Source: Melita Historica. 8(1983)3(315-317)

On the Meaning of Gueri in Petrus Caxaro's Cantilena

Arnold Cassola

In his foreword to M. Fsadni and G. Wettinger’s Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena, G. Aquilina states that “the authors had to contend not only with difficulties of an arbitrary spelling in a hand very difficult to read, but also with the unravelling of the obscure meaning of several obsolete words which they have explained tentatively through Arabic”. [1] Undoubtedly, the authors’ aproach to this hitherto unknown text was the right one since the lexicon of the Cantilena is predominantly of Semitic origin.

Fsadni and Wettinger point out that the only non-Semitic word in the poem is vintura. [2] Maltese scholars seem to agree on this point. [3] It is my intention to refute this assertion and to suggest that gueri in line 2 is actually a romance acquisition, i.e. a word of Germanic origin (*WAIGARO) which, filtered through the French GUČRE, becomes GUARI (GUERI) in the Italian language of the XIII century. [4]

There have been two interpretations of gueri in the Cantilena. The first one by Fsadni and Wettinger who, both in their original English study and in their 1983 Maltese edition, give it the meaning of “in the past”, “fl-imghoddi”, on the assumption that gueri is opposed to homorcom (“your lifetime”). They refer the reader to the Arabic transitive verb wa:ra (“to bury”), without hiding the fact that the meaning is not clear and that the reference is only a tentative one. [5] The authors rightly limit themselves to what the word suggests rather than to what it expresses. [6] The second interpretation of gueri is provided by D. Fenech in his essay on Caxaro. According to Fenech, gueri has got the same roots as gireni in line 1 (i.e. g-w-r) and is, therefore, p.316] closely related to it: gireni means “neighbour”, gueri “neighbourhood”. [7] Fsadni and Wettinger refute this suggestion on the basis that it goes against the orthographical rules of the 15th-16th century - gwieri, in modern Maltese, would have been written jueri or iueri or giueri in Caxaro’s times. [8] I agree with Wettinger and Fsadni’s objection to Fenech’s interpretation. However, it is important to note that even Fenech considers gueri to be of semitic origin.

The word guari appears several times and in different orthographical forms (guŕrio, guare, gučri, gučro, guŕire) in Italian literature. The morphological function of the word varies from text to text. Salvatore Battaglia lists various uses of guari. [9] There can be little doubt that, in the phrase “mensab gueri”, gueri is structurally a noun. So much so that both the discoverers of the manuscript and K. Vassallo and D. Fenech have rendered it, respectively, with wari (“the past”), l-imghoddi (“the past”), hâra (“neighbourhood”). However one must equally consider the possibility of gueri serving another morphological function.

In the two instances prior to Caxaro’s lifetime that Battaglia has recorded guari as a noun, that is in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV, 7) and in the XIV century Storia dei Santi Barlaam e Giosafatte, it means “a great quantity” or “a certain quantity” and it is always followed by the preposition di (“of”). It is clear from the context of the Cantilena that gueri does not have this meaning.

Guari has also been recorded as an adjective, in the sense of “much”, “many”. [10] The Maltese gueri, however, has nothing to do with this use of guari; it does not mean “much”, “many”, nor has it got an adjectival function.

The most common function of guari, and perhaps the most relevant in our case, is that of an adverb. Battaglia points out two different uses of the adverb guari. In the first instance guari means “for a long time”, “further on” and can be traced in, amongst others, Brunetto Latini, Dante, Luca Pulci. In the second case guari stands for molto, assai, alquanto, del tutto, affat”to” and is to be found only in negative phrases combined with adverbs of place [p.317] or quantity. This is exactly the case of gueri in the Cantilena: it is a negative phrase (“Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom”) combined with an “expression” of quantity (homorcom denotes a certain quantity of time - a life span). One could object that fil gueri is a noun and not an adverb. However, fil could easily be done away with, without damaging the meaning of the whole line. “Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom” would read “Mensab gueri uele nisab fo homorcom. And the meaning of gueri would be “” affatto”, “del tutta”, i.e. “Ma nsab qatt u la nsab f’ghomorkom” (“Such as was never found neither in your lifetime”). Gueri would stand for “gatt”, “never”, thus fulfilling an adverbial function.

The importance of fil becomes apparent when one analyses the line from a metrical point of view. As B. Mallia has clearly shown, the second line of the Cantilena is divided in two parallel hemistichs. [11] The non appearance of fil before gueri would have weakened the internal parallelism enormously. By opting for fil gueri Caxaro also shows the reader that he is well versed in the rhetorical techniques of his times.

A final question to be answered is: “If gueri is a romance acquisition, how is it that Caxaro preferred the obsolete graphic form with an -e to the more common guai?” The answer to this question should further strengthen the hypothesis that the author of the first document written in Maltese was really a well read “philosophi poete et oratoris” who knew a great deal about what had been written in nearby Sicily. In fact gueri(with an e) is to be found only in the poems of the Scuola Siciliana and, more precisely, in Cielo d’Alcamo’s famous Contraso. (VIII,40). As G. Contini points out, gueriis derived directly from the French guče. [12]

Gueri, together with vintura, represents what Wettinger describes as “the tip of a mountain of romance words in the Maltese language”. [13]



[1] G. Wettinger, M. Fsadni, Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena, Malta, 1968, p.5.

[2] Cfr. G. Wettinger, M. Fsadni, Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena, cit., p.40; G. Wettinger, Looking Back on the Cantilena of Peter Caxaro, in Journal of Maltese Studies, n.12 (1978), p.100; G. Wettinger, M. Fsadni, L-Ghanja ta’ Pietru Caxaru, Malta 1983, p.54.

[3] Cfr., for example, D. Fenech, Wirt il-Muza, Malta 1977, p.15.

[4] On the etymology of guari, gueri cfr. C. Battisti, G. Alessio, Dizionario Etimologico Italiano, v. III, Firenze, 1952, and M. Cortelazzo, P. Zolli, Dizionario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana, v. II, Bologna, 1980.

[5] G. Wettinger, M. Fsadni, Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena, cit., p.42.

[6] K. Vassallo, in his essay Poezija bil-Malti ta’ 500 sena ilu, in Vatum Consortium jew Il-Poezija bil-Malti, Malta, 1968, pp.584-586, accepts Wettinger and Fsadni’s suggestion and translates gueri as “l-imghoddi” in his version of the Cantilena

[7] D. Fenech, Wirt il-Muza, cit., p.15.

[8] Cfr. G. Wettinger, Looking Back on the Cantilena of Peter Caxaro, cit., p.101; Wettinger, M. Fsadni, L-Ghanja ta’ Pietru Caxaru, cit., p.50.

[9] Cfr. S. Battaglia, Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, v. VII, Torino, 1972, s.v. guari.

[10] In Giovanni Villani, Giovanni Boccaccio and Antonio Cammelli. Obviously, Battaglia only limits himself to a few examples. In Boccaccio guari appears an unlimited number of times. Cfr. A. Barbina, Concordanze del Decameron, v. I, Firenze, 1969, s.v. guari.

[11] B. Mallia, Il-Cantilena ta’ Pietru Caxaro, in Problemi ta’ Llum, X, 4, (April 1970), p.122.

[12] G. Contini, Poeti del Duecento, tomo I, Milano-Napoli, 1960, p.179.

[13] G. Wettinger, Looking Back on the Cantilena of Peter Caxaro, cit., p.102.