BMCR 2006.08.46

Sophocles and the Greek Language: Aspects of Diction, Syntax and Pragmatics. Mnemosyne Suppl. 269

, , Sophocles and the Greek language : aspects of diction, syntax and pragmatics. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2006. 1 online resource (xiv, 267 pages).. ISBN 9789047417422 $146.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

A volume of papers on Greek as it is found in Sophocles. Some of them derive from lectures read at an Amsterdam conference celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1953 publication of Kamerbeek’s Ajax, the first in the series of Sophoclean commentaries he completed in 1984. Sophocles and the Greek Language includes an essay on Kamerbeek’s personal and professional life by J.M. Bremer, but the book is not a festschrift in the normal sense. Indeed R.J. Allan’s piece is dedicated to the memory of C.J. Ruijgh, himself one of the contributors. Not surprisingly, Dutch pragmatic criticism is at work in a few of the articles, but there are approaches from many other angles; even deconstruction gets a cameo in Dunn’s piece.

The editors supply a brief history of the volume, a condensed guide to relevant Sophoclean scholarship, and a précis of the articles, organized under three rubrics, diction, syntax, and pragmatics, not in the order in which they appear (as I will do). Since Radt has already contributed an account of Kamerbeek’s scholarship,1 Bremer offers what he calls “a more Plutarchean biographical sketch, as a means of getting closer to his ethos. This is a surprisingly candid, intelligently sympathetic, picture of a man who demonstrated great pietas towards his wife, but was severely inhibited in communicating with his students and other scholars.

Buxton writes on “Weapons and Day’s White Horses: the Language of Ajax.” Homeric-style talk of weapons and blood predominates in this play: we can add to Buxton’s description of language per se the (described) spectacle of Ajax’s body as pumping blood to the very end (1411-1413). In the “deception speech,” Sophocles gives Ajax a “musical” moment describing human life in quite another key. Buxton makes a precisely drawn comparison of Ajax’s description of time and Macbeth’s.

In “Sophocles and Homer” Davidson attacks the perennial issue of passages in the former that might be usefully interpreted as signaling links to the latter. Davidson looks for controls in the context of some Homeric passages that have been seen as candidates for “intertext.” His agnosticism seems to me very well founded: “… a most complex nexus begins to emerge even from the texts available to us” (37).

Van Erp Taalman Kip looks at “words, their shade of meaning and their context, words spoken by Oedipus or addressed to him, following his discovery of the truth and his self-blinding, both in Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus Coloneus” (39). The interpretive difficulties these passages present are thornier than I would have guessed, and her solutions are tightly argued and plausible. I would add that careful interpretation of these passages should reminds us of the audience’s reliance on verbal cues, e.g., the position of ἆρα, which she exploits in her analysis of OC 149-151 (46).

I found Mark Griffith’s article, “Sophocles’ Satyr-Plays and the Language of Romance,” the most surprising in its claims and of greatest significance to our assessment of the dramatist and the stylistic nature of satyr plays by all three tragedians. Griffith shows that the incidence of compound adjectives in the satyr plays is pretty much the same as in each man’s tragedies and, to a degree that varies with the three, about two to three times greater than in Aristophanes.2 The same resemblance of tragic to satiric style holds, in the case of Sophocles, with respect to sentence length. Griffith remarks that “in terms of stylistic register and elevation, satyr-play appears for the most part to inhabit the world of tragedy” (59). Looking at the plots and styles of satyr plays, Griffith concludes that “for most of the fifth century, it appears to have been primarily the satyr-plays that provided the most engaging and fertile field of romance for Athenian theater-goers—not necessarily as burlesque, nor as parody, but as an imaginary world in which a couple would meet, fall in love, and end up happily married” (70). And Griffith adduces persuasive evidence that Sophocles’ satyr plays were especially thick with romance.3

The seven separate accounts of Ajax’ insane attack on the herd animals provide Irene de Jong with a perfect opportunity for a narratological analysis. Her discussion serves as an object lesson she has special authority to teach: “the insights of narratology should be applied only to the narrative parts of drama, not to “plays as a whole as narratives” (75). I found especially interesting her suggestions that Tecmessa tries to explain Ajax’ strange behavior as a corrupted sacrifice (88), that Ajax does not understand how he has offended Athena (92), and that Menelaus’ use of the verb ἐπεστράτευεν implies “an orderly military attack” (92).

Rush Rehm starts his piece, “Sophocles on Fire: τὸ πῦρ in Philoctetes” with an analysis of Philoctetes’ outburst against Neoptolemus at 927-930, which begins with the “vocatival invective” ὦ πῦρ σύ. The vehemence of his words is beyond doubt, but Rehm tries to go further and find a precise set of associations with fire. Candidates include (I give a partial list) the fictional volcano on Lemnos, the pyre on which Heracles was cremated, the beacon signals that brought the news of the fall of Troy, fire in Heraclitus, fire for survival, and a metonymy for vindictive and impious destruction. Rehm several times expresses caution in proposing (or evaluating) these possibilities, but some more stringent controls would have strengthened the paper.4

The next four articles take up questions of syntax. Rutger Allan discusses “Sophocles’ Voice. Active, Middle, and Passive in the Plays of Sophocles.” Contrary to many scholars, Allan believes that certain middle voice uses, thought (e.g., by Moorhouse and the book’s quasi-honorand) to be semantically identical variants of the active, do in fact convey a detectable nuance. One nuance is what he terms “physical or psychological affectedness.”5 This notion of the voice resembles, inter alia, a very abstract description of the middle advanced by Benveniste about which I have been and remain skeptical.6 On the other hand, Allan’s remarks on the aorist passive in Sophocles seem to me dead on target.7 His comments on ἐδιδάξατο at a very interesting spot in the πόλλα τὰ δεινά stasimon and on the uses of φαίνω are worth close attention (120-121;123-126).

A. Rijksbaron makes several important observations in his piece “On False Historic Presents in Sophocles and Euripides.” He is rightly dismissive of the descriptive tag “vivid” (129), while acknowledging problems with his preferred term, “decisive.” He finds an assortment of distributional phenomena, e.g., the incompatibility of historic presents with γάρ and a number of plausible unaugmented perfects disguised by unreliable (of course late) accentuation. Besides these points, Rijksbaron also provides an amusing—and depressing—object lesson: a string of editors tripping over their own feet and misreporting earlier work (140-144).

In a posthumously published article, “The Use of the Demonstratives ὅδε, οὗτος and ( ) κεῖνος in Sophocles,” C.J. Ruijgh rejects assertions by Moorhouse that these demonstratives are not always distinguished in Sophocles. He shows a difference in situ among three forms of deixis: “Ich-,” “Du-,” and “Jener-.” If his analysis (161) of Heracles’ words at Ph. 1434-1437 is correct, we have a fine example of how pronoun use could substitute for, or at least supplement, the changes in posture too subtle for most spectators in the huge space of the Theater of Dionysus to discern. Still, the general principle he enunciates seems to me to go too far: “a great poet like Sophocles always [emphasis added] makes a virtue of metrical need” (152).

In “You Could Have Thought,” G.C. Wakker casts doubt on the existence, seen synchronically, of the category “past potential.” She suspects that we have been misled by translations employing the modal “could” or its equivalent in other modern languages. Many apparent examples, she argues, are better explained as counterfactuals. Maybe so, but when she examines a famous instance at Antigone 502-504, Wakker’s reading (175) seems to me to force Antigone’s reflection into a rhetorical tone that leaves no room for the instability, or better, indeterminacy, of her thoughts.

In “Trope and Setting in Sophocles’ Electra” Francis Dunn examines the topographical tour-in-words the Tutor gives at the opening of the play. I was for the most part persuaded that the luxuriance and inconsistency Dunn demonstrates serve the purpose of arousing “multiple ethical frameworks” in the audience’s mind (200). I do, however, doubt the proposal (189-190) that Sophocles has, by manipulation of the epithet “wolfish,” hinted at the agora as the site of legal procedures. And apropos of his discussion (189) of τὸ γὰρ παλαιὸν Ἄργος, I wonder what Dunn makes of the same adjective in the first line of Euripides’ Electra a play set, as he points out, in the countryside, far from the agora.

In his essay “Killing Words. Speech Acts and Non-Verbal Actions in Sophoclean Tragedies,” U. Heuner clears up some significant terminological confusion in going from Hölderlin to John Austin to Judith Butler. Though I feel queasy at Heuner’s formulation that speaks of “words being killed” (211), he demonstrates that “human deeds rule over human words because of the spatio-temporal separation of words and deeds.” In the Antigone, for instance, Creon tarries in onstage conversation with Tiresias and with the chorus and consequently enters the offstage world of action too late to save Antigone and his son. On the other hand, there are perlocutionary “divine and magic speech acts” which by definition do by saying, for instance Tiresias’ annnouncement of what Creon will do and suffer. Those utterances are transformed into human, secular speech acts by the … dramatic time” (212).

André Lardinois gives a new twist to the venerable “trugrede” debate in his article, “The Polysemy of Gnomic Expressions and Ajax’ Deception Speech.” Though I am not sure I will still think so next week—such is the nature of these perennial questions—his argument, that Ajax, though telling no lie, is misapprehended by Tecmessa and the chorus, fully persuades me today. He concludes with the suggestion that Ajax acquires mantic vision as he approaches death.

The volume’s last essay, Michael Lloyd’s “Sophocles in the Light of Face-Threat Politeness Theory,” is worthwhile in itself and valuable as an introduction to “politeness theory,” an approach I confess to not having heard of before. The terminology takes a little getting used to, but I welcomed the light the article throws on two moments in Sophocles that have puzzled me on first and subsequent readings, the call to Oedipus at OC 1627-1628 and Orestes’ “by-your-leave” direction to Aegisthus at Electra 1491. Lloyd shows that both have a mix of “positive and negative politeness” components: not a simple answer, but one based on the careful collection and analysis of texts.


J.M. Bremer, “The Man Behind the Books”

R.G.A. Buxton, “Weapons and Day’s White Horses: The Language of Ajax

J.F. Davidson, “Sophocles and Homer. Some Issues of Vocabulary”

A.M. van Erp Taalman Kip, “Words in the Context of Blindness”

M. Griffith, “Sophocles’ Satyr-plays and the Language of Romance”

I. J.F. de Jong , “Where Narratology Meets Stylistics: The Seven Versions of Ajax’ Madness”

R. Rehm, “Sophocles on Fire: τὸ πῦρ in Philoctetes

R.J. Allan, “Sophocles’ Voice. Active, Middle, and Passive in the Plays of Sophocles”

A. Rijksbaron, “On False Historic Presents in Sophocles (and Euripides)”

C.J. Ruijgh, “The Use of the Demonstratives ὅδε, οὗτος and ( ) κεῖνος in Sophocles”

G.C. Wakker, “‘You could have thought’: Past Potentials in Sophocles?”

F.M. Dunn, “Trope and Setting in Sophocles’ Electra

U. Heuner, “Killing Words. Speech Acts and Non-verbal Actions in Sophoclean Tragedies”

A.P.M.H. Lardinois, “The Polysemy of Gnomic Expressions and Ajax’ Deception Speech”

M.A. Lloyd, “Sophocles in the Light of Face-Threat Politeness Theory”.


1. Gnomon 72 (2000): 187-188.

2. As Griffith’s work on the authorship of the Prometheus Bound has been on my mind, I was curious to see how that play would figure in his discussion and be displayed in his statistics. He has chosen to show it among the six certainly by Aeschylus, and its frequency of compound adjectives is virtually identical to that of the Eumenides (55).

3. I add one point of demurral and one of confirmation. (1) Not a matter of statistics but of gestalt: how much did such features as use of compound adjectives and observance of “Porson’s Bridge” impress the spectators as compared to the presence of satyrs equipped with property phalloi and with what our British colleagues call “hairy drawers”? My guess is that the overall atmosphere of the satyr plays was far raunchier than Griffith suggests. (2) Griffith’s arguments for an erotically-oriented Sophocles add to the motives for the startling appearance of Eros and Aphrodite in the stasimon (782-800) in the Antigone that follows the final rupture of Creon and his son.

4.Though I happen to share the views Rehm expresses here on American foreign policy, his final two paragraphs would have been better omitted.

5. He refers to his own The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek (Amsterdam 2003) 205-210.

6. E. Benveniste, “Actif et moyen dans le verbe,” Problèmes de linguistique générale (Paris, 1966)168-175; see V. Bers, Greek Poetic Syntax in the Classical Age (New Haven, 1984)102, 111-112.

7. To his remarks (118-119) on ὑπεζύγην, add J. Peradotto Phoenix 23 (1969): 259 on the distinction between the yoking of Agamemnon and of Orestes in the Oresteia.