An ablative for the Greeks? Frischlin vs. Crusius on grammar (I)

In the new “Ad fontes” feature of Adendros, I want to offer English translations of short source texts or text excerpts from the history of (Greek) language studies which struck me as particularly interesting, enlightening, or enticing.

Today: part one of a grammar dispute between Philipp Nicodemus Frischlin and Martin Crusius, two sixteenth-century humanists who disagreed about the Greek case system. Although the fierce controversy seems boring nitpicking at first sight, it reveals diverging views on the foundations of grammar, which Frischlin based on meaning rather than form, as well as a contrasting attitude toward the Greek people and heritage. Crusius was a Philhellene, while Frischlin was quite the opposite, a Mishellene one might say. Additionally, the dispute shows two scholars at their worst, attacking their opponents not only for their views but also for who they were. For them, grammar was a core matter of education, with which one should not mess, but at the same time they were arguing out of personal rivalry, getting increasingly ad hominem over time… But let the source speak for itself!

The Greeks do not lack the ablative, a demonstration by Nicodemus Frischlin (1585/86; original Latin)

§1. Some grammarians of our country frown in seriousness because I have smashed their mouths a little with my shoes and those of Fabius Quintilianus, Augustinus Saturnius, and Julius Scaliger. For they believe they can defend themselves and that their nonsense can be excused by the usage of past times, in which grammar has always been transmitted in this fashion, which we have long since exposed as absurd and awkward. But it is in vain (says Augustinus) that usage is held against us, we who prevail by reason; as if USAGE surpasses the TRUTH. For who has bad faith (just as among lawyers) can never dictate anything. For this reason, I believe that we should care nothing for the grammarians’ sense of shame, which they, as I see it, have since long laid aside. What is more, in order that they see that they are neglected by me and should be neglected, I will now undertake the same cleansing of Greek letters as I have recently tried to do for Latin, not without success. But since they talk idly on very many topics while transmitting the rudiments of the Greek language, we will for this reason treat each matter in its own place and time, and as it were in chapters and outlines. For the article, too, is falsely called a part of grammatical speech, or a KIND of word (it is, in fact, a fan of a most garrulous nation, as Scaliger puts it), and there is no such thing as a postpositive article. Hós, hḗ, is rather the relative pronoun. And there are only three uncontracted declensions which correspond exactly to the first three Latin declensions. These, I say, and almost innumerous similar things, which the grammarians’ mob transmits incorrectly at the schools, and to the great ruin of their students, we will present in such a clear and transparent way that the falsity of the grammarians’ nonsense can become evident even to a blind man.

§2. Now since the truth vexes those men, who admire antiquity, as it were an ugly little old woman, half-blind and stinking, to such an extent that they adore all traces of it; since, I say, the truth vexes them so greatly, I will teach them that the fiction of the grammar teachers is utterly false, when they deny that the Greeks have an ablative. For, first of all, it is well-known among all the very ancient grammarians, at least those of solid erudition, that the DATIVE always means, as much among the Greeks as among the Latins, acquisition, either of advantage or disadvantage, but never an instrument, a cause, or a way of acting. For this is the mode of signifying proper to the ablative alone, in which that case differs enormously from the dative. For there are as many cases as there are functions of signifying. For instance, phthonô soi, ‘I envy you’; it is a dative, as you will also find it added to other verbs which have the meaning of conveying. But sullambánō soi khrḗmasi kaì sṓmasi, ‘I assist you with money and body’. The soi is indeed a dative; the khrḗmasi is, however, an ablative, that is an ablative of instrument. From Demosthenes’ On the Crown.[1] For how could you say here that there are two datives, even though one of these two cases signifies acquisition, the other instrument? Thus in Arist.: boḗthēsón moi argúrōi kaì khrusôi, ‘help me with silver and gold’.[2] Similarly, Aeschines against Ctesiphon: boēthô, kata tòn hórkon, kaì tôi theôi, kaì têi gêi têi hierâi, kaì kheirí, kaì podí, kaì phōnêi, kaì pâsin hoîs dúnamai.[3] Nobody is so stupid that he cannot distinguish between a dative and an ablative depending on the verb boēthô.

§3. Furthermore, the Latins indeed also use Greek ablatives, but they can be noticed even better among them. For because the ablative and the dative have the same ending among the Greeks, those cases can therefore not be distinguished so easily by their ending. Cic. book 1 to Atticus: ‘the stories you have about Amalthea [amaltheíāi]’.[4] The same in book 4: ‘in the State [politeíāi]’;[5] book 10: ‘by my jealousy [zēlotupeíāi]’;[6] book 16: ‘Never was I in greater distress [aporíāi]’;[7] in the same book: ‘intelligence with goodwill [eumeneíāi]’.[8] In the same passage – here, I believe, nobody is so stupid as to say that dative forms are added to the Latin prepositions: ‘in the political [en politikôi] genre’.[9] Look! A Greek preposition with a Latin ablative. The same in book 3 to his brother Quintus: ‘Further, nothing is cooler, nothing mossier than the dressing room [apodutēreíōi]’.[10] Look! A comparative Latin noun with a Greek ablative. For who would be so foolish as to say that the dative case can be joined with the Latin comparative noun, which could be expressed through the particles quam and ? The same Cicero in book 6 of his Letters to friends: ‘For the place is not separated from love of literature and daily enquiry [suzētḗsei].’[11] In this way there are both Greek datives and ablatives, which Propertius uses in book 1, Elegy 19: ‘Dryasin’, ‘Hamadryasin’, ‘Thyniasin’, on which forms see Lipsius, book 1, Commentary of ancient readings, chapter 4.[12] So they are most erroneously out of their mind, who among the Greeks have invented prepositions of the dative case. For every Greek preposition is joined with either a genitive, or an accusative, or an ablative, just as among the Latins, too, some prepositions and some adverbs are joined with a genitive: for instance, crurum tenus [‘as far as the legs’], interea loci [‘in the meantime’], nusquam gentium [‘nowhere in the world’]. So just as we say in the ablative cum Deo [‘with God’] and in manibus [‘in hands’], in this way we also say in the ablative sùn theôi [‘with God’] and en khersí [‘in hands’].

§4. Furthermore, nothing prevents from calling the ablative similar to the dative in terms of ending but different from it in terms of meaning. For the ablative is also among the Latins similar to the dative, for instance huic domino [‘to this master’], ab hoc domino [‘by this master’]; huic epitome [‘for this epitome’], ab hac epitome [‘from this epitome’]; his scamnis [‘for these benches’], ab his scamnis [‘from these benches’]; huic igni [‘for this fire’], ab hoc igni [‘from this fire’]; his sacerdotibus [‘to these priests’], ab his sacerdotibus [‘by these priests’]; his fructibus [‘for these fruits’], ab his fructibus [‘from these fruits’]; his diebus [‘for these days’], ab his diebus [‘from these days’]. The same occurs in the singular among the ancients: huic mensa [‘for this table’], ab hac mensa [‘from this table’]; huic fructu, metu [‘for this fruit, fear’]; ab hoc fructu, metu [‘from this fruit, fear’]; huic die [‘for this day’], ab hoc die [‘from this day’], which are, however, usually considered to be said through apocope. What is more, also some Greek words have among the Latins their ablative similar to the dative, according to the usage of their language: for instance huic genesi [‘for this generation’], ab hac genesi [‘from this generation’]. But that distinction cannot be observed among the Latins in another way than from meaning alone, namely in terms of acquisition or instrument, and this meaning is exposed by the connected verb, on which either the dative or the ablative depends. Let the same judgment be made about the Greek cases, which I have discussed.

§5. Finally, nothing obstructs the Greeks in adding a genitive to some verbs to which the Latins add an accusative, such as horô sou, video te [‘I see you’]; akoúō sou, audio te [‘I hear you’]. For this, at any rate, occurs in some instances, namely where Greek DICTION differs from Latin. But that variety of diction does not at all make way with the ablative, which Greek persons do not lack in the syntax of other verbs. For just as the Latins say uti exemplis [‘to use examples’], in the same way the Greeks, too, say khrêsthai paradeígmasi [‘to use examples’].

§6. And these arguments show that the Greeks do not lack the ablative and, hence, that those vulgar grammarians who transmit the precepts of the Greek language so differently from those of Latin, are not very wise, when they grant the title ‘on the congruence of either language’ to their books. For what is so as dissimilar to a dative of acquisition as an ablative of instrument? Much better is the plan for the studies of the youth desired by those who transmit the rules in either language conformably, in terms of both morphology and syntax – in order not to say in the meantime how dreadful the spoil is to rob among all languages only the Greek from the ablative, against all reasoning and fairness; and how cowardly an animal the grammarian is, who, because of the conformable ending of the dative and ablative, without taking their vastly different meaning into account, of acquisition versus instrument – for he is a bold scorner of the nature of the matter – does not dare to grant Greek nouns an ablative, which they nonetheless have. This is very much clear from the fact that he himself admits in all other languages, even in Hebrew, an ablative, where all cases nonetheless have the same ending. It should suffice to have admonished this here in passing at least, for I do not have any business with those men, who do not want to learn what they do not know, and who want to teach what they are not able to, for they have not learned it.

§7. Be well, reader, and be pleased with our study. On Christmas holiday 1585, in Tübingen.


[1] See Demosthenes, On the Crown 20: οὔτε χρήμασιν οὔτε σώμασιν οὔτ’ ἄλλῳ οὐδενὶ τῶν ἁπάντων συνελάμβανον ὑμῖν.

[2] I have found no such passage in Aristotle’s works. Perhaps this is a misprint concealing a reference to Acts of the Apostles 3.6, which Frischlin must have been citing from memory, since the key word boḗthēsón is missing there, and his grammatical argument focuses on this word and its syntax. Thanks to Natasha Constantinidou-Taylor for this suggestion!

[3] ‘I […] do come to the help of the god and the sacred land according unto the oath, with hand and foot and voice, and all my powers’ (translation Loeb). See Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon 120.

[4] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 1.16.18.

[5] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 4.16.3, with reference to Plato’s work.

[6] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 10.8a.1. Modern editions read “a ζηλοτυπίᾳ [zēlotupíāi] mea”, without an epsilon.

[7] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 16.8.2.

[8] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 16.11.2.

[9] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 16.15.3. A variant is “in πολιτικῷ genere”, with the Latin preposition.

[10] Cicero, Letters to His Brother Quintus 3.1.5. Modern editions read “ἀποδυτηρίῳ [apodutēríōi]”, without an epsilon.

[11] Cicero, Letters to Friends 16.21.4. Modern editions read: “non est enim seiunctus iocus a φιλολογίᾳ et cotidiana συζητήσει.” The replacement of “iocus” by “locus” might suggest that Frischlin was citing from memory. It may also be a misprint.

[12] See Propertius, Elegies 1.20.12 (“Adryasin”), 1.20.32 (“Hamadryasin”), and 1.20.34 (“Thyniasin”). In an early work of philological miscellanea, the great philologist Justus Lipsius had correctly recognized these formerly problematic forms as Greek datives.

(Featured image source: Google Books)

How to cite: Van Rooy, Raf. 2020. “An ablative for the Greeks? Frischlin vs. Crusius on grammar (I).” Adendros (blog). October 12, 2020.

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