Greek: An Updating of a Survey of Recent Work

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Part I: Generalities

I§1. The heading etymology / vocabulary, just mentioned, is of and by itself an indication of recent trends in the study of Greek.

I§2. I postpone the details until we reach that heading. ⊛I begin here by making a general statement about the study of Greek words, which requires both synchronic and diachronic perspectives.⊛ (In using these terms synchronic and diachronic, I have in mind the definition of synchrony and diachrony by Ferdinand de Saussure: “… synchronie et diachronie désigneront respectivement un état de langage et une phase d’évolution.” [1] )

I§3.⊛From an overview of recent works on ancient Greek vocabulary, we can see that most of these works focus on the Indo-European etymologies of Greek words. This is to be expected, since a basic fact about the Greek language is that it stems from a prototypical language-group known to linguists as “Indo-European.” Such works tend to prioritize the diachronic perspective at the expense of the synchronic. In view of this tendency, it is important to stress that the diachronic perspective, which is basic to etymology, needs the support of a synchronic perspective.⊛

I§4. One of the foremost masters of diachronic analysis in general and of Indo-European linguistics in particular, Antoine Meillet, advocated synchronic analysis as the point of departure for diachronic analysis (a shining example is his Méthode comparative, 1925).

I§6. That said, it is relevant to note that perhaps the greatest achievement in Greek-language studies in, say, the last hundred years—and the first to be mentioned here—was made possible precisely by way of synchronic analysis. This achievement was the decipherment of Linear В by Michael Ventris in 1952. As Ventris proved, the script known as Linear B was a writing system used by scribes in the second millennium BCE to record the earliest attested form of Greek, conventionally designated as Mycenaean Greek.

I§9. In general, the most important working rule in Mycenaean studies is a strict adherence to the internal evidence of context (Chadwick 1960); a prime illustration is an analysis, presented by Ventris and Chadwick themselves, of the “horse-tablet” Ca 895 from the archives of Knossos. [7] Instead of paraphrasing the account that is offered by the two authors, I give here the actual text of the tablet, followed by the text of a later account published by Chadwick only after the untimely death of Ventris. In this later account, we see Chadwick’s lively personal reminiscence of a decisive moment in the discovery procedure that led to the decipherment of Linear B:

line 1: i-qo ⦚ HORSE[female] 5 HORSE[male]4 po-ro HORSE[
line 2: o-no HORSE[female] ⦚ 3 po-ro HORSE 2 HORSE[male]4 [

(The capitalized lettering here indicates ideographic symbols; the italic lettering transliterates the Linear В syllabary; the arabic numerals represent the Linear В digital system; the superscripts for ‘male’ and ‘female’ represent two different ligatures used by the scribe; the sign ⦚ shows the breaks in the tablet—as described by Chadwick in what I quote below.)

I§10. Without internal analysis, made possible by applying a synchronic approach, it is difficult to situate Linear В forms diachronically by reconstructing either forward or backward in time–forward from the second millennium BCE into the first and backward from the second millennium into the third and beyond, back to a time when the Greek language was not yet differentiated from other Indo-European languages. In fact, the actual decipherment of Linear B would have been impossible without a synchronic approach.

I§11. ⊛That said, I turn to a point I made in my review of the introductory book of Chadwick (Nagy 1969). In this review, I argued that much further work is needed in situating the language of Linear B diachronically. In particular, there is a need to make the study of Mycenaean Greek less isolated and more relevant to the study of alphabetic Greek.⊛

I§12. ⊛Here and hereafter, I use the term alphabetic Greek with reference to Greek texts written in the era of the Greek alphabet, from the eighth century BCE onward.⊛

I§13. ⊛In the same review of Chadwick’s introductory book (Nagy 1969), I stressed the importance of finding contextual matches in alphabetic Greek that correspond to contextual matches in the Linear B texts.⊛

I§14. ◊As a specific example of such matches, I highlighted in this work (Nagy 1969) the collocation of the words τελεστα and δαμος in an inscription from Elis (DGE 413.8–9), to be compared with the collocation of the Mycenaean words tereta = telestās / telestă and damo = dāmos in the Linear B land-tenure tablets from Pylos.◊


I§16. I now turn to another important body of attested Greek textual evidence that requires a combination of synchronic and diachronic approaches. The case in point is ancient Greek epic, as primarily represented by the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. ⊛From here on, the term epic will be used to refer short-hand to the Iliad and Odyssey.⊛

I§17. The language of epic is an artificial language. In other words, it is a poetic meta-language or Dichtersprache. The better we understand the genre of epic, the clearer it is how its Dichtersprache differs from the natural language that gave rise to it. ◊When I say natural here and hereafter, I mean simply not artificial. And when I say the genre of epic, I am speaking about a historical (and prehistorical) contingency, not about a universal category of literature (Nagy 2005 §§33–40).◊

I§18. In this context, it is essential to cite first and foremost the work of Milman Parry (especially 1928a and 1928b), who produced the most authoritative formulations of such key concepts as oral poetry and formula. It was Parry who showed that ancient Greek epic evolved out of an oral poetic tradition, and that the Dichtersprache of epic was basically a formulaic language. Parry also showed that, with the passage of time, the mechanisms of oral epic poetry (whether recited or sung) become independent of the natural or non-artificial language that engendered these mechanism. Thus a given mechanism may atrophy or even become extinct in the natural language while in the oral poetic language of epic it may not only survive but even become extended—overextended, from the standpoint of the original natural language that afforded the initial precedent. ◊Here and hereafter, I mean original merely in the sense of earlier—with reference to the earliest recoverable phases of reconstruction.◊

I§19. Whatever grammatical rules we may devise for epic, then, may often accommodate processes independent of the natural language, bearing witness to erosion of the original hierarchy of constraints. What is more, such rules may turn out to be limited, that is, not universally applicable.

I§20. Here is an example. We know from the Indo-European cognates of Greek νιφ- ‘snow’, such as English snow, that we must reconstruct νιφ- with an initial *sn-; now some of the formulaic collocations in epic must go back to a prehistoric time when word-initial *sn– was still extant in Greek: hence the making of position by initial ν- in the metrical scheme of, say, ὄρεῑ νιφόεντι in Iliad XIII 754, scanned ⏑ ⏑  – . (Here and hereafter, the ordinal numbers of the scrolls or “books” of the Iliad and Odyssey will be cited by way of upper- and lower-case roman numerals respectively.) Sporadically, however, the factor of precedent extends such a license beyond its etymological confines: a case in point is the making of position by initial ν- in the expression ἅμα δὲ νέφος at Iliad IV 274, scanned ⏑  – ⏑ , even though this ν- does not go back to *sn– (as we see from the Sanskrit cognate nábhaḥ).

I§21. Upon further examination, it becomes clear that the combinations of word-initial *s– with any given sonorant (R), such as n-, created a precedent after the phonological disappearance of *s– in these combinations. So now a word-initial *R– could make position in the epic language—just as the original word-initial *sR– could make position. And without the comparative lexical evidence of cognates in other Indo-European languages, from which we discern an original contrast between *sR– and *R-, the diachronic locus of diffusion for making position with R– would be nearly impossible to determine by way of applying only a synchronic approach.

I§22. Even before Parry, there were studies of the language of Greek epic that showed a keen awareness of the factor of Dichtersprache as {19|20} opposed to natural language. It should be noted, however, that these studies tended to emphasize the artificiality of the Dichtersprache, not the internal dynamics producing it.

I§24. The prime concern for Witte was the question of dialectal layers in Homer (on which more in Part II, dialectology), and this interest was pursued further in the book Die homerische Kunstsprache, by Karl Meister (1921). ◊As I will elaborate later, I distance myself from various theories of dialect “layers” in Homer.◊ In any case, the question of dialectal differences is not germane to the present discussion.

I§25. It is Parry’s concept of the formula, and the dynamism of jeux des formules, that has lead to a more profound understanding of Dichtersprache, with its self-sustained equilibrium and momentum partially detached from the natural language but constantly affected by it and originally even united with it.

I§27. Parry’s approach to ancient Greek Dichtersprache will be relevant to each of the subsections in Part II: phonology (on the distribution of “digamma,” written as ϝ), morphology (on the construct ἱερὸν μένος plus genitive of name), syntax (on the anomalous combination Ζεῦ πάτερ … ᾿Ηέλιός τε), etymology / vocabulary (on Ἥρη, etc.), dialectology (on the pronouns ὔμμες, etc.).

I§28. The interplay of formulas in ancient Greek epic needs to be studied diachronically as well as synchronically. A diachronic approach helps understand the conservatism inherent in the linguistic heritage of formulas. Configurations {20|21} that otherwise would have long ago become extinct remain embedded in this or that expression preserved by the formulaic system. It is to ancient Greek epic that we owe the perpetuation of the most archaic words in the Greek repertory, often coexisting side-by-side in the same verse with the most recent (on which more in Part II, etymology / vocabulary).

I§29. When it comes to the coexistence of archaisms and innovations in epic, the archaisms generally outnumber the innovations. For an example, I highlight 143 Homeric occurrences of noun + epithet combinations referring to the sea:

I§30. Vocabulary is not the only level on which archaisms outnumber innovations in epic. For another example of this phenomenon, let us look now on the level of morphology: besides 50-odd Homeric instances of old athematic-stem ὦρτο ‘arose’, there are only three instances of the innovative thematic-stem ὤρετο ‘arose’ (XII 279, XIV 397, XXII 102). The evidence of statistics is most telling here.

I§31. Because of such relationships between archaisms to innovations, statistics may also be used to calibrate diachronically the relationships between relatively older and newer grammatical categories. For example, let us test the conclusion, reached by way of applying the methodology of comparative grammar, that the verbal class in -όω is derived or extended from (and originally restricted to) {21|22} the aorist system, while the verbal classes in -άω and -έω are derived or extended from the present system. The statistical evidence of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey serves as an indication:

I§32. Here the evidence of the Homeric corpus shows that the number of present / aorist verbs in -όω is proportionately inverse to the number of present / aorist verbs in -άω and -έω; thus the epic here statistically reflects the evolution from (a) the prevalence of the original constraints on these three verbal classes to (b) their subsequent eventual breakdown.

I§35. As for the Homeric Hymns, it is again by way of grammatical criteria that we can see how they are not directly derivative from the Iliad or the Odyssey and how their background may even have stemmed from an earlier phase of epic. This earlier phase may have dated back to a time before the establishment of the Iliad and the Odyssey as they have survived (for the notion of establishing fixed Homeric texts, I cite Lord 1960, especially chapter 6). [19] In other words, we may be dealing with a phase when the Dichtersprache of epic was not yet moribund (that is, before the onset of fixed texts). And such a phase may have given rise to elements in the Homeric Hymns that are clearly independent of the Iliad and Odyssey. Such independence is demonstrable wherever the Hymns preserve a grammatical archaism corresponding to an innovation in the Iliad and Odyssey. Granted, the situation is more often the reverse, and that is why it is assumed by many that the Hymns are in all respects more recent. A case in point is the innovative thematic-stem πολυπιδάκου ‘rich in springs’ (Ἴδης) in the Hymn to Aphrodite (54) as opposed to the older athematic-stem πολυπίδακος (Ἴδης) in the Iliad (XIV 157, etc.). But there are counterexamples, however rare. [20] I list here three such counterexamples, which are sufficient to show that while the Hymns may be in some ways newer than the Iliad and Odyssey, they are nevertheless at least partially independent survivals of an unattested stage of epic Dichtersprache that gave rise to the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Homeric Hymns:

  1. older athematic-stem χρυσάορα ‘with sword of gold’ in the Hymn to Apollo (123) vs. innovative thematic-stem χρυσάορον in the Iliad (XV 256)
  2. older κατάκειαι ‘you lie down’ (with intervocalic σ phonologically lost) in the Hymn to Hermes (254) vs. innovative κεῖσαι (with intervocalic σ morphologically restored) in the Iliad (XIX 319).
  3. older verse-final (τό σε φράζεσθαι) ἄνωγμεν ‘we bid (you consider this)’ in the Hymn to Apollo (528) vs. innovative *ἀνώγαμεν, with paradigmatic extension of α; the similarly verse-final but 1st singular (τά σε φράζεσθαι) ἄνωγα of the Odyssey (xx 43, etc.) could not have formulaically generated the older 1st plural ἄνωγμεν, while the predictable *ἀνώγαμεν could not fit metrically.

I§36. The factor of Dichtersprache, of course, extends beyond the language of Homer and the Homeric Hymns; not only is it equally relevant in non-Homeric “epic” such as Hesiodic poetry but also in the genre (or, more accurately, genres) of lyric.

I§37. ◊I include iambic and elegiac poetry in this category of “lyric” and restrict the category of “epic” to poetry composed in the meter known as the dactylic hexameter.◊

I§39. A case in point is a passage in Tyrtaeus F 7 (verses 21 and following), a text contextually parallel to a passage in the Homeric Iliad XXII (verses 66 and following), where we see Priam musing about his own fate:

Tyrtaeus (verse 27): νέoισι δὲ πάντ’ ἐπέοικεν
‘it is altogether fitting for the young’

vs. Homer (verse 71): νέῳ δέ τε πάντ’ ἐπέοικεν.
‘it is altogether fitting for the young’

I§48. There is a wide-ranging survey of this and other such examples of indogermanische Dichtersprache in a book by Schmitt (1967), which features prominently the comparative evidence from ancient Greek, including the case of κλέος ἄφθιτον. There are also further studies of further Greek evidence, centering on particular words or phrases: examples include Thieme (1938, 1952abc) on ἀριδείκετος, ἐρικυδής, νέκταρ / ἀμβροσία, Ἀίδης; also Durante (1958, 1960, 1962) on ἔπεα πτερόεντα, ὕμνον πλέκειν, ὠκέες ἵπποι.

I§49. ◊At this point in the 1972 version of the book, I announced my intention to publish what eventually became an entire monograph centering on the Greek phrase κλέος ἄφθιτον ‘imperishable fame’ and the cognate Indic phrase śrávas … | …ákṣitam (Nagy 1974). In the monograph, I concentrate not only on the cognate phraseology but also on the cognate metrical frameworks of this phraseology.◊ {25|26}

I§51. On the synchronic level, a groundbreaking inquiry into Greek meter has been W. S. Allen’s correlation of verse-ictus with a theory of Greek lexical stress (1966). In terms of this theory, the factor of stress is independent of intonation, the patterns of which are morphologically as well as phonologically conditioned except in finite forms of the verb (where the conditioning is solely phonological). Moreover, the phonological conditioning for stress is different from the phonological conditioning for lexical intonation familiar from the most elementary grammars (I cite, for example, the “law” that says that a proparoxytone becomes paroxytone when the ultimate vowel is long).

I§53. Here are two examples, where the highlighting of the vowels of syllables indicates stress:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε Moῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὅς μάλα πολλά

Odyssey i 1

ὦ κοινὸν αὐτάδελφον σμήνης κάρα.

Sophocles Antigone 1

I§58. For an example of such devices, I focus on the utilization of an exceptional space allowing disagreement between stress and ictus: if the penthemimeral caesura of the iambic trimeter divides a spondee, that is, if a word-break in the third foot occurs between two long syllables, then stress clashes with ictus (both stress and ictus are indicated by way of highlighting; “|” is foot-juncture, “‖” is caesura):

– | – |  ‖ – | … (from the standpoint of stress) {27|28}

vs. hypothetical

 |  – | – ‖  | … (what we would have expected from the standpoint of ictus).


I§60. Here I turn to the relevant linguistic evidence of lyric poetry. We encounter more difficulties here, because of the generally poor state of the textual tradition. Not only has there been an irretrievable lapse in transmission for the majority of lyric texts but even what few texts remain are highly vulnerable to corruption, given the nature of their fragmentary survival as quotations or paraphrases (Zitatfragmente) and the like.

I§62. The textual tradition of Alcman illustrates still another complication. In the Alexandrian exegetical tradition, a consistent awareness of the contrast between a relatively unlocalized epic dialect and a relatively localized lyric dialect prompted sometimes misdirected efforts at maintaining fidelity to the manifold and varying idiosyncrasies of localisms. For example, the Laconian provenience of Alcman’s poetry gave rise to the regular substitution of σ for ϑ in the Alexandrian edition of the Partheneion: thus πάσον for πάθον in line 35, παρσένος for παρθένος in line 84, and so on. Granted, the process θ > σ is a Laconian phenomenon, attested also in such contexts as the Laconian wordings attested in Thucydides (σύματος for θύματος, 5.77) and in Aristophanes (σιός for θεός, Lysistrata {28|29} 81). Such instances of s (< θ) are also clearly attested in the latter-day descendant of the Doric dialectal family to which Laconian belonged, Tsakonian. Examples include to séri ‘harvesting-time’ (τὸ θέρος) and silikó ‘female’ (θηλικός). [53] Nevertheless, attestations of σ for θ in Laconian are relatively later, and the more archaic inscriptions show θ. [54] As Risch argues, if only θ is possible for the era of Alcman (whom he dates to the seventh century BCE), then it follows that “Dieser typische Lakonismus σ statt θ muss daher… auf nachträglicher Modernisierung beruhen.” [55] In other words, the Alexandrian exegetical tradition may be responsible for dialectal features unwarranted by the previously transmitted lyric text.


I§74. This formulation by Meillet is a tour de force in displaying an awareness that language operates on two levels: internally, it operates by way of grammatical rules (φύσει), while externally it operates by way of social convention (θέσει).



[ back ] 1. Saussure 1916:117.

[ back ] 2. Meillet 1921:16. Saussure’s structuralism strongly influenced Meillet, as we see from the account of Benveniste 1966:93.

[ back ] 3. Risch 1954a:181.

[ back ] 4. See especially Chadwick 1967:4, 26, 41, 67 on Ventris’ techniques of internal analysis.

[ back ] 5. A case in point is what was said by the editors of the Supplement to Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Barber et al. 1968:v).

[ back ] 6. Chadwick 1967:81–100.

[ back ] 7. Ventris and Chadwick 1956:210–211.

[ back ] 8. Chadwick 1967:85–86.

[ back ] 9. Ventris and Chadwick 1956:310.

[ back ] 10. Ruijgh 1957:3.

[ back ] 11. Lord 1960: chapters 7–9.

[ back ] 12. As two early examples of the application of Parry’s methodology to the study of Greek epic, I cite Ruijgh (1957) on relative datings of formulas and Hoekstra (1965) on structural shifts resulting from the actual inflection of whole formulas. These two works were criticized by Lord (1968).

[ back ] 13. Page 1959:225–226. Page’s book, History and the Homeric Iliad, from which this quotation is taken, highlights not only the generally archaic features of epic but also the specifically Mycenaean features (especially at pp. 218–296); cf. Gray 1947, 1958; Puhvel 1964.

[ back ] 15. Shipp 1953, especially p. 18.

[ back ] 16. Ruijgh 1957:22–25.

[ back ] 17. Leumann 1950:167–168.

[ back ] 18. Page 1955b:164n24.

[ back ] 19. Lord 1960:124–138.

[ back ] 20. Such counter-examples have been collected and analyzed by Forderer 1958:95–96.

[ back ] 21. Page 1964:131; Dover 1964:190–191.

[ back ] 22. Dover 1964:191.

[ back ] 23. Dover 1964:191–192.

[ back ] 24. Dover 1964:190.

[ back ] 25. Page 1964:144–146.

[ back ] 26. Page 1964:150, 154, 161.

[ back ] 27. Page 1964:161.

[ back ] 28. I have already cited the work of Forderer (1958), who criticizes this work of Zumbach (1955).

[ back ] 29. Page 1955a:30.

[ back ] 30. Page 1955a:8, 67 on Sappho F 1.10 ff; also p. 327 on Sappho and Alcaeus in general.

[ back ] 31. See especially Harvey 1957:215–218, 220–221 on the poetry from Lesbos.

[ back ] 32. Wilamowitz 1921:97–103.

[ back ] 33. For further refinement of the theory, I cite Jakobson 1952 and Watkins 1962b.

[ back ] 34. Agreeing with Meillet is Watkins 1962b:202n1.

[ back ] 35. Durante 1960:244–245 and 1962:34n36.

[ back ] 36. Relevant also are Jakobson (1952) and Watkins (1962b); see also Schmitt 1967:307–313.

[ back ] 37. See also the comments of Householder (1960:346–347).

[ back ] 38. On the concepts of “heavy” and “light” syllables, see now Probert 2003:2.

[ back ] 39. Allen 1966:123.

[ back ] 40. Allen 1987:134.

[ back ] 41. Meillet 1923:19 and Allen 1966:118.

[ back ] 42. Wilamowitz 1921:96.

[ back ] 43. Allen 1966:146.

[ back ] 44. Allen 1966:129–135.

[ back ] 45. Allen 1966:147.

[ back ] 46. Allen 1966:147.

[ back ] 47. Allen 1966:132–134.

[ back ] 48. Allen 1966:125.

[ back ] 49. Allen 1966:125.

[ back ] 50. Allen 1966:125–126.

[ back ] 51. Page 1951:103–104.

[ back ] 52. Other examples in Schwyzer 1939:108.

[ back ] 53. Bourguet 1927:75ff and Pernot 1934:13ff.

[ back ] 54. Bechtel 1923:302–303.

[ back ] 55. Risch 1954b:29.

[ back ] 56. Risch 1954b:35.

[ back ] 57. Risch 1954b:35.

[ back ] 58. This model of tripartition is a modified version of the one proposed by Risch 1954b:37.

[ back ] 59. On which see in general Part II of Meillet’s Aperçu (‘Les langues littéraires’): epic is covered in chapter 6 (pp. 157–186) and lyric in chapter 8 (pp. 195–215).

[ back ] 60. Meillet 1935/1965: Part II, chapters 9 and 10 (pp. 217–222 and 223–227 respectively).

[ back ] 61. Björck 1950.

[ back ] 62. For a survey of Ionic and Attic prose as Kunstsprache, see Meillet 1935/1965: Part II, chapter 11 (pp. 229–246).

[ back ] 63. Meillet 1935/1965:120.

[ back ] 64. Wilamowitz 1921:42.

[ back ] 65. Meillet 1935/1965:229.

[ back ] 66. Meillet 1935/1965:237.

[ back ] 67. Risch 1954a:181.

[ back ] 68. Meillet 1935/1965:140.

[ back ] 69. Meillet 1935/1965:119.

[ back ] 70. Meillet 1935/1965:143.

[ back ] 71. Meillet 1935/1965:86, 230.

[ back ] 72. Meillet 1935/1965: Part III, “Constitution d’une langue commune,” chapter 2, “Conditions historiques” (pp. 259–270).

[ back ] 73. Meillet 1935/1965:263–264.

[ back ] 74. Meillet 1935/1965:266. The highlighting is mine.

[ back ] 75. Meillet 1935/1965:254. Examples of inquiries into Κοινή that show a keen awareness of this factor are Palmer 1946 and Radermacher 1947. For a specific example showing how Κοινή pervades local dialects and reshapes them, see Wackernagel 1921/1953:510–511, on the use of ἐντί as both 3rd singular and 3rd plural in the language of Archimedes (and of Syracuse in general). One of the most useful diachronic syntheses of modern Demotic Greek, as derivative from Κοινή and therefore providing an important criterion for determining elements of the langue courante, remains that of Thumb 1910.

[ back ] 76. I follow here the terminology of Chantraine 1965:43.