Troubles with Syllabi
Some of the faculty members who work with me this week got into that tired argument again over whether the plural of syllabus is correctly “syllabuses” or “syllabi.” (I think I’d said “syllabuses” out loud in a conversation earlier, and just a few minutes after others had overheard this phrase of mine their argument was full blown.) I don’t really want to continue the debate here.
But wouldn’t we like to see some of what’s behind the English word, these English words? How Greek and how Latin? How fake and how real?
How right our uses of them and how wrong? How educated and how pretentious? How novel and how historical?
syllabus, syllabuses, syllabi
Here’s what the google ngram viewer shows us of how others before us have varied in the uses of them in print, the plurals never ever nearly as popular as that singular and those two used in equal measure only but a few moments in time:
Here’s what a few blogging experts say about the phrases. For example, here’s a medieval philosopher, a former literary editor, a part-time tv commentator, a widely published essayist and poet, and “[t]he author of bestselling Kindle Singles,” Dr. Joseph Bottum starting off a post “Loose Language” (my emphases):
The plural of syllabus is syllabi. Or is it syllabuses? Focuses and foci, cactuses and cacti, funguses and fungi: English has a good set of these Greek and Latin words—and pseudo-Greek and Latin words—that might take a classical-sounding plural. Or might not. It kind of depends.
There’s pretension, no doubt, in using fancy plurals: a hangover from the days when class distinction could be measured by the remnants of a classical education. But we’ve all been carefully trained to mock such pretensions (on the grounds, as near as I can tell, that it’s terribly lower class to affect the traits of the upper class). And the most prominent use of such plurals nowadays is for comic effect, puncturing a stuffy occasion.
So the debate has never been about whether there are or should be any rules of usage, or even about whether linguists should help people to figure out what those rules are, relative to a given context or style of speech or writing. The contested question is what credence to give to the “rules” that self-appointed experts attempt to impose on the rest of us, especially in cases where these “rules” are inconsistent with the practice of elite writers, and are justified by illogical appeals to logic, historically false appeals to history, or unsupported assertions about ambiguity and other aspects of readers’ uptake.
Is the “will of custom” sometimes equivocal? Of course; the mansion of the English language has many rooms. Is it appropriate to limit this variation by imposing a “house style” on particular publications? Sure, if you want to. Will terrible things happen if your favorite style guide fails to constrain some optional choice, like “syllabuses” vs. “syllabi”? Surely not.
And Liberman had referenced history in an earlier post “What’s the plural of syllabus?” At least, he’s shown how he at one point believed the following as he appeals to the logic of the assertions of the unnamed compilers and editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (and once more I emphasize):
The thing is, the word is a fake to start with, a misinterpretation due to scribal error. Here’s what the OED sez:
Now I’m writing my own blogpost. I’m merely a linguist with but a Master o f Arts in the discipline, just dabbling in statistically significant data of human subject research called socio- linguistics. Not much of an authority myself, Dr. J. K. Gayle holds the most advanced degree in English, in classical rhetoric, while working more professionally with post-puberty learners of English as a language and their teachers and confessing to chronically private interests in how any of us ever learns “English.” (I have my mother to thank for encouraging me.) So here’s my own rather subjective emphasized read of “what the OED sez:”
My eye is drawn to the alleged mere connections from our English “syllabus” to the ancient Greek’s “συλλαμβάνειν, to put together, collect.”
I am as fascinated by the OED editor’s collection of early quotations of the in print uses of this word and its English meanings. Take a look for yourself (if you’ll pardon once again my emphases):
The question we must quickly ask is whether Taylor calling a syllabus a collection in 1667 was a mistake, the appropriation of a fake and graecized Latin word, a misinterpretation, a spurious deduction? Was he using bad English way back then? Why then does the OED editor choose to include that now? Am I asking too many questions?
Let’s take a look at other dictionary makers’ look at the Greek word allegedly causing all of the confusion. Click here for the full entry on συλλαμβάνω and collection of uses by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. The old verb in Greek is not too far off from the newer English noun syllabus, is it? “The syllabus, including [collected] links to lecture notes and homework assignments, can be found here,” writes Dr. Liberman and his co-instructor here.
I’d like the end this post with uses of forms of syllabus or the like (may we call these syllabuses or syllabi?) that we may find not yet collected, though they do exist somewhere between the Liddell-Scott and OED entries and well before the google ngram records and our own various contemporary uses of such “English.”
These are translational uses of the old Greek forms. They are generative. They are not easily contained or collected by our expert opinions about which is fake and what must be true.
The first is from the very first use of the Greek phrase in question by the translator(s) in Alexandria, Egypt, rendering the Hebrew Bible into Hellene. It’s the Greek Genesis 4:1 –
Αδαμ δὲ ἔγνω Ευαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ
καὶ συλλαβοῦσα ἔτεκεν τὸν Καιν
καὶ εἶπεν ἐκτησάμην ἄνθρωπον διὰ τοῦ θεοῦ
It’s the first recorded “conception,” the conceiving of the first human being by his mother.
The second syllabus-related Greek phrase I’d like to end this post with is from the New Testament. It’s from the gospel of Luke, itself sort of a syllabus or a collection of the accounts of the gospel on hand. Before I say more, let me just announce this (as if any of us needs to hear it): these two syllabi, or syllabuses, have been the cause of many troubles (and I link to my own elsewhere-blogged troubles with the plural of that last word below). Now, here’s the announcement of the immaculate conception as a unique instance of what we tend argue over as fake or as real as spurious or as historical as literary or not in our collections of understandings (as syllabi). Here’s Luke 1:31 –
Καὶ ἰδού συλλήψῃ ἐν γαστρί
καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν
καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν