education and as an expression of social aspiration.

Would one advertise multilingualism on tombstones e. g. in 21st century Britain? Hardly. But it is worth thinking about the question as to whether how we do, and how we should, value the same competencies: in the Italic way (as an assertion of class and standing), or in the way the inscription from Ammaedara suggested: as an expression of education that supports one’s entrepreneurial spirit?

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
This entry was posted in Education, Epigraphy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.