VI. - Augustine - De Dialectica - -
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  • VI.

    Any word with the exception of its sound -- to dispute well concerning which pertains to the faculty of dialectic, not the discipline of dialectic, just as the defenses of Cicero are of the rhetorical faculty, but rhetoric itself is not taught in them -- thus any word beyond its sound brings up four things by necessity: origin, power, inflection, order.

    We investigate the origin of a word when we ask whence it is said, a thing in my opinion of great curiosity and less necessity. Nor is it incumbent upon me to repeat what Cicero said (De nat. deor. 3.24), for who needs authority in such a clear matter? And even if were of great aid to explain the origin of a word, it would be silly (ineptum) to embark upon a project which would be impossible (infinite) to complete. For who can find out when something is said whence it is said? It amounts to this: Just as in the interpretation of dreams, the origin of words is judged by each mind (ingenium). Verbum (word) itself is sometimes said to be from the fact that it sort of reverberates in the ears. By no means, says another, anything other than air. But who cares? Ours is not a great argument, since both derive it from verberando (beating). But unexpectedly we see a third which causes an argument. For since it is said to be proper for us to speak truth and that the lie is odious by nature to the judge, verbum (word) is so named from verum (the true). Nor is a fourth lacking to ingenuity. For there are some who derive verbum (word) from verum (the true), but, the first syllable having received enough attention, they think it is wrong to neglect the second. For when we say verbum (word), they say, its first syllable signifies verum (the true), its second sound. They want this to be bum, whence Ennius calls the sound of the feet bombum pedum, and the Greeks say {Gk. boe:~sai} to call out, and Virgil (Georg. 3.223) reboant silvae (the woods resound). Hence verbum (word) is something like from verum boando (sounding the truth). If this is true, this name forbids us to lie when we use a word, but I tell the truth, lest those who say these things lie (I am afraid they may be lying; Augustine likes to pun, Tr.). Thus you must judge whether verbum (word) comes from verberando (echoing) or from vero (the true) alone, or from verum boando (sounding the truth) or whether we should not worry about where it comes from, if only we understand what it means. This section having been covered briefly (i.e. on the origin of words), I want you to listen a little, so that no part of the work begun may be overlooked by us. The Stoics affirm, whom Cicero ridicules in this matter (as Cicero so well could), that there is no word whose origin cannot be explained with certainty. And since it was easy to press them in this matter, if you were to say that it is uncertain by which words you might interpret the origin of some word, they would answer you back that you should seek the origin until you arrive at the point at which the thing coincides harmoniously in some similarity with the sound of the word, as when we say tinnitum aeris (clinking of brass), the hinnitum (whinny) of a horse, the balatum (bleating) of sheep, the clangor (blare) of a trumpet, the stridor (grinding) of chains. For you see that these words make a sound such as the very things which are signified by them. But since there are things which do not make sounds, it is the effect which forms the similarity, e.g. whether they impinge harshly or softly on the senses, the harshness or softness of the sound as it affects our hearing gives them names. For example, the word lenis (soft) itself has a soft sound when we pronounce it. Who would not judge asperitas (harshness) by its very name to be harsh? It is soft to the ears when we say voluptas (pleasure) and harsh when we say crux (cross). So that the sense of the words (the feel of the words) and the things themselves have the same effect. mel (honey), as sweetly as it affects the taste, just as softly does it touch the hearing with its name. acer (acrid, strident) is harsh in both (Tr. taste and hearing). lana (wool) and vepres (thorn bush) have an effect like that of the words when they are heard. They (the Stoics) thought this to be somewhat like a cunabula verborum (cradle of words), where the sense of the thing concorded with the sense of the sound, and that the license of naming proceded from there to the similarity of the things among themselves. E.g., for the sake of the word itself crux cross was said (originated), since the harshness of the word itself concords with the pain which the cross brings about, but crura (limbs) not because of the harshness of pain, but because they, of all the members, are most similar to the wood of the cross in length and sturdiness. The go from there to abusio (catachresis), where the name is misused (usurped), not for a similar thing but for a sort of close one. For what do the meanings of parvus (small) and minutus (minute) have in common, since a thing can be parvus (small), which is in no way minutus (minute), but may even grow (Tr. a pun on minutus, past participle of minuo [to diminish, grow smaller]). But this catachresis is in the power of the speaker, for he has parvum, so that he does not have to use minutum. This has to do more with what we want to take up now: for example, when piscina (pool) is said of baths, in which there are no fish and which have nothing similar to fish, we see that it is named for fish because of the water in which fish live. If someone were to say that men were made for swimming similarly to fish and that piscina got its name from that, it is stupid to oppose (him), since neither is repulsive (contradictory) to the thing and both are unclear. From this one example, we should be able to judge as to what distinguishes word- origins deriving from vicinity from those taken from similitude. From these we go on to contraries. lucus (grove) is said to take its name from the fact that there is little light there (minime luceat), and bellum (war), because it is not a bella (pretty) thing, and the name of foedus (treaty), because it is not a foeda (ugly) thing. But if it is said to be because of the fierce aspect of the porcus (battle array) (Tr. play on porcus [pig] and porcus [caput porci battle array]), as some would have it, the origin is from that type of vicinity by which that which is done is named for that for which it was done. Now this vicinity is extensively applied and can be divided into many parts: either by the cause, as this one by the fearful aspect of the battle array, by which a truce is effected -- or by the effect, as puteus (well), whose effect is potation -- or by that in which it is contained, as urbs (city), which some would derive from orbis (circle), since the place was accustomed to be circumscribed by the plow after the auspices were taken, a thing which Virgil (Aen. LV, 755) remembers, where Aeneas lays out the city with a plow -- or that which is contained, e.g. when someone affirms that horreum (granary) comes from hordeum (barley) by the change of a letter -- or by misuse when we say horreum and what is kept there is wheat -- or the whole from a part, as when we call the sword mucro, which is the tip of the sword -- or a part from the whole, as capillus (hair, scalp) like capitis pilus (hair of the head). How much further shall I go? whatever else can be enumerated, you have seen that the origin of a word can be contained either in the similitude of things and sounds or the similitude of things themselves, or vicinity or contrary. We cannot pursue this beyond the similitude of sound, but we are not always able to use even this. For the words are innumerable whose origin or reason cannot be given, as I believe, because there is none, as the Stoics contend, because it is hidden (escapes us). Just take a glance at the means whereby they think they can arrive at those cradles or families or even the seed of words, beyond which they think it is impossible to go, in case someone thinks he can find something. No one denies that there are syllables in which the letter v has the value of a consonant, e. g. vafer (cunning), velum (sail), vinum (wine), vomis (ploughshare), vulnus (wound), a thick and rather strong sound. And usage approves our subtracting it from some words, lest they offend our ears. It is because of this that we say amasti (you have loved) more freely than amavisti, and nosti (you knew) rather than novisti, and abiit (he left) and not abivit, and the like. Thus, when we say vis (power), the sound of the word when it is pronounced, being rather strong, is congruent with the thing it signifies. From the vicinity of that which they do, i.e. that they are violent, vincula (bonds) may be seen to be derived, and vimen (withe) by which something is bound. Hence vites (vines), because they hold he stakes to which they are tied with their tendrils. Hence because of similitude Terence (Eun. IV, 21) calls the bent old man vietum (shriveled, bent). Thus, the earth, which is flexible and ground by the feet of travelers, is called via (way). But if via (way) is thought to come more from the fact that it is ground by the vi (power) of the feet, then the origin is attributed to that vicinity. But let us say that it is by similitude to vitis (vine) or vimen (withe) that it is said, because of its winding. Someone will ask of me: Where does via (way) come from? I answer: from its winding, as bent old men are called veteres, whence the rims which go around the wood of a wheel are called vietos. He will continue to ask whence vietus (rim) is said to be flexible or bent, and I will respond: "By similarity to vitis (vine)." He persists and asks whence this is the name of vine; I say: "Because it entwines itself around those things which hold it." He now wishes to know whence vincire (to bind) itself is said, and we say: "From vis (power)." He asks whence vis (power) is so called, and the reason is given: "The robust and rather strong sound of the word is congruent with the thing it signifies." There is nothing else to ask. By how many ways the origin of words is varied, then, by the corruption of voices, it is useless to pursue. They are both long and of less necessity than those which have been treated.

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