Faber’s The Great Languages: French, Italian, German, Latin

I came across Palmer’s The Greek Language, published in the 1980s, and when offered the chance to acquire some others in the series, seized the opportunity, thinking they would be of a similar vintage. But this series has a very peculiar history. The volumes on French and German were written in the 1930s, and Palmer’s companion volume on Latin dates from the 1950s. His work on Greek replaced an earlier book by BFC Atkinson (an author otherwise known for Christian apologetics), and I think is still in print.

The volume on Italian has a very different history; it is a translation by T. Gwynfor Griffith of Migliori’s Storia della lingua italiana. The work is structured differently from the others, being diachronic and going through the history of Italian by successive historical periods, rather than synchronic and dedicating whole sections to morphology and syntax as do the French and German equivalents. Palmer’s Greek volume takes a synchronic and diachronic approach in its two sections.

Needless to say much in the earlier volumes seems very dated now. There are some extraordinary assertions. The demise of the ‘past definite’ (meaning ‘past historic’) in French is attributed to the fact nowadays that we see the past as a picture rather than as an action (p. 254). Surely the opposite is the case if anything, now that we have (and had in the 1930s) ways of recording moving images? And why should this change, even if it were true, cause the French past historic to fall out of use?

I wonder what the intended readership was for this series. It seems too academic for the general reader, but the specialist in the language concerned would not need a summary volume of this kind. Perhaps it was for university students beginning a course in the languages? And why does the format differ so much between volumes? Was the Italian work co-opted into the series because it was to hand? Why was the volume on Greek updated, but not others?

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