Happy St. Laurence Day!

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Archdeacon Laurence

Archdeacon Laurence

August 10 marks the Feast Day of the early Roman Martyr, the Archdeacon Laurence (Lawrence). The Commemoration is of such antiquity that it is celebrated on the same date in both the Latin and Byzantine Calendars. In the Byzantine Calendar, he is joined by his fellow Martyrs of the persecution by Emperor Valerian in the year 258: Pope Sixtus II, the Deacons Felicissimus and Agapitus, and the Soldier Romanus.

The inclusion of a Christian Roman Solider bears out more recent research that Christianity was growingly popular among the ranks of the military, alongside Mithraism.

Several legends surround the Archdeacon Laurence, linked to his role as treasurer of the Church of Rome. One story has him receiving the Chalice of the Holy Grail from the Greek Church, and sending it for safekeeping to Huesca, in present day Aragon. That Chalice is today venerated in a chapel in Valencia.

The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome containing the supposed gridiron used to grill Saint Laurence to death.

The shrine at en:San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome containing the supposed gridiron used to grill Saint Laurence to death.

The most famous part of his legend, however, is how he was Martyred. St. Ambrose of Milan (De officiis ministrorum, 2.28) tells us that when Sixtus was killed, Laurence worked for three days to distribute any resources of the Church to the poor. When the Roman Prefect demanded that the Archdeacon turn over the wealth of the Church to him, he presented the poor, the lame, and the sick, and declared that these were the jewels of the Church.

Bernardo Strozzi, The Charity of St Lawrence

Bernardo Strozzi, The Charity of St Lawrence

An unhappy Prefect then ordered him to be burned on the gridiron. When I was in grammar school, the Sisters transmitted the ancient story that at one point during his roasting, he quipped “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” Therefore to us kids, as to generations before us, he became the patron saint of Football (Gridiron), Cooks, and Comics. See how legends grow!

Modern historians doubt the historicity of parts of Laurence’s hagiography: “the customary and solemn formula for announcing the death of a martyr – passus est [“he suffered,” that is, was martyred] – was made to read assus est [he was roasted]” (Pio Franchi de’ Cavalieri). The Roman edict condemning Christian clergy indicated that they were to be beheaded, and the Liber Pontificalis uses “passus est,” for both Sixtus and Laurence.

In any case, he died standing up for what believed, and has been venerated in East and West ever since.

(c) Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Martyrs Stephen and Laurence

(c) Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Martyrs Stephen and Laurence

I have a particular connection to both the Saint and his Feast. I am named after the first Christian Martyr, another Deacon, Stephen from the Church of Jerusalem. His Martyrdom is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, witnessed by none other than Saul of Tarsus (later St. Paul). The two Deacon Martyrs are often linked in Iconography and hagiography.

Second, 40 years ago today, I was visiting Rome with my family after I had graduated from Brophy Prep. I wanted to visit the five Patriarchal Basilicas (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, and San Lorenzo fuori le muri (outside the walls). Each of these is dedicated to one of the Patriarchates of the Pentarchy–the five Patriarchal Sees within the Roman Empire. St. Laurence’s basilica is dedicated to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, where the Protomartyr Stephen was glorified. The others correspond to Antioch (St. Mary Maggiore), Rome (St. John Lateran), Constantinople (St. Peter’s), Alexandria (St. Paul’s Outside the Walls). (This was probably a not-so-subtle move by Rome to suggest that it was the center of Christianity.)

Forum Romanum, archeological area, Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, view from Palatine hill

Forum Romanum, archeological area, Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, view from Palatine hill

We should pause a moment in our narrative for some explanations:

Basilica: A Roman Basilica was a high-ceilinged hall for Royal use (βασιλικὴ στοά)–Basilkē stoa. Α 1st century CE Neopythagorean Basilica was unearthed in Rome, and when Christians began openly building Churches in the 4th century, they often followed this architectural pattern with three naves and an Apse.

Miniature 38 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century: Construction of Hagia Sophia during the reign of emperor Justinian.

Miniature 38 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century: Construction of Hagia Sophia during the reign of emperor Justinian.

Pentarchy: The Christians who made up the groups that were tolerated by Constantine had already organized around urban centers headed by a Bishop. Five of the Major Cities of the Empire began to be recognized as the centers of five “Patriarchates”: Jerusalem (the Mother City of Christianity), Rome (the old Capital), Constantinople (the new Capital), Antioch (“where they were called Christians for the first time”), and Alexandria. Each area had different Liturgical and other usages, and reflected the cultures and philosophical heritage of their localities. This became known as “the Pentarchy”–rule by five.

A chart describing the divisions within the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala

A chart describing the divisions within the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala

Of course, outside of the boundaries of the Roman Empire, other Patriarchal or Archiepiscopal Sees were recognized, notably the Ethiopian Church, the Churches of Armenia and Georgia (the first two nations to adopt Christianity officially), the Church of SeleuciaCtesiphon (Persia), and the Church of India (Malabar).

In addition, there were many other varieties of Christianity, including Gnostic movements, the Manichaean hybrid of Christianity and other religions, etc.

Now, back to our story.

Basilica of St. Laurence Outside the Walls

Basilica of St. Laurence Outside the Walls

On that day, Wednesday Aug 10, 1972, I made it to the last of the five Basilicas, San Lorenzo. When I got there, I noticed that the statue of the Saint was set up in the middle of the Basilica fully decorated with flowers. Then I discovered that indeed, it was his Feast Day! No wonder. As I explored the monumental cemetery which is attached to the Church, I marveled a this synchronicity.

So Happy Feast Day!

The Fall of the Roman Empire (5/29/1453)


My Friends,

Thank you to those who commented on my post of May 29! Let’s unravel the mystery.

What is “The Roman Empire”?

Augustus of Prima Porta

Augustus of Prima Porta

The Roman Republic slowly became the Roman Empire as Octavian (Julius Caesar’s adoptive nephew) took on more and more authority after his defeat of Cleopatra and Marc Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. By the end of his life, he was called Imperator (“Victorious One,” and also “Emperor”) and Augustus (“Outstanding One”). More importantly, he was designated Princeps (“First Head,” “Prince”) by the Senate. His power over Rome and the Provinces increased steadily.

The Romans had a great distaste for the title of Rex (“King”). The legendary founding of Rome by Romulus on April 21, 753 BCE (after he had killed his brother Remus), was followed by the reign of seven equally legendary Kings. They were not well liked by the Roman nobles and people, and were overthrown in 509 BCE, when Rome became a Republic. Res Publica, the origin of our word, means “Public Thing/Business.”

Because of this, they could not stomach calling Octavian Rex when he began consolidating his power in 27 BCE, so they used Princeps, Imperator, and Augustus instead, as well as Caesar, indicating his link to the now divine Julius Caesar. After Augustus’s death in 14 CE, Tiberius was chosen as his successor. This solidified the unique position of the Princeps in the Empire. Future Emperors would clearly be in charge, and the power of the Senate became more and more attenuated. The Empire rolled on, with good years and bad. One of the best sites for this history is Dr. Kelly Ross’s massive: Rome and Romania. It may be Web 1.0, but it is still my go-place for so much information. (I don’t always agree with his political philosophy, but his history is top notch!)

The Tetrarchy

The Line of Diocletian

The Line of Diocletian

In 285/6 the Emperor Diocletian ran a jurisdictional line through the middle of the Empire, and began a political experiment known as The Tetrarchy. A Co-Emperor assisted by a Co-Caesar would govern the eastern half of the Empire, and a second pair would govern the western half. Note that they were understood as each governing a half of The Roman Empire. Not two Empires…one.

Some things last a long time. If you extend the line far enough north, it splits Eastern Europe. It runs between Croatia to the West, and Serbia to the east. For the most part, eastern European countries on the west of the line are predominantly Roman Catholic (Croatia), while those on the east are Eastern Orthodox (Serbia). Serbs and Croats speak the same language, but the Croats write it in Latin letters, while the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet shared with Old Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian, etc. The world is still fighting across this line today.

In This Sign Shalt Thou Conquer

Vision at the Milvian Bridge

Vision at the Milvian Bridge

In the early 4th Century, (St.) Constantine was Emperor of the western half of the Empire. He combatted a number of rebellions, and on his way to oust one of his rivals, Maxentius, from Rome, he had an unusual experience. It is recounted that on the night of October 27, 312, Constantine had a vision, in which he saw a sign in the sky, with the words, “ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” En toutō níka, “Conquer in This!” which is rendered “In hoc signo vinces,” in Latin: “In this Sign Shalt Thou Conquer.”

What he saw is reported variously, however the Labarum, his Vexilla or battle standard, used the now familiar Chi-Rho:

Labarum with the Chi_Rho

Labarum with the Chi_Rho

Crossed Rho Labarum

Crossed Rho Labarum

Other forms include ✼  (I X) as well as a simple crossed capital Rho (see left). All of these play on the name and title Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Iēsous Christos–That is, Ieshouah the Messiah. The Chi-Rho and the crossed Rho is the first two Greek Letters of Christos: X P. The “asterisk” is I X, the Greek initials of the name and the title.

In any case Constantine (whose Mother was a Christian: [St.] Helen) defeated his rivals and became sole Emperor of both halves of the Empire. In 313 he tolerated Christianity (he was not baptized until his deathbed), and in 330 removed the seat of the Empire to a city on the Golden Horn, Byzantium, which he re-named New Rome. Common custom also referred to it as Constantinople–Greek: Κωνσταντινούπολις, Konstantinoúpolis; Latin: Constantinopolis, Constantine’s City.

The Hellenized, Christian, and still Roman, Empire 

Juian II

Julian II

Constantinople was “New Rome,” and although the old Senate remained behind in Old Rome, its power was steadily declining, and there were new Senatorial families in the new capital. Over the years, some Emperors, like Constanius II (317-361), Julian II (331-363–the last Emperor of the Old Religion), (St.) Theodosius I (347-395) and (St.) Justinian I (482-565) ruled as sole Emperor, while at other times, some form of the Tetrarchy was revived.

Culturally and linguistically, the Roman Empire had already been Hellenized. As we saw above, Constantine’s vision was in Greek, and language of the Imperial Court was Greek. Justinian was the last Emperor to speak Latin as his first language. The title of the Emperor could now be the Greek βασιλεύς, Basileus, King, since that term had no pejorative historical connotations for the Romans.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, USA

The old city of Rome was now very much the “Old Capital,” much as Philadelphia is today in the United States, an historical curiosity–I actually love Philly, but it isn’t still the capital.

First Milan, and then Ravenna became the western capital. When there was a sole Emperor, the Imperial Legate resided there. When the clergy and the people of Old Rome elected their Bishop, his name had to be taken to Milan–and later Ravenna–for Imperial approval before he could be ordained and installed.

David Roberts, Temple of Isis at Philae, closed by Theodosius I

David Roberts, Temple of Isis at Philae, closed by Theodosius I

While it is true that (St.) Theodosius I “divided” the Empire between his two (weak) sons, Honorius (384-423) and Arcadius (377-408), and closed the remaining Pagan Temples–much to the distress of scholars and esotericists–this division was in the spirit of the old Tetrarchy. They (and their successors) were co-Emperors of the two halves of one Empire.

Old Rome was taken by “barbarians” (the ancestors of many of us!) several times. Roman rule in the west first ended in 476 when the Heruli chief Odoacer invaded Ravenna, the western Imperial Seat, and dethroned Romulus Augustus (460-ca. 500) who was the last “western” Emperor. Note that Romulus was not recognized in the East. The last official western Roman Emperor was Julius Nepos, who was deposed in 475.

Kelly Roberts, Romania in 565

Kelly Roberts, Romania in 565

The final push of Roman civilization in the West (Romanitas) was during the reign of (St.) Justinian I, who by his death in 565, had reconquered all of North Africa, southern Spain, and Italy, which he ruled as sole Emperor. These borders were slowly eroded until finally Ravenna was taken by the Lombards in 751. Romanitas was lost to the West. During this period, it became common to refer to the Roman Empire as Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, Basilea Rōmaiōn, the Roman Empire, or simply Ῥωμανία, Rōmania, Roman-land.

The Eastern Empire is the Roman Empire

Theophilos Hatzimihail (1870–1934), The Fall of Constantinople.

Theophilos Hatzimihail (1870–1934), The Fall of Constantinople.

The later Latin term Romanitas, describes the quality of being a Roman, also denoting the virtues and totality of Roman civilization. Its Greek equivalent, Ῥωμαιoσύνη, Rōmaiosunē, literally, “Romanness,” has come to mean the totality of the Christian Roman Empire with its seat at New Rome.

The inhabitants of Constantinople and the remaining territories of the Roman Empire in the East called themselves οἱ Ῥωμαῖοι, hoi Rōmaioi, The Romans. When the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmed II and his troops breached the walls of The City on Tuesday May 29, 1453 (at about 2pm, I believe–not that we have long memories!), he is said to have proclaimed “I have conquered Rome!” The last Roman Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos may have fallen in the final defense of Constantinople, although reports vary.

Theotokos and Christ flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I, from Hagia Sophia

Theotokos and Christ flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I, from Hagia Sophia

According to legend, the priests serving Divine Liturgy in the Great Church of Ἁγία Σοφία, Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom during the siege, picked up the Chalice and Diskos with the Holy Gifts, and walked into the walls, to return only when The City is returned to Christendom.

The Sultan Mehmed II, called himself Kayser-i Rûm, Caesar of Rome, not only because of his conquest, but also because he claimed to be descended from John Tzelepes Komnenos, a nephew of Emperor John II Komnenos. Κομνηνός, Komnenos may be related to κόσμος, cosmos (world, universe, beautiful ornament), and means beautiful.

Rei Momo, Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham and Melkite Archbishop Jules Zerey

Rei Momo, Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham and Melkite Archbishop Jules Zerey

Based on the  Arabic الرُّومُ ar-Rūm, Rome, still today in the Middle East these terms are in use:

  • Rūm Ortodox = Greek Orthodox (the Church of the Empire)
  • Rūm Katolik = Greek Catholic (Melkites, in union with Rome)
  • Lateen = Roman Catholic.

The Legacy of The Roman Empire

Asguskov/Wikimedia Commons: Saint Basil Cathedral summer night closeup Moscow Russia Kremlin Red Square

Asguskov/Wikimedia Commons: Saint Basil Cathedral summer night closeup Moscow Russia Kremlin Red Square

Mehmed II was not the only one to claim the title of the Roman Caesar. Moscow is considered The Third Rome by Russians. The Russian monk Philoteus (Filofey) of Pskov in 1510 proclaimed in a Eulogy for Grand Duke Vasili III,

“Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!”

The Russian Emperor was called царь, Tsar, from the Latin Caesar. This association was bolstered by the fact that  Moscow is built on seven hills, as was Old Rome and New Rome.

Fietsbel/Wikimedia Commons: Lombard Street as viewed from Telegraph Hill (Coit Tower).

Fietsbel/Wikimedia Commons: Lombard Street as viewed from Telegraph Hill (Coit Tower).

(Although San Francisco actually has many more hills–47+ by last count, by tradition it is said to be on seven hills: Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson. Together with the resemblance of the Golden Gate to Constinople’s Golden Horn, this clearly shows why The City will be the headquarters of Star Fleet in the 22nd Century!)

The symbol of the Roman Empire, especially of its military, was the Eagle. The standards carried by the Legions were named for eagles, aquilae, Latin for eagles. By the 10th Century, the Roman Eagle had two heads, one looking East and the other looking West, to demonstrate the Emperor’s right to rule both halves of the Empire. Moscow also adopted this, since it claims to be The Third Rome.

Roman double-headed eagle featuring the 'sympilema (the family cypher) of the Palaeologus dynasty. From a church mural, 14th century.

Roman double-headed eagle featuring the ‘sympilema (the family cypher) of the Palaeologus dynasty. From a church mural, 14th century.

Naturally western Europe wanted in on the act, too. As early as the 9th Century, Charlemagne and Roman Pope Leo III plotted to usurp the title Imperator Romanorum, Emperor of the Romans, when Leo crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800. The only problem was, there was an Emperor–or rather Empress–on the Imperial throne, the Empress Irene (752-803).

She was without doubt the Roman βασίλισσα, Basilissa, Empress. Both Leo III and Charlemagne rejected the idea that a woman could head the Empire, and used that as a pretext, after she turned down Charlemagne’s offer of marriage!

Empress St. Irene

Empress St. Irene

The Germans entered the picture, with their own version, Heiliges Römisches Reich, Imperium Romanum Sacrum, the Holy Roman Empire from 962-1806, with most of the territories of Central Europe. They used the double-headed eagle as well. The only problem was, as one of my professors put it, the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman!

Many of the European nations, and their American children, symbolically claim to be the heirs of Rome. This can be seen in the use of the Roman symbols of the eagle and the fasces in so many cases, as well as the ubiquitous Imperial architecture used in Government buildings.

Fasces in the 18th Military Police Brigade shoulder sleeve insignia (USA)

Fasces in the 18th Military Police Brigade shoulder sleeve insignia (USA)

There are actual heirs to the Imperial Throne. One was Mario Bernardo Angelo Comneno (1914-1988), an Italian descended from the Imperial family, the Komnenoi. His children now inherit this lineage. One branch of his family had escaped to Trebizond on the Black Sea after the tragic Fourth Crusade sacked and occupied New Rome from 1204-1261. Other Roman refugee outposts included the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus. Roman rule was re-established in 1261.

There are many descendants of the Palaiologoi, the last Roman dynasty, throughout Eastern and Western Europe. I actually know a fine young man who through his Russian Noble lineage, is a descendent.

So How did We get the “Byzantine Empire”?

The one term you have not heard me use in this essay is “Byzantine Empire.” There was no such thing…ever. The term is not ancient. Everyone in the ancient, mediaeval and Renaissance world knew perfectly well that the Roman Empire continued in New Rome and its territories. The Imperial succession, and the governmental continuity were clear. So where did the term come from?

To answer that, we must return to our old friend, Cui Bono…No, not a child of Sonny and Cher…it is the Latin phrase “Whom does it Benefit.” Here is my take on this.

Edward Gibbon, by Henry Walton (died 1813).

Edward Gibbon, by Henry Walton (died 1813).

One of the primary culprits is the 18th Century historian Edward Gibbon, famously the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789…interesting dates!).

Although generally a good historian, and in some ways the founder of modern historical methodology, he had a problem. He, like many of his contemporaries, was a fan of the Classical, Pagan world–I have no problem with that, but it does blur one’s objectivity.

A great example is William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” (1802):

Benjamin Robert, Haydon, Wordsworth on Helvellyn.

Benjamin Robert, Haydon, Wordsworth on Helvellyn.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

(C.S. Lewis vigorously responded with “A Cliché comes out of Its Cage.” I’ll let you decide for yourselves.)

Here’s what Gibbon actually said about the Christianizing of the Roman Empire. Some of this may also have been the result of his conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, and then back again to Protestantism.  Any Animus noted?

Adam Carr, Photo of Christ in Hagia Sofia.Ο Χριστός, κεντρική μορφή της "Δέησης". Περιβάλλεται από τον Αγ. Ιωάννη τον Πρόδρομο και την Παναγία. Στο Ν. μέρος του υπερώου.

Adam Carr, Photo of Christ in Hagia Sofia.Ο Χριστός, κεντρική μορφή της “Δέησης”. Περιβάλλεται από τον Αγ. Ιωάννη τον Πρόδρομο και την Παναγία. Στο Ν. μέρος του υπερώου.

“As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.” (Chapter. 39).

Gibbon wanted to prove that a major factor in the Fall of the Roman Empire was its adoption of Christianity. He could do this if it is was scarcely more than a century from the toleration of Christianity in 313 to the Empire’s Fall in 476. He most certainly could not prove this if he stuck with the facts: from the toleration of Christianity in 313 to the Fall of the Empire was 1,140 years! Interestingly enough, the legendary foundation of Rome was in in 753 BCE, with its Fall in 1453, a nice symmetry.

Thus began a tradition of bad history that has plagued us for generations. Many modern scholars reject Gibbon’s stance, while correctly admiring many other features of his work. One recent scholar, Georgije Ostrogorski, in his History of the Byzantine State (1986)  puts it this way:

“For Gibbon and Lebeau were genuine historians—and Gibbon a very great one—and their works, in spite of factual inadequacy, rank high for their presentation of their material.”

Dead White (Western) European Males

Osirion at Abydos, where initiations took place.

Steve F-E-Cameron: Osirion at Abydos, where initiations took place.

A contributing factor was also certainly the traditional bias of Western scholarship toward Western Europe. When I was in school, until relatively recently, “History” largely meant:

  • Studying Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East, and then losing interest in that part of the world
  • Ignoring the roots of western civilization and mysticism  in Ancient Egypt, and moving on to Classical Greece and Rome, and after the 5th Century, focusing almost exclusively on Western Europe, and later America. The primary occasions when other parts of the world were mentioned was when Western European (and later, American) power extended itself, as in the Crusades (11th – 13th Centuries), the period of Western European Conquest of the World (15th – 19th Centuries) and the New Imperialism (19th – 20th Centuries). Eastern  Europe was hardly thought of until we studied the 20th Century. One of the great Imperial colonizers, Russia, was usually ignored except for the purchase of Alaska, until the Communist Revolution. Only “Bible History” kept any focus on the Middle East. India and China: who are they, except European colonies?

In this academic climate, it is hardly a surprise that Europe’s most stable Christian Kingdom, and its capital, the largest and most prosperous Late Antique and Medieval city, were virtually ignored.

Fayum Portrait of Hypatia, Neoplatonist Philosopher martyred by a Christian mob in Alexandria (415)

Fayum Portrait of Hypatia, Neoplatonist Philosopher martyred by a Christian mob in Alexandria (415)

Thankfully, that Western European/American (“Dead White (Western) European Males”) bias is largely gone from academe, and scholars are thinking globally, inclusively, and multiculturally. But in the common discourse, not so much. The geographic ignorance of young Americans is well documented by National Geographic. In 2006, 60% of 18-24 year-olds surveyed could not find Iraq on a map. And let’s be fair, this is not confined to other countries. Even after Hurricane Katrina, 30% could not point to Louisiana on a blank US map, and 48% could not find Mississippi. Parents and Educators: we have a lot to do!

Case Closed

Case Closed. Res Ipsa Loquitur (The Thing Speaks for Itself). If it please* the court, I hope I have demonstrated why I say that the Roman Empire fell on May 29, 1453. I’ll be back soon with more Language and History!   Thank you!

* That’s our very rare English Subjunctive! A Rara Avis (“Rare Bird”) indeed!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

Gloriously Wacky English! Part 1: Spelling and Pronunciation


Gloriously Wacky English! Part 1: Spelling and Pronunciation

This is the first of (at least) two essays on the strangeness of English spelling and pronunciation on the one hand, and grammar and usage on the other. It would only be a matter for linguists to ponder, if English were not such a world phenomenon today.

A good way to distinguish between the two problem areas is through two anecdotes:

To symbolize the issue of English’s highly irregular spelling and pronunciation, we can recall the quip usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but actually from William Ollier Jr. in 1855: that the word “fish” should be spelled “ghoti”: gh from tough, o from women, and ti from nation.

On the other hand, the seemingly strange syntax and grammar of English can be represented by this humorous statement purportedly from Winston Churchill. Apparently, someone was demanding that the common grammatical rule against ending sentences with prepositions should be emphasized. The Prime Minister is said to have replied, facetiously, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Today we will begin the exploration symbolized by Ghoti: Spelling vs Pronunciation. But first, why should we care?

As we move through the second decade of the 21st Century, English is the most widely dispersed language in the world, and third in number of native speakers as of 1999, behind Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. English is the lingua franca of a number of fields worldwide, and is steadily growing as a second or third language for learners.

Lingua Franca

A Lingua Franca is a bridge language used to facilitate communication when parties do not speak one another’s languages. Historically the term is Latin for “Frankish Language,” although it was originally an amalgam of Italian (80%), Turkish, French, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish used in the Eastern Mediterranean for trade and other purposes around the time of the Italian Renaissance. It lasted until the 19th Century in some places.

It may seem strange that it was called “Frankish (French) Language,” when French did not make up the majority of its vocabulary. Due to the dominance of France and other Frankish-related kingdoms in Western Europe during the western Middle Ages and Renaissance, and particularly after the Crusades began, many in Eastern Europe, the Roman Empire (then centered in Constantinople) and the Muslim world referred to all Western Europeans as Franks. A few examples include the Greek Φράγκοι, Frangoi, still used on some of the Greek isles to refer to Roman Catholics, the Arabic al-Faranj, Farsi farangi, all meaning Western European Christians. Even as far away as Thailand, ฝรั่ง Farang, means European foreigner, as travelers to Thailand know so well. Derivatives are widely used to refer to foreign foods, etc. In India today, Feringhi refers to foreigners.

The Farsi ستان Frangistan was used to designate Western Europe and Latin Christians in general in the Middle East, while the Arabic  الرُّومُ ar-Rūm, referred to the citizens of the Roman Empire (which continued in the East until the Fall of Rome (on Tuesday May 29, 1453 at about 2pm in the afternoon–not that we Easterners have long memories!) and Orthodox Christians. Still today in Arabic, Rūm Ortodox refers to Greek Orthodox Christians, while Rūm Katolik designates Greek Catholics such as Melkites.

The ultimate word on Franks comes–as it so often does–from Star Trek. The space-faring merchants, the Ferengi are probably named after the Western Europeans in their role as traders and merchants. In Modern Greek, φερέγγυος, ferengios means a merchant who is trustworthy. That’s also why in English we say someone who is truthful is being frank.

English Spelling and Punctuation

Now that we have voyaged around the world with Western European traders, let’s get back to the subject at hand. For this huge lingua franca we call English, spelling and pronunciation are a real problem. Just ask any ESL student! We have to take years to train our own children in the intricacies of English spelling. It is so difficult we have contests–Spelling Bees–to reward the best of our youth at this skill. Although spelling bees do exist outside of English and French speaking nations, they are much more rare where the language is pronounced phonetically on a regular basis. (French shares the heritage of weird spellings with English, and as we will see, there is a reason for that.)

To begin at the beginning, English is a West Germanic language, ultimately descending from Proto-Indo-European, through Anglo-Saxon, and by the 8th-11th Centuries, the Late West Saxon dialect came to dominance, and it is in this dialect that the epic poem Beowulf was written. The Late West Saxon dialect of English gradually became standardized, centering around Winchester, the seat of the English Kings. The use of this form of English as an official and standard language began to die out after the Norman Conquest in 1066, and was replaced by Latin and Norman French. English was relegated to the countryside, the language of the common people. We’ll explore some of the ramifications of this when we discuss English Grammar and Usage in another essay.

For our purposes here, this confluence of Old English, Medieval and Church Latin, and  Anglo-Norman French began to contribute to part of the problem we are exploring today. English demonstrated its ability to absorb large numbers of new words from other languages, and to incorporate them, making for a very rich number of ways of expressing things and ideas.

There is no universally-agreed upon way of counting how many words a language has in its vocabulary; however, English is usually at or near the top, with, by varying counts, 250,000 to over 1,000,000 words. The process of rapidly assimilating foreign words ramped into high gear during the Anglo-Norman period.

So Many Different Words!

English Vocabulary presents a considerable example of having several synonyms to describe something, due to its blending of word origins. Wikipedia gives several good examples, for instance:

“In English, many synonyms evolved from the parallel use, in the early medieval period, of Norman French (from Latin) and Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words, often with some words being used principally by the Saxon peasantry (“folk”, “freedom”, “bowman”) and their synonyms by the Norman nobility (“people”, “liberty”, “archer”).” English has the richest Thesaurus (Treasury) of any language.

Another well known category is animals/food.

Many of the live animals we eat have their names from Germanic roots, and the food that is the result of their sacrifice is from Latin via Norman French. For example:

Cow Beef

Pig Pork

Chicken Poultry

In this context, I cannot resist telling an old joke I learned in Tecate México in Spanish many years ago. The translation is mine.

A chicken and a pig were taking their afternoon walk. The chicken said, “Hey, this breakfast thing the Norteamericanos have is a great idea…Eggs and Bacon!”

The pig snorted, “Sure, for you, Breakfast is a contribution, for me it’s a complete disaster! (Claro, para tí, el desayuno es una contribución. ¡Para mí, es un desastre total!)” The punch line seems more chistoso in Spanish!

It’s all in your point of view!

This is only one result of English penchant for assimilating foreign words (we really are the Borg of languages!). Of course, this also makes our language so incredibly rich!

How Authentic Should We Be?

There is even an Atlantic divide. British English tends to anglicize the pronunciation of foreign words more decisively, while American English tends to preserve the original pronunciation, even when it violates English phonetics.

In Britain, it is more common to hear “Don Kwikset” as the pronunciation for Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote (Quijote), while in North America, it is pronounced more or less like the Spanish original “Don Keyhote.” (I am not using the International Phonetic Alphabet at the moment, since not everyone is familiar with it. In another essay, I will introduce readers to this indispensable tool, as well as to the Unicode Fonts which make language representation so easy on computers!)

In the same vein, the British say “Don Jewan” for Don Juan, while we say “Don Hwan.” Now I am all in favor of our North American usage in this regard, but during the late 20th Century, it got a little out of control, especially among newscasters, who usually speak “Network Standard,” essentially the flat American accent of St. Louis, MO.

Some newscasters began to exaggerate the foreign pronunciation of, especially Spanish American, place names, so that the usual “Hwatemala” for Guatemala came out as a very guttural “Chwatemalah.”  It sounded like they were getting ready to expectorate. When we have a standard English word for a place, we should use it. We say “Moscow,” not the original “Moscoba,” and “Pair-iss” for Paris, not “Pah-ree.”

In addition, American speakers sometimes suffer from language crossover. Here in San Francisco, there is a street in the Richmond district named Cabrillo, between Anza and Balboa (yes, we have a whole section of alphabetical streets in the Richmond and Sunset Districts).

Since most of us here are familiar with Spanish pronunciation, many people pronounce the street name “Kabriyo.” Unfortunately, Cabillo is the Spanish version of the explorer’s actual name in Portuguese, João Rodrigues Cabrilho, and so the street name should be  pronounced “Kabrillo.” That’s OK, but kids, don’t even try to imitate the real Portuguese pronunciation for Rio de Janeiro: it would be something like “Rhee-oo they Hen-ay-roo.” If you would like to learn Portuguese, it is a wonderful and beautiful language, but we can keep our somewhat anglicized pronunciations. After all, here in North America, we are ultimately practical and utilitarian. In this I stand with Garner’s Modern American Usage, a great work!

Another example of import confusion is the term “Fjord,” which makes no sense in English phonetics. It was originally “Fiord,” but then, since the Nordic spelling is fjǫrðr, we changed. In the English speaking world, only New Zealand holds on to the original English phonetic spelling. After all, Fjord phonetically should be “fha-jord.” English, especially North American English, loves exotic words…they sell cruises!

No One Controls the English Language!

It is not only the importation of non-Germanic words that makes for the confusion. Unlike the French and the Spanish, there is no official regulating body to control English. Personally, I believe that is why English is so wonderfully flexible and so international. Stephen Colbert can invent “Truthiness,” and it sticks! U da Bomb means you are outstanding, and Cool has survived from the 50s for my Baby Boomer Generation, and has been re-appropriated as Kwel. Wow!

English as so many exceptions, the ESL student by now is pulling out her/his hair. There is a rescue. First, I would like to promote the role of Native Speaker Tutors. We can guide you through the intricacies of the most widely dispersed language in the world. If you want to go it alone, Mark Rosenfelder’s 2000 site is a tremendous, if ponderous, resource. I use it all the time. For example, the suffix “-ough” can be pronounced 10 different ways, and Mark explains why.

Another factor influencing English spelling/pronunciation was an old attempt at re-syncing English words with their roots. For example, our current word Debt is pronounced dette. That’s because it is from the Germanic and French Dette. However, Samuel Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary intuited that it ultimately came from the Latin Debitum, so he re-spelled the word. Actually, all of these words come from the French and Germanic words without the “b.”

As we had mentioned above, French went through an even more severe re-classicizing period, where the word for son, in Medieval French, fil (filh) was re-Latinized from its origin Filius, and so became Fils, pronounced “Fiss,” against all standard French phonetics.

As Cicero says, “O Tempora, O Mores!” Oh Times, Oh Customs!

Finally, the death blow to the congruity of English Spelling and Pronunciation came with the Dictionaries. First in line was Noah Webster, an American of the best possible motives, and a true patriot, staunchly opposed to Slavery. He had a prodigious knowledge of languages, but lacked our modern understanding of how languages evolve. Therefore, he froze English spelling in a state of disarray, and that is what we inherit todayl Historical spellings abound, such as “Light:” pronounced “Lye-t,” which now has a modern homonym “Lite” (less caloric, less substantial). These are called “Historical Spellings.”  French has them too. So we have Light Bulbs and Lite Beer. Try explaining that to a Mandarin Speaker, or someone from Alpha Centauri.

He was followed by the incredibly eccentric team that created the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive work on the English Language.

So English spelling and pronunciation is a mess, and will continue to be, as spelling reform is not realistic. What is happening, due to texting and other mobile communication, is that we are evolving a shorthand version of English: How R U? Im
Gd. U? But this is based on the original living language. Pidgin English is important, but it must have a basis.

I sincerely hope, and am working daily to make sure that our diversity of languages does not vanish. We need the thought patterns, the approaches and the viewpoints of all human cultures and languages to face the challenges before us, no less than we need to biodiversity of the Amazon and other regions to sustain our lives. Someday, we will encounter a problem that only the thought-processes of Basque or Magyar will resolve. We need all the arrows in our quiver. Meanwhile, English will serve as the Lingua Franca of the 21st Century, with all its worts.

We look forward to the visit of the Vulcans, who will be able to demonstrate to us how Mandarin, English, Greek, Hebrew, Gaelic, Thai, Arabic, Coptic, etc. are all dialects of Human-Speak.

Next: You learned English Grammar in school. Almost everything you learned was wrong. Why is English grammar and syntax so complicated, and why can’t we teach it to our children?

Thank you!