Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.08

Andreas Willi (ed.), The Language of Greek Comedy.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. vi, 343.  ISBN 0-19-924547-9.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen Colvin, Yale University (
Word count: 2049 words

This is a collection of ten essays which grew out of a seminar organized by the editor in Oxford in 1999. The contributors represent some of the most important scholars (young and old) working in the field of Greek comedy and Greek literary language in Europe and North America. It is an extraordinarily useful and interesting collection which will remain a standard reference for years to come; in the modern rush to publish this can rarely be said of collections of papers, especially those drawn from conferences and seminars. I find it impossible to apply the standard critical grouse in such cases, which is that the papers lack a unifying theme. For one thing, the nature of the subject is broad enough to invite a wide range of angles of attack; and the contributors have, on the whole, made an admirable effort to make their papers reflect the overlap between language and literature which lies at the heart of the endeavor.

The language of Greek comedy has always been central to the understanding of the nuts and bolts of ancient Greek to later generations, first Greek and then non-Greek; this was an important factor in the survival of the text of Aristophanes, which happily offset the scandalous content. Our best hope of getting close to the ancient Greek Umgangssprache is a comparative analysis of the language of comedy, the classical orators and of epigraphy (this has always been central to the work of Kenneth Dover). Comic language, then, is part of the holy trinity of the classical linguist; but also has a central role in writing the "political" grammar of ancient Greek: the linguistic and sociolinguistic analysis of comedy is an important source for understanding ancient ideas about language, literature and social identity. The two approaches go hand-in-hand, of course, and this volume usefully illustrates some of the ways of doing this.

The editor, Andreas Willi, deserves much of the credit for the success of the collection. He himself has two contributions: his thirty-page Introduction and Bibliographic Sketch is an valuable précis of the essays in the collection with a review of important bibliography. The bibliographic discussion covers both specific topics that the contributors touch on, and also more general areas of interest (starting, for instance, with 'Basic tools: grammars and indices'). Willi's summaries give a lucid summary of the arguments of each chapter: the duty of an editor is of course to be kind to his contributors, and in a couple of cases the précis is rather clearer and more persuasive than the original. He manages to tie the essays together in an elegant overview which will prove a useful resource for future research and which at the same time functions as a history of Classical scholarship in this field.

Ewen Bowie's 'Ionian Iambos and Attic Komoidia: Father and Daughter, or Just Cousins?' is either flabby or pleasantly chunky, depending on your view of this manner of writing. The essay is more or less a critical review of Ralph Rosen's excellent book Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition (1988). Not a hot topic, as the book has been around for some time, but it has been so widely praised, and the conclusions so universally quoted, that B. doubtless felt a couple of rotten tomatoes lobbed in its direction might be a useful corrective exercise. Whether the lycopene sticks will be a matter for readers, but one should bear in mind that the book presents a study of the connection between comedy and iambic poetry, without making the claim that this is the key to understanding all aspects of comic language: it is possible to produce isolated quotes from such a study which, out of context, are not difficult to shoot at. But it would be surprising if the central argument of Rosen's well-written and scholarly monograph were to be seriously undermined by the skepticism which B. reiterates.

Albio Cassio's 'The language of Doric comedy' is an invaluable overview of one of the most neglected areas of ancient Greek literature. It is essential reading for scholars interested not only in the history of comedy, but in western Greek literature in general and related questions such as the dialect of Theocritus. There has been desultory work on Theocritus' literary idioms in recent years, in line with the growth in interest in Hellenistic literature, but little can be achieved without a better understanding of the language of Syracuse and its role as a literary dialect. The loss of almost all western Greek output gives a lopsided picture of the history of Greek literature. The issues are fascinating. How widely known was Epicharmus outside Sicily in the 5th-4th centuries? What was the nature of the interaction between the 'eastern' tradition (epic and iambic verse, and literary prose) and the West, and how did the western tradition feed into Athenian literary consciousness? C. outlines the areas where lack of scholarly attention since the 19th century have caused certain distortions in our view of Epicharmus (and others) to become almost embedded, and makes a start at correcting.

Kenneth Dover's 'Some evaluative terms in Aristophanes' is a short and useful analysis of the semantic and functional structure of expletives. It contains a characteristic blend of philological analysis, cross-linguistic comparison, and what I shall call translation theory by a scholar who has come as close to native competence in ancient Greek as I suppose it is possible to be. By translation theory I mean discussion of functional as opposed to literal translation: comic language (in particular the obscenity of much of the evaluative vocabulary) throws this issue into focus, but it is wrong to think that this is because comedy is an 'informal' genre in which the normal rules of accurate translation can be relaxed. University teachers make a serious pedagogical error, in my view, when they call for 'literal' accuracy in translation from students. This inculcates views on what constitutes accuracy which end in young classical scholars mistaking a peculiar style of morpheme replacement for good translation (in which 'for' is apparently considered a good connective in English).

No collection of papers on Greek language would be complete without a Dutch functionalist wielding a strimmer of truth against the undergrowth of lax linguistic thought. Simon Slings' 'Figures of speech in Aristophanes' analyses anaphora, chiasmus and antithesis in comic language and asks the interesting question: if these are features of both natural and literary language, are there criteria which can help us determine when their use mimics natural speech, and when they are functioning as literary devices? This raises some very useful issues, such as whether the relationship between natural and literary function (essentially, priority of the former) is real and historical, or purely formal and heuristic. In any case, S. argues that 'within the oral/written continuum, Aristophanes' style is ... a literate style.' The essay is well-written and accessible and is a good introduction to this important approach to philological analysis.

The contribution of the editor, 'Languages on Stage: Aristophanic language, cultural history, and Athenian identity', is one of the most important in the book. It is a sophisticated analysis of the linguistic choices made by Greek comic writers (principally Aristophanes), which illustrates that the most interesting conclusions can be reached by a rigorous method of contextualizing these choices against the linguistic, sociolinguistic, and literary currents of late fifth-century Athens. W. starts by considering how comedy constructs itself as an anti-genre and yet ends the century by dictating much of the literary discourse in Athens. He contrasts the polymorphy of comic and tragic language and ties his analysis to the evolving concept of koine (or competing koinai) and contemporary political developments. His third and final section considers Acharnians and Lysistrata in this light, and takes a look at the 'foreigner talk' of the Scythian in Thesmophoriazusae. His view of Aristophanes as a 'Cimonian' is in line with a younger generation of scholars who have moved on from the majority view of the post-war period, by which it was illicit to speculate on the political views of a comic playwright (the skepticism now seems arid, but was of course a theorized reaction to the simplistic historicism of a preceding generation ...). His analysis of the choruses at the end of Lysistrata is excellent, and full of juicy quotes ('In their historical context the dialect part of Lysistrata are an emotional bomb', 139). I am glad to see him referring to Diego Lanza's (1979) Lingua e discorso nell'Atene delle professioni, an important book which has not been widely appreciated in the English-speaking world. On p. 122 he discusses the Ionicization of 'cultivated Attic Greek': since he is talking here about the phonology he needs make clear what he means by this term: do we imagine the jeunesse dorée abandoning tt for ss, or is it a diglossic situation where said jeunesse would write ss in pretentious prose (but not in private inscriptions?). It's an interesting issue, which, tied to the growth of the koine, raises the question whether such a change (the koine) could develop as a result of top-down pressure (from the elite) rather than bottom-up pressure (from the Piraeus).

Alan Sommerstein's 'Comic elements in tragic literature: the case of Aeschylus' Oresteia' is another excellent piece, which continues a theme raised in the preceding essay, namely the mutual influence of tragedy and comedy in the development of generic expectations over the course of the fifth century. His analysis is somewhat disturbing in the received opinions that it overturns. He argues (and to my mind, demonstrates) that Aeschylus uses what one might call anti-tragic language in the Oresteia to unsettling effect: the departure from normal tragic diction underscores the dramatic movement towards the sinister and irregular.

In 'Μάγειρος Ποιητής: Language and Character in Antiphanes' Gregory Dobrov argues that the literary ancestor of the servus callidus of Plautus is the cook of Middle Comedy. As the author concedes, a strong version of this theory would entail down-playing the significance of some important Aristophanic slaves (in Frogs and Wealth, for example). Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking analysis of the comic alazon who manipulates language to control events on the stage.

An essay by W. Geoffrey Arnott ('Some orthographical variants in the papyri of later Greek comedy') lists variants in a limited number of words with a brief discussion of each lemma. This is useful, but his discussion is sometimes too condensed. His preface, for example, notes a difficulty in 'the relation of metrical constraints to the conventions of contemporary speech in Menander's time'. This apparently means: how far was M. prepared to abandon the popular idiom in order to keep the meter elegant? Varieties of this problem are central, of course, to the textual criticism of ancient poets. Many of the lemmata raise interesting linguistic issues: although linguistic history is not the primary concern of the author, it is often helpful in determining the range of possibilities. A.'s discussion contains a few oddly-phrased statements: in the case of adverbs in -θεν, the conclusion that 'in most cases the -n in Attic is basic to the word, but with several adverbs the nu came falsely to be considered as paragogic, and was dropped for metrical convenience in verse...' is a little misleading: Lejeune (1939) is basic, and there is useful summary in Chantraine (1961: 117) and Dover (1963).

Finally, René Nünlist's 'Speech within speech in Menander' gives an interesting account of the dramatic effect of quoted oratio recta in Menander and other late comedy, a period which Bers (1997) touched on only briefly. He works within the framework laid out by Bers, to which he makes a few additions. He compares Menandrian practice to the great fifth-century dramatists and usefully consider the possible literary effects of Menander's manipulation of this form of diction.

The volume ends with an index of passages discussed, of Greek words cited, and a general index. It is one of the most valuable books of the year in Greek literary studies.


Bers, V. (1997), Speech in Speech: Studies in Incorporated Oratio Recta in Attic Drama and Oratory (Lanham, Mass.).

Chantraine, P. (1961), Morphologie historique du grec (Paris).

Dover, K.J. (1963), 'Notes on Aristophanes' Acharnians', Maia 15, 7-8 (= Greek and the Greeks, ch. 30: Oxford 1987).

Lejeune, M. (1939), Les adverbes grecs en -θεν (Bordeaux).

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