by Shruti Rajgopal
Asterix and Obelix come to the rescue of every individual or territory terrorized by the Roman camps. While Asterix glugs some of the magic potion brewed by the druid, Getafix, Vitalstatix, the chief of the Gauls, orders them on different missions throughout Europe to battle against the tyranny of the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar. What is interesting are the names of the characters in this series created by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny and how it treats the language of Latin: whether it follows the gender rules established or goes beyond the norms.
All character-names in the Asterix series end with an ‘x’. Going by the rules of the Latin language, nouns ending with an ‘x’ are generally categorized as feminine. There are exceptions to this rule, and the natural order determines whether the noun would be masculine, feminine or neutral. The reason the naming system in this comic series is appealing is because while the Gauls constantly waged against the trickery of the Roman camps, the latter were busy propagating the language across geographical and political boundaries. Romans conquered lands far and wide. All these efforts were carried out for one specific purpose – to establish the Roman identity. While there were various factors that accounted for this identity, knowledge in Latin was a significant one. Even after the fall of the empire, this language survived through the Dark Ages, although mangled in its syntax and style. Hence, the comic series of Asterix have used a very powerful tool that belonged to the Romans, but have instead focused on the Gauls, with Latin names with a feminine ending for all masculine characters. In a way, not only was the language way ahead of its time, but the comic series has proven the same by acknowledging and creating names in such a way that describe powerful characters standing up against their enemies. Was this one of the reasons that the Romans disliked the Gauls, as they misused their language?
Thinking about the language itself, Latin is extremely organized. There is an accurate way of translating anything from this language, every minute feature is taken into consideration, be it the subject, object, or demonstrative adjectives. Moreover, the endings help the reader to validate whether the context refers to a masculine, feminine or a neutral one. While the Latin word for king is Rex and a pirate is pirata, both these words are categorized as feminine, due to their endings. However, it’s the natural order that dominates the gender for these words, as opposed to the endings for these words. Most places have a feminine ending, whereas words associated with order and discipline have a masculine ending, such as imperator (imperator) and custos (guardian). Ironically, both pax (peace) and calamitas (calamity) are categorized as feminine. Another interesting example is that of the word virtue (virtus) and of chastity (pudicitia), both these words have a feminine ending and are used in this sense. These words were more or less associated with a woman’s role in the society and the manner in which she must portray herself. The vocabulary not only exhibited the role of each being in the society and the empire built by the Romans, but also explained their outlook towards changing times. Whereas words such as bellum (war) is neutral, the word offers a sense of irony; it literally provides a neutral ground on which the parties can decide whether to fight or call it quits. Asterix and Obelix made sure that the Romans ran for their lives instead of battling the Gauls in the series! While the language is quite strict regarding terms of the gender and the vocabulary, the comic series used it in a manner that gave it a different identity. It makes one think about how such stereotypes are abolished by various modes of mass media today.
In a way, these terms broke gender stereotypes and laid the way for a more contemporary society, where everyone is treated equally. Indeed, a Rex ruled over a civitas (state) or an urbs (city) or a terra (land), which were all feminine in nature. Hence, the king is a caretaker of a much larger and significant entity that was bestowed upon them by their gods (both deus and dea). Although the Gauls and the Romans were always at loggerheads, the two groups assured the progressive use of Latin, thinking beyond their time, and walking beyond the gender stereotypes that we are accustomed to.