Μετά χαράς: archaisms in spoken Greek, 1350

By: | Post date: 2009-04-16 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
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When I was researching the background to the Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds in 1999, I came across Charles Gidel’s 1864 Imitations faites en grec depuis le douzième siècle, de nos anciens poèmes de chevalerie, which was the first mention of the Quadrupeds in scholarly literature. Early Modern Greek studies officially kicked off in 1870, with Wilhelm Wagner and Émile Legrand’s simultaneous publication of editions of literary texts; Gidel is pretty early, and as the title gives away, not a terribly objective literary critic.

I kept reading to see what else Gidel knew about. Gidel mentioned that the poem Dittamondo by Fazio degli Uberti, started in 1346, has some bits of Greek in it, in an imaginary conversation with a peasant (2.23. 28-45). Pasting from the online edition:

E giunto a lui, de la bocca m’uscio 
“Jiá su” e fu greco il saluto, 
perché l’abito suo greco scoprio. 30 
Ed ello, come accorto e proveduto, 
Calós írtes allora mi rispose, 
allegro piú che non l’avea veduto. 
Cosí parlato insieme molte cose, 
ípeto: xéuris franchicá? Ed esso: 35 
Ime roméos e xéuro plus glose. 
E io: Paracaló se, fíle mu; apresso 
mílise franchicá ancor gli dissi. 
Metá charás, fu sua risposta adesso. 
Udito il suo parlar, cosí m’affissi, 40 
dicendo: “Questo è me’ ch’io non pensava”; 
e gli occhi miei dentro al suo volto fissi. 
Poi il dimandai lá dov’ello andava; 
rispuosemi: “Qui presso a una chora
dove il re Pirro anticamente stava”. 45 

This looks like the earliest attestation of γεια σου “health to you = hello”. For that reason, I passed the finding on to Nikos Sarantakos, who among his many linguistic interests was tracking down the history of common expressions in Greek. Ten years later, he’s blogged about it (in Greek).

Let’s get the quick observations out of the way before I talk about “Metá charás”:

  • From the metre, “Jiá su” is still three syllables, and not two: [ʝi.ˈa su]. On the other hand “roméos” is probably two syllables already, though the verse is garbled. (Sarantakos sees πολλούς in “plus”, and I don’t know what else it would be.)
  • “Paracaló se” has the old order of clitics after the verb. In modern times, there’s a mainland Greece–to–Anatolia gradient of clitic placement (which Dawkins had written up quite neatly back in the day). Of course, the peasant is supposed to be in Macedonia, which now would only have σι παρακαλώ; but we have no idea where degli Uberti picked up his Greek from, and the word order of clitics looks to have been pretty unstable at the time, judging from the literary texts.
  • The stress on “franchicá” is as it should be, on the ultima; many vernacular ethnic adjectives ended up accented on the antepenult, so the Modern language has φράγκικα (when it deigns to use the word at all). So τούρκικος/τουρκικός is now a colloquial/formal doublet. Φραγκικός is impossible in Modern Greek, because “Frankish” cannot have a formal form: the word’s ideology (“we are not Western Europeans”) is all wrong for that.
  • Ξεύρω is no longer εξεύρω, but is not yet ξέρω. Ξεύρω did survive in dialect; Smyrna, right?


“Jiá su”

Γειά σου “hello”.

“xéuris franchicá?”

Ξεύρειες φραγκικά; “Do you know Frankish?” (i.e. Western European, which includes Italian. The Greeks of Corsica actually distinguished Φρανǧία “Italy” from Φράντσα “France”.)

“Ime roméos e xéuro plus glose.”

Είμαι ρωμαίος (κ)αι ξεύρω π(ο)λλούς [sic: πολλές] γλώσσε(ς). “I am a Rhomaios [Greek], and know many languages.

“Paracaló se, fíle mu, mílise franchicá”

Παρακαλώ σε, φίλε μου, μίλησε φραγκικά “I pray you, my friend, speak Frankish.”

“Metá charás”

Μετά χαράς “With pleasure”


Χώρα “Country, town”

The intrigue here is μετά χαράς. The phrase is commonly used to this day; but it’s clearly not vernacular: it has the ancient form of “with”, and a preposition taking the genitive. The vernacular way of saying it was already με χαρά.

Now, Modern Greek is dotted with archaic phrases, lifted from the Church (Δόξα σοι ο Θεός “Glory to Thee, God” with a dative), or from Puristic (Εντάξει “In order = OK” with a dative, here a calque of German in Ordnung). The romantic perception of the history of diglossia was that cassocks and suits were the only sources contaminating the pure vernacular with antiquarian must; left to their own devices, the simple folk spoke a pure Demotic, that has never since been recaptured. The early literary texts don’t reflect that, but the literary texts are themselves written by people schooled in Ancient Greek.

The romantic perception is pretty widespread; the Concordance> of Makryiannis’ Memoirs (one of the few works held to have escaped the miasma of antiquarianism) was subtitled “How Greeks used to speak before Our Language was Raped by Puristic Greek”. But it is romantic: studies have pointed out that while Makriyannis’ syntax is very much vernacular (which is why he is so important stylistically), his morphology was influenced by Puristic, as would the morphology of any public figure in 1840 Athens. Diglossia has deep roots in Greece.

And what this fragment *may* suggest is that even in 1350, they were deeper than the romantic perception allows. We don’t know much at all about what Greek diglossia looked like in the Middle Ages. We know from people like Filelfo that the aristocracy of Mystras and Constantinople spoke a more “refined” language than the common herd, so some archaic forms were used orally as well as in writing; we don’t know how much. Sylvester Syropoulos’ diary of the Council of Florence, conversely, suggests that the emperor and the patriarch did not speak pure Ancient Greek; but we don’t know how much Ancient Greek he’s adding in, and how much he’s transcribing faithfully (particularly as it looks like he was reconstructing events later).

We know that the Byzantine scholars wrote in Ancient Greek, and some of their texts had to be translated (metaphrases), not into the vernacular, but at least into less recondite Koine. We know that archaic phrases from the Church would circulate (because they still do), but often enough they were not well understood; witness the fate of τα καλά και τα συμφέροντα in Modern Greek, liturgically a prayer for God to grant our souls what is good and appropriate spiritually, but now a castigation of self-interest. (There are better examples of misunderstandings than this, I just can’t think of them right now.)

Now, degli Uberti probably never met a Macedonian peasant; he probably learnt his Greek from some pedant or other (though it was a century before the Italian countryside was thick with them). But there is a good chance that μετά χαράς was already in as common usage as γειά σου, with neither cassock nor suit to blame for it. It could have just survived in spoken use, unparsed, as a formula. But the common folk were not insulated from the pedants; and I suspect this was not a recollection from 700 AD (or whenever the prepositional genitive died). Rather, I think this was a 1300 AD learnèd (or, more to the point aristocratic) formula, that percolated synchronically down to the common herd. The common herd may well have been the expression of the Romeic native genius in their everyday talk; but they were not above imitating their betters (especially in a politeness formula).

This has consequences for the analysis of how oral the Early Modern poems are. Early Modern Greek poems are pretty formulaic, like a lot of oral poetry is. But unlike oral poetry, the formulas are (a) pretty boring, and (b) often archaic. Which, given the romantic perception that the spoken language was very different from the written, suggests to people that the formulas were artificial, and the oral-like construction of the poems was fake: these poems were written by learnèd poets, and made to sound like ballads by using formulas; but those weren’t the real formulas that an untutored bard would use.

I think the conclusion is correct; it remedies the even more unrealistically romantic perception that the Early Modern poems are verbatim transcriptions of untutored bards. But not all ancient-looking clichés in Early Modern poems are fake formulas. They can quite well real clichés that the tutored—and even the untutored—used in real life. I used Dittamondo to argue this in our translation of the Quadrupeds (although I still thought then that this was an oral survival, and not an instance of diglossia):

One should be careful in applying this theory, however. Mohay (1974–75:178–9), for instance, concludes μετὰ χαρᾶς μεγάλης must be literary in origin since it uses the outdated genitive after “with” (though he allows that the form μετά itself could have survived as a variant of its Modern reflex με—particularly as traces of μετά are still to be found in Modern Greek dialect). But the fourteenth century Italian poet Fazio dgli Uberti uses the phrase μετὰ χαρᾶς “with pleasure” in an imaginary conversation with a peasant in Macedonia—the remainder of the onset of which is in impeccable Modern Greek (Dittamondo 3.23.49; degli Uberti 1952:249). This formula uses the genitive, and in fact survives to this day. There is good reason to believe that formulaic phrases of everyday conversation retain grammatical archaisms that have died out in productive use; and the verse formula μετὰ χαρᾶς μεγάλης could have been merely an elaboration of a surviving vernacular μετὰ χαρᾶς. So the formula would be archaic not being used by bards of old (whose existence is hard to pin down, anyway), but being used conversationally of old.


  • George says:

    A friend traveled to Turkey a few years ago in search of his Cappadocian roots. He had been told of a Turkish childhood friend of his grandfather, who had had a Greek tutor as a child (before the Exchange of Populations that is). That man was still alive at 96 when my friend visited, and in relatively good health; his mind was gone though, so from time to time he would turn to his Greek visitor and just say “den iksevro, den iksevro”…

  • George says:

    We shouldn’t be surprised about “meta charas” being colloquial: it is
    of rather low pedigree, of apparent Septuagint origin, frequenting
    Lives of Saints and shunning Byzantine historians (who tend to prefer
    “asmenws”); its only appearance in Ioannis Kantakouzinos, for example,
    occurs in a letter of the Sultan of Egypt 🙂

    Nick, weren’t you going to write something about “meta charas”
    generated by our work on the “Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds”? I seem
    to recall that you had a couple of rather interesting examples that
    didn’t make it into our book. (In the Tale there is one appearance of “meta charas” (704) and one of “asmenws” (805).)

    A similar expression, “meta bias”, appears to be of similar trajectory, but considerably less likely to have made it into medieval colloquial Greek: examples, anyone?

  • pne says:

    Isn’t the “ípeto” at the beginning of line 35 also Greek, something like “say” or “he said”?

  • opoudjis says:

    Να ‘σαι καλά. Εθισμός τελικά αυτό το ιστολογίκι, αλλά σου τρώει και ατέρμονες ώρες· γι’ αυτό και ο Ντόκτωρ Μώσε τα παράτησε τελευταία…

    Α, και σου ανταποδίδω τα συγχαρίκια! Εξάλλου τα του sarantakos.com ιστολογήματα ήτανε εξ αρχής, απλώς δεν είχαν τη δέουσα υποδομή…

    (Yup, codeswitching. May blog on that too one of these days…)

  • sarant says:

    Very interesting and very meaty, thank you!

    And congratulations for the new blog!

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