BMCR 2007.11.07

Les inscriptions éléennes dialectales

, Les inscriptions éléennes dialectales (VIe-IIe siècle avant J.-C.). Hautes études du monde gréco-romain, 38. Genève: Droz, 2007. 2 volumes: illustrations, maps. ISBN 9782600006927 €80.00 (each volume) (pb).

The dialect of Elis (the area around Olympia in the northwestern Peloponnese) is, after the Aeolic dialects, one of the most difficult for the modern reader of epigraphic texts. Like the Boeotians, the writers of Elis made an effort to capture unusual features of the dialect; and since all of the early and important texts are public documents, this must represent a decision on the part of the epigraphic establishment to create a written standard which looked very different from other West Greek standards.

This work fills a considerable gap, and fills it admirably. It will now become the standard reference for Elean, both for the texts and for the dialect. There has been useful work on the dialect in the past twenty-five years, notably an analysis of Elean phonology by Thévenot-Warelle (Nancy 1988), and a monograph (1985) and a series of important articles by Méndez Dosuna. Minon (vol. II) has the advantage of being able to make use of these — and correct where she feels appropriate — in a comprehensive grammar of the dialect which is linked closely to her edition of the texts (in vol. I).

The West Greek dialect area is large, and as with most dialect areas, will have had both regional divisions and idioms of uncertain (i.e. mixed) affiliation in border areas. The problem for the modern dialectologist, of course, is the uneven quality of the evidence, and the date. Large areas of Laconia and Messenia, for example, are virtually without epigraphic witness in the sixth and fifth centuries, and the dialect grammars are built on a small corpus from centres such as Sparta; and yet it is extremely unlikely that a uniform idiom prevailed over such a large area, especially given the stark contrast in political power between the elite and the underclass (and the local perception that this was tied to ethnicity). It is true that some divisions have been recognised within West Greek: the distinction between ‘severe’ (severior) and ‘mild’ (mitior) Doric rests on the quality of secondary lengthened ε and ο (the so-called spurious diphthongs in Attic-Ionic): these merged with (inherited) η and ω in many West Greek dialects (severe); in others they were kept distinct as long close vowels and came to be written ει and ου. The ‘mild’ areas are those northeastern dialects around the Saronic gulf where the new long vowels represent an isogloss with Attic. A common view is that proto-Doric in fact shared the close development of the new long vowels with proto-Ionic (i.e. as a separate series); Achaean dialects (ancestors of Mycenaean and Arcado-Cypriot) on the other hand had merged them with inherited η and ω, and when Dorians settled in territories where Achaean dialects were spoken — such as Elis and Laconia — it was the latter treatment which prevailed.1

Elean, then, shares ‘severe’ vocalism with the southern Peloponnese, but has traditionally been classed with the Northwest Greek dialects, a subset of West Greek. This group includes the dialects of central Greece and the north-western Peloponnese (Locris, Phocis, Aetolia, Acarnania, Epirus, etc.), though many of these are attested so poorly, and so late, that it seems likely that the language of the texts is nothing more than a written koine.

Boeotian and western Thessalian (classed genetically as Aeolic) have so many features in common with their West Greek neighbours that they might count as mixed dialects if the notion of an unmixed dialect made very much sense. Elean seems also to share features with Arcadian, hardly surprising given the geographic proximity and the likely Achaean substrate. In general the situation with the northwestern dialects has been well summed up by,2 who underlines the feebleness of the written evidence and supposes that it must conceal a vernacular situation which history and topography would lead us to assume to be complex.

In this context the oddities of the Elean dialect are less surprising, and attempts to declassify it as Northwest Greek and reclassify it as an isolate seem to miss the point (Minon in fact demonstrates [626 ff.] the basic affiliation of Elean with the other NW-Greek dialects). It is, ironically, the comparative wealth of data which makes it appear anomalous. Very unusually, we have a large amount of early high-quality material in form of around two dozen bronze tablets recording official business; some have been known since the early nineteenth century, and others were discovered in the 1960s. (Minon’s total count gives over 70 dialect inscriptions from the beginning to the early II century BC.) It is difficult to know how to evaluate the anonymous remark preserved in Hesychius (discussed in vol. II, p. 283) that calls the Eleans along with the Carians barbarophonoi. In the Classical period the dialects seem not to have been characterised as barbarous; most likely it merely reflects the attitudes of a later era when the koine was entrenched as the medium of communication among the educated. The sociolinguistic factors which had motivated linguistic accommodation in the dialect period had disappeared, and the regional vernaculars were (no doubt) diverging rapidly. The unfamiliar vernacular of Elis would have been heard, of course, by visitors to Olympia.

Minon’s first volume contains a full bibliography of the dialect, followed by a new edition of all the texts from the VI to the II centuries BC, with full commentary. This is a wonderful resource: the texts were previously scattered among a range of publications, which was both inconvenient and also dangerous, since important new readings have been proposed in the last half-century (so that Buck’s edition, for example, is completely outdated). She has re-read the inscriptions, and presents here a new edition and corpus which will supersede others. Each text comes with a translation, a full description of context, and an apparatus: also a bibliography of earlier editions and commentaries, which is invaluable. There are fine photographs and line drawings (texts 1 to 28) at the back of the book. Difficult readings and glosses are discussed in the commentary, and linguistic points are referred to the grammar. There is also interesting discussion of the date and the script: a substantial section at the end of vol. I (‘Paléographie et datation’) brings the data together in a chronological survey. Her conclusion comprises a detailed analysis of the decline of the dialect between the fourth and the second centuries BC (it doubtless continued to be spoken by certain socioeconomic groups for many centuries after that, though Minon is not explicit on this); and a short and cautious essay on the dialectal position of Elean, in which she draws attention to some important isoglosses with Locrian.

In vol. I a first section gives 23 inscriptions from 600 to 425; a second section gives 11 later texts which illustrate the encounter of dialect and koine; and a third section gives 35 shorter inscriptions (dedications, etc.). The second volume contains two parts: the first is a grammar of the dialect, and the second a study of peculiarities in the lexicon and the onomastics of the region (even the names of Elis are unusual). In the lexical study Minon analyses the political and legal vocabulary of Elean institutions, and the organizational and cultic vocabulary of the Olympic institutions. She signals very clearly in the dialect grammar whether her analysis is in line with earlier studies of the dialect, and often usefully summarizes earlier scholarship. It is a brave linguist who disagrees with Méndez Dosuna: Minon does so with suitable hesitation in her discussion of the voiced stop / d /, which in her view remained as a plain stop throughout the dialectal period. We find zeta instead of expected delta in over a dozen inscriptions: Méndez Dosuna has argued persuasively that this denotes a spirantisation of / d / (as in Modern Greek). Minon (p. 333), although she allows for the early spirantisation of beta and theta, comes down on the side of a graphic ‘neutralization’ of D and Z. Aside from the phonological considerations, this seems relatively unlikely in the culture of writing and orthography that seems to have prevailed in Elis. But in general her treatment of the dialect problems is so lucid and intelligent that it is hard to fault.

The work combines excellence in several fields. The linguistic expertise is informed by a sensitivity to sociolinguistic factors, a combination which has made France the leader in Greek dialect studies in the last forty years. Minon is clearly also master of the historical background, and is able to comment fully on the religious, political and cultural significance of the texts. The set has been carefully proofed, and comes with a series of useful indexes at the back.


1. So Bartonek, A. (1972), Classification of the West Greek Dialects (Amsterdam), 107; and Ruijgh, C. J. (1983), ‘Observations sur les neutres en -s/h-‘, in A. Heubeck and G. Neumann (eds.), Res Mycenaeae (Göttingen), 391-407. [Repr. in Scripta Minora ii, 19-35], 405-6.).

2. Brixhe, C. (2006), ‘Situation, spécificités et contraintes de la dialectologie grecque: à propos de quelques questions soulevées par la Grèce centrale’, in C. Brixhe and G. Vottéro (eds.), Peuplements et genèses dialectales dans la Grèce antique (Nancy), 49.