The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Danny Bate
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
This is such a difficult question! Every option brings with it a feeling of impending betrayal, as any decision must forsake so many sources close to my heart! However, because it is so grammatically interesting and personally important, and written in a language much less celebrated than Latin and Greek, the source I have chosen is the Gallo-Latin inscription found in Alise-Sainte-Reine, France.
When did you first come across this inscription?
I stumbled across the inscription quite by accident while I was researching for the final part of my MPhil thesis. My project was a study of declarative complementizers (for example, the clause-connecting word that in an English sentence like I think that Latin is cool) across the Indo-European family of languages. It was a true lightning-bolt moment; the inscription offered me the final piece I needed to complete a very large and very gruelling puzzle. I’ll never forget that thrill!
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
This short text in the Gaulish language (and written in the Latin alphabet) is a dedication to the god Ucuetis. It dates to the first century AD, by which time Gaul had become a part of the Roman Empire, and Gaulish had begun to give way to the more prestigious Latin. It reads:
Martialis Dannotali ieuru Ucuete sosin celicnon, etic gobedbi dugiiontiio Ucuetin in […] Alisia
Translated into English:
Martialis, son of Dannotalos, dedicates this building (?) to Ucuetis, along with the smiths who worship Ucuetis in Alisia
Ucuetis was a popular god in the locality, venerated in Alisia by craftsmen who saw him as their divine patron.
What is it about this source that appeals to you most?
I continue to be struck by how a prosaic inscription of twelve words can open up such a cosmos of scholarship – one not only culturally and historically rich, but linguistically too. I could happily talk all day about all the grammatical minutiae of Martialis’s inscription, but I’ll limit myself to mentioning only its particular importance for my research.
The Celtic languages, which include Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Breton and Manx, are unusual in many ways, one of which is how they connect clauses together. In this regard, they buck a few European trends, and would do so inexplicably, were it not for a handful of ancient inscriptions like this one. Since it’s written in Gaulish, itself also a Celtic language, the inscription gives us vital clues to the grammatical development of the family.
See the word dugiiontiio? It is in fact made up of two elements: firstly the verb dugiionti ‘worship’, and then -io ‘who’, which has affixed itself to the verb. The latter may not look like much – merely two letters squished into the inscription at the end of a line, as if nearly forgotten – and yet -io can, amazingly, tell us a whole grammatical story of change capable of explaining the aforementioned grammatical oddities in the Celtic languages of today.
This is why I love this inscription. Not only did it help my own humble project, but also, by offering so much in so little, it confirms my belief that everything is worthy of study, and that sources of great scholarship can come from anywhere. The devil really is in the detail.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
When I’m down, I try to go to one of three places of sanctuary: the church, the pub or the hills. I’m an eager church-crawler, visiting for that delightful combination of mundane and ineffable that is always, if anything, very calming in these tough times. I can find the same feelings in the other two locations too – and a great day for me will combine all three. If you add some friends, a book and maybe a cat or two into the mix, it’s a perfect day.
Danny is a linguist and soon-to-be PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, who specializes in syntax and ancient and medieval languages. He currently lives in Prague, teaching English, German and Latin; he also lives on the internet, where he tries to share his linguistic enthusiasm with the good people of Twitter (@DannyBate4). He loves cats very much.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.