Friday, August 5, 2016

Word by Word by Word x 106

Latin is a dense language. As in good poetry, every word tells. Sometimes a single Latin word expresses what would be an entire relative clause in English. Take the famous announcement of the Roman gladiators: Ave, Caesar. Morituri te salutamus. Even the seemingly straightforward “Hail, Caesar” actually means “May good health be to you, Caesar.” The next word, morituri, packs in just as much. The -tur- element in a Latin verb indicates something that is going to happen or about to happen; the future is a thing that is going to be. So morituri are people who are about to die. Now this word might have sounded like the subject of the sentence to Augustus, but the -mus at the end of the whole thing forces its way into that role in English. We have to translate the phrase “We salute you.” And so morituri has to become a relative clause: “We who are about to die salute you.”

Edward Gibbon read a lot of Latin in order to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A lot of Latin. And he followed his extensive sources closely. I know he did (1) because of the voluminous footnotes and (2) because so much of his English prose carries the echoes of Latin sensibility. Since Gibbon represents his sources so thoroughly, reading his work is for the English-speaking reader almost like reading one ancient historical account after another in translation. That’s a good situation if you want to read a detailed history of Rome without having to track down translations of Eubanius and Eunapius and Sozomenus and scores of other ancient historians I hadn’t even heard of before reading The D and F.

But to gain this advantage, you have to pay some prices. Oh, I can put up with eighteenth-century historical method and biases; while our method has improved over the centuries, we’ve only swept away the old biases to let in seven new ones of our own. The much higher price comes in the form of having to read learned eighteenth-century prose at its most eloquent – eighteenth-century prose informed by Latin prose and its high density. You have to pay attention to every word. I can pay attention to every word in a sonnet by Wordsworth. But there are about a million-and-a-half words in Gibbon's literary monument. And it takes every bit of self-training and discipline and recalled advice from my dad for me to keep up with it. (My public-school education certainly never taught me to read at this level.)

Consider this example from book XXXV:
His rich gifts and pressing solicitations inflamed the ambition of Attila; and the designs of Aëtius and Theodoric were prevented by the invasion of Gaul.
It’s a relatively long sentence with many multi-syllable words. Based on those features alone, the sentence comes out at 25.796 on the Flesch Readability Scale: “Very difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.” But the density of information makes it even more challenging. The gifts and solicitations come from Genseric, King of the Vandals. But all Gibbon has said before this point about Genseric and Attila is that the former “armed” the latter. Instead of next saying, as a twenty-first-century writer probably would, that Genseric offered Attila rich gifts and pressed solicitations, each action luxuriating in its own verb, Gibbon compresses those two actions into a single subject-phrase and with his predicate indicates Attila’s response; his ambition became inflamed. And note: Gibbon never describes the gifts Genseric offers and only identifies his solicitations after the semicolon. Fully understanding that postsemicolonic (hey, I can push my Flesch-Kincaid score with the best of them) second half of the sentence requires the reader to keep track of the ever-shifting relationships between Aëtius, Theodoric, Genseric, and Attila. I admit that I don’t fully understand; I don’t actually remember what “designs” these two Romans entertained at this stage or even whether their respective designs were complementary or conflicting.

But the real kicker comes at the end of it all. The point, the weightiest fact of the sentence sneaks in on the breeze of that last, verbless prepositional phrase: “by the invasion of Gaul.” Gibbon doesn’t say bluntly, “Attila invaded Gaul.” In fact, he doesn’t even say here that it was Attila’s invasion; the reader merely has to infer it from context. And I must confess that I totally missed the significance the first time I read the page. The news comes at the end of a long, detail-ridden paragraph, and I flew past the words, assuming them the final, dispensable, prepositional nuance of an episode I thought I was done with. If the sentence had read “After Genseric’s gifts and solicitations, Attila decided to invade Gaul,” I definitely would have caught it: the main point occupies the main clause of the sentence. I would even have been OK with “In order to distract Aëtius and Theodoric from their plan of invading Vandal territory [if that was indeed their plan], Genseric bribed Attila and solicited him to invade Gaul”: at least the key information gets an infinitive verb. But I live in an age of subtitles: Attila Decides to Invade Gaul. I live in an age of voiceovers and helpful musical scores: “The designs of A and T were prevented by – Dut-dut-DUUH – [turn up reverb] the invasion of Gaul.” By contrast, Gibbon lived at a time when trained readers routinely exercised close attention and constant inference, so he could expect their exercise. He could expect it for a million-and-a-half words. And from certain passages in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I know that Gibbon got his wish in some cases.

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