BMCR 2019.09.42

Toward a Historical Sociolinguistic Poetics of Medieval Greek. Studies in Byzantine history and civilization (SBHC), 12

, , Toward a Historical Sociolinguistic Poetics of Medieval Greek. Studies in Byzantine history and civilization (SBHC), 12. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. viii, 233. ISBN 9782503577135. €65,00 (pb).

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

The publication of the volume under review is the result of two workshops in Vienna, co-organised by Erich Trapp and Andrea Cuomo.1 Cuomo has been particularly active in promoting the application of sociolinguistics to the study of literature written in learned medieval Greek. Despite the progress made over the past two decades in the linguistic analysis of medieval Greek, the field remains rather limited, while sociolinguistics is a rather new domain for Byzantinists.2

The ambitious aim of the volume under review is to push toward the study of “historical sociolinguistic poetics of Medieval Greek.” (Learned) medieval Greek is a superposed (later-learned) linguistic version of the language. It is the result of a constant interaction between ancient, current highbrow, and vernacular forms of Greek (cf. Horrocks, pp. 109–10). The interaction between society and literature is currently a focus of attention for Byzantine literary historians, but the synergy between society and language continues to be unexplored. The field of sociolinguistics examines how “language use symbolically represents fundamental dimensions of social behaviour and human interaction.”3 Key points for the discipline include linguistic variation at a particular point in time and the principles that shape the spread of such varieties. Sociolinguists are most often interested in vernaculars (the most basic learned variety of language), rather than superposed varieties. The volume takes up the challenge of applying the methodologies of sociolinguistics to a superposed variety of the language, a form of it that survives only in writing and about the speakers of which there is only limited evidence.

The first chapter (pp. 1–33), by Andrea Cuomo, promises to set the scope and the intention for the volume. The author (p. 3) defines historical sociolinguistics as “the discipline that explains why texts are such as they are.” He continues, “Given that the language is the product of a particular society, and texts are the means of communication occurring within a particular speech community, I do research on texts, considering them in their contexts of production and reception, having as a working question ‘who can say what, how, using what means, to whom, when and why’” (pp. 3–4). Central to Cuomo’s approach is the premise that the members of a speech community use a single grammar and participate in the same or closely related social networks.4 The validity of this premise for Byzantine Greek cannot be verified, since fundamental research tools, such as comprehensive linguistic corpora and prosopographical databases connecting individuals spatially and socially, are lacking in Byzantine studies. The examples offered are unescapably isolated and their subsequent discussion remains casual, relying on individual cases rather than renditions of a fuller picture.

Klaas Bentein’s chapter (pp. 35–44) is an informative, concise introduction to the field of sociolinguistics and its potential as a theoretical framework for the study of ancient variations of the Greek language. In the first part of his chapter, Bentein helpfully offers a critical overview of generally-accepted concepts relating to sociolinguistics that could be useful to students of ancient forms of Greek. The second part is mainly concerned with evidence from a corpus of 736 letters and 230 petitions written on papyri between the first ¬and the eighth centuries AD. Bentein’s analysis of the formal use of particles reveals how such words mediate social status, distance, and the agentive role of the people involved in a given communication.

The chapter by Geoffrey Horrocks (pp. 109–18) is an instructive introduction for readers who wish to start exploring “learned medieval Greek” of the later period. Horrocks scrutinises the expression of future and modality in the highly classicising History of George Akropolites (1217/20–1282). Horrocks argues that although choosing classicising vocabulary, phraseology, stylistic traits, and morphology was relatively effortless for well-educated Byzantine authors, the same individuals had difficulty in applying classicising syntax and semantics in the more ‘abstract and subconscious domains’ (p. 110) of language use.

Although the above chapters are written by linguists, the majority of the contributions come from cultural/intellectual historians and focus on thirteenth- and fourteenth- century Byzantium. Stefano Valente’s chapter (pp. 45–55) presents an overview of Palaiologan lexicographical trends, relying mainly on unpublished material. It aims to uncover trends in the reuse of ancient lexicographical treatises from later scholars and place the compilation of medieval lexica in their social context. Daniele Bianconi’s chapter (pp. 57–83) is a readily accessible yet strong research piece¬ that gives examples of the use of erudition in education through an array of new discoveries: a summary of Aristotle’s Dialectics in diagrammatic form by Maximos Planudes (ca. 1260–ca. 1305) and numerous examples of reading notes by Nikephoros Gregoras (ca. 1295–1360). The concept of the sociolect emerges as instrumental for understanding the variety of these and similar reading notes.5 Bianconi’s contribution should be read together with that by Inmaculada Pérez Martín (pp. 85–107) on Gregoras’ scholia on Aelius Aristides’ Panathenaic Oration. According to Pérez Martín the scholia were addressed to novices of the “ koine, the history of Athens and its political virtues.” At the end of her chapter, Pérez Martín publishes Gregoras’ notes on Aristides’ oration and a number of marginal notes by Gregory of Cyprus (1241–1290). The chapter brings to light important evidence for paideia in the thirteenth century. Rightly so, Pérez Martín makes no claims for a connection of her chapter to the field of historical sociolinguistics.

In fact, the shortcoming of this volume is exactly that: although contributors are often interested in the texts’ social context, the methodologies of sociolinguistics (or of other fields related to linguistics) are rarely relevant to the content of the book. And when it used, it is applied in a rather fragmented and superficial manner. For example, Ioannis Telelis (pp. 119–42) highlights wonderful examples of interpretative mechanisms in the composition of George Pachymeres’ commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology. The identification of Pachymeres’ target audience is here the main aim for the application of ‘sociolinguistics’—although this is ultimately served by placing the text in its historical context. Similarly, Divna Manolova’s detailed and informed analysis (pp. 143–160) of Nikephoros Gregoras’ Hortatory Letter Concerning Astronomy —a text intended to praise his mentor Theodore Metochites—is primarily focused on the reception of Classics through a contextual stylistic analysis, rather than a technical linguistic scrutiny. Paolo Odorico (pp. 161–73) highlights the importance of classicising language as a marker of elite identity in Serres following the conquest of the city by the Serbian king, Stefan Dušan. Odorico does so by analysing a passage from the fourteenth-century Miracles of Saint Theodore by Theodore Pediasimos where the author defines his and his audience’s identity (pp. 164–65) and the manuscript in which the Pediasimos’ works are included. Again, the connection to socioliguistics is weak and rather questionable.

In all, the volume is a rather intriguing attempt to advance a linguistically-theorized approach to learned medieval Greek literature, but the application of the theoretical principles of historical sociolinguistics remains rather immature. Thorough linguistic analyses are rare in the book, and when a linguistic approach is used it is rarely combined with an emphasis on social behaviour and human interaction. The publication thereby highlights a major shortcoming in the study of Byzantine literature: the lack of integration of methodological frameworks from linguistics (and sociology) with interpretative literary approaches. Regrettably, the very title of the volume does not reflect its contents. “Historical sociolinguistic poetics” or, better, “historical sociolinguistics”—since the notion of “poetics” remains undefined throughout the volume— appears only in the first chapter, and most contributions have a rather loose theoretical connection with linguistics or sociology. The contributors are more often concerned with aspects of the reception of Classics and the intended audience of the literati, but not with features related to linguistic categories (grammatical, morphological, lexical or phonological). Nonetheless, this is among the first attempts—and it should be treated as such—on the part of a group of scholars to approach medieval Greek literature based on sociolinguistics.

Similar endeavours in the future should feature a deeper understanding of the theoretical field of sociolinguistics by Byzantine cultural historians; the integration of social network analysis,6 including sociometrics, in the study of language by linguists of medieval Greek; the analysis of a chronologically diverse corpus (beyond the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries); and active engagement with works composed by the same authors but in different linguistic or stylistic registers.7 By taking such steps (and similar ones), sociolinguistics can reveal not only how language was shaped by society, but how it shaped society and identities.

Authors and titles

Andrea Massimo Cuomo, “Historical Sociolinguistics – Pragmatics and Semiotics, and the Study of Medieval Greek Literature”
Klaas Bentein, “Towards a Socio-Historical Analysis of Ancient Greek? Some Problems and Prospects”
Stefano Valente, “Old and New Lexica in Palaeologan Byzantium”
Daniele Bianconi, “La lettura dei testi antichi fra erudizione e didattica. Qualche esempio d’età Paleologa”
Inmaculada Pérez Martín, “Aristides’ Panathenaikos as a Byzantine schoolbook: Nikephoros Gregoras’ notes on Ms. Escorial Φ.Ι.18”
Geoffrey Horrocks, “Georgios Akropolitis: Theory and Practice in the Language of later Byzantine Historiography”
Ioannis Telelis, “Tεχνικὸς διδάσκαλος: Georgios Pachymeres as Paraphrast of Aristotelian Meteorology
Divna Manolova, “The Student Becomes the Teacher: Nikephoros Gregoras’ Hortatory Letter Concerning Astronomy”
Paolo Odorico, “Identité et craintes. Théodore Pédiasimos à Serrès au XIVe siècle”
Abstracts, pp. 175–80


1. ‘A Sociolinguistic Approach to Late Byzantine History Writing’, September 1–2, 2014; and ‘Historiographie der Paläologenzeit zwischen Philologie and Soziolinguistik’, June 20, 2013, both organised by Erich Trapp and Andrea Cuomo. The detailed programs of both conferences can be found in Andrea Cuomo’s profile in

2. Since the volume was published in 2017, one should mention the appearance of the colossal The Cambridge Grammar of Medieval and Early Modern Greek earlier this year (2019)—a publication that would have been instrumental if the contributors had had it at their disposal.

3. W. Wolfram in Linguistic Society of America (30/07/2019).

4. On the complexities of defining a speech community see, e.g., P. L. Patrick, ‘The Speech Community’, in J. K. Chambers, P. Trudgill and N. Schilling-Estes (eds.), Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Oxford: Blackwells, 2004), 573–97.

5. See, e.g., N. Gaul, Thomas Magistros und die spätbyzantinische Sophistik: Studien zum Humanismus urbaner Eliten in der frühen Palaiologenzeit, Mainzer Veröffentlichungen zur Byzantinistik (Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2011), 125–28.

6. A database that would allow the user to search and export data about the social connections, social mobility and spatial mobility of Byzantine literati is currently been prepared as part of the ERC-funded project ‘Classicising Learning in Medieval Imperial Systems: Cross-cultural Approaches to Byzantine Paideia and Tang/Song Xue’ (ERC CoG 726371, 2017–2022).

7. Register = ‘a language variety associated with a particular situation of use’, see Bentein, p. 39 in the volume.