Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.05

Christopher Collard, Colloquial Expressions in Greek Tragedy: Revised and Enlarged Edition of P. T. Stevens’s Colloquial Expressions in Euripides. Hermes. Einzelschriften, 113.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2018.  Pp. 255.  ISBN 9783515120555.  €49,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Donald J. Mastronarde, University of California, Berkeley (

Table of Contents

With this book Christopher Collard, now in his mid-eighties, continues his decades-long engagement with Greek tragedy and, in particular, Euripides as well as his selfless service to other scholars of tragedy.1 Of his major publications, one may highlight his large-scale commentary on Supplices, the outstanding Loeb edition of the fragments of Euripides, and the recent translation and commentary on Iphigenia at Aulis.2 The present book provides another valuable service to students and fellow scholars, not just of Greek tragedy but also of Greek linguistics.

From Aristophanes onward, critics have recognized that the language of Euripidean drama is usually less poetically heightened than that of Aeschylus or Sophocles and somehow closer to the “ordinary language” of contemporary life while at the same time maintaining a level of dignity and formality and artificiality that asserts its overall generic status as belonging to tragedy rather than satyr-play or comedy. Just as commentators and literary critics struggle to clarify where and how Euripides deploys comic elements, they try to establish, from frustratingly incomplete evidence, whether individual words, idioms, or syntactic constructions would have signaled to the contemporary audience a marked shift of linguistic register, one important to how an audience member interprets character or the spirit and tone of an interaction.

It was early in his career when P. T. Stevens first published on colloquial expressions in Euripides. In 1937 in an article of fewer than ten pages he aimed to provide additional examples to supplement the collection published in 1901 by C. Amati. 3 In 1945, in a paper of about the same length, he treated colloquial expressions in Aeschylus and Sophocles (this time not merely supplementing another list).4 Late in his career (1976) Stevens gave an expanded treatment to Euripides in the 72-page monograph Colloquial Expressions in Euripides (no. 37 in the same series, Hermes Einzelschriften), and that has been a reference work for tragic commentators of the past four decades. Collard himself reviewed that monograph, and three decades later provided a substantial supplement to it.5 The present version results from the meticulous work of merging with the original monograph both the supplement and additional possible examples that Collard has collected. This also involved updating all citations to take account of the most recent editions of the dramatists and other authors, adding an indication of formal context for each tragic citation (stichomythia, rhesis, anapaests, etc.), incorporating opinions for the newest major commentaries, and compiling the vital indices. The work is therefore truly a new edition, and Collard fully deserves top billing on the title page.

This is a book that will probably be consulted by many users piecemeal, but it is a complex work and its material is properly understood only if one pays close attention to the detailed explanation of the sources of the content and the conventions followed that Collard provides in the Foreword (9–14). This is followed by two Introductions, the first (15–22) being that of Stevens from 1937 (unchanged), the second (23–39) being a revision of the initial pages of Collard’s 2005 supplement. The latter provides important caveats about definitional problems (Stevens himself already acknowledged the issue) and summarizes alternative definitions and objections offered in reviews of the 1976 version and other recent work. It also features brief syntheses of claims and results regarding particular aspects (e.g., satyric drama, diminutives), clustering of apparent colloquialisms in certain passages, and differences between the three tragedians.

The heart of the book is Part I (40–132), the listing of colloquial expressions. This is essentially Stevens’ listing from 1976 with material added from Collard’s supplement, all integrated into one sequence and updated. Each entry has a lemma (with its translation) followed by examples from outside tragedy that may indicate “colloquial” status (most often Aristophanes and Plato, sometimes Herodotus, Menander, Demosthenes, and others), examples from Euripides, Aeschylus and/or Sophocles (in this order). Relevant opinions of commentators are sometimes cited with an example, and brief general remarks, bibliographic references, and closely-similar expressions may appear at the end of an entry. The lemmas marked with asterisks are those added by Collard to Stevens’s compilation (e.g. 47, “θᾶσσον with imperative ‘Quickly!’ ‘Sharpish!’”), and a preposed question mark expresses Collard’s doubt whether the entry really belongs in this list rather than with the more doubtful examples in Part II (e.g. 48, “κακοδαίμων ‘poor devil’; also as a term of abuse, ‘you wretch!’”; Collard suggests that “E. probably counted on the tragic context to restore the full meaning and suppress trivial associations.”). Within Part I the examples are arranged under nine headings: A. Exaggeration: emphasis; B. Pleonastic or lengthened forms of expression; C. Understatement: irony; D. Brevity: ellipse; E. Interjections and expressions used to attract attention or maintain contact; F. Particles; G. Metaphorical expressions; H. Miscellaneous; I. Colloquial forms and syntax. These go back to Stevens’ arrangement in 1976, where he conceded that “the division is not on a uniform principle” and that “these categories are not mutually exclusive.”

Part II (133–175 with Appendix 176–181) is a parallel compilation (by Collard) of examples, in all the same categories except for B, that have been “suggested as colloquial, or at least as ‘everyday’ or ‘conversational’, by someone somewhere” but are deemed not to match convincingly the criteria used in Part I. In a few cases, Stevens himself had included the expression in one of his earlier works but changed his mind and omitted it in 1976. Others were in Collard’s 2005 supplement, but he has changed his mind since then. Most of the lemmas thus have an asterisk, and a good number also have a question mark, to warn that the item perhaps should have been demoted to the Appendix, which is a catchbasin for examples that seem to Collard to be very improbable or to lack supporting evidence.

The remainder of the body of the book (181–212) consists of additional notes and discussion expanded from much shorter treatments in the 2005 supplement and the 1976 version, including “Distribution and dramatic significance of colloquial expressions” (with more extensive tables than in 1976) and “Stylistic and dramatic significance of colloquial expressions: spoken dialogue only,” the latter dealing with clustering of an above-average number of “colloquial” expressions in particular passages or in the voice of a particular character. It is interesting to note that the speech of anonymous non- heroic characters is not necessarily marked by “colloquial” features, but the playwrights optionally make effective use of clustering in particular characters of this class in particular situations.

Assessing the project overall, I judge that it is a very good thing to have this resource on tragic language and the problem of the “colloquial” updated and expanded. The goal of both authors (Stevens in 1976 and Collard here) has been to lay out the comparative evidence as fully as possible and allow others to check it and disagree with their conclusions, and this goal has been fulfilled. Both authors have been modest in their claims and concede the unavoidable uncertainties. And in the absence of transcripts of unmediated fifth-century speech,6 the evidence will always be deficient, which is why commentators often hedge suggestions of colloquial origin of an expression in tragedy with “possibly” or “perhaps.” Nevertheless, reading through the whole certainly reinforces the thought that the term “colloquial” is quite amorphous and unsatisfactory. Obviously, we are talking about some sort of deviation from formal language with regular, complete syntax and neutral affect, but there are many kinds of deviations up and down, one might say, and deviations might be lexical at the level of individual word or idiomatic juncture of words, or situational and tied to the pragmatics and sociolinguistic dimensions (e.g., impoliteness, aggression, entreaty). In the latter case, what primarily strikes an audience of tragedy as significant, the vehemence and aggression or a sense of violated decorum in the direction of the “colloquial”? Collard rightly notes (29) that “J. Clackson describes how sociolinguistics have brought about the near-disappearance of the term ‘the colloquial’ among linguists, because it covered ‘too wide a range of linguistic phenomena to remain’ satisfactory.” One may hope that scholars of a younger generation adept at sociolinguistics (and general linguistics) will take up the challenge and dismantle the edifice of Stevens’ categories and divide up the material for deeper analyses of disparate phenomena. In that context, the use of cross-linguistic evidence should be helpful. Eduard Fraenkel (whose papers were one of Collard’s sources for supplementing Stevens’ work) regularly assumed that if a linguistic feature of interest could be identified in Latin, it might well have a parallel in Greek (and vice versa). Collard himself occasionally refers to evidence from Latin, and he includes some recent work on Latin in his survey of the state of the question. More should be possible for a researcher who is able to go beyond Latin and Greek.

The production is at a high standard, as is necessary for what is essentially a work of reference. I noted only a few slips in proofreading or slips of memory or the pen.7 One could of course judge differently of various examples (as both authors anticipate), but I found only a few examples that inspired a stronger impulse to dissent. I cite just a few. I would not include OC 170 among the examples of the threatening use of τις with obvious reference to someone present (p. 64). For the use of ποῖος questions (88), I suggest only those with a tone of protest or incredulity should be evaluated as possibly colloquial, while those that are merely information-seeking in stichomythia seem to me not so marked: thus A. Supp. 303–4 should be excluded as well as the group of questions with “a milder tone” at the bottom of the page. I suggest that σὸν ἔργον without infinitive is not the same as ἔργον with an infinitive as predicate (91–92); I think only the former may be colloquial.


1.   He published Supplement to the Allen-Italie Concordance to Euripides, Groningen 1971, which extended the life of Italie’s essential tool until the advent of the online TLG, and Composite Index to the ‘Clarendon’ Commentaries on Euripides, 1938–1971, Groningen 1981. He was the general editor of the Aris & Phillips series of plays of Euripides (texts, translations, and commentaries).
2.   Euripides: Supplices, 2 vols., Groningen 1975; (with co-editor Martin Cropp), Euripides. Fragments, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Mass. and London 2008; (with James Morwood) Euripides. Iphigenia at Aulis, 2 vols., 2017 (BMCR 2018.06.50).
3.   P. T. Stevens, “Colloquial Expressions in Euripides,” Classical Quarterly 31 (1937) 182–191; C. Amati, “Contributo alle ricerche sull’uso della lingua familiare in Euripide,” Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica 9 (1901) 125–148.
4.   P. T. Stevens, “Colloquial Expressions in Aeschylus and Sophocles,” Classical Quarterly 39 (1945) 95–105.
5.   C. Collard, “Colloquial Language in Tragedy: a Supplement to the Work of P. T. Stevens,” Classical Quarterly 55 92005) 350–386.
6.   Graffiti are normally too short to be broadly helpful, and longer inscriptions employ a type of officialese jargon. The few personal letters on lead tablets are perhaps the closest we can come to unmediated samples.
7.   P. 16 “abence” for “absence”; p. 20 repeated word “in in most”; p. 64 τίς εἶναι for τις εἶναι; p. 101 τὰ γοῦν σ(ε) for τὰ γοῦν σ(ά); p. 108 ὀχλεις for ὀχλεῖς, and delete first “words” in “her words earlier wild words”; p. 146 in the heading, “mention” for “attention”; p. 156 “Creon to Antigone” should be “Creon to the guard”; p. 161 (last line) missing closing quotation mark after “311 st.”; p. 196 “are about shared” for “are about equally shared”; p. 213 “Poseidon’s request to Athena” for “Athena’s request to Poseidon.”

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