BMCR 2020.07.24

Formes et fonctions des langues littéraires en Grèce ancienne: neuf exposés suivis de discussions

, Formes et fonctions des langues littéraires en Grèce ancienne: neuf exposés suivis de discussions. Entretiens sur l'Antiquite classique (Series), tome LXV. Genève: Fondation Hardt, 2019. ix, 420 p.. ISBN9782600007658 55.00 CHF.

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

In which ways were Greek genres and literary dialects adapted to their communicative purposes? How did these genres and their linguistic or stylistic conventions originate, and develop across time? How did the ancients reflect on literary style and dialect, and are these reflections corroborated by modern linguistic analysis? It is to these and similar questions that this volume is dedicated. It contains nine articles, each dealing with one or more specific genres (hexameter inscriptions, lyric poetry, tragedy, oratory, historiography, scientific prose, artificial prose, the epigram, ancient grammarians). Most periods of Ancient Greek literature are covered, from Homer through classical prose to medieval scholarship, and ample attention is paid to epigraphic and sub-literary texts.

In the words of Andreas Willi, who prepared these Entretiens, the leading question is “to investigate to what extent our understanding of literature in the Greek world may be enriched if, for once, we see in its language(s) not just a diffuse recording instrument, but an artistically manipulated tool for the creation of meaning” (p. 2). Several crucial points are raised in this sentence. Many stylistic aspects of an utterance (e.g. pragmatics, register) are governed by linguistic rules or conventions. Moreover, such linguistic conventions are highly sensitive to communicative context, and constantly subject to innovation. Willi himself has contributed a penetrating study into genre, register and dialect in Attic comedy (The Languages of Aristophanes, Oxford, 2003), and in his Introduction to the present volume he again pleads for developing our “competence to ‘read’ the language as much as the text itself” (p. 6).

Programmatically, Willi claims that “we are still lacking today (…) a true ‘linguistic history of the literary genres of Ancient Greece’.” This seems exaggerated at first sight: much work has been done, for instance, on the (pre)history of the language of epic, its influence on the language of other genres like lyric, etc. However, it is true that most such work concentrates on linguistic form, rather than on the relation between form and function. Willi’s own chapter, a clearly presented and thought-provoking synthesis, is a case in point. He persuasively argues that most of the odd formal characteristics of tragic language (including phonological, morphological, syntactic and pragmatic features) can be accounted for in terms of their communicative function, rather than as borrowings from other genres or dialects. They are part of what he calls a ‘metonymized grammar’. For example, when it is said of Agamemnon that ἔτλα θυτὴρ γενέσθαι θυγατρός‘he has dared to become his daughter’s sacrificer’ (A. Ag. 224-5), a construction with copula plus predicativenomen agentis is preferred over ‘normal’ θῦσαι θυγατέρα ‘to sacrifice his daughter’. Such strategies of predication make the reference of tragic dialogue more generic, unspecific and underdetermined, thus requiring an additional cognitive task on the part of the addressee. Importantly, according to Willi these strategies were in part prescribed by the linguistic conventions of the genre, and therefore not always referentially or semantically meaningful (cf. p. 136-7). Peculiar morphological and phonological features in tragic dialogue are traditionally viewed as borrowings from other dialects or genres. Thus, forms with ᾱ instead of η (e.g. ἕκᾱτι instead of ἕκητι) are normally viewed as Dorisms, and forms like ξεῖνος, μοῦνος are often routinely ascribed to Ionic influence (epic, elegy, iambus). Willi argues that all such features (including also σσfor ττ and retained ρσ) are due rather to a conscious attempt to transform colloquial Attic into a more serious, weighty form of ‘generic’ Greek, while at the same time avoiding all-too-specific associations with Ionic poetry. The picture sketched by Willi could perhaps be refined in certain respects (on p. 132-3, Cassio rightly remarks that more attention could be paid to the metrical utility of certain typical features), but the contribution constitutes a major step forward in our understanding of the linguistic habits of the tragic poets.

Another example of the volume’s contribution to a “linguistic history of the literary genres” is Huitink’s chapter. Dealing with the language of historiography, he asks to what extent ancient authors assumed a mediating role when giving geographical descriptions. Using the distinction between the ‘reflector mode’ and ‘teller mode’ of narration (introduced by the literary theorist Stanzel), Huitink argues that Xenophon is the first Greek historian to describe locations not merely in a factual way, but also including the point of view of story characters. Consider the following excerpt of an arrival scene from the Anabasis, where the Greeks have reached a river: “There they had on the right, above them, an exceedingly difficult bit of ground, and on the left another river, into which the boundary stream that they had to cross emptied.” (tr. Huitink, p. 198). As Huitink says (p. 199), “the information about the land … is tied to the point of view of the Greeks as they arrive”. He claims that Xenophon innovated by greatly expanding the scale on which he made use of ‘reflector mode’, and notes that authors like Thucydides and Herodotus, in geographical descriptions, often simply state the facts without much authorial mediation. Huitink also places his conclusions in the context of ancient reading habits: Xenophon was praised already in antiquity for the vividness (ἐνάργεια) of his descriptions.

Tribulato’s paper presents a clear overview of the ways in which ancient scholarship deals with the form and function of the Greek dialects. She stresses that ancient grammarians and commentators (from Plato to Eustathius) were interested in the dialects primarily as vehicles for literary works, and sketches how dialect features were supposed to give texts a characteristic flavor that evoked certain psychological reactions (Ionic was considered poetic and soft, Doric austere and masculine). Tribulato first gives an overview of the characteristic traits that ancient scholars were interested in, such as the interchange between α and η, case endings like -εω and certain declension types. She contrasts the recently discovered fragment PSI 1609 (2ndc. CE), which shows a compendium-like focus on a limited number of dialect traits, with the much more comprehensive description of the linguistic features of Aeolic in the contemporaneous Bouriant papyrus. Tribulato also illustrates how each dialect was consistently approached through one or more ‘model authors’ associated with it.

Some of the contributions deal with small (but by no means minor) linguistic details. The study of such details often has important consequences for the bigger historical or philological picture. Cassio discusses two epigraphic texts from the late 5th and/or early 4th c. BCE that illustrate the extent to which Homeric language could be changed and adapted in completely different contexts: an orphic gold leaf from Hipponion with various Doric traits, and an epigram from Xanthos (Lycia) that shows clear influence of an Attic epigram traditionally ascribed to Simonides. Cassio’s linguistic analysis suggests that the authors of both sub-literary texts had access to a text of Homer; and by taking the linguistic anomalies of these texts at face value, he shows how we may draw valuable inferences about the context of their production.

In another paper of high philological precision, Prauscello discusses the evidence for vernacular features in the language of choral lyric by a case study of two allegedly Boeotian forms in Pindar’s first Olympian Ode: αἱμακουρία ‘sacrifice of blood to the deceased’ and the use of τά as an interrogative (= τίνα).

Vatri’s contribution gives a quantitative analysis of stylistic variation in Attic oratory. He tries to capture two stylistic parameters that were widely commented on in antiquity: (1) spontaneity versus planning, and (2) involvement versus detachedness of the speaker. In selecting linguistic factors indicative of these parameters, Vatri uses work by Biber (1988) on English and other modern languages. Demosthenes appears to have the highest mean values for spontaneity and involvement, while Isocrates plans most rigorously and is the most detached. The data collected by Vatri and their linguistic analysis thus legitimate Aristotle’s distinction between λέξις γραφική (suited for reading) and λέξις ἀγωνιστική (suited for public performance).

Schironi deals with the ways in which new terms were coined in technical languages, distinguishing descriptive sciences like medicine and botany from mathematics (a deductive science). In her view, new phenomena or concepts were often made accessible, or more readily comprehensible, by giving them a name that draws an analogy with a phenomenon (often visible) from the known world. This idea that Greek science and philosophy have a predilection for the visible is, of course, not new. Another issue addressed is that Greek technical terms are coined by re-using and recombining existing Greek linguistic material, while in modern European languages technical vocabulary is often borrowed from the classical languages and therefore clearly demarcated from ordinary spoken language. Schironi therefore raises the question in which respect Greek scientific language was a technical language. On a critical note, it is unfortunate that she often assigns proper and derived meanings in metaphors without further argumentation and has excluded diachronic considerations from her investigation.

Olson discusses the Letters from Farmers by Alciphro. Like other authors belonging to the Second Sophistic, Alciphro is usually thought to have engaged directly with classical texts. Olson, however, argues that Alciphro is more likely to depend on the scholarly tradition that commented on peculiar Attic lexicon and phraseology in these texts, and suggests that Alciphro presupposed knowledge of the same tradition among his audience.

Dell’Oro deals with the history of the language of the Greek epigram (as epigraphically attested) by considering in detail three epigrams from very different periods and regions. The main question seems to be to what extent the author of an epigram made individual and relevant linguistic choices against the background of a supposed epic model, but the answers given are based merely on the individual cases treated. This article is the weakest link of the volume: it is too discursive and lacks a clear methodology.

The volume has been edited with care. I noted only very few typographical mistakes: exceptions include “they made use[d] of” (p. 242), the chapter number “VIII” instead of “IX” at the start of Tribulato’s contribution, “varino” for “variano” (p. 361). As usual in the Entretiens series, each contribution is followed by a transcript of the discussion between the author and the other contributors. These highly valuable discussions give an additional dimension: the papers are related to those of other contributors and to the programmatic questions of the Entretiens, and fundamental methodological issues are raised.

All in all, this volume can be seen as a showcase that may serve as a source of inspiration for further linguistically inspired research into Greek literature and, vice versa, for philologically informed linguistic analysis. Willi judges that classical scholarship is now “at a time of crisis, where the linguistic study of the ancient languages is increasingly marginalised” (p. 6). He may well be right, and let us hope that linguistically inspired philological discussions of the kind assembled here will remain central in the study of Ancient Greek literature.

Authors and titles

Pierre Ducrey, Préface
Andreas Willi, Introduction
Albio Cesare Cassio, Metamorfosi della lingua epica tra Oriente e Occidente : da Omero alle laminette orfiche e alla celebrazione poetica dei dinasti della Licia
Lucia Prauscello, Greek lyric Kunstsprache between Pan-Hellenism and epichoric influence: Two case studies
Andreas Willi, Der Sprachraum der Tragödie
Alessandro Vatri, Stilistica e parametri di variazione linguistica nella retorica greca
Luuk Huitink, “There was a river on their left-hand side”: Xenophon’s Anabasis, arrival scenes, reflector narrative and the evolving language of Greek historiography
Francesca Schironi, Naming the phenomena: technical lexicon in descriptive and deductive sciences
S. Douglas Olson, From ‘canonical’ literature to Alciphro
Francesca Dell’Oro, Choix d’auteur: les langues de l’épigramme épigraphique après 400 av. J.-C. et la marge de choix des rédacteurs par rapport aux traits dits épiques
Olga Tribulato, Lingue letterarie e dialetti nell’esegesi antica