Indo-European Language and Society

Section 4: Economic Obligations

Chapter 12. Accountancy and Valuation


Latin duco and Greek hēgéomai have the same senses; the literal sense “lead, command” and the figurative sense “believe, judge, estimate.” But we must be careful not to deduce from this that there were parallel lines of development in both cases, from the literal to the figurative sense. Whereas with Greek hēgéomai ‘command’ there was a direct passage from “to judge” (with authority), in Latin a concrete intermediary—the practice of addition—intervened between the two senses of duco. This intermediary is found again in an almost identical manner between putare (vineam) ‘to prune (the vine)’ and putare (deos esse) ‘to think (that the gods exist)’.


From the sense of “lead” the Latin verb ducere evolved towards the more abstract and general notion of “judge.” The construction may be either predicative or with an infinitive proposition: aliquem (with an adjective predicate in the accusative) ducere ‘to consider somebody as —’; or else ducere governing an infinitive proposition in the sense of “believe, judge, estimate.”
This specific use has a parallel in the Greek verb hēgéomai (ἡγέομαι), which corresponds in its sense to duco. It also appears in a transitive construction “lead, conduct,” and is also used in the sense of “judge, consider somebody as such.” To explain this Greek fact the development of Latin ducere is generally invoked as a parallel. But this use of duco itself has not been completely clarified. As a general rule, when peculiar senses arise in the course of semantic development, the scholar must look to see whether they may have arisen in particular contexts.
Duco seems hardly cut out to be the designation for a mental operation. Originally it signified exclusively “draw, drag, lead.” However, a single example in an archaic poet, Lucilius, sumptus duc (imperative) ‘make a calculation of expenses, provides us with the explanation we are looking for. The phrase must be interpreted in the proper sense of duco, which is here modified by the noun it governs. It indicates an operation of a peculiar type: addition. In the classical civilization this operation was carried out in a different way from ours. Superimposed numbers were counted not downwards, like with us, but upwards, until the operation reached what was called the summa, that is to say “the topmost figure.” This is why we still talk of the “sum” for the total. Sumptus ducere reflects this operation, and ducere has the original sense of “draw.” The person doing the addition “draws” the series of figures from the bottom to the tops until he arrives at the total.
This is confirmed by an expression of classical Latin: rationem ducere ‘to draw up an account’. Ratio is the technical term for “account, calculation.” We have thus the point of departure of the semantic development: this is the operation of counting as it was carried out by practical devices and in writing. No high degree of civilization is required for such terms to become important: even in a rural civilization a proprietor’s accounts are an essential element in administration (cf. Cato, Varro).
Through the mediation of an expression where ducere signifies “to bring an account to its total” (rationem ducere), hence “count,” we can understand the phrase aliquid honori ducere ‘to count something as honorable’, or aliquem honestum ducere ‘to count somebody as honorable’. It is always the idea of “to make a total.” The conditions determining the specialization of sense were thus produced by the technique of computing. The computation itself, calculation, is a process which conditions mental operations in general.
But what of the curious parallelism with Greek hēgéomai? The line of semantic development looks so similar that one is tempted to assume the same process for Greek. We must, however, make sure that the conditions of usage were the same or that one may in all probability suppose that the initial facts were the same as in Latin.
In fact, not only are the intermediaries missing in Greek, but the initial sense was quite different. It is true that exercitum ducere and stratoû hēgeísthai are admissible expressions. The sense of hēgéomai is certainly also “to lead, to be the chief, to guide, to precede others in some action.” From this comes stratēgós ‘chief of the army’, a title of which we probably have a calque in the Germanic compound noun, Old High German herizogo ‘he who leads the army’ (a military title which became an aristocratic one, Herzog), and this term in its turn has produced in Old Slavic vojevoda ‘chief of the army’, ‘voivod’.
But how can “to be master, to be chief” become “to consider somebody as”? The Latin model provides us with no means of connecting the two senses. Hēgéomai conveys no notion of a mathematical operation. In our view, we pass directly from the sense of hēgéomai as “to be chief, to lead” to that of the predicative construction. This is to be understood as “to be a guide (in the opinion) that,” that is to say, “to think while assuming the responsibility of one’s judgment.” We have here the notion of an authoritative judgment; in fact hēgéomai in the sense of “estimate” is often applied to matters which are the object of faith and decision, for instance the existence of the gods. The authority here is that of individual judgment, not of power. It is interesting to observe that hēgéomai in this predicative construction is employed by Herodotus in the perfect “to have authority (in the opinion) that…” What is here expressed is an opinion announced with authority by someone qualified to judge.
We find a true parallel, although under slightly different conditions, in Latin iudicare, initially “to judge qua sovereign judge,” and later simply “to express a judgment (of thought).” Compared to this evolution, which brings iudicare into connection with Gr. hēgéisthai, we can see how fallacious the apparent parallel between ducere and hēgéisthai is: the two developments are absolutely independent and do not resemble each other except in their final result.
Latin uses another verb for “judge, consider, estimate,” and one of its compounds refers to calculation. This is puto. This verb presents a striking peculiarity. We do not yet know whether we must posit one or two verbs puto. One has the material sense “to prune.” The other is a verb of judgment, of calculation, of belief, which admits several preverbs, particularly com-, as in computo.
Putare in the sense of “prune” is well attested: it is an agricultural term. The verb is employed by writers on agriculture with “trees,” “bushes,” “vines”—vitem, vineam putare ‘to prune the vines’ is often encountered in Cato, Varro and Columella. We find not only puto but also, with the same objects, deputo, reputo (that is, to repeat the operation), interputo (this is also used for the olive trees: oleam interputare); and better known, because it has survived: amputare ‘prune all around’. This verb puto has a technical sense “to cut by excision,” particularly useless branches.
Does this provide an explanation of the other verb? We must start from a metaphorical use, rationem putare, and interpret this literally with the technical sense of puto: “while following the accounts (from bottom to top) to detach successively all the items which have been verified.” Hence the sense “to verify, to audit an account.” Once every item has been verified and then cut out, the operation is concluded. From this comes rationem putare for “to check an account,” where putare connects with its material sense: “verify in such a manner that, item by item, the account is considered in order.”
In a metaphorical transposition the sense is that which we translated by “judge” or “believe,” that is, to come to a conclusion after having verified all the elements of a problem, just as one verifies an account, after successive elimination of all the items. When Cicero says: deos esse puto, this is no act of faith. He means: “all accounts having been made, I believe that the gods exist.” It is thus certainly the same verb but specialized in the operation of accountancy, and so far removed from its agricultural origins that it has become an autonomous verb.
These three verbs resemble each other; they could pass for syntactical synonyms: Lat. puto, duco and Gr. hēgéomai are construed in the same way. But we see how different their origins were and the paths which converged on this common usage.