Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.12

Deborah Levine Gera, Ancient Greek Ideas on Speech, Language and Civilization.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  Pp. 272.  ISBN 0-19-925616-0.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew L. Ford, Princeton University (
Word count: 1796 words

This book will interest a wide range of readers even though it is focused on just one strand in Greek thinking about language. Gera, author of an illuminating study of Xenophon's literary milieu,1 has collected a wide range of ancient texts in which language is connected in one way or another with ideas about social development or organization. This turns out not to be a huge project (the text is just over 200 pages), but it is one that touches on many important and familiar passages -- from Homer's polyglot Trojans or Sophocles' "Ode to Man" to Lucretius channeling Epicurus. Most of the passages Gera's topic brings to mind will be found to be discussed somewhere among her five topical chapters, and an excellent Index Locorum will help locate them, typically accompanied by a good selection of parallel texts and recent bibliography. With the addition of not infrequent excursions into later perspectives on these questions (e.g. p. 43 n. 86 on recent research into speech among chimpanzees), one has a wide ranging, up-to-date survey of many fascinating episodes in the history of language study. What is less clear is what the whole story tells us.

The organizing thesis of the book is that Greek thinking about speech and society tended to assume either a golden-age or a progressivist scenario: either human language was seen as a remnant of a pre-fallen speech that allowed men to converse with gods and animals in the reign of Kronos, or language was viewed as one among many techniques for survival that were developed in the progress of civilization. In Chapter 1, "Polyphemus the Linguist," these themes are traced to Homer. Gera allows (3, n. 12) that there is really no articulated theory of language in epic, but maintains that language plays a key role in the Cyclops episode, which she reads as showing Odysseus' "linguistic trickery" exploiting the "weak social bonds" of the Cyclopes (6). But there is more to the story: Polyphemus' "backwardness" in language is read as ambiguous -- like his diet and lawlessness -- at once primitive and golden-age, and so Gera divines from his poignant address to his ram the trace of an idea that once upon a time men and animals could communicate (15-16).

A long second chapter on "Language in the Golden Age" synthesizes a coherent idea of pre-fallen speech from varied sources. Although most descriptions of the age of Kronos take language for granted, if they mention it at all, Gera suggests that the Aesopic versifier Babrius gives us an authentic tradition when he speaks of a time when animals -- and stones and leaves -- could talk. With scholarship typical of this work, she is able to tie Babrius' tale to the classical age with a reference to Xenophon's Memorabilia and Plato. Furthermore, when comic poets make animals implore the audience not to eat them, Gera sees a nexus of ideas connecting speech between men and animals with golden-age vegetarianism and Hesiodic justice. From other allusions, scattered throughout antiquity like the builders of Babel (pp. 62-63 go from Crates to Empedocles to Dichaearchus to Aratus in three paragraphs), she reconstructs a story of a fall in which a once wider language became limited to humans (67).

As in Chapter 1, much must be inferred from texts that are relatively indifferent to speech. Because there is no mention of language in Hesiod's Myth of Ages one can only speculate that "Perhaps ... language before Mekone was a divine Adamic one with names reflecting reality" (47); this speculation engenders a further one: if Mekone cut us off from divine speech as well as from divine society, the voicebox installed in Pandora may signify the invention of a human (and, alas, deceptive) language (56). I shall return at the end to ask what is lost when, under pressure to answer our questions about an Adamic language, Hesiod's misogynistic fantasy becomes a piece of proto-anthropology.

Gera's third chapter, "Psammetichus' Children," studies that Egyptian king's experiment to discover the original human language by isolating two newborn children. Gera rightly takes this story seriously, and shows how Herodotus' account addresses specific concerns of enlightened Greek thought on these matters. (There is, however, no need to bring in any role for the gods on p. 72: this is decidedly a piece of rationalizing, human-centered anthropology.) Gera also argues that this story contains the "seeds or bare bones" of much later thinking about the origin of language (69), and fills out the chapter by moving back and forth from Herodotus to Condillac, Herder, and modern linguistic anthropology. Now some of these comparisons were fascinating (such as Gera's pointing to the uncanny inclination of autocrats -- shared by Frederick II, James IV and Aqbar the Great of India -- to repeat the Psammetichus' experiment: 92 ff.) but their relevance was not clear. It may well be true to say, e.g., that "Many modern thinkers would agree with the Egyptian king that there was one original language" (73), but such a coincidence is meaningless without a consideration of such questions as why the hypothesis is being raised, on what basis, and with what implications for the understanding of human nature and social organization.

Ch. 4 "The Invention of Language" turns to "progress" accounts, along lines opened up by Kleingunther. As with the golden-age theories, Gera concedes that the evidence is sparse and spare (181), and again she surveys the material thematically to show "the wide spectrum of answers" (113) to such questions as: Was the inventor a god, a mortal or a group of mortals? When did language come in relative to other arts needed to survive? These are all significant questions and some helpful observations emerge: it is worth distinguishing Homeric scenes in which a divinity bestows artistic skill on an individual or closed group (e.g. Phaeacian women are skilled weavers thanks to Athena, Od. 7.110-111) from the idea that a god invents an art and then bestows it on humanity as a whole. Hesiod's Pandora had represented for Gera the first attestation of the idea of a divine inventor of speech -- "a new, specifically human language devised by the gods" (115) -- but she finds full-fledged articulations of the theme only in late syncretistic accounts such as that of Diodorus Siculus. Classical attestations of the idea are thin: Euripides' Suppliants 201-2 briefly ascribes human language to a god, and "Hermes" is etymologized as "contriver of speaking" in the Cratylus. (Oddly, in view of her general willingness to make the most out of little, Gera does not recognize an inventor of language here :115). Even the Prometheus is relatively uninformative on this tradition, so that most of the discussion is devoted to the eight words in the myth of the Protagoras in which early humans "made their tongue articulate with art" (Prot. 322A). To track how this invention was related to other civilizing events, Gera happily allows herself to be side-tracked into collecting accounts of the invention of numbers, writing, institutionalized religion, and fire. Finally, she explores the idea that language was "constructed" (the building metaphor seems significant) by a social collective, working back from Diodorus and Vitruvius to Democritus via Epicurus, and taking up the thesis vs. phusis debate along the way.

The fifth and final chapter, "Between Language and Speech," notes that the Greeks usually conflated language and speech and then explores limit cases which forced thinkers to disentangle these notions. These cases range from the inarticulate grunting or gesturing attributed to primitives to varieties of speaking animals. Gera ends with the story of Androcles and the Lion which is artfully posed as a kind of reversal of Odysseus and the Cyclops: if one sees Androcles in the story as "respond[ing] to the lion's silent request" (211), then a nice parable emerges: "The lion is an exemplary host .... a man who eats cooked meat and possesses speech, and an inarticulate animal who consumes raw meat ... manage to live in harmony and ... communicate" (212). This last reading can illustrate the limits of Gera's study. The fact that an interest in language so often has to be "read into" the texts is not any refutation of her readings, which indeed build upon classic structural analyses of Homer and Hesiod: there is no doubt that meat-eating, estrangement from the gods, and deceptive speech are easily linked in the Greek imaginary, and their opposites are likely to be linked as well. But the dossier itself points up the fact that the ancients were simply not as interested in language as we are. Apart from a few well known exceptions, Greek thinking about language appears to have been not particularly profound or sustained. On the mythico-poetic level as well, Greece has little to show in comparison with Hebrew mythology, which has supplied the richest and most provocative pre-modern stories about language -- Adam's naming the animals or the tower of Babel. If Greek gods occasionally take an interest in language, it's no big deal: when Hephaestus inserts a voicebox in Pandora, he is more like a craftsman installing a stereo system than a creator god bestowing the divine faculty of speech (cf. 55, n. 123); it needed an appeal to the Egyptian pantheon as well as the inventive syncretism of Plato to give language a patron god in Hermes. All of which is not to deprecate the importance of studying ideas of language for a rich account of Greek culture. But Gera's study does not try to escape the limits of its essentially structuralist approach. Executed sensitively and with wide enough reading -- one of Gera's strengths -- the careful delineation and organization of positions produces a kind of logical checkerboard, in which every culturally conceivable idea about language is defined in relation to other positions. The well known problem with structuralism is that defining all the parameters and ticking off the pluses and minuses puts us in no better position to see why any one square was occupied at a given time while another was left open, or why a culture would change from one configuration to another. In other words, by choosing to eschew history and giving us a topical survey, Gera risks presenting us with an antiquarian collection, a cabinet of curious ideas about language. Now Gera would seem to suggest in reply that, at the basic level on which she is working, not much changed: "many implicit assumptions about language and civilization held by the Greeks are already found in ... Homer" (viii). This may be so, but without a sense of the dynamics of the system, Gera's study strikes me as only the beginning of an attempt to understand what it meant to hold any one of those views at any one of those times.


1.   Deborah Levine Gera, Xenophon's Cyropaedia: Style, Genre and Literary Technique (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). Reviewed by Antony G. Keen for BMCR.

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