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The Language of Nature and the Nature of Language in Varro’s De Lingua Latina

Brandon D Bark

Stanford University

Varro played a crucial role in developing the notion of natura both as a formal criterion of correct speech (Latinitas) and more generally as a means of conceiving of the regularity (ratio/analogia) of language: the nature of speech (natura orationis) mirrored the nature of the cosmos (natura mundi). Garcea (2012) has shown that Varro’s concept of natura differed significantly from that of Caesar; additionally, Varro’s theory has little in common with Epicurean or neo-Atticist formulations of “natural” language. Despite the uniqueness of Varro’s treatment of natura, its significant role in the arguments—and fallacies—of De Lingua Latina (LL) has been overlooked in favor of analogy and anomaly. But not only is natura essential to understanding both concepts; it also provides a window onto discovering the sources and structure of Varro’s argument and the complex, even contrived relationship he constructs between language and the world, between linguistic and naturalistic philosophy. This paper aims to correct this oversight by closely examining several crucial passages wherein the language of nature allows Varro to craft a particular nature of language. At stake is a holistic sense of how Varro’s vision(s) of the natural world in LL compares to similar views he expresses elwhere and to the larger Roman discourse on language and the universe.

Below are but three examples of the complicated involvement of natura in the arguments of LL. First, what are the ramifications of the view—which likely originated with Varro—that a language’s natura consists of the immutable roots of its words transmitted diachronically (e.g. Varro notes that the verb “to write” in Latin is scrib-, not *scrimb-)?  It is obvious that canis is Latin for “dog” but *danis or *wanis are not—but what about real historical sound changes that occurred in the language? Would attested, so-called “vulgar” forms like columa (>columna) and mamor (>marmor) have been considered “unnatural” Latin words, or even words of a different language in Varro’s view? Where did Latin—even “vulgar Latin”—end and “post-Latin”—“proto-Romance” from our perspective—begin?

A second example is as follows. Varro likens the irregular words that sporadically (in his view) appear amid the vast “sea of speech” (pelagus sermonis) to the occasional organisms born with deformations or defects: to argue that regularity does not exist in language on account of these few irregular words is “just as if one should have seen a dehorned ox or a one-eyed man and a lame horse, and should say that the likenesses do not exist with regularity in the nature of cattle, men, and horses” (9.26.33). How does Varro’s understanding of “unnatural” or “preternatural” organisms cohere with contemporary biological and religious interpretations of monsters and prodigies? For example, Sextus Empiricus similarly conceives of words as organisms genetically programmed to inflect in only one correct way (Adv.Math. 224–7)—but this leads him to a sceptical stance on language opposite Varro’s dogmatic conclusion. Moreover, how can Varro’s notion of a rational cosmos rather paradoxically accommodate anomalous beings?

A final example pertains to Latin semantics. Varro defends the fact that not every adjective can correctly modify every noun on the grounds that both the essential qualities (natura) of referents and how culture employs them (usus) combine to account for the behavior of words. Thus Varro explains that surdus, “deaf”, may modify homo, “person”, or theatrum, “theater”, but not cubiculum, “bedroom”, because only the first two were “intended for hearing” (ad auditum comparatae). But it is immediately obvious that a hard-of-hearing person and a theater in which it is hard to hear are not “deaf” in the same way, although surdus attaches to both meanings. Varro’s explanation therefore fails to bypass this fundamental failure of language that Chrysippus more than a century earlier had already labeled as polysemy—namely, that different concepts are often designated by the same word.

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