Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.31

Shane Hawkins, Studies in the Language of Hipponax. Munich studies in historical linguistics, Bd 14.   Bremen:  Hempen Verlag, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 285.  ISBN 9783934106024.  €58.00.  


Reviewed by Stephen Colvin, University College London (s.colvin@ucl.ac.uk)

Hipponax is an important and frustrating figure for students of Greek literature and language alike. He survives only in a handful of miserable and peculiar fragments: some on papyrus, and some in the contorted tradition of quotation in Greek sources, many of which are very late. We would like to have a lot more of his output: his relationship with the tradition of iambic poetry in Greece (including the perplexing status of iambos itself), with archaic poetry in general and with Athenian Old Comedy, makes him a central figure in Greek cultural and intellectual history.

For historians of the Greek language, the language of his poetry might be expected to offer insights into an informal repertoire of literary Ionic (some glimpses, perhaps, into vernacular, if Old Comedy is a parallel), a dialect grouping which is annoyingly undifferentiated. That there were a range of related idioms in Ionia, rather than a unitary ‘Ionic’ dialect, is stated explicitly by Herodotus, who merely records what the linguist would expect. But the early spread of literacy in the cities of Ionia had a striking side effect: an early written standard which hides local dialect variation. Written Ionic (literary and epigraphic) is in effect the earliest koine in Greece, or, to put it another way, an early manifestation of what we know later as the koine. Almost the only surviving pointer to competing linguistic variants is the presence of /k/ in words based on the pronominal stem *kwo (which gives Latin cum ‘when’ and Engl. who) such as ποῦ, πότε, πῶς. This is found in some Ionian poetry, including Hipponax, and in Herodotus, but not in epigraphy or (the vulgate of) Homer. Hipponax’s language is also characterised by an unusually large number of foreign words (unusual for a written variety of ancient Greek, but not for a community in interaction with neighbouring languages). There is no obvious evidence of non-Greek influence on the phonology or morphology of the language, however.

This is not a classical commentary, but a linguistic analysis; nevertheless, a linguist cannot describe language without reference to context, which in this case means the literary context. In many cases Hawkins refers to literary considerations to explain a linguistic anomaly, most frequently the use of Homeric language for a specific effect such as parody. A classical readership might, however, want more detail about the ways in which Hipponax is distinctive in his use of language: a list of compound verbs in Hipponax is useful, but it would be interesting to know (for example) which do not appear in Homer, or in elegiac poetry. The book supposes a readership who knows ancient Greek (he translates μύλλω as ‘βινέω’, for example).

The book is, very obviously, a PhD thesis. It is beautifully produced, at a bargain price, by the Hempen Verlag in Bremen, a company which has become well-known for its linguistic list since its foundation a decade and a half ago. It gives a formal historical analysis of every linguistic feature of Hipponax. It seems likely that one of the mainstream academic publishers in the US or Britain would have insisted on substantial re-structuring, and slimming down, before publication as a monograph (for an inflated price, probably, and on lower-quality paper). There are certainly advantages to having access to unexpurgated research, especially in a book which most readers will consult for specific words or features on the basis of the appendixes, rather than attempting to read it from start to finish.

The book consists of four large chapters, which are summarized in a detailed abstract in the preface. The chapters are headed The Alphabet, Phonology, Morphology, and Foreign Lexicon. Of these the first chapter would be the most obvious candidate for excision by a ruthless editor. It asks the questions, Was iambos composed with writing, and if so, what kind of alphabet was available to Hipponax? The first question is not really addressed, though a status quaestionis would have been useful to a linguist. We get a history of the Greek alphabet, including the question of its adaptation from Phoenician, and a review of the Greek letters that Hipponax would have employed; but the only letter which is really in doubt is sampi, which may possibly lie behind a spelling θαλατ[..] in a damaged papyrus. An engaging feature of the book is a number of long excursuses of non-immediate relevance: a twenty-page essay on the history of sampi is included in this chapter. Interesting, but you would hardly know to turn to this book to find such a thing if you were looking for it, unless perhaps alerted by helpful reviewers.

There is nothing extremely peculiar in the phonology of Hipponax. The phonology chapter reviews the evidence, and gives a lengthy discussion of a number of words which have <Y> where Attic and other dialects have <O>. This leads to a twenty page addendum on ‘Cowgill’s Law’, a sound change in Greek that is difficult to pin down, and which results in Greek /u/ from inherited /o/ (thus Greek nux ‘night’ but Latin nox).

The chapter on Morphology includes studies of compound nouns and adjectives (it is hard to know how distinctive Hipponax is in this regard, without a little comparative data) and proper names, Greek and non-Greek.

The final chapter reviews foreign words under three headings: ‘Afroasiatic’ (by which Hawkins means Semitic and Egyptian), Asia Minor (Lydia and Phrygia), and words of unknown origin. It includes words of foreign origin that were well-integrated in all varieties of the Greek language, such as sēsamon ‘sesame’, and sūkon ‘fig’. Discussion moves at a relaxed tempo, and pauses to shed light on the interpretation of passages of Hipponax. Treatment of sēsamon, for example, starts with a general discussion of the plant. ‘Brahmin tradition recorded in the 1700’s CE attests to the consumption of sesame leaves (still used in many modern shampoos) ... Sesame leaves are used in Uganda to treat skin afflictions’ warbles the author, before moving on to a discussion of φαρμάσσων, the verb which governs the noun at its only occurrence in 37.2 (‘not doctoring my pancakes with sesames’). Pages 157-166 contains a useful discussion of the famous Lydian lines (Degani 95), which have generated so much bibliography.

Discussion of difficult words lurks in these sections (e.g. the adjective μολοβρίτης ‘of a pig’), but are easily found by reference to the indexes at the back. Footnotes are rich in technical bibliography; since the writer has an excellent linguistic training, I would have liked to know what he thinks about tricky issues such as quantitative metathesis: he notes that it always features with synizesis in Hipponax, but skirts round telling us what exactly he thinks is going on (is QM in fact a way of writing synizesis?). Similarly, p. 109 tells us that ‘Hipponax’s use of prepositions is unexceptional’, but then lists the dative second singular τοι and σοι without comment (this seems to me the sort of thing a classicist would want to check in a book like this). The study is based on solid historical linguistic principles; it does not touch on word order, particles, or discourse structure (a fragmentary text, it must be said, does not lend itself easily to broader functional analysis). The book is easy to navigate owing to extensive indexes at the back, and will be a reliable and useful tool for all those interested in the nuts and bolts of Greek literary language.

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