Sunday, March 19, 2006

Quot homines, tot sententiae

Please stop trying to raise my awareness, by Sam Leith in the Telegraph caught my attention because of attempts to tease out the differences between character and personality. This has become important in writing a character I was creating. I'm not the only one trying to separate the two:

We often use the words personality and character interchangeably to describe ourselves and others. However, these words are not synonymous; rather they indicate two distinct, yet related attributes of being. Webster defines personality as ‘the quality or state of being a person,’ and character as ‘the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person.’ According to Webster, personality is merely the state of existing! Though we often use the word to indicate specific behavioral traits and preferences of a person, personality itself is inherent to being alive and conscious. What follows is that character is the manifestation of these traits. In other words, we have personality by virtue of being, but we understand ourselves and others as individual conscious persons through character. That means that character can influence personality, but personality is unchanging.

Dictionary definition number 2 exemplifies the problem.

My yellowing copy of Derek Wright's The Psychology of Moral Behaviour, highlights the problem of everyday usage vs. technical.

Wright explains:

The concept of character overlaps so much with that of personality that the two are often used interchangeably. They are both equally abstract and general...character can be defined as those attitudes and dispositions within an individual which relate to the behaviour that is the subject of moral evaluation in his society. It is personality viewed from the point of view of moral rules.

Character is defined not so much through an inventry of actions performed, as by a description of the principles that give coherence and meaning to an individual's behaviour, and of the relatively enduring dispositions and motivations that underly it.

Leith uses the word sententiae. Another word which is explicable (if you lack Latin) through context and a partial etymology. Sententiae has its roots in sentence but actually means adage or aphorism.

Sentence has four meanings as a noun including (arch.) : a maxim.

So Leith could have thoroughly confused us by writing, And though Mr Hu's little list of sentances may seem quaint at first, rather than, And, though Mr Hu's little list of sententiae may seem quaint at first.

Websters-on-line puts sententiae's useage frequency at 9:100,000,000

I didn't have this one to hand, but I expect (this is the one that pops up repeatedly in search engines) he was alluding to: Quot homines, tot sententiae: Many men, many minds. Translated less tersely as: there are as many opinions as there are men.


My fascination with etymology is at odds with my great ignorance of the niceties of grammer. Only yesterday I was taking a worthwhile and rewarding lesson from Language Log on adjectives and adverbs. I shall be going back for more.

Remember those diagrams that teachers used to help association? Two columns of words which you were expected to connect by joining pairs, and on which the scallywag of the class would always draw a series of lines criss-crossing the no man's land between making sure they never quite touched any of the words !


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Site Feed