What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
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Eldad Ganin would like an explanation. He writes:

“In Hebrew we have a clear pattern. If the name of a country ends, as many such names do in Hebrew, with -ya, the names of the country’s people and language follow automatically. Thus, rusya, ‘Russia,’ rusi, ‘Russian [person],’ rusit, ‘Russian [language]’; angliya, ‘England,’ angli, ‘Englishman,’ anglit, ‘English,’ etc. Yet when we come to Italy, we have italya, italki, italkit, with a kuf or ‘k’ inserted. Why?”

The Father of Italics: Printer Aldus Manutius seems pleased with his work.
The Father of Italics: Printer Aldus Manutius seems pleased with his work.

The answer is simple and reflects an ancient Hebrew borrowing from Latin, in which, when the name of a country ends in –ia, the nominative adjective formed from it ends in –cus, -ca or –cum, depending on whether it is masculine, feminine or neuter. Hence we have Britannia, “Britain,” but Britannicus, “British”; Gallia, “Gaul,” but Gallicus, “Gaulish”; Iudaea, “Judea,” but Iudaicus, “Jewish,” and so on. And we also have Italia and italicus, from which Hebrew gets italki and italkit.

This usage already occurs in early rabbinic texts, such as the mishnaic tractate of Kiddushin, at the beginning of which there is a discussion of the value of a pruta, the Hebrew coin that is the minimum with which a bridegroom must symbolically purchase his bride. To this day, in a traditional Jewish wedding, the groom is asked by the rabbi under the wedding canopy whether the ring he is giving his bride is shaveh pruta, “worth a pruta.” The Mishnah says: “How much is a pruta? An eighth of an isar italki” — that is, an eighth of an Italian or Roman assarius, a small coin that was itself worth a sixteenth of a Roman denarius. Similarly, in the Mishnah of Sanhedrin we have the expression yayin italki, “Italian wine.”

The “c” of the Latin ending “-cus” that gives us Hebrew italki turns up in English, too, in words like “Anglicism,” “Gallic,” “Judaic,” as well as in the Encyclopedia Britannica. And we also find it in the word “italics,” the slanting typeface in which the rest of this sentence appears. Why italics are called that is an interesting story.

Italic type was developed early in the history of printing when, in 1501, half a century after the Gutenberg Bible, a Venetian printer named Aldus Manutius began using it to publish classical Greek and Latin literature. Aldus, who was looking for something elegant and readable, based his typeface on the handwriting of Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), an Italian Renaissance scholar of note, whose penmanship was widely admired. Poggio’s handwriting, in turn, was influenced by a script called “Carolingian minuscule” that was invented in the eighth century during the reign of the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne, who sought to standardize the way Latin was written throughout his empire. Unaware, however, of its Carolingian origins, Poggio believed this script to be an ancient Roman form of writing and called it cursiva italica, from which our word “italics” may derive. (An alternative explanation is that when Aldus’ typeface spread from Venice to the rest of Europe, it was identified as an Italian typeface.)

What is known as “roman” type, on the other hand, which is the typeface in which this (with the exception of that last word) sentence appears, was developed in the late 15th century in Rome and originally based on the ancient Latin inscriptions found in Roman antiquities. Although italic and roman were for a while rivals, with the former predominating through much of the 16th century, roman eventually won out and adopted italic for special uses, such as emphasis, foreign words and the titles of books and other works. To this day, there are differences of opinion about when to use which. Every time that I send a column to this newspaper with the italicized name of a book in it — Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, for instance — it comes back to me from the copyeditor romanized and in quotations marks as Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman.” This does not, needless to say, prevent me from italicizing another book’s name in my next column, nor does it keep the copy editor from romanizing that one, too, since, although it looks wrong to me, this is what is called for by the Associated Press style-sheet followed by the Forward.

In Italian itself, as in other European languages, the “c” of Latin italicus eventually dropped out, leaving us with italiano in Italian, italien in French, “Italian” in English and so forth. (This process was gradual. As late as the mid-18th century, one finds “Italic” used in English to denote the Italian language.) To the best of my knowledge, contemporary Hebrew is one of two modern languages in which this “c” has been preserved. The other is Greek, in which we have Italia, Italy, italos, an Italian, and italikos, Italian. Indeed, since Greek was the main language spoken throughout the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Mishnah’s composition, it may well have transmitted the Latin word to Hebrew and been the intermediary between the two.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

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