Friday, April 23, 2010

In Defense of the Humble Jot

(Fair warning: not a gaming post, but possibly geekier than one.)

You know what ticks me off more than anything else when I'm reading something in Latin? (You know, because we've all been there, am I right?) It's the fact that modern practice dispenses with the letter "j"... but for reasons that sit somewhere between historical accident and brazen hypocrisy.

To demonstrate, let's take a fairly common Latin sentence. Something that Cicero might've said to Julius Caesar. "Now I will throw his d20." Yeah, that sounds like something he probably said. In Latin, that sentence could be rendered, "Iam aleam cum viginti lateribus eius iaciam." Except, we live in a fallen and imperfect world, full of sin and evil and misery. If this were not the case, my very historically and linguistically accurate sentence would read, "Jam aleam cum viginti lateribus ejus jaciam."

Let's start with the hypocrisy. Okay, maybe I'm being harsh, but there's certainly a kind of inconsistency at work here. After all, the Romans didn't punctuate. They didn't use periods and commas, they didn't capitalize, they didn't have quotation marks, and they didn't even space out their words. So when we write Latin in modern times, we're already changing things quite a bit. There's no reason to try and imitate the Roman way of doing things; it would make the Latin all but unreadable. And yet, I've heard many classicists say that "j" shouldn't be used in Latin, because the Romans always used "i".

But, wait... what's that I see in a couple of those words up there? Words like "cum" and "ejus"? Why, it's a "u"! The Romans would've just written "v" of course, but modern orthographic practice distinguishes between the consonant and the vowel. Now, I tell you, why not do the same thing with "i" and "j", since the circumstances are all but identical? In both cases, the consonant ("v" or "j") is merely the liquid/semi-vocalic form of the vowel ("u" or "i"). Yes, okay, the "v" mutated all the way into a fricative [v] sound (from [w] in the classical period) in modern pronunciation, whereas the consonantal "i" is still pronounced [j] in nearly all idioms of Late, Neo, and Modern Latin (if it were a fricative, it would sound like [ʒ], as in French), except of course for English legal Latin where it takes our tongue's idiosyncratic [dʒ] pronunciation. The point is, the consonantal "i" in Latin is at least as distinct from its vowel as consonantal "u". If you dispense with the "j" on the practice that Romans didn't use it, you also have to toss out the "u" glyph, all the punctuation and lower-case letters, and spaces between the words.

•IAMALEAMCVMVIGINTILATERIBVSEIVSIACIAM•

See? What an improvement.

So why did the "j" disappear? Are the classicists really just that stuffy and myopic? Well, apparently "j" disappeared from Latin around the same time the Italians stopped using it (because the rules for using "j" in Italian, unlike in Latin, managed to become rather complex and arcane). But that doesn't seem like a very good reason to me. Sure, okay, Italian has a lot of influence on contemporary Latin usage. Many new Latin words (especially technology terms) get borrowed from modern Italian, and the Italian pronunciation (i.e. Catholic Church Latin) will always be my preferred idiom (since it's just so much prettier than the rather rigid and unimaginative classical pronunciation). Still, that's no good reason to ditch a perfectly good letter that serves a useful orthographic purpose.

So, I say, yay for "j"! Hell, I'll even concede to the classicists that the ash and oethel ligatures ("æ" and "œ") are too archaic to be of much use in writing modern-day Latin, just as they've fallen out of favor in today's English. (And just because I write out "ae" and "oe" in full, that doesn't mean I have to pronounce the [aj] and [oj] dipthongs that fell out of Late Latin! It's [e:] all the way, baby! w00t!)

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God, I'm such a nerd.

Ah, well, might as well own it. Time for a line from Farscape:

JOHN: It's a happy face.
AERYN: They're food cubes.
JOHN: No, see, the pattern forms a... never mind.
—Episode 1.9, "DNA Mad Scientist"

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