BMCR 2021.11.43

Multilingualism in ancient Europe: Greek as language in contact

, , , , Multilingualism in ancient Europe: Greek as language in contact. Linguarum varietas, 8. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra, 2019. Pp. 138. ISBN 9788833152172 €120,00.

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

This is the second issue of the relatively young journal Linguarum Varietas that I have reviewed for BMCR,[1] and, like that earlier volume (and indeed the majority of the issues of Linguarum Varietas) this one is explicitly concerned with language contact in the ancient world. All of the papers in this volume also mention Greek, although in some the language plays a more central role. Once again, the papers demonstrate the extraordinary range of material which is available for research into ancient language contact, and the diversity of scholarly approaches that are possible.

Two of the papers in this collection are concerned with one of the richest recent sources for dialectal Greek, the corpus of over 4200 oracular questions and responses from Dodona written on lead tablets which were only fully published in 2013 (and are now being gradually re-edited at the Dodona Online website). The two articles complement each other well. Crespo and Giannakis give an overview of the context and contents of the Dodona tablets, recounting their publication history and giving ample bibliography including many references to previous studies on the dialectal variety present in the tablets. They list all the dialectally mixed tablets, including those where the question and response (written sometimes on the back of the tablet) differ in dialect. In contrast, Nieto Izquierdo focusses in his paper on the particular ways direct and indirect questions are introduced in the tablets, convincingly overturning the view that there was free variation between ἦ, εἰ and αἰ for both direct and indirect questions. Nieto Izquierdo distinguishes the functions of εἰ, used in Attic and koine-influenced texts (including those otherwise classified as Thessalian) to introduce indirect questions, from αἰ, which occurs only in conditional clauses in the Doric dialect tablets. He uses evidence from other Doric dialect inscriptions to show that in Doric ἦ was the default way to introduce indirect as well as direct questions. Nieto Izquierdo’s consideration of the tablets also incidentally calls into question one of the conclusions reached by Crespo and Giannakis, who compare the dialect mixture at Dodona to modern examples of dialect levelling in new towns (such as Milton Keynes in the UK), as reported in well-known sociolinguistic studies by Trudgill and Kerswill. As Nieto Izquierdo shows, the texts of the Dodona tablets do not record transcripts of the actual speech of the visitors who come to seek a response from the oracle, but are themselves the composite result of exchanges between priests or other temple officials and petitioners. Hence a single tablet can refer to the petitioner using a first and a third person pronoun in the same sentence. This seems a likely explanation for at least some instances of dialect mixture in the texts.

All of the other papers deal, to some extent, with contact between Greeks and speakers of other languages. In the contribution of Bruno and Tronci, however, language contact plays a minimal role, although this corpus-based study on the frequency of active, passive, and middle aorists does consider Jewish Greek texts and Egyptian papyri. The authors give figures for the numbers of verbs for which aorist forms occur in all three voices, two voices or just in one across the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and White’s Loeb of select papyri, identifying trends and divergences in the material. The collection and codification of this data is a major task, and the conclusions relevant to our knowledge of the post-classical Greek verbal system. However, the authors don’t use any statistical tests of significance on their results, which would have highlighted some of their findings more clearly. Thus a chi-squared test shows very clearly that the increase in verbs which exhibit only one aorist stem in the papyri (250 out of 288) is significant when compared with the distribution in the Septuagint (1565 out of 2122), but the decrease in those for which three stems are found compared to two is not (2 out of 38 compared with 53 out of 557). The authors plan to further expand this study with more data, and that may help also to clarify what role, if any, contact situations have played in the changes in the Greek voice system in this time period.

Guijarro Ruano’s survey of languages and dialects in the northern Aegean faces head-on the problem of the evidence, and difficulties of even naming the languages and dialects that came into contact with Greek. The emphasis of this paper is on Thracian, but as the author acknowledges, previous scholars have generally approached Thracian with the desire to prove some pet theory or else lump it together with a ‘conglomerate of fragmentary Indo-European languages’. The great achievement of this paper is to synthesise a large amount of recent work including research on the inscriptions from Zone published in 2015 (in passing I lament the death of Claude Brixhe, one of the co-editors of these inscriptions and for many years the doyen of Thracian linguistic studies, in March this year). In an exception to the high standards of scholarship on display in this paper, I note one minor error, the attribution of the Armenian word ayr to Albanian (page 66 fn.1).

There are two papers which concern Greek in contact with Latin or its derivatives. In the opening paper of the volume, Benedetti adds to the growing literature on the bilingual Ars Grammatica of Dositheus by considering the Greek terms used to translate the Latin name of the ablative case, ablativus. Surprisingly, three different terms are used in close proximity, and Benedetti skilfully dissects their formation and the motivations for the different terms, adding to our knowledge of ancient grammatical thought and to the creation of Greek translations of Latin. Logozzo considers the transliteration of a 16th century Romance variety, most probably Calabrian, in Greek letters in a Vatican manuscript which awaits full publication. As she points out, the scribe of the text resorts to several different strategies for representing sounds in the Greek script, most strikingly selecting words and forms which would make sense in Greek, such as a consistency in transcribing –que as καί or using the Greek digraph οι when representing plurals in -i.

In the final paper in the volume, Šorgo’s consideration of sound changes between Old and New Phrygian, Greek has only a walk-on part as one of the languages which participates in something like a first millennium BCE western Anatolian Sprachbund, showing some of the same phonological developments that took place in Phrygian. Šorgo closely follows his Leiden colleague, Sasha Lubotsky, in his account of Phrygian (which is generally no bad thing), and the most significant insight from the paper is likely to be the suggestion that the writing of, for example, σεμουμ κνουμιν (in place of expected σεμουν) indicates that the second syllable of the word was a nasalised vowel, which could be indicated in script by either a sequence of vowel + ν, vowel + μ or indeed just plain vowel. It is a shame that in this learned and sophisticated article Šorgo relies upon Sidney Allen’s general handbook on the pronunciation of Greek for information on the development of the post-classical Greek vowel system.[2]

There is a concise one-page index at the end of the volume which is unfortunately incomplete and occasionally misleading; thus, for example, only two Greek words are given separate entries (αἰ and κά) whereas εἰ and ἦ are the only two forms listed under the sub-heading ‘Greek particles’. Indeed, the concision of the index is a cause for regret since many of the riches within this volume are not fully in evidence to the time-poor scholar who does not want to read the entire volume. I hope this review can help publicise some of the excellent work featured in Linguarum Varietas more widely.

Table of contents

Marina Benedetti, Il latino come L2 e i nomi greci dell’ablativo
Carla Bruno, Liana Tronci, Dinamiche del cambiamento nel sistema di voce dell’aoristo. Note su testi ai margini
Emilio Crespo, Georgios K. Giannakis, Dialectally hybrid inquiries in the Dodona lamellae
Paloma Guijarro Ruano, The northern coast of the Aegean sea: a linguistic overview
Felicia Logozzo, Scripta greco-romanza: la grafia del Barb. gr. 316
Enrique Nieto Izquierdo, La phrase interrogative totale dans les lamelles oraculaires de Dodone et dans les dialectes doriens
Aljoša Šorgo, Sound changes from old Phrygian to new Phrygian in an areal context
Index of Names, Places and Remarkable Subjects.


[1] The first was BMCR 2017.11.25.

[2] Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek a history of the language and its speakers (second edition), Chichester, West Sussex and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, has much more information on the development of post-Classical Greek and references to further scholarship.