A new article by James has just been published on ‘The language of a Pompeian tavern: submerged Latin?’.* He discusses the ‘captions’ on a set of four wall-paintings from Pompeii, depicting two men chatting, getting drinks, playing a dice-game, and having a fight and being ejected. These paintings are now quite well-known, having featured prominently in the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition a few years ago (our colleague Mary Beard has mentioned it in her blog a couple of times, with helpful pictures). James’ focus in the article is what the words tell us about sub-elite Latin, and whether there are similarities to the language of the Roman playwright Plautus, two or three centuries earlier. No spoilers here: you’ll have to read the article to find out the answer.
But the inscriptions also show how commonplace Greek words were in Latin, even (or especially) at social levels for whose language we have less literary evidence. The first panel has one man saying to another ‘nolo cum Murtale uasu’, which probably means ‘I don’t want a drink with Myrtale’. Myrtale is a Greek name and the final -e is probably meant to represent the Greek dative singular ending -ηι (the final -ι would have been lost in speech by this time). In the third panel, one speaker says to the other ‘non tria, duas est’, ‘that’s not a three, it’s a two’, using the Greek word duas ‘a two, deuce’. This word doesn’t appear again for centuries, and there are no other examples of it being used in the context of numbers on a dice. If it weren’t for this inscription, we’d have no idea that it had this meaning in Latin, or that it had been borrowed so early.
This inscription is also particularly interesting for me, because I’ve been thinking lately about Roman spelling, and in particularly how features that tend to be described as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘archaic’ actually had a much longer after-life than we probably give them credit for – perhaps especially in the sub-elite educational tradition. These scenes can be quite accurately dated to between 62AD, when an earthquake hit Pompeii, and 79AD, since that is when Vesuvius exploded and destroyed/preserved Pompeii. Latin inscriptions had started using the letter y to represent Greek υ by the early first century BC, but here they are still using u 150 years later! And that’s not even the record; the captions spell the word ego ‘I’ eco, a mere three hundred years after the letter g was invented. But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised: spelling can be a remarkably conservative practice – after all, English spelling largely carries on as it was established several centuries ago, often reflecting pronunciation from even before that, despite an almost-complete failure to match how we actually speak nowadays.