The Level of Poeticism in Latin Synonyms

Two of the students in my senior research colloquium, Beth Eidam and Tessa Cassidy, have decided to write on the question of the level of poeticism of Latin synonyms.  Their work is based on the fundamental article of R.G.G.  Coleman, “Poetic Diction, Poetic Discourse and the Poetic Register.” This 1999 paper is long, technical, and brilliant.  Coleman lists and defines a series of features that are distinctive to the language used by the Latin poets. These include the lexicon, of course, but also features of syntax, the use of proper names, special declensions, distinctive compounds, syncope, diminutives, Grecisms, the usual poetic devices like metaphor and metonymy, among others.

two pidgeons talking, listing synonyms for "sword"

What makes Latin poetry poetic is not just being in verse, or using rare, archaic words, or avoiding certain words. Rather, Coleman shows, there is constellation of features that elevate the language and give it energy. He emphasizes the importance of context.  Words like mollis and tener were quite at home in rustic or horticultural contexts (asparagi molles, tenerae gallinae), but in poetry of a Callimachean type they were polarized with durus and severus to cover in the wider metaphorical range.  Nothing in Catullus 85, he points out, is lexically poetic. It lacks all the other conventional markers of poeticism, like metaphor and archaism. But the combination is distinctively memorable and poetic, partly due to the extreme density of verbs. I recommend this article to all lovers of Latin poetry, if you can hang in with it.

Coleman’s discussion of synonyms (like ensis and gladius, fera and bestia, amnis and flumen) notes that we can often tell which was the more poetic and which was more associated with common speech by looking at the presence or absence of derivatives in the Romance languages. He points out that Vergil’s Dido is always pulchra, not formosa (although Vergil did not avoid formosa in the Eclogues).  Pulcher is likely to have been more poetic and literary and removed from common speech, since, unlike formosa, it left no trace in the Romance languages.

Beth and Tessa are planning to add some data the discussion.  Coleman made no attempt to assess the relative frequency of Latin synonyms in a poetry and prose.  But we now have the ability to do so with some degree of confidence, thanks to the data collected in Opera Latina. As Patrick Burns wrote in a 2017 SCS review,  

Opera Latina is a search interface from the Laboratoire d’Analyse Statistique des Langues Anciennes (LASLA) at the University of Liège that draws on over five decades of linguistic research on Latin literature. The database currently includes 154 works from 19 authors: Caesar, Cato, Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, Lucretius, Ovid, Persius, Petronius, Plautus, Pliny the Younger, Propertius, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Sallust, Seneca the Younger, Tactius, Tibullus, and Vergil.

The database currently includes 2,104,866 words of Latin, 385,258 of them from poetic works, 1,719,608 from prose.

Every word in the corpus has been annotated with the following information: the lemma, or dictionary head word (following Forcellini’s 1864 Lexicon totius latinitatis); the form of the word as it appears in the text; a citation with the word’s location in the text; the word’s morphology; and its subordinating syntax. Records are also flagged to distinguish ambiguous forms, mark proper nouns, and call attention to notable miscellany.

The plan is to work with the sets of synonyms collected in Doederlein’s Handbook of Latin Synonyms, collect the counts of those lemmas in Opera Latina, and create a database that will show the frequency of each synonym relative to the others (is gremium or sinus more common? As it turns out, sinus is commoner by a count of 317 to 78), and relative frequency in poetry and prose of each word.  Since the overall number of prose tokens is higher, the poetry count will be adjusted up so they are comparing apples to apples.  When those calculations are done, it will be possible to determine whether each word is relatively more common in prose or poetry. The plan is to express this as a number between zero and one, with zero assigned to a word that occurs exclusively in prose, 1 to a word that occurs exclusively in poetry.  On this scale (with the counts adjusted), gremium comes in at 0.89, sinus at 0.79–both are poetic.

The plan is to collect as much of this data as possible in one half semester. Beth and Tessa will divide up Doederlein and get as far as they can. Then they will turn to individual passages in Latin literature that actually use the synonyms and do the kind of analysis and close reading Coleman does, but backed up with data. Ideally, when the complete data is collected, we can create an online, enhanced version of Doederlein and put it up on DCC for all Latinists to enjoy. I would love to hear any comments or suggestions you might have for this project.