Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Slaves and slavery, part 8: Lat. sĕrvīlis

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 8 of Slaves and Slavery: Go to Part 1

Words derived from Lat. sĕrvus: Lat. sĕrvīlis

Latin had a number of words derived from the word sĕrvus/a, some of which have made it into the modern languages either patrimonially (by word-of-mouth transmission) in the case of Spanish or, more likely, by later borrowing from written Latin, as learned words or cultismos (cf. Part I, Chapter 1). One of these words is the third declension classical adjective sĕrvīlis, derived from the root sĕrv‑ of the noun sĕrvus by means of the third declension adjective forming suffix ‑īl‑ (nominative and genitive singular case inflection: ‑īl‑is, accusative singular case inflection ‑īl‑em). Its meaning was ‘of or belonging to a slave, slavish, servile’ (L&S). This word has been borrowed into Eng. as servile and into Spanish as servil, following earlier patterns of adoption of third declension Latin adjectives.[1]

The first meaning of Sp. servil in the dictionary is ‘belonging to or relating to slaves or servants’.[2] This adjective, however, is used primarily in a figurative way with rather negative connotations. María Moliner’s dictionary says of the second sense of servil that ‘it applies to the person who humbles himself before the powerful or flatters them to earn their benevolence, and to his actions, attitude, etc.’, a synonym of words like abyecto ‘abject, wretched, despicable’, rastrero ‘vile, base’, and vil ‘vile, despicable’.[3] Related to this is the fact that the term servil was the term (adjective and noun) used to refer to proponents of absolute monarchy in Spain in the early 19th century when there was a strong movement towards constitutional monarchy.

The English adjective servile is attested as early as the late 14th century and it pronounced today [ˈsɜɹ.ˌvaɪ̯ɫ] or [ˈsɜɹ.vəɫ]. Its meaning is like the negative second sense we just saw for Sp. servil, namely ‘abjectly submissive; slavish’ (AHD), or ‘excessively willing to serve or please others’ (COED). Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learner's Dictionary tells us that this word is both formal and disapproving. As for its single meaning, it is the following: ‘very obedient and trying too hard to please someone. In the presence of an authority, he immediately adopted a servile [=submissive] attitude. a servile assistant (MWALD). Some English dictionaries also mention a more neutral sense for this word, one closer to the original one and like the first one shown in Spanish dictionaries, namely the second sense for this word in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary: ‘of or characteristic of a slave or slaves’ (COED). A synonym of Eng. servile is subservient, which also contains the Latinate root serv‑. Eng. subservient is a 17th century loan from classical Latin sŭbsĕrviēnt-, the stem of the present participle sŭbsĕrviēns of the verb sŭbsĕrvīre (see below).

From these adjectives, a few other words have been derived in the modern languages. English derived the noun servility [səɹˈvɪlɪti] in the second half of the 15th century by adding the Latinate suffix ‑ity—which is used primarily to name the state, property, or quality—to the adjective servile. Most dictionaries do not define servility, only servile, but the Oxford English Dictionary gives several senses, the first two being: ‘servile condition; the quality or status of being a slave; the condition of being in bondage’ and ‘servile disposition or conduct’ (OED). Another, synonymous English noun describing the act of being servile is servileness, derived by means of the patrimonial (Germanic) suffix ‑ness (cf. blackness, usefulness, etc.). Whereas some dictionaries mention only the noun servility as being derived from the adjective servile, such as COED and LDCE (British ones), some also mention servileness, such as AHD and MWC (both North American ones).

Spanish created a synonym of these words by adding a different suffix, namely the Greek suffix ‑ismo, which resulted in servilismo, which means the same thing as the second sense we just mentioned for Eng. servility, which has negative connotations, namely ‘blind and base adherence to someone’s authority’ (DLE).[4] Note that in order to create a word meaning ‘the act of being servile’ by means of a suffix cognate with Eng. ‑ity, namely ‑idad, resulting in *servilidad. However, Spanish did not do that (the * before the word means that it does not exist, though it could have). Whoever coined the Spanish word with this meaning chose to use the suffix ‑ismo instead.

Latin also had adverbs derived from the adjective sĕrvīlis. For one, Latin could convert the neuter accusative form of an adjective into an adverb by conversion (without adding additional affixes), and this was done in Latin with the adjective sĕrvīlis, whose neuter accusative form was sĕrvīle, which was used as an adverb that meant ‘like a slave, slavishly, servilely’. This adverb was rare, though. A more common synonymous adverb was sĕrvīlĭter, derived from the adjective by means of the suffix ‑(ĭ)ter that derived adverbs from adjectives, much like the suffix ‑ly derives adverbs from adjectives in English. This suffix was usually added to the third-declension adjective stem, e.g. celerĭter ‘swiftly, immediately’, from celer ‘fast, swift’, and sometimes to a second-declension stem, such as avārĭter ‘greedily’, from avārus ‘greedy’, though for it was more common for second declension adjectives to derive adverbs in ‑ē and -ō.

The regular way to derive an adverb from the English adjective servile is by means of the suffix ‑ly, results in servilely, and this word has indeed been used, as early as the mid-16th century (OED). The word has had different spellings, however, probably due to the clash of the two last syllables: ‘Also 1500s–1600s servilly, (1600s servillye), 1600s–1700s servily’ (OED). The word is quite rare, however, and  many dictionaries do not mention it, though some, such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate and Concise Oxford English Dictionary do.

From the adjective servil, Spanish derived the adverb servilmente in a totally regular fashion by means of the ‘suffix’ ‑mente (cf. Part I, Chapter 5) and this word is definitely not as rare or baffling as Eng. servilely. The DLE gives four senses for this word. One is derived from the literal sense, namely ‘in a manner befitting a siervo’. The next two senses are derived and highly pejorative ones referring to human behaviors or attitudes: ‘indecently’ and ‘with baseness or contempt’.  Finally, the fourth and quite rare sense is a neutral one, but it refers not to people’s actions but to texts: ‘literally, without removing or adding anything’.[5] Other dictionaries treat this adverb differently. So, for instance, María Moliner only gives the literal sense and Larousse blends the two derived, pejorative senses (‘De modo bajo o indecente. SINÓNIMO [indignamente]’). Signum’s thesaurus gives several synonyms for servilmente, namely rastreramente, bajamente, indecentemente, adulonamente, indecorosamente, sumisamente, infamemente, and vilmente.

Go to Part 9 (coming soon)



[1] The pattern for patrimonial Spanish words from Latin was that words ending in ‑īlis (‑īlem in the accusative), always lost the inflection. English follows the pattern of patrimonial French words from Latin, which also lost the accusative inflection ‑em, but retained a silent, final ‑e  in the spelling.

[2] The original says ‘Perteneciente o relativo a los siervos y criados’ (DLE).

[3] The original says: ‘adj. y n. Abyecto, bajuno, rastrero, *vil. Se aplica a la persona que se humilla ante los poderosos o les *adula para ganarse su benevolencia, y a sus actos, actitud, etc. ⇒ Alzafuelles, barbero, chicharrón, lacayo, lacayuno, lameculos, lavacaras, quitamotas, quitapelillos’ (MM).

[4] The original says: ‘Ciega y baja adhesión a la autoridad de alguien’ (DLE).

[5] The original says: ‘1. adv. De manera propia de un siervo.  2. adv. Indecorosa o indecentemente.  3. adv. Con bajeza o desdoro.  4. adv. A la letra, sin quitar ni poner nada’ (DLE).

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