Vocabulary and influence
Hiberno-Latin was notable for its curiously learned vocabulary. While neither Hebrew nor Greek was widely known in Europe during this period — and it is unlikely the Irish monks were fluent themselves — odd words from these sources, as well as from Celtic sources, were added to Latin vocabulary, perhaps for effect, by these authors. It has been suggested that the unusual vocabulary of the poems was the result of the monks learning Latin words from dictionaries and glossaries which did not distinguish between obscure and common words; unlike many others in Western Europe at the time, the Irish monks did not speak a language descended from Latin. During the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monasticism spread through Christian Western Europe; Irish monks who founded these monasteries often brought Hiberno-Latin literary styles with them.
Notable authors whose works contain something of the Hiberno-Latin spirit include St Columba, St Columbanus, St Adamnan, and Virgilius Maro Grammaticus. St Gildas, the Welsh author of the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, is also credited with the Lorica, or Breastplate, an apotropaic charm against evil that is written in a curiously learned vocabulary; this too probably relates to an education in the Irish styles of Latin. John Scotus Eriugena was probably one of the last Irish authors to write Hiberno-Latin wordplay. St Hildegard of Bingen preserves an unusual Latin vocabulary that was in use in her convent, and which appears in a few of her poems; this invention may also be influenced by Hiberno-Latin.
The style reaches its peak in the Hisperica Famina, which means roughly "Western orations"; these Famina are rhetorical descriptive poems couched in a kind of free verse. Hisperica is understood as a portmanteau word combining Hibernia, Ireland, and Hesperides, the semi-legendary "Western Isles" that may have been inspired by the Azores or the Canary Islands; the coinage is typical of the wordplay used by these authors. A brief excerpt from a poem on the dawn from the Hisperica Famina shows the Irish poet decorating his verses with Greek words:
- Titaneus olimphium inflamat arotus tabulatum,
- thalasicum illustrat uapore flustrum . . .
- The titanian star inflames the dwelling places of Olympus, and illuminates the sea's calm with vapour.
In these compositions there may be an element of parody, born of the rivalry in the sixth and seventh centuries between Roman and Celtic forms of Christianity. One usage of Hesperia in classical times was as a synonym for Italy, and it is noticeable that some of the vocabulary and stylistic devices of these pieces originated not among the Irish, but with the priestly and rhetorical poets who flourished within the Vatican-dominated world (especially in Italy, Gaul, Spain and Africa) between the fourth and the sixth centuries, such as Juvencus, Avitus of Vienne, Dracontius, Ennodius and Venantius Fortunatus. (Thus the very word famen, plural famina — a pseudo-archaic coinage from the classical verb fari, 'to speak' — is first recorded in the metrical Gospels [Evangeliorum libri] of Juvencus. Similarly, the word-arrangement often follows the sequence adjective 1-adjective 2-verb-noun 1-noun 2, known as the 'golden line', a pattern used to excess in the too-regular prosody of these poets; the first line quoted above is an example.) The underlying idea, then, would be to cast ridicule on these Vatican-oriented writers by blending their stylistic tricks with incompetent scansion and applying them to unworthy subjects.
On a much more intelligible level, the Abecedarian hymn Altus prosator, a sequence traditionally attributed to the 6th-century Irish mystic Saint Columba (but see Stevenson, below), shows many of the features of Hiberno-Latin; the word prosator, the "first sower" meaning creator, refers to God using an unusual neologism. The text of the poem also contains the word iduma, meaning "hands;" this is probably from Hebrew yadaim. The poem is also an extended alphabetical acrostic, another example of the wordplay typical of Hiberno-Latin The beginning of the poem:
- Altus *prosator, *vetustus
- dierum et ingenitus
- erat absque origine
- primordii et *crepidine
- est et erit in sæcula
- sæculorum infinita;
- cui est unigenitus
- Xristus et sanctus spiritus
- coæternus in gloria
- deitatis perpetua.
- Non tres deos *depropimus
- sed unum Deum dicimus,
- salva fide in personis
- tribus gloriosissimis.
- High creator, Ancient of Days, and unbegotten, who was without origin at the beginning and foundation, who was and shall be in infinite ages of ages; to whom was only begotten Christ, and the Holy Ghost, co-eternal in the everlasting glory of Godhood. We do not propose three gods, but we speak of one God, saving faith in three most glorious Persons.
- *Words marked with an asterisk in the Latin text are learned, neologisms, unusually spelled, or unusual in the context they stand.
James Joyce's work Finnegans Wake preserves something of the spirit of Hiberno-Latin in English. In fact, book I, chapter 7 of Finnegans Wake quotes bits of the Altus prosator in an untranslatable Latin passage full of toilet humour.
- In Italian, Francesco Colonna created a similar style (in prose), packed with neologisms drawn from Hebrew, Greek and Latin, for his allegory Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499).
- The Spanish Golden Century poet Luis de Góngora was the champion of culteranismo (sometimes called gongorism in English), a style that subjected Spanish to abstruse Latinate neologism, obscure allusions to Classical mythology and violent hyperbaton.
- In English, euphuism - a 16th-century tendency named after the character Euphues who appears in two works by its chief practitioner John Lyly - shows similar qualities.
- James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics Berkeley, 1967.
- Michael Herren, editor, The Hisperica Famina. (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto)