Sunday, July 19, 2009

On the Invention of the word 'Quality' and the letter 'G'

"The task he [Cicero] had set himself was to transmute Greek philosophy into a corpus of Latin works that would make sense to Romans. In doing so, he found himself struggling to give Latin some means of expressing abstractions. The word qualitas, for example, is one of the technical terms Cicero invented, turning up here for the first time in his Academic Questions:

"...they called it body and something like quality ('how-ness'). You will certainly allow us in these unusual cases sometimes to use words that are novel, as the Greeks themselves do who have long been discussing them."
"As far as we're concerned," said Atticus, "go ahead and use Greek terms when you want, if you Latin fails you." Varro replied, "You're very kind: but I'll endevor to speak in Latin, except for words like philosophy or rhetoric or physics or dialectic, which along with many others are already customary in place of Latin words. So I have called qualities what the Greeks call poiotetas, which even among Greeks is not a word for ordinary people but philosophers, as often. In fact, the logicians have no use for ordinary words: they use their own."

"Etruscan speakers, who did not hear a difference between [g] and [k], (nor indeed [d] and [t], nor [b] and [p] {tacitus note - these are known in linguistics as 'voiced/unvoiced pairs'}) provided the reason why the letter Γ, Greek gamma... came to be pronounced as [K], and to be distinguished from the K and Q only by the following vowel... This reinterpretation of Γ/C meant that the Latins needed to reinvent a symbol for [g], namely G. Amazingly, we are even told the inventor's name, one Sp. Carvilius Ruga (Plutarch, Roman Questions, 54). He seems only to have gotten around to this in the third century BC."

from 'AD INFINITVM - a biography of Latin', Nicholas Ostler
image: etruscan alphabet

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