Black Doves Speak: Herodotus and the Languages of Barbarians

  Munson, Rosaria Vignolo. 2005. Black Doves Speak: Herodotus and the Languages of Barbarians. Hellenic Studies Series 9. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

2. The Ethnographer and Foreign Languages

Another histōr: Psammetichus and the origin of language

One passage in the Histories appears to raise the anthropological problem of the beginning of human speech and therefore, potentially, of the origin of language differentiation. But it does so in an indirect way, through the eyes of the Egyptian king Psammetichus who is, moreover, interested in a different problem. Psammetichus “wants to know” what nation in the world is the oldest, since the Egyptians have always claimed that they were. With both the power and the inclination to undertake a controlled experiment, Psammetichus isolates two infants from all cultural contacts to see what language (φωνήν, 2.2.3) they will speak after they stop making meaningless noises. [1] He places the children in a remote hut, where only a shepherd is to go in and feed them milk every day by bringing his goats to them, but without ever talking to them or speaking in their presence. After about two years, the children greet the shepherd by clasping his knees, stretching their hands to him, and uttering their first word, bekós, [2] which turns out to be Phrygian for ‘bread’. Faced with the recurrence of this behavior, Psammetichus acknowledges that the Phrygians are the oldest people of mankind and the Egyptians must be second. [3] This, at any rate, is the Egyptian story. At its conclusion Herodotus mentions, and rejects as a typical idiocy, a Greek variant according to which Psammetichus entrusted the children not to a shepherd with goats but to women whose tongues had been chopped off. [4]

Languages and cultures

As uninformative as they are, Herodotus’ recurring reminders of a people’s different or special speech confirms that language constitutes a branch of the ethnographer’s study of nomoi, diaita , and ēthea. [33] On a few occasions he attempts to establish a more substantive connection between a linguistic phenomenon and specific features of a culture. The etymology of the word theoi ‘gods’, which the Pelasgians invented to denote the gods collectively, is linguistic evidence for this ancient people’s religious beliefs. [34] The matrilineal system that makes the Lycians unique has an idiomatic aspect: the Lycians take their names from their mothers, not their fathers (1.173.4–5). [35] Certain wretched tribesmen in the heart of Libya, who use curses and foul words against the scorching sun, bear the collective name of Atarantes, but do not have individual names (4.184.2–3). For the Persians, conversely, personal names are an important reflection of their self-image and culture. The narrator suggests this point deliberately, framing it with introductory and concluding statements that refer to the process of historiē:

And also this other thing happens to occur among them (συμπέπτωκε), which has escaped the notice of the Persians themselves but not us: Their names, which are equal (ὅμοια) to their bodies or magnificence, all end with the same letter, the one the Dorians call san and the Ionians sigma. If you pay close attention, you will find that Persian names end in this letter, not just some of them and not others, but all in the same way (ὁμοίως).


Foreign languages and historiē

The phenomenon of the vanishing “s” in Persian names leads the narrator to imply that he and perhaps other outsiders like him (ἡμέας) are more attuned to noticing certain linguistic peculiarities than the native speakers, and he invites the listener to join him in the process of observation (ἐς τοῦτο διζήμενος εὑρήσεις). [42] Of the possible disadvantages of being an outsider we hear nothing. [43] Herodotus’ glosses of historiē elsewhere in the work rather insist that the undeniable reality of language differentiation does not in the least hamper inquiry about foreign peoples. Because speech is in any case translatable, there are linguistic interpreters (hermēneis), whose job is apparently far easier than that of religious or mantic interpreters. [44] In the historical narrative, these bilingual professionals are instruments of the kings’ power over multiethnic empires. [45] But in the ethnographic sections and in the narrator’s accounts of his own research, they appear to be easily available to ordinary travelers. The polyphonic northeastern region of Europe, for example, is entirely accessible (περιφάνεια), at least as far as speakers can be found. [46] “Because,” says the histōr, “there are Scythians who get to these populations and it is not difficult to learn things from them … The Scythians who come to them transact their business through seven interpreters and seven languages.” [47] In Egypt, the same king Psammetichus who performed the linguistic experiment we have seen sent some Egyptian children to learn Greek from the Ionians, the first alloglōssoi (‘speakers of a different language’) who came to reside in his land (2.154.1–5). Establishing a hereditary cast of interpreters may have been one of Psammetichus’ ways of segregating the foreigners, but for Herodotus it opened up Egypt to the Greeks. [48] One of these Egyptian interpreters once assisted Herodotus himself by deciphering for him an inscription on the base of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. [49] Many other times in the Egyptian logos the histōr reports his interviews with the Egyptian priests or other local sources, and no intermediary enters the picture. [50]


[ back ] 1. On kings-histōres in Herodotus, see Christ 1994. On the relative infrequency of controlled experiments in Greek science, see G. E. R. Lloyd 1966.73–79.

[ back ] 2. Actually called an epos (ἔπος), or “‘word’ broadly and in the sense of parole, that is an utterance which here happens to be in the form of one word. What the children are … saying is ‘Give us bread!’” (Hollmann 2000.221).

[ back ] 3. 2.2.1–5. On this passage, see Salmon 1956; Benardete 1969.32–33; Lloyd 1976.5; Campos Daroca 1992.50–55; Christ 1994.84–86; Vannicelli 1998; Dewald 1998.615.

[ back ] 4. 2.2.5. Most scholars believe that the first story is also of Greek origin (see Vannicelli 1997.203), but Herodotus clearly distinguishes an Egyptian and a Greek version.

[ back ] 5. Dewald 1998.615.

[ back ] 6. Christ 1994.186.

[ back ] 7. Cf. 2.45. Munson 2001a.141–142.

[ back ] 8. At 2.28.4, Herodotus also criticizes the experiment by which Psammetichus attempted to discover the depth of the springs of the Nile, thereby trying again, in the words of Vannicelli 1998.204, “to test the limits (spatial, this time) of human knowledge.” Christ 1994.171–172.

[ back ] 9. Griffiths 2001.164. Later Herodotus even appears to disregard Psammetichus’ findings: 2.15.2–3 (on the antiquity of the Egyptians); 7.73 (on the Phrygians; but see Vannicelli 1997.207–209).

[ back ] 10. Human beings are bread-eaters by definition in Homer: see e.g. Iliad 13.321–322, Odyssey 9.191, Vernant 1989, and Detienne 1977 passim, esp. 117. Vannicelli 1997.205–207. Herodotus’ long-lived Ethiopians are an exception (3.22.4).

[ back ] 11. DK 90 B 6.12. Robinson 1979.51–59.

[ back ] 12. Diodorus Siculus 1.8.3–4 (cf. Vitr. 33.24–28), on whose derivation from Democritus, see Cole 1990.60–69. Guthrie 1965.474–475; Rochette 1996.10. On Democritus’ conventional theory of language, see also Classen 1976.242–245. Contrast Epicurus Letter to Herodotus (DL 10. 75), where language difference depends on the different natures (phuseis) of ethnea inhabiting different places. Donadoni 1986.194 quotes a passage of the Egyptian Hymn to Aten in which the god himself has provided for the needs of different peoples of the world, also assigning to each its own language.

[ back ] 13. Benardete 1969.33; Campos Daroca, 1992.50–55; contra Salmon 1956.329.

[ back ] 14. Scholium on Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica IV 257, 62c; scholium of Tzetzes on Aristophanes Clouds 398a; Suidas s.v. βεκεσέληνε. The Greek version Herodotus rejects, where goats are replaced by mute women, would eliminate this level of meaning. Dover 1993.219 cites βρύ (‘drink’) as a baby word in connection to the βρεκεκεκέξ sound of Aristophanic frogs. For the difference and overlap between glōtta and phōnē, see below, note 24.

[ back ] 15. See above, note 2.

[ back ] 16. For stretching of the hands in sign of entreaty or supplication, cf., e.g.1.45.1 (Adrastus, coincidentally a Phrygian); 4.136.1 (Persian soldiers); 7.233.1 (Thebans). Clasping of knees: 1.112.1 (Median woman); 9.76 (Greek woman). Lateiner 1987.113. For other apparently cross-cultural gestures, see 4.113.2 (below, pp. 72–73).

[ back ] 17. Scholars of the old school have been reluctant to accept this, heaping contempt on the naïveté of either Psammetichus and the Egyptians (here mocked by Herodotus, according to Benardete 1969.33) or Herodotus himself (Salmon 1956.329: “Nous ne croyons pas qu’on ait jamais presenté Hérodote comme une des grandes intelligences de l’antiquité”).

[ back ] 18. The Derveni Papyrus was provisionally published by Merkelbach 1982.1–12; see also Laks and Most 1997; Burkert 1970; 1985.128–129; Baxter 1992.130–139. For the suggestion that names derive from a superhuman power, see also Cratylus 438c (cf. 397c). Guthrie 1965.474, 1969.204–219. For the connection between the Derveni papyrus and the Cratylus, see Kahn 1997.

[ back ] 19. On the distinction between ritualized or conventional and other types of gestures in Herodotus, see Lateiner 1987, esp. 90–92 and his chart on pp. 113–116. See also above, note 16.

[ back ] 20. Campos Daroca observes that the Psammetichus episode is the reverse of the tower of Babel story because it illustrates the origin of language, but not that of different languages (1992.52).

[ back ] 21. 1.1–5. For analogies between the two passages, see Campos Daroca 1992.5, who draws attention to logioi at 1.1 and logiōtatoi at 2.3.1 and 77.1. See also the parallel between what Herodotus himself “knows” (οἶδα) at 1.5.3 and what he “thinks” (δοκέω) at 2.15.3. Vannicelli 1997.212–216. According to Dewald 1998.615, each passage represents “a thematic introduction to a research-driven narrative.” For logioi as ‘experts of traditions in prose’ see Nagy 1988.181–182 and 1990.223–224.

[ back ] 22. Campos Daroca 1992.40–42.

[ back ] 23. Campos Daroca 1992.41. See Munson 2001.79–82.

[ back ] 24. Most of these statements, formulated in terms of “same” and “not same,” constitute in fact glosses of comparison. For the role of comparison in Herodotus’ descriptions of foreign peoples, see Munson 2001.91–100. As these two passages show, glōssa and phōnē can be synonymous. However, the latter may also indicate inarticulate sounds or the voice of animals. Long 1987.114; Campos Daroca 1992. Accordingly, Herodotus uses either term for obscure, marginal, or unknown languages (including at 2.2.3, considered above, pp. 19 and 21), but tends not to apply phōnē to mainstream languages such as Persian, Egyptian or Greek. At 2.55.2 and 2.57.2, we find a merely apparent exception, when Herodotus’ Pelasgian sources call an unintelligible language, which they do not realize is Egyptian, a “phōnē of birds” in contrast to the “human phōnē” of intelligible Greek. See below, pp. 67–69.

[ back ] 25. Lejeune 1940–1948.54; Lévy 1991.219.

[ back ] 26. See also 1.57.3 (Crestonians and inhabitants of Plakia); 2.42.4 (Ammonians); 4.117 (Sauromatae).

[ back ] 27. 6.119.4. On dislocation and nostalgia in Herodotus, see Friedman 2004.

[ back ] 28. Campos Daroca 1992.41.

[ back ] 29. See also the four “entirely different” Ionian dialects (1.142.3; above, p. 14). Lejeune 1940–1948.55; Campos Daroca 1992.42, 56.

[ back ] 30. See above, p. 3 and note 15.

[ back ] 31. 4.183.4. For Libya as a land of linguistic anomalies, see Campos Daroca 1992.58, 74. A more prosaic evaluation which correlates primitive language and primitive culture is in Thucydides’ description of the Aetolian tribe of the Eurytanians: ἀγνωστότατοι … γλῶσσαν καὶ ὠμόφαγοι ‘speaking a most unintelligible language and eaters of raw meat’ (Thucydides 3.94.5).

[ back ] 32. So Bailey 1983.53, on the language of the Dowayos: “a crude, unsubtle instrument, little better than animal cries …”

[ back ] 33. Diels 1910.82; Cardona 1970.20–24.

[ back ] 34. 2.52.1. See above, p. 12.

[ back ] 35. Campos Daroca 1992.41.

[ back ] 36. Esp. 1.133–36. Cf. the names at 6.98 (below, p. 48).

[ back ] 37. For the interpretation of this passage I here essentially follow the path of Wolff 1934.161 and Immerwahr 1966.186n111. Persian culture is one that admits of no exceptions; see e.g. 1.137.2. Contra Harrison 1998, ch. 3 “The Greek conceptualization of foreign languages.” For a more philosophical view on 1.139, see Chamberlain 1999.292–296. His interpretation is bold, but has the merit of taking maximum notice of Herodotus’ idea of the relation between an object and its name and of the importance Herodotus gives to the forms of names; it also explains the extraordinary emphasis in this passage on the narrator’s superior awareness and his address to the listener. On the basis for Herodotus’ statement on the ending of Persian names, see below, p. 27.

[ back ] 38. Linguistic and idiomatic variations within the Greek-speaking world recorded by Herodotus are listed above, p. 14 and note 37.

[ back ] 39. See above, p. 14.

[ back ] 40. This is a commonly held opinion (see especially Meyer 1862.194; Diels 1910.85), but then what about Scythian, Egyptian, and other names? I am indebted to Michael Flower for helping me come to terms with this passage. For Medo-Persian names in Herodotus, see Schmitt 1976, Armayor 1978.

[ back ] 41. See Legrand 1946.155; cf. Evans 1991.139n203.

[ back ] 42. It is not clear whether “we” here means “I,” “we the Greeks,” or some other group. For the difficulties in interpreting the first person plural in Herodotus, see Chamberlain 2001.

[ back ] 43. For the problems of language comprehension that the real author Herodotus would have encountered in his study of foreign cultures, see the vivid description by Gould 1989.24–27. Gehman 1914.9–12 collects remarks by ancient authors on difficulties caused by a difference of language.

[ back ] 44. This is the meaning of the word before Herodotus (who reserves it for linguistic interpreters), aside from Aeschylus Agamemnon 1062–1063 (but cf. 616). Lejeune 1940–1948.58; Rotolo 1972.396–397. Campos Daroca 1992.63. For professional interpreters of oracles, omens, and dreams in Herodotus (khrēsmologoi, manteis, oneiropoloi), see Hollmann 1998.221–226 and Hollmann, forthcoming. In Plato’s Cratylus (407e–408a) a hermēneus (ἑρμηνεύς) is an interpreter of speech (logos [λόγος]), if not specifically of foreign languages. For interpreters of foreign languages in Greek and Roman sources, see Gehman 1914, esp.16–53.

[ back ] 45. Campos Daroca 1992.63–68. See below, pp. 73–77.

[ back ] 46. Only beyond the Bald Men the eremos, a physical barrier empty of men, breaks the chain of communications, thereby precluding inquiry (4.25). See Romm 1992.36–37. Cobet 1971.94.

[ back ] 47. 4.24. Of the ethnic groups living above Olbia surveyed at 4.18–23, the number of those speaking Scythian or a mixed Scythian language can in fact be reckoned at seven (Scythians, Sauromatians, Budini, Geloni, Thyssagetae, Iyrcae, Argippaeans, according to Rawlinson 1880.1.21, and cf. Corcella 1993.253). One is tempted, however, to regard the number as symbolic (Fehling 1989.100), as in the heptaglōssos lyre of Pindar Nemean 5.24, seven-stringed and therefore able to perform a variety of local melodic patterns or nomoi (Nagy 1990.90, 355). Cf. also the North Carolina expression “to be silent in seven languages,” quoted by Safire 1999. These metaphors signify that a clear message can be conveyed through several different linguistic codes, used individually or in combination.

[ back ] 48. Donadoni 1986.204–205.

[ back ] 49. 2.125.6. A unique case, as Hartog 1988.239 remarks. West 1985 discusses this and the other inscriptions cited by Herodotus (about half of them foreign).

[ back ] 50. For the frequency of these glosses in Book 2, see Marincola 1987. At 2.105, Herodotus reports to have spoken with both Egyptians and Colchians.

[ back ] 51. E.g. Meyer 1862.192–195; Legrand 1932.74–76. See especially the discussion and bibliography in Harrison 1998, ch. 1 (“Herodotus’ knowledge of foreign languages”). The suggestion by Mandell 1990 that Herodotus must have known Aramaic is not convincing. On Greek monolingualism and lack of interest in foreign languages see especially Momigliano 1975a and 1975b esp. 15. Also Lejeune 1940–1948.57; Rotolo 1972.395–396; Hartog 1988.38–39; Campos Daroca 1992.27; Colvin 1999.70. See however the “Old Oligarch’s” complaint that, unlike the other Greeks, the Athenians use a mixture of culture traits, including language, from all Greeks and barbarians (“Xenophon” Constitution of the Athenians 2.8).