Voices from Ancient Rome

DOES IT REALLY MATTER how an ancient Roman, may his or her soul ‘requiescat in pace’ (RIP), pronounced the letter ‘V’? It did to the Reverend Gowing, one of my teachers of Latin at Highgate School back in the mid 1960s. Did they pronounce V as in ‘verb’ or as ‘w’ in ‘word’? To vee or not to vee? That was the question in my mind. At the school I attended before Highgate,  we pronounced the Latin v in the same way as the English v. Oddly, I felt disturbed that  Gowing believed that the toga clad Romans pronounced it as a w, as in ‘wobbly’.

LATIN ancient wikipedia commons BLOG

We questioned Gowing about this problem. Our venerable teacher decided to prove to us that he was right, that the Romans pronounced ‘veni, vidi, vici’ as ‘wayny, weedy, weeky’. His method of proof involved use of technology that was unavailable to Julius Caesar and his contemporaries.

One morning, Gowing brought a gramophone (a name derived from two Ancient Greek words) record player into our Latin classroom. He placed a record on its turntable and told us to listen very carefully. We heard someone speaking in Latin, and … enunciating words beginning with v as if they began with w. QED (three Latin words that do not contain the letter v), our Latin teacher believed.

The Reverend Gowing was old enough to believe that the gramophone record was a technical miracle that could capture the voices of those who died long ago, even around the time when BC became AD. It still amazes me to think that Gowing might have believed that. However, his ‘proof’ of the pronunciation of the Latin v did not convince me.

Some years later, I mentioned the V/W controversy (not ‘controWersy’) to someone who had a degree in linguistics.  Her view was that the ancient Romans were more likely to have pronounced v as v, and not as w. Her reasoning was based on the evolution of languages derived from Latin. For example, we neither watch a ‘wideo’ nor do we say say: ‘in wino weritas’.

Unwittingly, Reverend Gowing did something important for our class with this discussion about v. He made us question the academic authority of teachers and that is important if knowledge is to advance.

True to the spirit of what I have just written, I have just challenged what I have long believed.  I decided to  look at various sources (on the Internet) to see what they say about the current understanding of the pronunciation of V in Latin. First, the English V and U are both represented by ‘V’ in Ancient Latin. Thus, on an Ancient Roman statue of Julius Caesar, one would read ‘JVLIVS’ rather than ‘JULIUS’. Also, it appears the pronunciation of the written Latin V varies. It seems, although I do not know on what evidence this is based, that the Ancient Romans probably  pronounced v as the English say ‘w’ or even ‘oo’ (JVLIVS is a good example of this). Whether it was pronounced as ‘w’ ou ‘oo’ depended on the letters close to it in a word. For example, the name ‘FLAVIVS’ would have been pronounced ‘Flawioos’. So, our Reverend Gowing was at least half correct, and us doubters in his class were all in the wrong as far as usage of Latin by the Ancient Romans is concerned.  However, as time passed and the Roman Empire declined and fell, languages related to, or descended from, Latin adopted the V pronunciation, as did ecclesiastical users of Latin.

Finally, I have looked at the Latin textbook, which we used at school, “The Revised Latin Primer” by Benjamin Hall Kennedy. Had I not been so averse to opening this much-hated book, I would have discovered that its author, once a Fellow of St Johns College, Cambridge, wrote that ‘v’ is a “Labial Spirant (sounded as w”). If only I had taken more interest in this book instead of avoiding it whenever possible, I might have been more convinced about my teacher’s opinion about the Latin V. It seems as if I really do owe Reverend Gowing a belated apology.

 

[This is a somewhat new version of something I wrote earlier]

 

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Adventurous crossing

BEST TO WATCH THE SHORT VIDEO (1 minute) FILMED IN BANGALORE (India) BEFORE READING THIS!

Watch here:  https://vimeo.com/409423869

SINCE THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, and the worldwide decline in road usage, what is written below has temporarily become historical.

Crossing main roads in Bangalore and many other Indian cities requires an act of faith and is quite an adventure. There are, of course, some pedestrian crossings controlled by traffic signals that are usually but not always obeyed. Once we were in an autorickshaw in Ahmedabad. The driver hardly ever stopped at red signals. When we asked him about this, he told us that there was no need to stop at red lights unless there was a policeman nearby.

Despite the availability of controlled pedestrian crossings in Bangalore, most people cross busy roads wherever they feel like and however hectic the traffic, putting life and limb at risk every time.

Now, I do not want you to think that I am singling out Indian road users including pedestrians for their exciting approach to road safety.

Long ago in Rome, I got the feeling that pedestrians who expected motorists to stop at pedestrian crossings mostly stimulated drivers to drive more rashly when they were trying to cross the road.

In another former imperial city, Istanbul, which I visited in 2010, motorists drove fast and recklessly. When drivers paused at pedestrian crossings, it was only briefly. They were like energetic dogs straining on their stretched leashes. I had the feeling that at any moment cars would charge forward to crush the people scurrying across the road.

Indian drivers, although seemingly undisciplined, expect anything to happen on the road, be it a cow that suddenly strays onto the carriageway to vehicles driving in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic and people who have decided to dry their grains on a sun drenched flat road surface. Most Indian drivers, expecting the unexpected, seem to have good reflexes. So, pedestrians wandering across the road wherever and whenever they feel like it do not pose a great problem for drivers. That said, I feel that crossing busy roads in Bangalore requires much courage and faith in the skill and care of drivers.

My approach to crossing busy roads in Bangalore is as follows. Quite simply, I look for someone else nearby who wants to cross. As these strangers are often locals, I assume, perhaps naively, that they are experienced in crossing the road. I join them to take advantage of their supposed experience and because any sensible motorist would rather injure one pedestrian rather than several at once. Foolish reasoning, maybe, but apart from making long detours to find allegedly controlled crossings, I will willingly accept better suggestions.

Well, at the moment (April 2020), the streets of Bangalore and London, where I live, are pleasantly devoid of traffic apart from occasional cars, delivery motor bikes and public service vehicles.

Even in London, where drivers are not mentally prepared for pedestrians wandering into their paths away from controlled crossings, traversing the street ‘Bangalore style’ has become possible. My worry is that when ‘lockdown’ is unlocked, will people in London be able to get out of their newly acquired habit of crossing wherever and whenever they feel like it?

Urban animals

Romulus

Exactly when great cities were founded is often unclear. However, sometimes there is a myth involving the animal world that is associated with the genesis of a great city. In the case of Rome (Italy), the story of Romulus and Remus and the wolf that suckled them is too well-known to be repeated here. If you do not know it, read about it HERE .

The great city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat (India) was founded in the 15th century AD by Ahmed Shah, who governed the Sultanate of Gujarat  from 1411 until  1442. According to the writers Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth in their book Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity:

One popular myth says that Ahmed Shah went hunting one day on the banks of the Sabarmati and saw a hare chasing a dog. Amazed by the the unusual role reversal and interpreting it as an auspicious omen, Ahmed Shah decided to found a city at that spot by the river“.

This kind of myth in which a predator is chased by its prey is shared by several other cities including Malacca (now in Malaysia), Chandrapur (in Maharashtra), and the ancient city of Vijaynagara (in Karnataka). In the case of Malacca, a mouse deer being chased by a dog managed to push its pursuer into a river (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandrapur) . As for Chandrapur, there was a hare chasing a dog. In each case, a city was founded on the spot where these unusual occurrences were reported.

Vijanagara on the banks of the River Tungabadra thrived from the 14th century until the 16th century and was during its heyday one of the largest and richest cities of its time.  Today, its extensive, impressive, and attractive ruins can be explored by visitors to Hampi (near the city of Hospet). According to Robert Sewell (1845-1925) in his A Forgotten Empire (first published 1900), a chieftain Deva Raya (aka ‘Deorao’) was:

“… one day hunting amongst the mountains south of the river when a hare, instead of fleeing from his dogs, flew at them and bit them…”

When Deva Raya told the sage Vidyaranya about this incident, the wise man told him to build a city on this spot. That was in 1336 AD, and the city became Vijaynagara. In another version of  this story, as related by Ratnakar Sadasyula in his recently published book City of Victory says that the hare attacking the dogs (at the place Vijaynagara was started) was seen by the brothers Harihara and Bukka, who were the first two rulers of the Empire of Vijaynagara (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harihara_I). It matters not who actually witnessed this extraordinary attack of the dogs by a hare. What is interesting  is that the locations of several cities has been ascribed to the siting of  prey pursuing its predator(s). 

 

Picture source: wikipedia