CHS 2020 Spring Fellows | Domenico Giuseppe Muscianisi

The Rhythm of Greek Oral Poetry: Prosody, Accentual Groups and Metrical Anomalies

What is a word? We generally consider a word what is separated by a blank space in writing, as a minimal element of speech. Our IT typesetting programs count words every time we hit the spacebar. However, ancient people did not have any concept of “word” according to a script criterion, they considered words according to how they pronounced them.

In fact, it is curious that in Proto-Indo-European all the different words for “word” are based or somehow connected to ‘tale’, ‘speech’ and ‘sound’, very far away from the minimal unit of language between two blank spaces.

Let us consider Greek logos: It means both ‘speech, story, tale’ and ‘word’. Or let us highlight Vedic and Sanskrit śabda-, whose meanings cover ‘sound, speech, language’, finally ‘word’ and even the sacred syllable om̆̇, as the utmost word. Its utterance is enough just for disclosing the whole Universe, according to one of the myths about the childhood of Kr̥ṣṇa.

This ancient ‘confusion’ between “word” and “speech” actually reveals the perception of words not in their grammatical sense, but as a phonetic chain depending on a strong accent. This accentual unit of more grammatical words is what modern scholars generally call the“prosodic word”: Fully accented words (orthotonics) matched with clitics, words without their own accent, creating new word boundaries in speech, as perceived by ancient people.

I aim to explore Greek oral poetry through the concept of the prosodic word from a linguistic and philological point of view, namely on the basis of the spelling of appositive groups in the early stages of the written language, and through the analysis of metrical anomalies, as clues of oral composition.

I will start from the analysis of the orthographic conventions of accentual groups in Linear B tablets, because these early documents regularly make use of word dividers, and in the archaic alphabetic Greek punctuating inscriptions, in order to describe the orthographic rules. This can testify to what the Greeks considered a prosodic word.

Finally, I intend to examine the possibilities to apply theoretical knowledge concerning prosody to early Greek poetry with a special focus on the Delphic Oracles, within the research framework of oral composition and cognitivism. Metre acquires primordial importance, because of verse constitution and structure in oral composition. Diction in verse responses from Delphi immediately catches the listener’s attention. Mostly hexameters sound imperfect and present metrical anomalies more frequently than hexametric poetry. Metrical anomalies of the Delphic Oracles reveal that their poetic text is an exemplary instance of oral impromptu composition.

Metre is a tool for the poet, who creates with rhythm and voice a kind of early stage of music. Accentual groups might be analysed in the extant original documents of Greek music, as the evidence from musical notation combined with that of metrics could help in uncovering underlying prosodic trends in the rhythmic speech of ancient oral poetic performance.

Domenico Giuseppe Muscianisi

Domenico Giuseppe Muscianisi grew up in Sicily and was struck early on with a passion for Antiquity since he was surrounded by the ancient Greek ruins which can be found throughout his native island. In fact, his town, Milazzo, is an eighth-century colony founded by the Euboeans. After earning a BA in Classics and Linguistics in Milan with a thesis on the prosodic word in Mycenaean Linear B inscriptions and being granted a MA in 2012 with a thesis on the metrical anomalies in the Delphic oracles, he travelled around Europe to further his studies. With a dissertation on the etymology of some hapax legomena divine epithets witnessed in the inscriptions of the Cyclades, he earned a joint PhD in Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (2017) at the University of Macerata and the University of Cologne. During his PhD he joined the Department of Humanities as an adjunct instructor of Linguistics and Ethnolinguistics at the IULM University in Milan. Furthermore, as a journalist and a ballet dancer, his academic interests range from anthropology and material culture to rhythm and music. These skills have enhanced his performative approach to Classics and ancient Greek civilization. At the Center for Hellenic Studies he explores orality and prosody in Greek poetry through language, epigraphy and meter.


Portrait image credits: Andrea Gallo

Image credits: Etruscan Olpe (500–476 BCE), from Cerveteri. Old singer with barbitos. Civico Museo Archeologico di Milano, n. inv. A 0.9.7201.