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Greek and Latin Expressions of Meaning

Andreas T. Zanker


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1At this point in the book, it will be useful to summarize its contents. In Chapter 1, I considered the polysemy of certain Latin expressions of meaning. These could be used for (a) what a speaker means by his or her words, or (b) what his or her words mean to a listener. It was established that Roman authors could employ this polysemy for humorous ends. I also argued that the Servian phrase “hoc uult dicere” ought to be interpreted as (a) “he means this”, not, as it turned out,(b) “this means” or (c) “he means by this”, even though this may go against the expectation, encouraged by modern idiom and contemporary literary criticism, that the phrase should be construed as (b), “this means”. Finally, I looked at how the absence of quotation marks in classical writing could be an issue when it came to dealing with polysemous expressions of meaning.

2In Chapters 2and 3, I set out the six types of expression employed by ancient authors in contexts where an English speaker might employ “to mean” or “to signify”: (a) expressions of wanting or desiring, (b) expressions of thinking, (c) expressions of speaking, (d) passive constructions, (e) expressions of equivalence and power. The entirety of Chapter 3was devoted to (f) expressions of showing and sign-giving. I posited that there was no active verb that could be used of what a text means that could not also be used of a human being, although those under (e) were not used of animate subjects in the sense of “to mean”, “to intend” (I-meaning). I also pointed out that many of these verbs are first attested in our texts with animate grammatical subjects and only subsequently came to be employed of inanimate things.

3In Chapter 4, I presented a theory for why the transferences occurred: the main motivation was the need to find vocabulary for a new area of inquiry; this was reinforced by the advantages of economy/efficiency. In Chapter 5, I followed the development of the Greek expressions of meaning from the Homeric period onwards; it was shown that the Homeric and Hesiodic poems entirely lack the subsequently attested vocabulary of meaning (save, perhaps, for the trivial word “εἶναι”); issues of signification are articulated in ways other than what we see in later authors such as Herodotus, Sophocles, and Plato. I then put forward the hypothesis that the corresponding vocabulary developed between the seventh and fifth centuries BC, arguing that the transference was motivated by the cultural conditions of the Archaic age: the spread of literacy, growing philosophical sophistication, and the concomitant formulation of new types of question. In any event, the Greek vocabulary of meaning was largely established by the time of Plato, who used it broadly in dialogues such as the Protagoras and particularly in the Cratylus. Aristotle and the Stoics inherited this terminology, and it influenced the growth of the corresponding Latin terms.

4In Chapter 6, I surveyed the appearance of the metaphor text = person through the classical canon from the earliest beginnings and showed that the metaphor is present in some of the most influential works of ancient literature. Texts were frequently described as possessing voices, intentions, and wills of their own. In Chapter 7, I considered the metonymy of author for text and how it was exploited by Roman authors both for amusement and in order to assure themselves of a type of immortality. On certain occasions, the metaphor and metonymy were combined in order to increase the effect of a passage. The upshot is that we have a further trope that could be activated in order to create an identification of person and text.

5In Chapter 8, I looked at the Greek and Latin vocabulary for metaphor; this was shown to be largely structured around a spatial metaphor whereby words are “transferred” or “carried across” from one object to another. Rhetorical and linguistic thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero focused on the power of metaphor to create names for things, to make the subject matter clearer, and to adorn prose and poetry, yet they themselves employed metaphors in order to describe these functions of the trope. Metaphor played a key role in the creation of metalinguistic vocabulary; this provides some further support for the thesis that the vocabulary of meaning in Greek and Latin likewise arose by metaphorical transference.

6Finally, in Chapter 9, I turned to modern criticism and the way in which the polysemies and tropes discussed within the book play a role in contemporary modes of writing about texts. By transforming the text into an agent in its own right, and specifically by taking advantage of the polysemy of the word “meaning” (and related terms), one can avoid applying expressions of meaning to the author. The fact that in the mid-twentieth century it began to be considered theoretically naïve to ascribe intentions to the author led to what might be termed a “personification” of the text (where “personification” is, of course, used in its modern sense).

  • 1 “Zhi”, whose core meaning is “point”, could be used of humans: “Dang wo shuo ‘Coles’, wo shi zhi Ce (...)

7But to conclude, I would like to present some further avenues for study; evidently there is much more that could be said on the topic. First, it seems imperative to broaden the scope of the inquiry as much as possible and to study the expressions that are found in non-European languages. Is the set of transferences under discussion a specifically western phenomenon, unique to those languages whose development has been affected by Greek and Latin? Similar polysemies certainly seem to be present in unrelated languages such as Mandarin,1 but I am informed that this is not the case in Hungarian (itself a European language). If not all languages possess this particular polysemy, it would be rewarding to demonstrate this systematically – what other metaphors of meaning can be located? Why are particular metaphors used and others not? The Australian language Warlpiri appears not to frame issues of meaning in the same way as English, as we saw in Chapter 5, and the question remains as to why this is so; further investigation may present reasons for why verbs like the ones that we find in the Greek tradition come into being in the first place. On the basis of a broad range of data on the metaphors of meaning in different, nonrelated languages, we might be in a position to investigate the mental processes that give rise to this type of vocabulary more deeply.

8In line with this, further work might be done on the conceptual metaphors behind ancient descriptions of the relationship between word and meaning; I have been focusing on the role of verbs and nouns, the more overt expressions of meaning found in the ancient world, but other phenomena are certainly also of interest in this regard. Throughout classical literature, for example, we see communication framed according to what Reddy has termed the “container metaphor”, whereby we describe ideas and meanings being loaded into words and extracted once again (see the Introduction):

1. µ... κενοὺς φθόγγους ἔχωµεν.

“…lest the words we use be empty [of meaning]” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 10.37).

2. uirtus et philosophia et iustitia uerborum inanium crepitus est.

“Virtue, philosophy, and justice – this is just a clanging of empty words” (Seneca, Epistulae 123.10).

  • 2 For the metaphor in Quintilian, see Dozier (2013). The metaphor is already implicit in the Greek ve (...)
  • 3 See Short (2008), Short (2012), and Short (2013).
  • 4 For an example, see Sweetser (1990).

9Words can be “empty” – that is, they have nothing inside them. Other metaphors were also in force; in numerous works, such as Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, there is an over-arching rhetoric of intelligibility that depends on the metaphor of seeing is understanding.2 According to Augustine, difficult passages in texts are covered (the terms used include “tectus”, “obscurus”, “occultus”, and soon) or “shrouded in blackness”; the sense must be “dug out” (“...ubi autem talis sensus eruitur De Doctrina Christiana 3.28.1). Some fascinating work has already been done in this direction,3 but the full ramifications of finding the same metaphorical structures in the ancient languages as we do in modern English have yet to be fully addressed and would seem to be of great importance. The fact is that many of the metaphors that we find in modern English have a classical pedigree; this means that they can be studied historically and not merely synchronically.4

10Additionally, it would be useful to continue to study the vocabulary where the current investigation breaks off. The medieval tradition presents a tremendous amount of debate on the subject of meaning and signification, much of it depending on classical authors (either directly or indirectly). The tradition of literary exegesis that was maintained in the margins of medieval codices might also come under investigation, for example the following dispute from Heidelberg’s Anthologia Palatina (where the meaning of an epigram is at issue):

3. ζ[ή]τ[ει] τὸν νοῦν τοῦ ἐπιγράµµατος ὅτι ἐσφαλµένος.
ἐὰν ἔχῃς νοῦν οὐκ ἔσφαλτ[αι] ἀλλὰ µᾶλλον πεφώτιστ[αι].

  • 5 My thanks to Athanassios Vergados for pointing this out to me one morning in the Hauptbibliothek of (...)

Hand 1: “Search out the meaning of the epigram, since there is something amiss with it”.
Hand 2: “Were you to have a
mind there is nothing amiss with it: it is resplendently clear” (Codex Palatinus Graecus 23, page 282 in margine = Anthologia Palatina 7.472).5

11Here, the second scribe puns on the double meaning of “νοῦς” that we have been discussing. There is no doubt a wealth of such material to be discovered, but extracting it will take a considerable amount of effort and skill with palaeography.

  • 6 One might, for example, consider the role of verbs in recent studies in aesthetics; cf. Bredekamp ( (...)
  • 7 See Soames (2010) on the tradition of Frege, Russell, Carnap, Taski, Davidson, and Kripke.

12Fourth, I hope that this book is helpful in stimulating further interest in the role of expressions of meaning in other fields,6 and not least the historical aspects of philosophical terminology. Modern analytical philosophers are primarily interested in the role of the word “meaning” in a synchronic context, but in order to understand why the word is so problematic today we need to step back and consider its development, and that of functionally similar words, in the languages that influenced English. The fact that the word “meaning”, which appears to have originally issued from a word for speaking or opining, is now frequently associated with truth functions is quite extraordinary.7 In addition, many of the preoccupations of the twentieth century were already being discussed with considerable finesse in the ancient world: one might mention the discussion of Apollonius Dyscolus on the use-mention distinction, or note the prefiguration of Grice’s natural and non-natural meaning in Augustine’s outline of “signa naturalia” and “signa data” (“natural signs” and “given signs”) at the beginning of the second book of De Doctrina Christiana. While certain fields of philosophy are fairly far removed from classical thought, in that they engage exclusively with recent scientific discoveries, the philosophy of language is not among them. Classicists can learn much from modern philosophers, but the historical perspective that philologists provide could enrich contemporary philosophical debate surrounding these issues.

13Fifth, one thing that I have not broached in this book, partly because the issue is a wide-ranging one, is the question of politics and power that is bound up with the act of saying “this means” in exegesis, criticism, and commentary. Who has the right to make such statements about a text? To what extent are discussions of meaning struggles for power over what a text means? How do discussions of the meaning of a phrase engage in sociological issues? What role do expressions of meaning in criticism play in the interpretation of an author’s thoughts? This series of questions focuses on the role of the philologist or critic within society. One might also speak here of philological ethics – authors cannot control the reception of their work, and this at times can have grievous effects on their reputations. The recuperation of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche in the mid twentieth century is a good example: Nietzsche’s work was, for a mercifully brief time, read in a way that went against his intentions, and it has been one of the great achievements of Nietzsche scholarship to correct the injustice done to this author. Do we owe authors an attempt to understand them?

14Sixth, these results suggest that we should reconsider the role of the Intentional Fallacy in literary criticism and perhaps attempt to transcend it, while remaining alive to the concerns that motivated it (in many fields, this transcension has already occurred). From the evidence put forward in Chapter 2, it appears that the ancestor of the modern English verb “to mean”, the Anglo-Saxon “mǣnan”, already exhibits the relevant polysemy. Although the etymology of this verb is unclear (see Chapter 2), the polysemy may well indicate an unattested transference; at the very least, the circumstance gives us good reason for thinking that the impulse to ascribe meanings to authors will not subside anytime soon. Concerns about the uncertainty of statements about the author’s intention are well founded, but this epistemological problem is not in fact unique to literary criticism and is something that usually does not affect us unduly in our daily activities. Although it is a worthwhile exercise to “emancipate” the text from its author’s control and let it “speak” for itself (as I do at the end of this epilogue), it is useful to bear in mind that when we do so we are focusing on only one type of meaning. Western literary criticism has had well over half a century to digest the implications of the Intentional Fallacy; perhaps it is time now to move past it and, while appreciating the inaccessibility of other people’s minds and remaining in full cognizance of our epistemological limitations, to begin to use the verb “to mean” of authors once again with less trepidation than we do at present.

  • 8 For a major work on intertextuality from the same period as Hinds’ Allusion and Intertext, see Edmu (...)

15This seems particularly advisable, since it is rare to find a critic who rigorously sticks to the principle of not appealing to an author’s intention; it is in fact not uncommon for scholars overtly to decry the appeal to the author’s intention while simultaneously covertly appealing to it. One can understand why this happens, but it must be said that it leads to an eclecticism that does not promote clarity in the discussion of texts. The term “intertextuality” has, for example, come to be used as a replacement for the theoretically suspicious “allusion” and “reference” in Latin criticism (the term “intertext” frames textual reminiscences as a phenomenon that occurs between texts, not between authors), even though in practice what scholars are generally doing is tracking allusions of one poet to another. Even the most theoretically aware scholars of the past century, such as Conte, could not refrain from this, as was pointed out by Stephen Hinds in his Allusion and Intertext:8

  • 9 Hinds (1998), 20-21. Cf. “In my view, then, Conte’s tendency to allow the author a little more pres (...)

4. “Like other semiological intertextualists, Conte seeks to free his approach from reliance on the rhetoric of authorial intention and intersubjectivity; but, as a full-time philologist concerned to locate his discussions within well-established Latinist debates, he tends to favour case-studies which remain persistently hospitable to the very terms which he would seek to sideline... I shall argue that this tension is a fruitful one, not evidence of methodological weakness”.9

  • 10 For Conte’s position in the debate over intentionality, as well as the tension Hinds notes, see Con (...)

16Conte indeed quite frequently alludes to the notional Death of the Author and the authorless intertext while at the same time appealing to authorial intention.10 In spite of my respect for Conte, this seems to me problematic: one either removes the author entirely from consideration or one accepts him or her, albeit cautiously. As it happens, communication involves an author or speaker, and if we ignore the psychological aspects of this process then we are leaving something important out of our interpretations.

17But to move to happier fields – I hope above all that this book has demonstrated the richness of our language, as well as hinted at the ways in which this very wealth has the power to confuse. Modern English is the product of millennia of borrowings, transferences, and coinages, and it is important to study it as such – as a diachronic phenomenon rather than merely a static synchronic system. The metaphors buried within our language are frequently the result of catachreses that became routinized centuries ago, to the point that their contemporary usages come across to us as entirely unremarkable. The historical study of such phenomena can, however, prove enlightening: although they may seem entirely arbitrary, there are often definite reasons behind the polysemies that we find in our vocabulary and only historical investigation is able to help us pin these down. This is the proper investigation of the philologist, who is always something of a philosopher. My final excerpts (5and 6) were written by two very different thinkers, Seneca and Nietzsche; although they were not necessarily meant by the authors themselves to be flattering, I believe that when set next to each other they characterize the ideal relationship between philology and philosophy (or, at least, a certain type of philosophy).

5. quae philosophia fuit facta philologia est.

“What was once philosophy has been turned into philology” (Seneca, Epistulae 108.23).

6. philosophia facta est quae philologia fuit.

“What was once philology has been turned into philosophy” (Nietzsche, “Homer und die klassische Philologie” KGW II. 1 268).


1 “Zhi”, whose core meaning is “point”, could be used of humans: “Dang wo shuo ‘Coles’, wo shi zhi Central de ‘Coles’, bu shi TownHall de ‘Coles’” (“When I say ‘Coles’, I mean the ‘Coles’ in Central but not the ‘Coles’ in Town Hall”). But it could also be employed in translating words: “‘Linguistics’ shi zhi ‘yu-yan-xue’” (“‘linguistics’ means ‘yu-yan-xue’”). The word “yi-si” (“meaning”) could also be used of both human intention and the meaning of words: “Wo ming-bai ne de yi-si” (“I understand your meaning”); “‘Miao-tiao’ de yi-si shi ‘shou’ ji ‘xian-xi’” (“the meaning of ‘Miao-tiao’ is ‘thin’ and ‘delicate’”). The examples come from Riemer (2010), 11-13.

2 For the metaphor in Quintilian, see Dozier (2013). The metaphor is already implicit in the Greek verb of knowing, “οἶδα”; see, for example, Snell (1924).

3 See Short (2008), Short (2012), and Short (2013).

4 For an example, see Sweetser (1990).

5 My thanks to Athanassios Vergados for pointing this out to me one morning in the Hauptbibliothek of the University of Heidelberg. On the scribes of the Palatine manuscript, see Cameron (1993), 97-120. Another neat example of the ambiguity of “νοῦς” is provided by a scholiast to Aristophanes’ Birds (on 1392 = Campbell 5.44): “ὡς παροιµία, καὶ διθυράµβων νοῦν ἔχεις ἐλάττονα” (“ the proverb puts it, you have less sense than dithyrambs”).

6 One might, for example, consider the role of verbs in recent studies in aesthetics; cf. Bredekamp (2010), 17: “Das Bild spricht, und indem es sich äußert, fordert es vom Ankömmling eine Reaktion”. Bredekamp is of course aware that pictures have no actual life of their own; cf. 21.

7 See Soames (2010) on the tradition of Frege, Russell, Carnap, Taski, Davidson, and Kripke.

8 For a major work on intertextuality from the same period as Hinds’ Allusion and Intertext, see Edmunds (2001).

9 Hinds (1998), 20-21. Cf. “In my view, then, Conte’s tendency to allow the author a little more presence in practice than he does in theory is a real strength (pace Conte (1994a), 178n. 5; cf. section 1 fin. above): it is to this methodological ‘impurity’ that Conte’s interpretations of Latin Allusivity owe some of their distinct savour”; Hinds (1998), 50.

10 For Conte’s position in the debate over intentionality, as well as the tension Hinds notes, see Conte (1986), 23-39.

© C.H.Beck, 2016

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