Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.20

Paul Schubert, Noms d' agent et invective: entre phénomene linguistique et interprétation du récit dans le poemes homériques.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000.  Pp. 89.  ISBN 3-525-25230-7.  

Reviewed by Reyes Bertolín, The University of Calgary
Word count: 829 words

In his book about agent nouns in -τήρ, Paul Schubert attempts to combine linguistic and narratological approaches in the study of this type of noun. His book comprises two chapters and starts with a very short introduction of three pages in which he states the methodology followed. The first chapter discusses the linguistic studies of the agent nouns and presents a conclusion regarding their general meaning. In the second chapter, the author applies the meaning attributed to the agent nouns to the interpretation of the Homeric texts. The book is completed by a specialized bibliography and index, which includes Mycenaean and Greek words, and citations.

S. believes that the author of any given text uses words as a code to transmit a certain way of thinking. The purely linguistic approach can describe the way the author uses the language but is unable to interpret the author's way of thinking. This justifies the usage of the narratological approach, which centers on the content and structure of the discourse as well as on the relations between characters. S. does not intend to create a revolutionary study of the agent nouns, but to contrast the thesis of E. Benveniste about the agent nouns in the Indo-European languages with findings in Homer, applying for such a purpose a narratological perspective.

The first chapter S. gives a brief presentation of Fraenkel's theory about the nouns in -τήρ, -τωρ and -της. Fraenkel expounded a detailed evolution of the agent nouns and described how the -τήρ and -τωρ disappearing in favor of that in -της. Benveniste established the original difference between -τήρ and -τωρ nouns in Greek, i.e. that the nouns in -τωρ describe the agent of an action, while the ones in -τήρ designate the agent of a function. S. mentions how the Mycenaean tablets confirm this basic definition since we find there several names in -τήρ used to describe the artisans or the objects that perform a function, but the very few nouns in -τωρ that are attested in Linear B are proper names of persons. After accepting Benveniste's basic definition, S. proceeds to make it more precise. This is the most interesting part of his book.

By a function S. understands the future behavior that a third person attributes to the agent of an action. S. exemplifies this prospective value in Theognis (39-40 W.: εὐθυντήρ--corrector) and Xenophon (Hieron 3,3: λυμαντήρ --adulterer: a person who will destroy the marital relation).

Besides this prospective element in the nouns in -τήρ, S. identifies four categories under which these nouns can be classified: movement, choice, waiting, and birth. Nouns are found at the beginning of a process, when an observer can distinguish, expect, see or fear a potential act of the observed person. S. first explores his theory in post-Homeric passages and then compares the results with the Homeric texts without finding any difference worth noticing. In the Odyssey S. gives special attention to μνηστήρ--suitor, since this noun provides ninety per cent of all occurrences of nouns in -τήρ in the Odyssey. S. defines the suitor as someone who is expected by a third person to mention the wedding "in the proper form." Afterwards S. examines some problematic cases of nouns in -τωρ from the Iliad and the Odyssey. He comes to the conclusion that the nouns in -τωρ do not present any of the ideas of movement, choice, waiting, and birth.

The second chapter applies the linguistic findings to the interpretation of the discourse. S. concretely analyzes the nouns of invective. He explains the concept of focalization as something that defines the person who is speaking, the character that expresses the perceptions, and the intentions or feelings present in the text. Through the use of this concept, S. is able to show how the invectives in Homer have a character of predestination attributed to the person insulted by the speaker. The hero who insults by using a noun in -τήρ anticipates this behavior in the person insulted. S. analyzes seven words: νεικεστήρ (fighter), λωβητήρ (slanderer), ἀπειλητήρ (threatener), ἀπολυμαντήρ (destroyer), ἁρπακτήρ (ravisher) and ὀλετήρ (destroyer). Because the behavior is foreseen by the hero who insults, his preventive actions against the insulted person are justified.

The narratological approach for the study of ancient literature is something relatively new. By combining both linguistic and narratological approachs, the author of this book intends to increase the acceptance of the latter among classicists. The traditional approach can be supplemented by the modern one, which in turn confirms it. The choice of a word following a morphological pattern finds a confirmation in the focalization of the text. This implies something that we already knew about the language of Homer, namely that it is adequate to the situation and not an automatic use of certain formulas at certain places, which is what makes Homer's epics still masterworks. In general, the book may appeal more to linguists than to literature specialists, but any attempts to bridge the gap between disciplines should be strongly commended.

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