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Confabulations

Pompeii

Welcome to a new blog from the Department of Classics at TCD. Confabulations will be a space for conversations about Latin in all its different forms, meant for anyone with an interest in language, big or small.

Latin has always been a language of power, from Julius Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ to the mottoes of old schools and the names of big companies today. This is the Latin that tends to get most of the attention. It has often become the property of the powerful and privileged in society.

But Latin was also a language that ordinary people lived and died in for hundreds of years, a language of birthday invitations and epitaphs, of ‘How’s it going’, ‘What’s for dinner’ and ‘See you later’. This kind of Latin is full of creativity and expression too, a reminder that language is a universal, and often very mundane, part of human experience.

Here is an example of what I mean.

I’ve taken this blog’s name from a collection of essays by John Berger. The word ‘confabulation’ started life as the Latin verb confabulari, ‘to chat’. It’s related to the word fabula, a story, from where we get the word ‘fable’ in English. The interesting thing about confabulari – and its base verb fabulari – is that you find it in early Latin, around 200 BCE, when it’s used by the comic playwright Plautus, but then it disappears completely. It is absent from later, ‘classical’ Latin, the Latin of Cicero and Virgil.

Absent, that is, until it reappears hundreds of years later in the Romance languages, the European languages which come directly from Latin. The verbs hablar in Spanish and falar in Portuguese – both meaning to talk or speak – are direct descendants of fabulari.

To explain this reappearance, J. N. Adams and other scholars hypothesize the existence of a ‘submerged Latin’, a popular register of the language that flowed underneath the highly-artistic Latin of the classics only to re-emerge in Romance. How else to explain the journey from fabulari to hablar?

The Latin texts that survive from ancient Rome are the tip of the iceberg, selected fragments of an enormous constellation of thought and expression, irrecoverable but not beyond the reach of imagination. Picture a street or a pub in Roman Italy or France or Spain, and then think of the kind of language you hear on the street or in a pub today. Babble, gossip, chatter: this Latin existed too, even if it has rarely survived in text.

So welcome to Confabulations. I hope you’ll check back here regularly and enjoy the posts.

After I’ve written a few lines I let the words slip back into the creature of their language. And there, they are instantly recognized and greeted by a host of other words, with whom they have an affinity of meaning, or of opposition, or of metaphor or alliteration or rhythm. I listen to their confabulation.

                                                            John Berger, ‘Self-Portrait’, from Confabulations (2016).

- Dr Charlie Kerrigan, May 2019

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