BMCR 2005.09.78

Black Doves Speak: Herodotus and the Languages of Barbarians. Center for Hellenic Studies, 9

, Black doves speak : Herodotus and the languages of Barbarians. Hellenic studies ; 9. Cambridge, MA: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2005. ix, 121 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0674017900 $14.95 (pb).

In her book Telling Wonders, Rosaria Vignolo Munson (M.) offered a cogent narratological reading of Herodotus (H.) as attempting to teach his Greek audiences a lesson in cultural relativism: especially in its use of metanarrative gloss, the Histories may be read as arguing against traditional Greek conceptions of the barbarian in favor of more nuanced and even sympathetic cross-cultural understandings.1 M.’s new work, Black Doves Speak, is an intriguing and, I think, convincing extension of this more general reading into the specific domain of H.’s presentation of language: just as languages, including barbarian languages, are all valid and translatable, so too should cultural differences be objects of understanding. This short, sharp book is a welcome, easily-digested addition to the growing stable of recent works on language and other symbolic systems in H..

On M.’s reading, the father of history, already a proponent of cultural relativism, is also a sort of father of translation or interpretation as an empirical practice: just as H. prides himself on his geographically wide-ranging inquiries, so too does he present himself as having a privileged experience of linguistic diversity and language contact. This narrated experience of language helps him to teach his central ethnographic lesson: differing cultural practices are comparable, with both Greeks and barbarians (who, incidentally, are people, too) answering to the same fundamental Nomos“from which … different but equally compelling nomoi all derive [and which] unifies rather than separates men” (77). H.’s cultural relativism is supported by his awareness of linguistic diversity and his experience of and belief in translatability.

This particular linguistic version of H.’s more general philobarbaric polemic against traditional Greek conceptions of the barbarian is possible because, to quote one of M.’s most striking formulations, the historian has learned that “[l]anguage makes no difference” (70). From his travels H. has first-hand experience of how different languages, although mutually incomprehensible, are nonetheless translatable (see 45-8, 51, summary 63-66): “[t]o translate or explain is neither problematic nor difficult” (64). Since language is “a particularly unproblematic area of difference […] it therefore offers a paradigm of relativity to be extended as much as he possibly can to other spheres of culture in which difference is harder to accept as legitimate” (78)

As noted, this position calls into question traditional Greek conceptions because of how H.’s linguistic argument, as analyzed by M., proceeds. First, H. shows that barbarian speech is not meaningless noise but actual languages whose names for relevant objects, institutions, and practices may be more correct than the Greek (ch. 3 passim).2 With this unparalleled “evaluation of the “rightness” of barbarian names” (45) allowing him to “rehabilitat[e] the barbarians” (55), H. goes on to show how barbarian languages are translatable (esp. 63-66). As a final result he is able to argue that difficulties in cross-cultural understanding are not linguistic but cultural (M. strikingly points out that H. never reports negative consequences to linguistic misunderstanding, 71-72). Thus H. calls into question traditional and chauvinistic Greek ideas about the barbarian, language, and culture.

The book consists of an Introduction and four Chapters, a Bibliography, an Index of Passages, and a General Index.

In the Introduction M. asks her central question, “Does the role Herodotus attributes to language reinforce or undermine the authoritative Greek-barbarian antithesis of contemporary thought?” (3), and sketches out her answer as described above: “the issue of language provides Herodotus with special opportunities to instruct his audience” (5), serving as “a good model for coming to terms with other more emotionally charged features of the barbarian world” (6).

Chapter 1, “Greek Speakers”, argues that H.’s presentation of Greek and Greek-speakers undermines traditional oppositions between Greeks and barbarians. In order to reach his ultimate point of cultural relativism, he must first show how the Greek language and the Greeks themselves are hybridized or mixed with just such barbarian languages and peoples. M. thus has H. arguing that barbarians have been important contributors to Greek culture (Pelasgians, 7-13), a fact possibly built into Greek practices in which barbarians and strangers or foreigners are treated similarly (15-18).

Chapter 2, “The Ethnographer and Foreign Languages”, starts from H.’s narrative of Psammetichus’ famous experiment in order to argue that “the issues of first speech or speakers are clearly secondary in the Histories” (23); what matters to H. is how languages are “observable and synchronically comparable by one who studies differences and affinities among men in all areas of culture”, i.e. the ethnographer. As author, the ethnographer tries to teach this to his audience. Through comparison with other texts treating “linguistic expression as predominantly a matter of culture” (Plato Protagoras, Dissoi Logoi, Democritus 90 B 6.12), M. argues that H. “shar[es] with his audience the ironical awareness that Psammetichus’ experiment has a meaning different from that which the king attributes to it” (21). This “ironical awareness” is prevalent: in general H. “invites the listener to join him in the process of observation” (27), i.e. of discovery and interpretation.

Chapter 3, “Herodotus Hermeneus”, as its name implies, picks up on the idea of observation and interpretation, with H. presenting himself as a uniquely knowledgeable interpreter. The longest chapter (37 out of 83 pages of text), it is also the most central to M.’s argument. In it she defines and discusses H.’s principal linguistic teaching-tool, ‘metalinguistic glosses’. Arguing against Hartog’s seeming reading of moments of translation in H. as merely “rhetorical displays of exoticism and professional competence”, M. argues that H. uses them to “questio[n] Greek knowledge” (33-35) by showing how Greek names may be incorrect and barbarian names correct (36-56; examples include Persian personal names and the word for ‘crocodile’).

M. makes this central point strikingly: this central chapter is especially valuable in that she is able to describe H.’s relationship to contemporary thought rather precisely. Although his position in general amounts to a “critical stance toward what people conventionally say and think” (41; cf. 32: H. maintains novel “ideological positions with regard to the speech of the barbaroi“), his interest in and use of linguistic gloss proves his “familiarity with the etymologizing activity of his time”, that is with a widespread activity practiced “by poets, philosophers, Homeric commentators, Sophists, and other types of critic” (36).

As an example M. compares H.’s glosses with the etymologies in Plato’s Cratylus (43-46; 66).3 If those etymologies reflect Plato’s seemingly more general belief in “the equal validity of Greek and non-Greek languages” (M. refers to the Statesman), H. make similar points “[i]n a more empirical way, simply by translating words” (66). The most convincing examples are the names of Persian kings (46-51) and words for crocodile (54-56).

(The chapter includes an unnecessarily long section theorizing H.’s ideology in terms of ‘orientalism’ and ‘anti-orientalism’ (56-63); these terms interrupt an argument that works just fine without them.)

Chapter 4, “The Meaning of Language Difference”, builds on the previous chapters to make M.’s central point about H.’s ethnographic lesson: against a traditional Greek “misunderstanding [of] language difference” (67-70), H. argues, as noted, that “language makes no difference” (70-77) and may thus be used as a paradigm for transcending cultural differences as well (78-83). It is in this chapter that M.’s title example, the black doves of Dodona, comes into play: “To the Pelasgians … the Egyptian priestess is a “dove” in somewhat the same way as to the Scythians snow is “feathers”” (68), that is, the linguistic term may be glossed correctly by someone like H., “who speaks their same “language,” but is also aware of many different languages and knows that common to all of them is the mythopoetic power of names” (69).

As discussed, this book is in part an extension of M.’s previous work. It also situates itself in the recent surge of research on language in H.4 Of particular interest is how Black Doves Speak distinguishes itself from perhaps the most important collection and discussion of Herodotean examples of foreign-language use, T. Harrison’s ” Herodotus’ Conception of Foreign Languages” ( Histos 2 (1998)).5 Harrison details H.’s minimal knowledge of foreign language and his equally minimalistic presentation of foreign languages and foreign-language speakers, describing both as entirely in keeping with widespread Greek practice,6 and argues that H. does not seem to move beyond a basic Greek conception of difference between language as a difference in names, that is of language as mere nomenclature.7 M. does not disagree. However, where Harrison states that “the most drastic form of schematism possible in characterising foreign languages is one that Herodotus avoids … to speak as if all languages other than Greek were one ‘barbarian language'” (Harrison section 3) and goes no further, M. makes that avoidance her starting point. The difference from Harrison is thus precisely her central argument for what the latter considers only a possibility: that H. generalizes from the possibility of translation and better barbarian names in order to make an ideological point about barbarians and language and, thus, about cultural relativism.

M. also draws deserved attention to the interesting recent work of two scholars: Alexander Hollmann (esp. his 1998 doctoral dissertation and a forthcoming article on “The Manipulation of Signs in Herodotus’ Histories“; and Javier Campos Daroca, whose study Experiencias del lenguaje en las “Historias” de Heródoto (Almeria 1992) has been unjustly ignored (perhaps because of its publication in Spanish).

Although written and published in time to include works from as recently as 2005 (e.g. C. Dué, The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy, Austin), M.’s book does not refer to what is arguably the most important recent work on ancient Greek conceptions of language in general, D.L. Gera’s Ancient Greek Ideas on Speech, Language, and Civilization. 8 Although Gera’s book casts a wider net, in which H. is only one fish among many, the two intersect on several topics, including for example Psammetichus’ experiment (to which Gera devotes her third chapter). Interested readers will find in Gera a wide range of Greek interests in language, and thus many examples of the traditional thought at which H.’s polemic is aimed (esp. the relationship between language and culture/civilization), as well as fuller bibliography on these topics.9

The book is the ninth in the ongoing series from the Center for Hellenic Studies. In addition to the sections described above, there is an index locorum and a very useful general index which highlights “words … identified as non-Greek by H[.]” (111).

There is a surprisingly large number of errors in the text (unfortunate especially in comparison with the “nearly perfect” text of Telling Wonders [so Larson in her BMCR review 2003.09.11 ]). Some errors are in Greek text; others are miscellaneous and minor formatting or editorial oversights; most, however, have to do with sources: between the notes and the Bibliography there are many inconsistent references to dates of works cited, and some works referred to in the notes are not in the Bibliography.10

M.’s new book is a focused, accessible exploration of H.’s purposeful presentations of language; welcome for its own argument, it also usefully collects and discusses many Herodotean and other examples, and is contextualized by much of recent scholarship on language and other symbolic systems in Herodotus and other Greek authors.


1. R.V. Munson, Telling Wonders: Ethnographic and Political Discourse in the Work of Herodotus, Ann Arbor, 2001 (reviewed at BMCR 2003.09.11 by S. Larson). For the general argument see e.g. 266: “this lesson includes a warning to the Greeks to take stock of essential similarities beyond contingent differences and to recognize the likely human responses, common values, and constraints that emerge from the cultural norms and historical vicissitudes of ‘all men’.”

2. Cf. 63: “H[.] assumes a large sphere of equivalence among different foreign languages and Greek, yet he goes even further by establishing the autonomous validity and intelligibility of barbarian speech both within and outside that sphere. Cultures are entitled to their names, and Greek replacements are often wrong.”

3. The connection is also made by e.g. Harrison 1999 (cited in text; stable URL in n. 5).

4. In addition to the works discussed above, e.g. D. Chamberlain, “On Atomics Onomastic and Metarhythmic Translations in Herodotus” ( Arethusa 32.3 (1999), 263-312), who argues “that H[.’s] practice with regard to translations … is metarrhythmic : a matter of changing a shape … altering the form ( ῥυθμός) of the original word just barely enough to reveal its hidden Greek sense” (266 and 267). M. argues that this “theory cannot be applied to all, or even most, of Herodotus’ translations of foreign words” (50), precisely because, on her reading, H. emphasizes the possibility of correct barbarian names and thus incorrect Greek ones.

5. Stable URL:

6. On the stereotypical representation of foreign languages in ancient literature, see e.g. S. Colvin, Dialect in Aristophanes and the Politics of Language in Ancient Greek Literature, Oxford 1999; M. Lejeune, “La curiosité linguistique dans l’antiquité classique”, Conférences de l’Institut de Linguistique de l’Université de Paris 8 (1948) 45-61; and C.C. Coulter, “The Speech of Foreigners in Greek and Latin Comedy”, Philological Quarterly 13 (1934) 113-139.

7. For ‘language as nomenclature’ in Greek thought see A.M. Davies, “The Greek Notion of Dialect” ( Verbum 10 (1987) 7-28); and Gera 2004 (cited below, n. 8), 45, 53 n.117, 180, and 201. Cf. e.g. Plato Crat. 392d, where the language of the gods is described as a distinct series of names, and Cicero N.D. 1.30.84: at primum quot hominum linguae tot nomina deorum.

8. Oxford 2004, manuscript 2002. Gera’s article on the Dissoi Logoi (“Two Thought Experiments in the Dissoi Logoi“, AJP 121 (2000), 21-45) is also not cited when M. discusses that text in chapter 2.

9. As a side note, readers interested in interpretation and translation in antiquity might also try to consult W. Snellman. De interpretibus Romanorum deque linguae Latinae cum aliis nationibus commercio, Leipzig 1914-1919.

10. Items missing from the bibliography: 24n27: Friedman 2004, no entry in bib; 36n27: Stanford 1952, no entry in bib; 47n79: Parker 2000, no entry in bib; 56n116: Powell 1938, no entry in bib; 60n135: Nikolaidis 1986 and Crahay 1954, no entries in bib; 70n11: Munson 1988, no entry in bib (read Munson 1991?); 80n51: Giangiulio 1981, no entry in bib (cf. 81n57); 82n60: Drachmann 1984, no entry in bib.