Consuetudo loquendi est in motu

‘Our manner of speech is in flux’: these are the words of Varro, the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist, as mediated through my slightly loose translation. Varro wasn’t thinking of individuals’ use of language when he wrote this – though, no doubt, his is a point that applies over the course of the life of an individual, just as it does over the course of a language’s life. Instead, he was participating in a highly self-aware Roman discussion about the developing use of the Latin language.

For many people who know some Latin today, it is easy enough to imagine the language as an impressively logical system – of clearly defined grammatical tables, of distinct word endings, and (more generally) of order and rational control. This image of the Latin language is in significant measure a product of the habits of teaching and learning favoured by 19th century educators: hefty Victorian grammatical textbooks are just one tangible artefact of their influence.

What I hadn’t really been aware of before this week was how the Romans themselves imposed considerable (conscious) control over the nature and structure of their language. This comes through in a range of first century BC discussions – in authors like Varro, Cicero and indeed Julius Caesar – of which I’m now aware. And it reflects an older Roman (and Greek) tradition of thinking about language use.

My education in this area has come about through reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Rome’s Cultural Revolution, a text I’ve had on my shelf for several years but which I’ve only just found the time to get into.


Romans of the first century BC were sometimes acutely conscious of linguistic differences in the way Latin was spoken (and written). Just as modern English speakers can effortlessly spot the differences between regional accents, national accents, formal and informal speech (etc), so too ancient Latin users would have spotted similar differences. But what were the boundaries of correct usage in amongst the (perfectly natural) linguistic variety that could be observed?

This is a question, Wallace-Hadrill suggests, that assumes an importance only with Rome’s – and Latin’s – imperial extension in the first century BC: ‘hand in hand with an insistence that others use one’s language is the establishment of authoritative standards by which to lay down what that language is’.

For Cicero, writing in his Brutus on the history of oratory, there was a pure use of Latin which all good orators – and indeed all good speakers of the language – should aim to practise. There was a time, Cicero thinks, when all Romans would speak this pure form of the language as a matter of custom. So what changed? A flood of people of diverse origins, he explains, has entered Rome. They have tainted the language, polluting its proper use!


Cicero’s explanation is strikingly reductive (and prejudiced!) – but it is interesting that he seems to assume that ‘proper’ Latin was only ever spoken at Rome (and that non-Romans were never in command of pure Latinitas). Wallace-Hadrill makes short work of Cicero’s argument, pointing out the myth of ‘purism’ while noting also that ‘purism’ can only be imposed on a language by the imposition of an external authority (e.g. a grammarian!).

Varro, unlike Cicero, was a realist about linguistic change, just as he was about other changes of custom. Old practices can give way to new ones in clothing, building and furniture. Traditional usage in these and other areas has been replaced. The same is true for words. Consuetudo – custom, then (whether linguistic or otherwise), can itself be remade: it is not forever set in stone, as a Cicero might have preferred.

By the end of the first century BC, the power to define consuetudo, when it came to language, seems to have begun to move away from influential patrician figures like Cicero and Varro, who had previously been the key voices in its constitution. From this point, upper class influence on correct Latin usage was no longer to have quite the weight it once did: instead the foremost authorities when it came to defining what was ‘correct’ Latin would soon be professional grammarians. This is an area about which I have more reading to do.

Sewers and Octopodes

In these difficult times, I’ve found there are worse ways to maintain spirits than trying to remember fun moments in the classroom over the past term. It’s disarming to think that teachers could by now have had their last lessons in person with the pupils they’ve taught during the current academic year. Well, below, I’ve tried to record a fun portion of one of my lessons, in which discussion ranged widely – across food and drink, sea creatures, grain supply and Roman sanitation.

My year 7 class and I had been talking briefly about Roman food and drink, and about the grain-heavy diets that many ordinary Romans had. The class had recently learned about garum – Roman fish sauce – and about the Roman fondness for wine, olive oil and various other foods and tipples. We’d had a little help along the way from an amusing episode of the series, ‘What the Romans did for us’, by Adam Hart-Davis.

Images illustrating the preparation of garum (Roman fish sauce), which seems often to have been added to desserts!

‘But what about delicacies?’ someone asked. Good question – so we started a discussion about the sorts of meats and seafoods that ancient Romans might (more occasionally) have eaten.

‘Octopus?’ suggested one class member. Probably not for most people, most of the time, I answered! But I do have a question for you about the octopus. ‘What is its plural?’

‘Octopi!’ This was the answer most of the group felt pretty confident with – especially since they’ve done a good job of learning their 2nd declension Latin noun endings (which have a -us ending in the nominative singular and an -i ending in the nominative plural). But a small smattering of class members tentatively suggested ‘octopuses’: octopi wasn’t the only pick.

An octopus – aka polypus – on a Roman mosaic

Well, I asked, what if neither of those options is strictly accurate? Accurate, that is, if we treat ‘octopus’ as an ancient word. Confused looks.

Good, I said: this can be a little topic for you to do some research on later. Is there an additional possible plural of ‘octopus’ – and what might it be, and why?

The answer, jubilantly reported by some of the pupils in their next lesson, is that because of the Greek (not Latin) roots of octopus, the plural might best be given as octopodes.

They’d done well. Octopus does indeed have Greek roots – but, so it appears, the word doesn’t actually have an ancient provenance. Greeks certainly knew about the cephalopod we call the octopus, but the name they used for this animal was polypous (i.e. many footed creature). It was this word that Romans borrowed to give the Latin word polypus…and this is the word they used to designate the creature we know as the octopus.

It was only much later – in the 16th century. according to our best information – that the word octopus itself starts to appear for the first time, and it appears then in the English language. A nice discussion of this development is available here.

A depiction of a Roman grain transporter ship being loaded

From our rather inconclusive discussion of the octopus (how should you talk about more than one of them?) we turned to start talking about a separate topic relating to Roman diet: the Roman grain supply. This was crucial for Rome’s development and stature as a city during the high period of its empire. In order to feed the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, emperors would import huge quantities of grain, all the way across the Mediterranean, from North Africa, for ordinary people to eat. It was given out as a hand-out.

Some of the class were shocked by this revelation. ‘Free food. Really?!’ Not exactly free, of course, but to the Roman plebs, it must have felt like it. This in turn set off a conversation about how modern governments don’t really do this sort of thing – and maybe it would be helpful if they did?

I asked the class to reflect on another key area of Roman urban life that they might find surprising: hygiene. Walking into the city of Rome in the 1st or 2nd century AD, I asked, what – perhaps more than anything else – might have imposed itself on your senses. One pupil saw immediately where I was going with this question: ‘the smell’, she said.

I remember reading a passage somewhere in one of Keith Hopkins’ books where he really insists on this point. The smell on the streets of the ancient city would have been ghastly, overpowering, horrific. City dwellers in the developed world today have no point of easy comparison.

But this, I told the class, brings us to another topic you may wish to do some research about: the Roman sanitation and sewage system (particularly the Cloaca Maxima). Despite the toxic stench of their city, the Romans possessed a remarkably advanced sanitation system, featuring underground tunnels and drainage. Without this, the city would surely have smelt a whole lot worse.

A modern view of the interior of the ancient Roman sanitation system, the Cloaca Maxima

I’ve noticed over the course of my time as a teacher that pupils in the 21st century classroom tend to assume that the story of historical development has been a pretty linear one of relentless progress: a sort of whiggish optimism, in other words, is pretty widespread. The history of Roman sanitation, of aqueducts and the provision of running water to urban centres, and of the Roman genius for engineering more generally, is a nice counterpoint here.

In these areas, Romans produced technologies that were not (in Europe, at least) to be matched for many centuries (over a milennium, in fact). With the demise of the Roman empire, some of the technology went out of use altogether, without being replaced by anything superior. Far from it. I’m sure my pupils now have a sense of this, even if they’re not exactly clear (as I myself am not) which word to choose if they want to talk about more than one octopus. Sometimes not even teachers have all the answers.

The Languages that made Latin

Yesterday’s lesson with my twelve year olds involved a few interesting moments. At one point, I found myself explaining to the class that the Latin language is not unlike other languages (including English) in that it had a number of ancestor languages out of which it developed. This seemed to surprise most, if not all, members of the class: I think their assumption had been that Latin was something like a primordial language, or, at least, one which somehow hadn’t been subject to a process of development of comparable complexity to modern English and Romance languages.

Correcting this misapprehension was one thing, but having done so I quickly ran up against some rather large grey areas (ok – gaps) in my own subject knowledge when I was asked to elaborate. ‘So which languages fed into Latin then?’ came the inevitable question.

My answer to this (in hindsight, pretty much inevitable, if entirely appropriate, question) started with a classic hedge, though one which I *think* does approximate justice to the state of research in the field: ‘Well, this is an interesting question and scholars aren’t *entirely* clear on it’, I began. I hope this is fair!

I then mumbled something about how we have only a quite incomplete picture of a number of languages which are close relatives of Latin – like Oscan and Umbrian – before mentioning that the linguistic relative of Latin that we know best is Ancient Greek and that Latin adopted a number of words from Greek. 

An inscription in Oscan

I then talked briefly (and, if truth be told, quite unconfidently) about Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical ancestor language of Latin and a whole group of other ancient languages (including Greek), before mentioning Linear B as the oldest known linguistic relative of Latin that we have evidence of.

The Linear B script

So what did my mercifully brief and very scratchy attempt at philological exposition miss? Well, one obvious thing I didn’t mention at all is that the Latin language can itself be periodised and seen as a socially varied linguistic form. I think I am right in saying that classical philologists divide it (roughly) into early, middle and late forms** – and of course its character could vary profoundly depending on who was speaking it and where they were speaking. So an obvious example of what fed into Latin was, well, older, or socially varied forms of Latin itself.

Beyond this perhaps rather pedestrian-seeming (though important) point, there’s quite a lot more to say. And, from the cursory glance I’ve had tonight at a few pieces of research in this area, I realise my current knowledge-base is not even remotely close to where it would need to be to try to write any further with anything approaching conviction. So I’ve resolved to try to find time this summer to address this with some remedial reading (my intended purchase is James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks’ History of the Latin Language). More to come on this, perhaps, in a future post…

For the time being, I am going to present my 12 year olds with an extension task challenge: can they find any brief, interesting, accessible and reliable reading materials on the languages which influenced the development of Latin to share with their classmates (and me) to teach us all something new? I have no doubt that some of them are resourceful enough to succeed in this endeavour and I am looking forward to seeing their findings. This isn’t the first time a set of twelve year olds has led me to learn something new and it’s of course a teacher’s privilege that a good question from a pupil (however young) can help both fellow pupils *and teachers* find out new and interesting things.

*The featured image is of a Linear B inscription.

**I am referring here to Latin in antiquity, NOT to medieval and subsequent forms of the language.

The ‘cives’ of the Admiralty Arch

I have been doing some walking around the streets of London over the past few days, trying to keep an eye out for new things on some familiar routes. Maybe I hadn’t been paying much attention the last few times I’d passed it, but I noticed yesterday that the area surrounding the Admiralty Arch is under construction.

The arch is in a formidable location, just off Trafalgar Square at the entrance to the Mall (the thoroughfare specially designed for ceremonial parades going straight up toward Buckingham Palace). As an architectural monument, the arch is quite something. It is in fact comprised of three separate arches and a large building which straddles them (as pictured below).


Constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century during the reign of Edward VII, the arch was designed by the prolific architect Sir Aston Webb. The arch was used for a long time as an office for the admiralty. My research tells me that under New Labour, it became a home for the Cabinet Office. In 2011, as part of the Conservative government’s public spending cuts under David Cameron, the Cabinet Office stopped using it and the arch was put up for sale on a 125 year lease.

The winning bidder – a Spanish real estate developer –  has begun the process of transforming the arch into a plush Waldorf Astoria hotel. It’s of course easy to understand why a property developer would want to snap up the arch: its views and prime location alone will no doubt make for a stunning hotel experience once it’s up and ready. And how many hotels can there be that are also architecturally imposing public monuments?

Perhaps the most characterful features of the arch are two matching sculptures – one of Navigation, one of Gunnery (pictured below: note the cannon in her lap) – which are built into its Mall-facing facade.


What caught my attention as I walked past the arch, though, was its Latin inscription, which can be translated as follows: ‘In the tenth year of King Edward VII, for Queen Victoria, his most grateful citizens [built this arch] 1910’. A word features in the Latin of the inscription – ‘cives’ (citizens) – that surprised me.

For London’s inhabitants and for parliament, it had long been customary to speak of themselves as (royal) subjects, not citizens. It took twentieth century statutory developments, culminating in the British Nationality Act of 1981, effectively to supersede this custom. The fact that the arch’s inscription is in Latin, and the fact that Latin doesn’t have a neat translation for the English ‘subject’, explains why ‘cives’ was used on the arch. Since the time of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, it transpires, the English ‘subject’ had sometimes been translated to Latin using ‘civis’.* For this inscription, other alternatives could feasibly have been preferred, however: ‘populus’ (people), for instance.

What’s interesting to me is that the arch’s use of Latin – far from being a backward-looking feature – in fact anticipates a legal development (the widespread adoption of the language of citizenship) which only becomes enshrined in law decades later.

When shifting to a more thoroughgoing legal adoption of the language of citizenship in 1981, parliament effectively replaced a term – ‘subject’, which did not feature in the legal lexicon of the ancient world – with a central legal category of ancient Rome. This ancient Roman category represented a way to achieve a legal advance.

Do any other London monuments use the (Latin) language of citizenship in this same unwittingly prophetic way? I imagine some others must, though my internet searches have turned up nothing so far.

*Conal Condren, The Language of Politics in Seventeenth Century England, p.98f.