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The non-literary Latin letters. A study of their syntax and pragmatics

This dissertation studies the language of Latin letters that were written in Egypt and Vindolanda (in northern Britain) during the period 1st century BC – 3rd century AD on papyri, ostraca, and wooden tablets. The majority of the texts is, in one way or another, connected with the Roman army.The focus of the study is on syntax and pragmatics. Besides traditional philological methods, modern syntactic theory is used as well, especially in the pragmatic analysis. The study begins with a critical survey of certain concepts that are current in the research on the Latin language, most importantly the concept of ‘vulgar Latin’, which, it is argued, seems to be used as an abstract noun for ‘variation and change in Latin’. Further, it is necessary to treat even the non-literary material primarily as written texts and not as straightforward reflections of spoken language. An examination of letter phraseology shows that there is considerable variation between the two major geographical areas of provenance. Latin letter writing in Egypt was influenced by Greek. The study highlights the importance of seeing the letters as a text type, with recurring phraseological elements appearing in the body text as well. It is argued that recognising these elements is essential for the correct analysis of the syntax.Three areas of syntax are discussed in detail: sentence connection (mainly parataxis), syntactically incoherent structures and word order (the order of the object and the verb). For certain types of sentence connection we may plausibly posit an origin in spoken Latin, but for many other linguistic phenomena attested in this material the issue of ‘spoken Latin’ is anything but simple. Concerning the study of historical syntax, the letters offer information about the changing status of the accusative case. Incoherent structures may reflect contaminations in spoken language but usually the reason for them is the inability of the writer to put his thoughts into writing, especially when there is something more complicated to be expressed. Many incoherent expressions reflect the need to start the predication with a thematic constituent.Latin word order is seen as resulting from an interaction of syntactic and pragmatic factors. The preference for an order where the topic is placed sentence-initially can be seen in word order more generally as well. Furthermore, there appears a difference between Egypt and Vindolanda. The letters from Vindolanda show the order O(bject) – V(erb) clearly more often than the letters from Egypt. Interestingly, this difference correlates with another, namely the use of the anaphoric pronoun is. This is an interesting observation in view of the fact that both of these are traditional Latin features, as opposed to those that foreshadow the Romance development (VO order and use of the anaphoric ille). However, it is difficult to say whether this is an indication of social or regional variation.

Author(s):  Halla-aho, Hilla
Format:  Book
Publisher:  University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts, Department of Classical Philology
Publication City:  Helsinki
Date:  2008