Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Language of Spartacus

Prompted by the Girl With The Trinity Smile (GwtTS), I've been watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and Gods of the Arena.  I'm jaded enough not to expect adherence to historicism: this isn't a documentary after all.  Indeed, it's 300 the series: similar visual style and subject matter.  In the words of one of my cow-orkers, it's a series about "fighting.  And naked people.  And naked people fighting."

However, I have been impressed by the language.  The series lacks the snappy machismo of 300, in part because it's hard to beat Herodotus for the macho one-liners.  What the series does have is an impressive English that sounds like Latin.

First of all, there are the Latin words and terminology sprinkled in to dialogue: legatus, dominus, retiarius, ludus, doctore.  Then there are the place names: Gaul, Thrace*, Sisilia.  This is the gratuitous Latin that I missed in Russel Crowe's Gladiator.  Where Gladiator insisted on calling the protagonist "the Spaniard", this new series would almost certainly call him "Iberian".

Then there's the lack of definite and indefinite pronouns.  Latin didn't have any, and this new series drops them where meaning is clear.  It even elides personal pronouns in the way Latin loves.  "Open mouth and lend voice to tongue." or "Put sword in hand."  This is how Romans would talk, were they speaking English.

Characters also never say "thank you".  They say "gratitude", a much closer parallel for ars gratia.  Which highlights one of the interesting idiosyncrasies of classical Latin: no one ever feels anything.

In Classical Latin, one doesn't feel happiness, or sadness, or angry.  Instead, the emotion simply manifests itself, as an abstract object.  Trying to say "I feel happy for you," is alien to Latin; instead one would say "Happiness for you."  As if happiness were a physical thing that appeared out of nowhere and simply existed; an phenomenon separate from any human agency.

Without indulging too much in Sapir-Whorf, this tendency tells us something about Roman thought and religion.  To Romans, abstractions can exist without people.  Happiness can occur with no thought to being happy.  Gratitude just happens.  When men are honorable, that honor exists as a thing outside of them.  The Platonic sense of this way of thinking should be obvious: in Platonic thought, there is an ideal form of honor, that has existence outside of people.  Honor just happens.

Within Latin itself, it becomes possible to personify just about any noun.  One can have death, and also Death; luck and also Luck; prosperity and also Prosperity.  Typically, the personified nouns are interpreted as invoking gods or goddesses.  One doesn't wish a friend to be lucky in Latin; one wishes for luck to be with him.  Just as easily, one can wish Luck to be with him.

This feature of Latin shows itself in the thought of the Western world.  Because our intellectual forebears thought and spoke like this,we've absorbed the concept without consciously realizing it.  We have personifications of Death, and Love, and Luck.  With help from the Romans, we think in archetypes and allegories.

One of the more complex ideas for young Christians to grasp is "the Holy Ghost", or - in Latin - spiritus sanctus.  Early church fathers speak of the spirit descending on the congregation, something that is hard for literal-minded moderns to visualize.  Compounding the problem is the choice of "ghost" to translate spiritus: too many people think of a white sheeted figure.   But if one thinks in Latin, the spiritus sanctus begins to make sense: it is that abstract phenomenon that manifests when everyone in a room feels the same way.  They don't feel holy, the spiritus sanctus simply comes to be.

Because that's the way Romans used to think.  And speak.

* Though for the love of Jove, this is a series set in the West, about 150 BCE.  This is still Classical Latin, not Vulgar or Ecclesiatical, and not the dead Latin of the Middle Ages.  This is the language of Virgil and Cicero. 'C's are hard, and final 'E's are certainly not silent.  The word is pronounced "Thrahkeh", not "Thraes" (and, by the by, the man would have pronounced it "Keekeroh", not "Siseroh")

Googlebombing for a cause:


Anonymous said...

Just letting you know, that someone read this.

vlad said...

Sometimes it seems a little too much, stretched, but then I hear " you have lost mind " and it reminds me how great is sounds.
A very nice post.