Bk 1 xxxv 1-2 Metaplasmus

Isidore’s comment here follows  Quintilian’s instruction – that one might not censure poets’ use of these forms which in prose would be barbarisms. The grounds for toleration were not what a modern reader might expect: not the idea of a poet’s ‘creative genius’ but rather because he was a slave –  to the rigid requirements of meter. Quintilian had written: 

‘Metaplasm’ is an ancient habit, occurring in the earliest and most venerable Greek poetry –  and one could hardly accuse Homer or Alcman of being  ‘barbarian’ (i.e. non-Greek), though neither was Attic and from a modern perspective it is clear that their language was affected by regional habits.  However,  metaplasm coming from the Greeks, so too does its description: μεταπλασμός from μεταπλάσσειν “mold into a different shape.”

Metaplasm and the ancients
Alcman. Mosaic from Jerash, Jordan. late 2nd-3rd century AD
(detail) Brit.Lib. Add MS 17210 f.1r. Palimpsest. Syriac over Greek. 6thC AD. The Greek is a copy of Homer’s Illiad.

Items in – or identified as being in – works by Homer, Alcman (Frag.151) and Ibycus (Frag.51) – show metaplasms employed by the eighth, seventh and late sixth centuries BC., respectively.

(For those identified in Homer see the first reference given below; in Alcman and of Ibycus, the second).

Aristophanes would later use metaplasm deliberately,  for comic effect. On which see (e.g.)

  • Gian Franco Nieddu, ‘A Poet at Work: The Parody of Helen in the Thesmophoriazusae’, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 44 (2004) pp. 331–360 [PDF]

CONSENTIUS of Narbonne: ‘Barbarism and Metaplasm’.

This sixth-century grammarian varies the usual dictum, saying that barbarism is involuntary but metaplasm a ‘deliberate poetic device’ – and so liberating the poet from his chains.   Constentius’ treatise ( Barbarism and Metaplasm)has received no English translation that I can find, but a pubished edition is listed in the Catholic Encyclopaedia‘s brief biography:

Consentius… A Gallic grammarian, was the author of two treatises, which are perhaps the fragments of a complete grammar: one on the noun and the verb, much used during the Carlovingian period, and the other on barbarisms and metaplasm. An edition of these treatises has been published by Keil in “Grammatici Latini” (Leipzig), vol. V, p. 336.

Consentius’ text on barbarisms and metaplasm is discussed in a little more detail in one of Leupin’s essays:

  • Alexandre Leupin, Barbarolexis (Harvard Uni Press, 1999).


Composite – ivy border. detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 1319  f.14v  (c1358-79)
band –  ivy. detail from classical Greek vase

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