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Solidarity in Cicero’s letters: Methodological considerations in analysing the functions of code-switching

La solidarité dans la correspondance de Cicéron: considérations méthodologiques pour analyser la fonction de l’alternance de code linguistique
Aleksi Mäkilähde et Veli-Matti Rissanen
p. 237-245


Nous étudions l’alternance de code linguistique dans la correspondance de Cicéron avec une méthodologie pragmaphilologique. Nous nous concentrons sur la fonction spécifique de l’alternance de code linguistique qui a été identifiée dans plusieurs études précédentes : la solidarité. Nous proposons qu’il est besoin d’une définition explicite de la solidarité, et nous illustrons comment les occurrences de la solidarité peuvent différer selon le contexte. De plus, nous montrons comment des autres stratégies linguistiques sont utilisées pour exprimer la solidarité, et nous proposons quelques pistes pour une reconsidération de la question concernant l’alternance de code linguistique dans des études à venir.

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Notes de l’auteur

We thank Ellen Valle for helping us improve the language and style of this paper.

Texte intégral

1. Introduction

  • 2 CS can be defined e.g. as “the mixing of languages within one communicative event (or stretch of di (...)

1Over the past few decades, there has been increasing interest in code-switching (henceforth CS) in historical texts.2 More specifically, the focus in previous research has been on the functions of CS, but those functions themselves have not necessarily been explicitly defined in terms of a particular theoretical framework. Furthermore, only few studies have analysed CS as part of a system of linguistic strategies; thus they do not show how CS differs from other strategies, or how it might function in combination with them. Here we analyse the use of CS in Cicero’s letters with the aid of a novel theoretical framework, in order to answer two related questions. First, how can we define a central function of CS in terms of pragmatic theory, and how can such a definition be applied in the analysis? Second, what other (linguistic) strategies are used to achieve the same function? Our focus is on methodology, and therefore we will only discuss a few selected examples. Furthermore, we apply a combination of form-to-function and function-to-form approaches in order to argue that some of the functions achieved through CS can also be achieved through other linguistic or non-linguistic strategies. In other words, we aim to arrive at a better understanding of CS not only in itself but in relation to other discourse strategies.

2We begin by contextualising the material and discussing previous research on CS in historical texts in general and in Cicero’s letters in particular. Next, we present a brief overview of our theoretical and methodological framework. We follow this by discussing examples drawn from the letters, showing how the theoretical framework can be applied and how CS functions in combination with other linguistic strategies to create pragmatic meanings. We conclude with suggestions for further research.

2. Cicero and letter-writing: socio-historical and linguistic contextualisation

  • 3 For discussion, see e.g. Rissanen, 2011.
  • 4 The address provided cues of how intimate the two parties were and how much the sender respected th (...)

3The letters of M. Tullius Cicero constitute the earliest surviving collection of epistolary writing from Antiquity; one crucial point is that the texts were actually sent and received before being collected. In Cicero’s time, letter-writing was a central element of interaction among members of the Roman elite, and his surviving letters provide us with a unique picture of this epistolary culture. The attitude towards letter writing can be seen in the following comment, addressed by Cicero to Atticus (1, 12, 4): si rem nullam habebis, quod in buccam venerit scribito (‘even if you have nothing to say, write to me whatever comes to your mind’). At least for Cicero, then, the content of the letter was of secondary importance; more important was the relationship between sender and recipient, which Cicero endeavoured to maintain or strengthen through the letters.3 The salutation was also implicative of the relationship between sender and recipient, as well as the roles assumed by them, and its formulation had to be considered carefully.4 Style and language also needed to be adjusted depending on the recipient, as Cicero himself remarks (Fam. 15, 21, 4).

4In general, we may say of Cicero’s letters that the more socially distant the recipient, the more formal the letter would be. Some letters were meant for a wider audience, although they could still be addressed to a single person, and such letters are more polished both stylistically and linguistically than purely private ones. The language of the letters addressed to Cicero’s close friends differs considerably from that of his public letters and his published writings. This is reflected in more speech-like and informal language and in the use of colourful lexis, simple or elliptical constructions, idiomatic phrases, exclamations, and Greek.

  • 5 Important general studies on letter writing in antiquity include e.g. Koskenniemi, 1956; Cugusi, 19 (...)

5Cicero’s letters have been valued as a resource for contemporary history, and in fact the letters have often served merely as a collection of facts for historians. Over the last few decades, however, various aspects of letter-writing itself have received attention from researchers.5 Recently, letters have been approached with new methods and theories, including for example those of literary theory (Hutchinson, 1998) and sociolinguistics (Hall, 2009; White, 2010), and these have shed new light on the epistolary culture of the elite in the late Roman republic.

3. Previous research

3. 1. Historical code-switching

  • 6 For convenience, we follow the fairly common practice of using the term historical CS to cover the (...)

6Research on CS is still a relatively young field, and it is only recently that historical linguists have approached their data from the point of view of CS.6 Language contact phenomena in general have of course been a central topic in historical linguistics for a long time, and the difference between the earlier and the more recent research lies mainly in the application of theories and concepts developed for the study of contemporary (spoken) CS, and in the adoption of a viewpoint influenced by research on multilingualism. Due to the broad scope of the field, we focus here on more recent work on historical CS; this has been conducted in the context of many different languages, but in particular English and the Classical languages.

7Previous research on historical CS has made use of both philological and linguistic methods, has dealt with literary and non-literary texts, and has approached CS from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. Just as in research on contemporary CS, the questions addressed have been varied, but the functions of CS have been one of the topics most frequently discussed. In effect, the purpose of such studies has been to explain why CS occurs, or, more broadly, why specific languages are used in specific contexts. The approaches, again, have varied: some studies have applied a philological method (e.g. Wenzel, 1994), while others have combined it for example with quantitative corpus methods (e.g. Nurmi and Pahta, 2010). Models developed for the analysis of the functions of contemporary CS seem to have been somewhat underutilised, but several studies have applied more general sociolinguistic or pragmatic theories to historical CS (e.g. Putter, 2011). However, while the functions of CS have been studied extensively, there have been only few attempts to actually define the functions themselves in formal terms. CS is also only rarely analysed as one element in a system of linguistic strategies which can be adopted in order to achieve certain functions (see Mäkilähde, in review).

3. 2. Functions of code-switching in Cicero’s letters

8The presence of Greek in Cicero’s letters has been addressed in several previous studies; here we focus on those which have analysed it from the point of view of the functions or motivations for CS. In his study of CS in the letters to Atticus, Dunkel excludes three types of Greek excerpts from the analysis: literary quotations/proverbs, quotations from Atticus, and some passages which “lack the linguistic transitions […] which interest us” (2000, p. 123-4). This is problematic from the pragmatic point of view, since it allots special status to certain types of CS and downplays the role of others. The motivations identified for CS were the need for technical vocabulary, the appropriateness of Greek for conspiracies, emotionality, and humour/male-bonding/camaraderie (Dunkel, 2000, p. 127-9).

9In a later study, Swain (2002, p. 151-62) analysed the entire letter corpus, applying some concepts from studies on contemporary CS. The functions or motivations for CS identified by him include specific topics, discourse markers, humour, solidarity, confidentiality, quotations, and CS as an unmarked code. The most in-depth discussion of CS in Cicero’s letters is provided by Adams (2003, p. 301-43). Adams classifies the functions of CS into four main categories: establishing a relationship with an addressee, expressing identity, responding to a particular topic, and stylistic effect. More specific functions include solidarity, coding or exclusion, distancing or euphemism, fixed expressions, filling a gap, special terminology, and evocativeness.

10Many of the functions identified in the three studies are similar. In the following, we focus particularly on one of these: solidarity (i.e. Dunkel’s “camaraderie”). This seems to be a central function in the letters, as well as a function which is often mentioned in historical CS studies in general (see Mäkilähde, in review). Although previous studies do not always offer explicit definitions of the functions of CS, it is clear that in each of them solidarity refers to creating, establishing or emphasising some kind of an in-group membership between the participants, or a type of like-mindedness.

4. Theoretical and methodological framework

11The methodology applied in the present study can be described as pragmaphilological. This type of approach “describes the contextual aspects of historical texts, including the addressers and addressees, their social and personal relationship, the physical and social setting of text production and text reception, and the goal(s) of the text” (Jacobs and Jucker, 1995, p. 11). Such approaches can also be seen as belonging to the field of historical socio-pragmatics.

  • 7 Such combinations could be seen to be the central feature of pragmaphilological (or similar) studie (...)

12We apply a framework developed preliminarily in two other studies (Mäkilähde, 2012 and in review). The basic idea behind this framework is to combine a data-driven approach with a theory-driven one; in the present context, these correspond to philological close-reading and linguistic pragmatics.7 The former is both logically and practically primary, since we need to begin with as full a contextualisation and understanding of the data as possible. The latter, more formal approach enables us to provide definitions for the functions identified, anchoring them to a specific theoretical paradigm. The advantages of such an approach are apparent. First, explicit definitions mean that errors in the analysis are easier to detect. Second, differences and relationships between various functions can be made more explicit (see Mäkilähde, in review).

  • 8 See e.g. Hall, 2009 and Jucker, 2011. Due to space limitations, we do not discuss here the problems (...)

13Many of the central concepts of our framework derive from Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory, which has also been applied to historical data.8 However, we are not interested in politeness per se, but in facework more broadly. A detailed discussion of the model is not possible here; instead, we briefly explain the key concepts which will be referred to in the following discussion. Face is defined as “the public self-image that every (competent adult) member (of a society) wants to claim for himself” (Brown and Levinson, 1987, p. 61), and is divided into two interrelated aspects: positive face is “the positive consistent self-image or ‘personality’ […] claimed by interactants”, while negative face is “the basic claim to […] freedom of action and freedom from imposition” (ibid.). The former can also be defined as the want to be admired by others, and the latter as the want to act freely and autonomously (Mäkilähde, 2012, p. 39). Another concept central to the model is the face-threatening act (FTA), in other words and act which conflicts with the abovementioned wants of either the speaker (S) or the addressee (H). The weightiness (W) of an FTA can be calculated in terms of the following three variables: the social distance (D) between S and H, the relative power (P) of S and H, and the absolute ranking (R) of the imposition (Brown and Levinson, 1987, p. 74-8). Depending on the variable which has given rise to a high value of W, the speaker may choose one of a range of various politeness strategies.

  • 9 One might prefer another term over solidarity, or the definition given here might only apply to one (...)

14With this framework as a basis, it was proposed in Mäkilähde (2012, p. 57) that solidarity is basically mutual face enhancement. In Mäkilähde (in review) it is stated more explicitly that in addition to enhancing the positive face of both S and H, the act in question should imply a low D-value between them. It needs to be added that this low D-value is implied through shared membership in a particular social group. As discussed in Mäkilähde (in review), further qualification may eventually be required; in the following sections, however, we adopt this definition (i.e. the act implies a low D-value through shared membership in a particular social group + enhances the positive face of S and H) as our starting point.9

5. Solidarity through code-switching

  • 10 Any instance of CS may of course have many simultaneous functions; we do not claim that the functio (...)

15Solidarity has been identified as one function of CS especially in the context of quotations from Greek authors in Cicero’s letters to Atticus. The following example may be taken as a typical case.10 The context is that Caesar and Pompey have asked Cicero to travel to Egypt:

  • 11 Literally, “I am afraid of the Trojan men and the Trojan women in their trailing robes”. For clarit (...)


Sed hoc tempore et his mittentibus αἰδέομαι Τρῶας καὶ Τρῳάδας ἑλκεσιπέπλους. (Att. 2, 5, 1)
‘But in the present context, and the senders being who they are,
I am afraid of the public opinion.’11

  • 12 E.g. Att. 7, 1, 4; 13, 13-14, 2.

16The Greek element is a full metrical line from the Iliad (22, 105; cf. 6, 442), where it is uttered by Hector in reference to his feeling ashamed to appear before the Trojans lest he be reproached for making bad decisions which have brought ruin upon the city. This seems to be one of Cicero’s favourite quotations, as he also uses it in a number of other contexts.12 Sometimes the same purpose is served by just the first few words of the line. Since the meaning behind the quotation is not evident to anyone unfamiliar with the Iliad, and since, furthermore, there is no metalinguistic flagging of the quotation, it is clear that Cicero expected knowledge of this line to be part of the common ground shared by himself and Atticus (cf. Steele, 1900, p. 393). We can therefore analyse it as a case of solidarity through the implication of a low D-value between S and H by reference to their shared membership in a group of educated Roman philhellenes.

17Although in this particular example the function itself may be quite clear, it is crucial to ask whether solidarity is achieved through the use of Greek or the use of a quotation. In fact, it seems to be achieved by means of both strategies simultaneously. The function of solidarity would most likely be achieved even if the quotation were in Latin – especially if only a couple of words were given, and H was thus expected to recognise it without any other cues. However, the type of solidarity achieved may of course differ according to the language choice. For example, the indexed in-group may not be exactly the same in both cases (i.e. Greek vs. Latin quotations).

18It seems intuitively obvious that not every instance of CS can be a case of solidarity, or at least that solidarity cannot be the main function in every case of CS. Indeed, in some cases the use of Greek may serve a rather practical purpose, as shown in the following example. Here, Cicero is informing Atticus that Philotimus, the freedman of Cicero’s wife Terentia, has been ‘fixing’ Cicero’s accounts, and that Atticus should keep an eye on him:


Παραφύλαξον, si me amas, τὴν τοῦ φυρατοῦ φιλοτίμιαν. (Att. 6, 9, 2)
keep an eye on the ambitions of the cook.’

  • 13 Att. 6, 4, 3; 6, 5, 1.

19Since the matter was delicate, the message had to be encrypted, and this took place partly through the use of Greek and partly through the use of an obscure reference. There is an obvious wordplay in the use of φιλοτίμια in reference to Philotimus, who is identified metaphorically as φυρατής. In this example, encryption seems to be the main function of CS; yet it might also be argued that a kind of solidarity is implied, since a similar obscure reference could function simply as an in-joke. It is quite clear, however, that Cicero’s request for assistance is completely sincere. He refers to the same matter in two other letters as well,13 and in both cases he uses the verb φυράω ‘to mix’ and explicitly asks Atticus to investigate the matter. The initial imperative παραφύλαξον, then, represents a genuine request, thus constituting an FTA towards the negative face of Atticus (cf. Brown and Levinson, 1987, p. 65-6). The FTA is redressed with si me amas, which can be analysed as a positive politeness formula (e.g. Dickey, 2012, p. 321). If we interpret the use of Greek in (2) as a form of solidarity, then this is surely quite different from example (1). If there is any salient reference to in-group status, it functions to mitigate the FTA, while in (1) the use of Greek can be seen as face enhancement without the presence of any FTA. As for the roles of S and H, more important than philhellenism is their friendship in general. Furthermore, as mentioned above, it seems that encryption is the main function of CS in this particular example, not solidarity.

6. Solidarity through other strategies

  • 14 One possible linguistic strategy is the use of pragmatic particles, such as the consensus particle (...)

20In order to understand the role of CS in terms of the linguistic system as a whole, we need to contrast it with other discourse strategies (both linguistic and non-linguistic).14 In Cicero’s letters, CS is by no means the only strategy used to achieve solidarity, and in fact quotations and allusions in Latin are often used for the same function. In the following example, Cicero is criticising the triumvirate with the aid of a quotation which happens to be a favourite of Atticus:


Tibi autem valde solet in ore esse ‘Granius autem non contemnere se et reges odisse superbos.’ (Att. 6, 3, 7)
‘But indeed, you are in the habit of quoting these lines: “Granius knows his own worth and hates proud kings.”’

  • 15 Cf. Brown and Levinson, 1987, p. 117-24. If accommodation is defined as “the adjustment of speech [ (...)

21The quotation is from Lucilius (Lucil. 1181-2), and it also occurs in another letter to Atticus (Att. 2, 8, 1). Although most instances of Latin quotations in the letters can be analysed as instances of solidarity, the details may differ depending on the exact context. In example (3), since the quotation is a favourite of Atticus, we can also interpret it as a case of accommodation or a similar common-ground strategy, enhancing the positive face of H.15 In addition to their membership in the educated elite, what is being foregrounded here is the close friendship between S and H and their shared experiences.

22Finally, let us consider one example in a letter to Trebatius. The function of the letter as a whole is one of encouragement: Trebatius has left to join Caesar, who is about to travel to Britain. Cicero assures Trebatius that he has made the right choice, offers some advice, and quotes the Latin Medea of Ennius. In the following example, Ennius is quoted for the third time:


et (quoniam Medeam coepi agere) illud semper memento: ‘Qui ipse sapiens prodesse non quit, nequiquam sapit.’ (Fam. 7, 6, 2)
‘… and (since I have begun to quote from the Medea) always remember this: “Who is wise but unable to benefit from it himself, is wise in vain.”’

23Although we can again analyse this as a case of solidarity, it is of a very different kind compared to the kind of solidarity achieved in the letters to Atticus. Trebatius was a jurisconsult, and it seems very likely that sapere in example (4) refers to legal learning in particular. There is no reference in this letter to legal matters per se, but the word sapere occurs several times in the others. The following examples are indicative:


Legi tuas litteras ex quibus intellexi te Caesari nostro valde iure consultum videri. Est quod gaudeas te in ista loca venisse, ubi aliquid sapere viderere. (Fam. 7, 10, 1)
‘I have read your letter, from which I gathered that our Caesar values you highly as a jurisconsult. You have reason to rejoice over having arrived in those regions, where you are considered something of a wise man.’


In ‘Equo Troiano’ scis esse in extremo ‘sero sapiunt’. Tu tamen, mi vetule, non sero. Primas illas rabiosulas sat fatuas dedisti; deinde quod in Britannia non nimis φιλοθέωρον te praebuisti, plane non reprehendo. Nunc vero in hibernis [in]tectus mihi videris; itaque te commovere non curas. ‘Usquequaque sapere oportet; id erit telum acerrimum.’ (Fam. 7, 16, 1)
‘You know how the “Trojan Horse” ends: “they become wise too late”. But you, old boy, are always wise in time. First you sent those somewhat snarky and quite silly letters. Then you were not too keen on
sightseeing Britannia, for which I do not reprehend you at all. Now you seem to be safely in winter camp, so you do not care to move anywhere. “One must be wise everywhere; that will be the sharpest of weapons.”’

  • 16 Cf. Fam. 7, 12, 2; 7, 18, 1; 7, 20, 3.

24In example (6), sapere occurs within two quotations. The first is from the play Equus Troianus, by (presumably) Livius Andronicus or Naevius, while the second is unknown but possibly from the same source. This letter, furthermore, contains a reference to Trebatius’s legal learning (Fam. 7, 16, 3). We may conclude that solidarity is achieved through reference to a shared background in legal learning, and that the role assumed by both S and H would be that of a jurisconsult. The same type of wordplay with sapere and sapientia is also found, in a similar context, in Cicero’s letter to L. Valerius (Fam. 1, 10), and the word iurisconsultus in fact occurs in the salutation. What is at issue here is that the roles assumed by S and H are connected to the available linguistic strategies for achieving pragmatic functions, such as solidarity. In other words, different strategies are available (or suitable) for different roles. The use of legal jargon would not be an ideal strategy to enhance the shared philhellenism of Cicero and Atticus. Similarly, the use of Greek quotations or Greek in general would not be the most effective way to indicate that both Cicero and Trebatius belong to an in-group of people versed in legal matters. This is reflected in the fact that, although Trebatius seems to have known Greek,16 there is little CS in the letters Cicero sent to him.

7. Conclusions

25Our purpose has been to show that one of the functions of CS in Cicero’s letters may indeed be solidarity, but that the type of solidarity achieved may differ from one context to another. There is a difference, for example, between CS functioning as face enhancement without an FTA and in the presence of one, the latter being in essence a politeness strategy. We have also shown that Cicero could make use of several different linguistic strategies to achieve solidarity with his addressee, and that the choice between these strategies was intimately connected to the roles assumed by the sender and recipient of the letters. Since solidarity can also be achieved by other discourse strategies, such as the use of jargon or of quotations without CS, we suggest that it would be beneficial to investigate CS as one element in a system of linguistic strategies, and to consider its uses in connection with other strategies available to the speaker or writer.

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2 CS can be defined e.g. as “the mixing of languages within one communicative event (or stretch of discourse/text), be it spoken or written” (Schendl and Wright, 2011, p. 23).

3 For discussion, see e.g. Rissanen, 2011.

4 The address provided cues of how intimate the two parties were and how much the sender respected the recipient (see Hall, 2009, p. 9; White, 2010, p. 68-71).

5 Important general studies on letter writing in antiquity include e.g. Koskenniemi, 1956; Cugusi, 1983; Morello and Morrison, 2007.

6 For convenience, we follow the fairly common practice of using the term historical CS to cover the use of CS in historical texts. We do not, however, claim that historical CS as a phenomenon is significantly different from contemporary CS.

7 Such combinations could be seen to be the central feature of pragmaphilological (or similar) studies in general.

8 See e.g. Hall, 2009 and Jucker, 2011. Due to space limitations, we do not discuss here the problems of this model. For criticism, see e.g. Watts, 2003.

9 One might prefer another term over solidarity, or the definition given here might only apply to one specific type of solidarity; a full discussion is beyond the scope of the present paper.

10 Any instance of CS may of course have many simultaneous functions; we do not claim that the functions discussed below are the only possible ones in each case, but rather that they seem to be the most important ones.

11 Literally, “I am afraid of the Trojan men and the Trojan women in their trailing robes”. For clarity, translations of the Greek parts have been italicised.

12 E.g. Att. 7, 1, 4; 13, 13-14, 2.

13 Att. 6, 4, 3; 6, 5, 1.

14 One possible linguistic strategy is the use of pragmatic particles, such as the consensus particle enim (see Kroon, 1995). Space does not permit a discussion of the similarities and differences between these different types of strategies.

15 Cf. Brown and Levinson, 1987, p. 117-24. If accommodation is defined as “the adjustment of speech […] in some way to suit that of the addressee” (Adams, 2003, p. 685), it seems that solidarity and accommodation are different types of common-ground strategies (see Mäkilähde, in review).

16 Cf. Fam. 7, 12, 2; 7, 18, 1; 7, 20, 3.

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Aleksi Mäkilähde

PhD student, University of Turku

Veli-Matti Rissanen

Researcher, University of Turku

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