Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.01.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.01.28

Isabelle Boehm, Nathalie Rousseau (ed.), L’expressivité du lexique médical en Grèce et à Rome. Hommages à Françoise Skoda. Hellenica.   Paris:  Presses de l'Universitaires de Paris-Sorbonne (PUPS), 2014.  Pp. 513.  ISBN 9782840509295.  €37.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Caroline Petit, University of Warwick, UK (


This collection of papers was put together by two French linguists, Nathalie Rousseau and Isabelle Boehm, in hommage to their professor, Françoise Skoda, upon her retirement. Françoise Skoda’s name is familiar to many linguists, and to most specialists of ancient Greek medicine: among her most significant publications are her thesis titled Le redoublement expressif: un universel linguistique (1982) and her subsequent monograph Médecine ancienne et métaphore (1988). Those items, and several of her articles of Greek lexicography devoted to the semantics of ancient medical terms, have inspired many younger linguists. The excellent ‘Galien lexicologue’, for example, an article illuminating the many facets of Galen’s remarkable linguistic expertise (2001), is a classic. But it is through her work on the semantics of Greek technical (especially medical) terms that she is best known. This collection of essays was carefully and painstakingly assembled by two former pupils and pays hommage to the work of a lifetime on ancient Greek lexicography. The focus of the collection, understandably, is highly linguistic, but it is potentially appealing to a broader audience of classicists and medical historians. In order to reflect Skoda’s consistent focus on the formation of medical vocabulary (especially in Greek) and to give it a larger audience, the editors have composed a book around the same theme across multiple languages (Mycenian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French), over six main sections (perhaps misleadingly called chapitres, “chapters”). All the articles are in French. As the volume contains over thirty contributions, however, the following discussion will limit itself to highlighting its most distinctive features.

The many papers that form this collection are well-served by adequate editorial direction. The organisation of the book is attractive: it was a clever move on the part of the editors to articulate the book along several main recognisable themes rather than adopt a diachronic framework, or class the papers according to the linguistic sphere they deal with. It is indeed easier and more exciting to navigate the field according to such areas of interest as “metaphor” (chapter II, sadly a bit short, with only two papers), or “transfer” (chapter V), where medical vocabulary is explored outside medical texts, in poetry and historiography; issues of translation into new languages such as Arabic, Latin and French form a whole new section (chapter VI). Interestingly, the first chapter gathers broader questions around the “principles of lexical formation” that will appeal to a broad linguists’ readership: here the topics range from the adjective ἀπαρτής (Blanc) to phytonyms (Fruyt) and neuter nouns in –ι, such as ζιγγίβερι, in ancient Greek pharmacology (Luccioni), on which see below. “Lexical variation”, another area of linguistics with much potential appeal across classicists, is the material of chapter IV — here, most papers revolve around the specific meaning and form of Greek words found in medical texts (for example the names of the different ages of life in Galen, as studied by Véronique Boudon-Millot). Meanwhile, “semantic specialisation” will also be of interest to medical historians, especially the keen readers of Galen’s works (Luis Miguel Pino Campos offers a study of the polysemic noun διάστασις in Galen; Isabelle Boehm thoughtfully follows up on a former study by Skoda to reflect on “softness” in Galen, through the analysis of the adjective μαλακός).

Galen is thus a strong anchor for the entire collection, although it may be argued that the points of vocabulary addressed here may not necessarily affect very much the way he is read; some, however, will certainly find those discussions helpful in their efforts to translate and analyse Galen, and to locate his work in a wider terminological context. But it would be misleading to reduce the volume to topics of medical history. To a general classicist audience, many studies will appeal, especially in the first and the last two chapters: the first because, as has been stressed, it deals with more general issues of word formation; the last two, because they broaden the perspective and highlight the usefulness of knowing medical terminology to understand literary texts better. Medical images abound in ancient literature, sometimes unnoticed. Here, for example, Françoise Reulier offers a study of images of psychological disturbance in Polybius’ conflict narratives. Nathalie Rousseau, following a neat and clear set of questions, explores the history of a Greek suffix (- ιακό-) from the Greek to the French (and English) medical language.

Some of the contributions may be singled out for their innovative approach or topic. In the following, I highlight just a couple of studies that caught my eye in the wake of my own research on ancient pharmacological texts; this may necessarily seem unfair towards other contributors, in what is according to me a rich volume of great value well beyond this topic. In any case, as a medical historian and a classicist, I was particularly drawn to Luccioni’s case on an intriguing class of Greek nouns in –iota found especially in works of materia medica, such as Dioscorides’ De materia medica and Galen’s pharmacological works: the paper illuminates the origin and the appropriation in Greek of such terms, often borrowed from other languages (not necessarily Egyptian); I am not aware of any previous work specifically devoted to those nouns as a distinct category and found this approach helpful in identifying one of the many processes of formation of ancient pharmacological terminology (a topic on which much is still to be done). Moreover, Galen tends to overlook the role of foreign languages in the formation of medical Greek, in order to artificially promote a more unified, homogeneous, quintessentially Hellenic language: this has, to an extent, drawn attention away from the diverse linguistic material in ancient pharmacological terminology. Luccioni brilliantly highlights the dynamic processes at work in Greek scientific language. Similarly, an article by Gabrielle Lherminier sheds light on an inexplicably understudied medical work, Paul of Egina’s Pragmateia: following a doctoral thesis devoted to book V (on poisons) of the famous encyclopaedia, Lherminier addresses here the lexical choices consciously made by Paul of Egina in the light of her work on the Greek manuscripts of book V. Two examples are dealt with, the names of spiders (in particular φαλάγγιον, a venomous spider that doesn’t make webs) and the name of a toxic plant, καρπησία, to be distinguished from other terms of the same lexical family. Lherminier demonstrates that Paul, far from being a mere compiler of previous works, makes informed decisions regarding the use of some terms and departs from his predecessors’ usage when precision is at stake: under Paul’s pen, Greek terms become used in a more specialised fashion, in order to eliminate all ambiguity. Paul’s work thus represents a key step in the formation of Greek medical language. Although Lherminier’s argument may seem to be focussed on a minor detail of Paul’s work, I believe such detailed philological attention is the key to understanding and reconsidering Paul’s significance as a medical author; surely, his and other late antique medical works deserve more scholarly attention, which ought to start with attentive textual criticism.

In conclusion, this book is not only a fitting hommage for Françoise Skoda, who spent many years studying the processes of lexical formation in Greek medical texts; it is also an interesting collection for many a classicist, especially those involved in the study of ancient technical texts. Even though all papers are in French, I believe the collection is easily accessible to an international audience thanks to its effective internal organisation, the relative brevity of the contributions, and their general clarity. Appendices include an index of Greek words and of Latin words, and a bibliography.

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