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Friday, 30 September 2016

Insulting ancient Romans, and what it means to be human

Mater tua caligas gerit.

Having started with an insult, I shall now be polite.

There are many ways to define human beings. One that I learned as a boy was, I think, from a French philosopher, whose name is now lost to me. It was: “Man is the only animal that cooks his own food”. These days, we might dress that up in slightly less gender-specific language, but the meaning is clear. It is, however, out of date, because a bonobo chimpanzee called Kanzi learned how to light a fire and cook food over it, after seeing humans doing so.

But how did we humans learn the cooking trick? Charles Lamb had a nice little fable in his A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig. In his tale, a Chinese boy accidentally burned the family hut down, raked out a charred pig from the ashes, and having burnt his hands on the charred carcase and sucked his fingers to ease the pain, discovered the marvellous taste of roast pig.

Slowly, the practice spread, and people cooked the only way they knew, which was to put pigs in a building and incinerate it and them. Only later, did they invent the spit and other modes of cooking, according to Lamb’s story.

Cooking might have been started like that, but the odds are against it. When we are dealing with old history, we know that some discovery of that sort must once have happened, but most probably in the aftermath of a wildfire of some sort.

We can only speculate—and must be cautious not to embrace such legends with too much enthusiasm, because our ancestors had brains like ours, and would quickly have seen that there was no need to burn a whole house down.

Still, Kanzi the bonobo only learned to cook after seeing humans doing so, which leaves us a possible definition: that we are the only animals that have invented cooking. It is, to be honest, a thin and flimsy, threadbare sort of definition.

The next fall-back is to say that only humans communicate. Then again, each morning, I hear noisy miners (large honey-eaters) outside my house, calling a warning to each other when a larger predator bird appears, cruising and looking for a juicy fledgling for breakfast. Noisy miners are tough little beasts, and quick to mob any raptor or corvid that cruises by, looking at their chicks.

It is, however, a fairly uniform call, an alarm call with just one meaning. Perhaps we could say only humans have a large vocabulary, but at last report Kanzi had a vocabulary of about 250 words, and can link these to symbols called lexigrams. Kanzi also makes and uses stone tools.

In desperation, we might say that humans are the only animals with syntax, rules for putting words together to convey a meaning. In The Rise of the Third Ape, Jared Diamond says that cervet monkeys have a vocabulary of about fifteen words, but is that a language or a symbol system? Suppose I (as a cervet) said the cervet version of “leopard–water”. How could you (as another cervet) tell if I meant:

* there’s a leopard over there by the water;
* the leopards come when it rains;
* it’s raining leopards at the moment; or
* let’s go over and pee on that leopard?

The simple answer is that if you were another cervet, you would have little idea which meaning was correct, at least until you looked around. Language usually relies on something more than words to get a message over: part of the answer is “context”, and the other part is syntax.

Every human language has a grammar system, a reasonably firm set of rules that make it possible for the listener to understand the speaker. In English, we mainly consider word order to catch the speaker’s drift. In poetic language, we may have to think for a bit, but we can manage all sorts of upside down language.

Most of us have encountered inverted English in the Star Wars movies when we listen to Yoda. We may say “your mother wears army boots”, and that is clear enough. Equally, the Yoda-ish “army boots your mother wears” makes sense—after a bit of thought.

But if I said “army boots wears your mother”, that is a little more confusing, but because we inflect the verb to wear, the form wears tells us that the subject, the thing or person doing the wearing, is singular. Compare “army boots wears your mother” and “army boots wear your mother”, and you will see the help that we get from that little inflection.

The rules of grammar that a tribe or a nation uses were not created, they just grew and evolved, and it is probably just one thing that has preserved wear/wears, and that is the convenience of knowing if there is one subject or more than one involved in the action.

A caliga, the preferred footwear of the Roman army.
(acquired from some source or other)
In Latin, the rules for word order are much less rigid. The usual Latin equivalent of “your mother wears army boots” is mater tua caligas gerit (literally “mother your army-boots wears”). Now as anybody who learned Latin at some stage knows, every noun and every verb has many different endings—and every ending brings its own meaning.

When we learn Latin as a dead language, we have to learn the different forms by rote, by reciting them, but the Romans never had to do that: they just picked them up. This is certainly a defining trait in humans: the young ones are incredibly good at trapping and decoding even the most complex rules of syntax in even the most daunting of languages.

Taking mensa (table) as an example, the first declension of nouns in Latin runs mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa. Those are the six singular forms, and there are also six plural forms: mensae, mensae, mensas, mensarum, mensis, mensis. The rule applies to other similar words like femina (woman) which goes: femina, femina, feminam, feminae, feminae, femina; feminae, feminae, feminas, feminarum, feminis, feminis. Or causa (cause), which runs causa, causa, causam, causae, causae, causa; causae, causae, causas, causarum, causis, causis. Once again, we have the same pattern.

There’s actually quite a bit more to learn before you can settle down to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Ovid’s cheery account of the death of Ancaeus after the Calydonian boar got him (I really enjoyed the gory bits of that as a teenage schoolboy), but this much is complicated enough. And talking of complication, notice how some noun endings recur, but with different meanings. This is one of the reasons why Latin has always been so hard to puzzle out for foreign beginners. It didn’t matter to the Romans, because they grew up with it, and it all made sense.

The six cases (forms of nouns) are nominative (subject of the verb), vocative (something addressed—rare), accusative (object of the verb, the thing acted on), genitive (possessive), dative (to or for) and ablative (by, with or from). That sounds a bit like gobbledegook, so let’s try a table about tables:

A table of the Latin forms of table.

Case
singular and plural
Latin
singular and plural
English
nominative
mensa, mensae
the table(s) (subject)
vocative
mensa, mensae
O, table(s)!
accusative
mensam, mensas
the table(s) (object)
genitive
mensae, mensarum
of the table(s)
dative
mensae, mensis
to or for the table(s)
ablative
mensa, mensis
by, with or from the table(s)

Back to your mother and mater tua caligas gerit for a moment, the word order in Latin does not matter, because there are clues to the meanings, buried in the endings of each of the four words. That said, it is good form in Latin to put the verb at the end, and it is normal to put any adjective or possessive pronoun after the noun.

Mater is declined according to a different but equally fixed set of rules. To any Latin user, it is clear that the mother in this case is the person doing what the verb describes. The word tua means your, and it is singular and feminine: even possessive pronouns and adjectives get changed to match the nouns they go with. So we know that the “your” refers to the mother because it has a feminine ending. The word caligas means army boots (plural), in the accusative or object form.

Then we come, at last, to the verb: up to this point in the sentence, we know that your mother does (or did, or will do) something to the army boots, but the action could involve eating them, painting them, making them, rinsing the blood off them or chopping them up. The verb gerit is third person singular, in the present tense, making it clearer that it is a single person who is wearing the boots and that it is happening right now. So now you know how to insult any ancient Roman you happen to run into.

Clearly, nobody could have sat down and invented a language system like that: it just grew over time, and one of the things that makes us human is the way very small humans can acquire these complex rules and use them to make their wants known at a very early age.

No bonobo has come close to matching that—yet, but there are probably other definitions of humanity. Mr Tchaikovsky gave us the Waltz of the Flowers, and Mr Disney took Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Reed Flutes and set hippos dancing to it in Fantasia, but in real life, only humans habitually move in time to the music. We tap our feet, we sway our bodies, we respond as no other animal does, especially hippos. Plants of course, are thankfully devoid of balletic tendencies, and yes, I do have Cornish heritage, so I know about the Floral Dance, but it never involved flowers.

The "Willendorf Venus" or Venus
von Willendorf is on display in Vienna
is an example of a particular style.
Was it fertility-related? We can only guess,
but this was a Cro-Magnon style that spread fast.
The definition that I prefer, though, is that modern humans are creatures given to innovation, experimentation, and fashion. Archaeologists in the Middle East can date a new site by gathering a few pottery fragments which reveal who lived there and when, just by the style.

People studying Cro-Magnon sites in Europe can look at the artefacts found there and date a site quite reliably to within a couple of thousand years, sometimes less, just by looking at the styles that are found left behind. Some of these were small musical instruments, so the musical side of us has been around for quite a while.

Clearly, Europe’s modern humans, some 35,000 years ago, the ones who replaced the Neandertalers, were able to talk and develop ideas. They were able and willing to trade and share, so once a new fashion emerged, it spread rapidly over long distances.

It’s a curious sort of fashion-consciousness that we see, coupled with conservatism among the older members of the tribe, community or nation.  I will come back to that conservatism some other time, when I introduce the 50-year effect, which is something I have been talking about for years.

For those wishing to confuse  telemarketers, the following Latin phrases will help. Sadly, the translations may not be entirely reliable in all cases.


Cacatne ursus in silvis?
Does a bear shit in the woods?
Canis meus id comedit.
My dog ate it.
Carpe diem
Eat one fish each day
Carpe scrotum
Obtain a squirrel grip
Compos mentis
A dirty mind
Conlige suspectos semper habitos.
Round up the usual suspects.
Cuius testiculos habeas, habeas cardia et cerebellum.
When you have them by the balls, the heart and mind will follow
Da mihi sis cerevisiam dilutam.
I'll have a light beer.)
De gustibus non est disputandum.
Don’t argue with the wind.
Eia! Tu! Os porcus!
Hey! You! Pig face!
Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?
Is that a scroll in your toga, or are you just happy to see me?
Excreta tauri cerebrum vincit
Bullshit beats brains
Festina lente
Get rotten during Lent
In veritas rectum es
You really are an arsehole
In vino veritas
The vines are full of pandas
Mater tua caligas gerit
Your mother wears army boots
Mater tua criceta fuit, et pater tuo redoluit bacarum sambucus.
Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.
Mea navis aƫricumbens anguillis abundat
My hovercraft is full of eels
Noli me vocate, ego te vocabo.
Don't call me, I'll call you.
Non calor sed umor est qui nobis incommodat.
It's not the heat, it's the humidity.
Non gradus rectum rodentum!
Not Worth A Rats Ass!
Non torsii subligarium!
Don't get your knickers in a twist!
Purgamentum init, exit purgamentum.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Quid pro quo
They want a pound for that? (Tell them they’re dreamon’)
Re vera, cara mea, mea nil refert.
Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.
Recedite, plebes! Gero rem imperialem!
Stand aside plebians! I am on imperial business!
Sic transit gloria mundi
Gloria was sick on the bus on Monday
Sona si latine loqueris.
Honk if you speak Latin.
Te audire no possum. Musa sapientum fixa est in aure.
I can't hear you. I have a banana in my ear.
Vah! Denuone Latine loquebar? Me ineptum. Interdum modo elabitur.
Oh! Was I speaking Latin again? Silly me. Sometimes it just sort of slips out.

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