Greek diglossia and how it isn’t

By: | Post date: 2009-09-28 | Comments: 28 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
Tags: ,

The term “diglossia” was coined for Greece; in fact, it was coined popularised by Psichari, who was once of the principals in the Greek diglossia wars. But the very fact that there were diglossia wars in Greece means “diglossia” was no longer the right word to describe what was going on in Greece.

Diglossia is the situation where different spheres of social interaction in a community use forms of language which are not merely different registers, with some tweaking, but different linguistic systems completely. There is a High language form, used in writing, formal contexts, literature, education, officialdom, the media; and there is a Low language form, used in speaking, the home, the marketplace. If it’s written down at all, it’s as a transcription, or deviance: it’s not a norm, or something to emulate. Usually the two variants are linguistically related; but they’re not closely related enough to be merely different registers, as they are in English. They’re at least dialects apart.

That describes a lot of linguistic situations in the world. Classical Arabic vs. Colloquial Arabics. High German vs. Swiss German. Most creoles, with the colonial language at one end (the acrolect), and the creole at the other (the basilect). Because the high and low variants are usually linguistically related, there can be a spectrum of variation, rather than two well-defined extremes, and people can play with how high or low they are being.

But the thing about diglossia is, it is a stable arrangement, in which people know which form to use where; where using the wrong form is nonsensical, it’s ludicrous. There’s been a parallel in Greek for the past hundred years, but it hasn’t been Puristic vs. Demotic. It’s been Standard Greek vs. Cypriot. Giving a lecture in Cypriot, or a speech, or having a news article in Cypriot, is unthinkable, it’s nonsense (though the speaker might pop in a dialect word for colouring). But that does not mean Cypriots think their dialect is bad and not worth speaking, even if they occasional say it is. If you speak standard Greek to many a Cypriot, you may be excused as a Greece Greek, a “penpusher” (καλαμαράς, because none but a penpusher would speak standard Greek). If you’re not a penpusher by birth, then you’re a penpusher by affectation, and this engenders hostility. Not everywhere and and all times in Cyprus, but still often enough that the dialect is quite healthy.

Greece in the 20th century was not like that, and it’s hard for contemporary Greeks to appreciate that Greece in the 19th century *was* like that. In the 19th century, the High language was Puristic: it may have been incoherent, it may have been artificial, it may have been unworkable, but noone in 1860 Athens disputed that it was the appropriate language for literature, education, officialdom, or the media. Likewise, there was a Low language, which were the various dialects of the vernacular. It appears that a vernacular Koine was already coalescing around Peloponnesian (and under significant Puristic influence) in Athens, but it was neither stabilised yet, nor was anyone trying to stabilise it. In fact, Chatzidakis, who ran Greek linguistics for decades, was denying there was anything like a Demotic Koine several decades after there clearly was.

Something switched by 1920: by 1920, almost all serious literature was being written in the vernacular, educationalists were starting to advocate at least beginning schooling in the vernacular, there was an attempt to translate the Gospels into the vernacular (which met with riots by university students, and a few deaths), as well as Aeschylus (more riots, this time toppling a government, and closing the National Theatre for the next thirty years). Officialdom did not adopt the vernacular until 1976; and even then, the vernacular they adopted was not the vernacular the early advocates had hoped for. But even by the 1950s, Puristic was a frequent target of derision; and derision is not part of the deal with the High language form in a diglossia. The whole point of a diglossia is that the High variant is… High.

Nor is politicisation part of the deal with diglossia. By the 1950s, with the aftermath of the Greek Civil War, you could tell someone’s political orientation by how they declined nouns in -ις, -εως. (Some of you may have seen this in Browning’s Mediaeval and Modern Greek, and thought it was an exaggeration. It was not.) The 1980s still saw an echo of this, with the Socialists in government using folksy morphology in their just-as-wooden political language; and the Communists had long turned the vernacular meter up to eleven.

The Marxist historian Kordatos is the only instance I’ve seen in print of the future particle θαν, which could be transitional between θενα and θα. It could also be analogy with any number of particles with nu movable (/n/ as liaison), and that’s an analogy joined by ναν for να. As usual in such cases, it’s probably both.

So diglossia in the 20th century had degenerated into a conflict, the Greek Language Question, in which the primacy of Puristic was disputed along party lines. Situations where society is linguistically stratified are not always clean. Italy’s Language Question involves such subtle shading between dialect and standard, a linguist has decided to call it there dilalia, and Norway’s situation is more split on region than it is on ideology, and hardly at all on social register. But that just means 20th century Greece is a spectacularly bad example of diglossia, and it doesn’t tell you how diglossia is meant to work, like contemporary Egypt or Haiti does. Or Cyprus.

It also makes it difficult for contemporaries to picture the world before 1920—especially before 1875—when Greek diglossia was a lot closer to what is happening in Egypt and Cyprus now. It’s hard for us now to believe, as Peter Mackridge wrote in a paper once, that the Communists in the 1910s dismissed the advocacy of the vernacular (Demoticism) as a bourgeois distraction, while Head Demoticist Psichari was a royalist.

I think it was: Mackridge, P. 1990. Katharevousa (c.1800–1974): An Obituary for an Official Language. In Sarafis, M. & Martin, E. (eds), Background to Contemporary Greece. London: Merlin Press. 25–51.

It’s just as hard for us to believe that in the 1840s, Puristic was a tool of modernisation, and was a means to integrate Greece into Western Europe. Well, the Western Europe thing is easy to see; it’s the modernisation though millenium-old datives and infinitives that’s hard to get. It’s hard to believe that people portrayed the vernacular, not merely as uncouth, but as the language of Ottoman servility. Which is why Psichari, in his 1888 manifesto My Voyage (about his first field-trip to Greece) made a point of citing Sapphic Odes in Puristic in honour of Sultan Abdul Hamid. [Link to First Edition, before he whitewashed out all the Constantinopolitan dialect.]

Psichari would have you believe that the switch in the status of Greek diglossia, with conflict over the legitimacy of Puristic, was his doing; and the standard histories of Greek language and literature will tell you the same. Psichari—who after all coined the term “diglossia”—made an extremely influential critique of Puristic, it’s true, and his critique of the incoherence and arbitrariness of Puristic has stood the test of time (with the added benefit of being hilarious.)

Yet the undermining of Puristic did not start in 1888. What started undermining it was that the Ionian islands, which were British until 1864, never got on board with Puristic. As a result, Demotic literature from the Ionian islands enjoyed prestige—not least Solomos’, already revered as the national poet, though some critics did grumble at his folksiness. The first chip in the Athenian edifice of Puristic literature was when the the Academy of Athens allowed the Ionian Islander Valaoritis, in the 1870s, to recite his vernacular verses on Greek National Day.

The authors who wrote Demotic in the 1890s and 1900s grouped around Psichari and respected him—and they inevitably disappointed him, as their language compromised with Puristic in a way he never accepted. But they did not come out of nowhre, he did not conjure them into being himself.

Psichari was a better linguist than an author, and a better historical linguist than a sociolinguist. He approached Demotic with Neogrammarian rigour, proclaiming Ausnahmlosigkeit as “Language admits no compromises!”

OK, I’ll unpack that. Historical linguistics before 1880 couldn’t explain all the sound changes of Germanic, and went with a mellow, hippy, “shit happens” attitude to exceptions. In 1875, the last seemingly inexplicable sound change of Germanic was explained; and the Neogrammarians, the Young Grammarians (Junggramatiker) who followed proclaimed it as an article of faith that There Is No Such Thing As Exceptions (Ausnahmlosigkeit): if you can’t work out why a change has happened, you’re not looking hard enough.

Psichari being a man of his time, and not yet pathologically hating the Germans for killing his son in World War I, he embraced that belief in Ausnahmlosigkeit, and applied it to his Demotic activism. Historical Linguistics worked with normal, predictable language change. Compromise with Puristic would give rise to linguistically odd hybrids, which the Unlettered Folk were clearly having trouble coping with. So compromise was linguistic nonsense.

And if you have a sufficiently narrow view of language, it is nonsense. And “nonsense” is precisely how a typologist has to regard Standard Modern Greek, which has made precisely the kinds of compromise that Psichari dismissed. The phonology of Standard Modern Greek, with its influx of spelling pronunciations from Ancient Greek, is loony tunes: /anðrono/? /asθma/? /efθrafsto/?

The tug of war in -ις -εως between an archaic and a modern declension is similarly absurd, and has all the characteristics of committee design: first archaic singular and plural, then both archaic and modern singular but archaic plural, now modern singular and archaic plural. People laughed at Psichari for having a modern plural in πρότασες “sentences” instead of προτάσεις, switching the third declension to the first—like every other vestige of the third declension has done in the vernacular. But writers in the 17th century vernacular did the same, because they had noone to tell them to compromise with Puristic. And those who laugh forget that ράχες, the Standard Modern Greek for “backs”, also started life in the third declension.

So the plural of an Ancient -ις -εως in Standard Modern Greek is not dictated by the normal laws of language change. It is dictated by snobbery: the elite have “sentences”, the hoi polloi have “backs”. That’s absurd.

But it’s also part of how language rolls, because Psichari’s was much too narrow a view of how language works. Language is also a vehicle for social attitudes, and those social attitudes reflect back on the form of the language. In purely linguistic terms, if Ancient ῥάχεις could become vernacular ράχες, there’s no earthly reason why Ancient προτάσεις shouldn’t become vernacular πρότασες; and Psichari concluded as much at a time when people were advocating you should still say both ῥάχεις and προτάσεις. But for whatever reason, the burghers of Athens decided that was a bridge too far even in their Demotic: ράχες is fine, πρότασες is extremist. Because a real language, spoken in real social contexts, does admit compromise: Puristic could not just be wished away in a puff of smoke. (Just as, for that matter, there aren’t any pure languages, and the Neogrammarians’ contemporaries knew the family tree of languages was a distortion.)

And Puristic has worked its influence on a Modern Greek’s linguistic intuition so thoroughly, they can no longer see the absurdities Puristic has imposed on their language. Which makes me dispute Motorcycle Boy’s conclusion from a few posts ago: people *can* speak an artificial language, and not realise it. In some way, after all, any codified literary language is artificial.

The influence of Puristic is pervasive enough to illustrate in the following anecdote. To set the context: the Greek Army was an institution well placed to roll out Puristic to the populace: you had a captive audience, that you barked orders to, that they had to obey. It was the one place where you could convince people that the word for “fire” is not φωτιά “lightness” (or λαμπρόν “bright” in Cyprus, or στιά “hearth” in the Ionian islands), but the Ancient πῦρ.

Psichari of course had a field day with this: the sergeant could bark “fttpt” or “herring”, and the soldier will still shoot; that doesn’t mean you’ve rewired his brain to call “fire” anything but φωτιά (or λαμπρόν or στιά).

As it turns out, my brain has been rewired. Not quite in the way Psichari said, but close.

When King Otto arrived in Greece in 1833, an honour guard of veterans was set up to fire off a 21 gun salute. When the appointed time came, the designated officer walked up, and proudly shouted, in the only form of Greek worthy of the occasion:

OFFICER #1: … Ignis! [Πῦρ!]


OFFICER #1: … Ignis! [Πῦρ!]


OFFICER #1: … Ignis? [Πῦρ;]

VETERANS: … (Who the hell’s this Innis guy he keeps calling out for?) (Nay, nay, you see, he’s addressing his Majesty in his native Barvarian.)

OFFICER #2 (BILINGUAL IN ANCIENT AND MODERN GREEK): [from the crowd] … *FIRE*, damn your hides! [Φωτιά, πανάθεμά σας!]

VETERANS: … Oh! *bang bang bang* (See, told you! That’s Sgt Innis right there.)

When I read this, I thought to myself (in Greek): what does setting things on fire (φωτιά) have to do with shooting guns (πυρά)?

Then I translated both words into English.

Then I was sore amused.

There’s a simple metaphor in many a language between setting things on fire and shooting guns. Hence, gunfire, and fire!. Saying fire! in Ancient Greek at the barracks did not succeed in reviving the ancient Greek word for setting things on fire.

But it did succeed in destroying the metaphoric link: the Ancient Greek word for “fire” is the only word now used for “fire” in a military context—that is, gunfire. The Modern Greek word for “fire” is the only word now used for “fire” in any other context. And modern speakers do a double-take, to realise that gunfire has something to do with burning.

Not what people in 1833 had in mind…

Maronite Arabic in Cyprus

By: | Post date: 2009-09-24 | Comments: 6 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek, Other Languages
Tags: ,

Cyprus, though quirks of history, has been more sanguine about linguistic diversity than Greece has been. I remember my Cypriot father’s shrugged “yeah, there were some Armenians too, and a village of Maronites“, vs my Cretan mother’s astonished retelling of her first encounter with her sister’s new (Arvanite) in-laws: “And all of a sudden… they started speaking another language!”

I’d like to think (though I have no reason to) that this sanguine attitude is helped by how far the local variants in Cyprus have diverged from the metropoles, precisely because Cyprus is so far away. You’d be hard to put to say that the basilect of Cypriot Greek is mutually intelligible with Standard Greek. Cypriot Turkish (or as some would have it, Gibrizlija) has also travelled far from Standard Turkish, and there is apparent typological convergence between the two. The Classicists here will know that Cyprus was a late holdout for the pre-Hellenic Eteocypriot, and for the most archaic dialect of Greek around after that.

H/t Language Hat, for his note of Bulbul Lameem Souag @ Jabal al-Lughat’s posting on the Maronite Arabic spoken in Cyprus (see also Wikipedia). With a link to a teacher’s site to help preserve the language (with a level of Government support that, through reasons of quirks of history, is unthinkable in Greece.)

The cute thing about the posting is the remark by Bulbul that (not unlike Greek and, I suspect, Turkish) this Cypriot variant is the most deviant form of Arabic he has ever heard:

My scale (1-10, lowest to highest intelligibility): if Levantine Arabic is 10 and Moroccan Arabic is 8, Chadic is 6, Nigerian is 5. Cypriot Arabic is 2. It’s pretty difficult to even read, perhaps on par with the basilect of some English-based creoles.

He goes on to note that “Consequently, Borg postulates a sort-of Syrian-Anatolian koine as the direct ancestor of CMA. … Contrary to popular opinion, CMA doesn’t really show any particular affinity with Lebanese dialects of Arabic, but shows evidence of Aramaic adstratum or even substratum.”

I’m afraid I can’t say much intelligent about this, but I pass it on. There must be something in the water in that island…

Kozani: a stab at etymology

By: | Post date: 2009-09-22 | Comments: 18 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
Tags: , ,

Language Hat asks in comments to the previous post about the Wikipedia etymologies of Kozani:

According to prevailing opinion, the name comes from the village of Epirus Kósdiani, the origin of settlers of Kozani in 1392. The settlement was first named Kózdiani, which then, it was changed into Kóziani, and in the end into Kozáni.[2]

The name “Kozani” probably may also derive from the South Slavic kožani < koža ‘skin (goatskin)’.[3] The name of the city in South Slavic languages is Кожани (Kožani).

Am I wrong in thinking the Slavic etymology makes much more sense than the first one, with its strained reshapings? (We won’t even get into what “probably may also” is supposed to mean.)

As often happens in Wikipedia, it’s two opinions barely reconciled together on the same page. Now, Googling is no surrogate for actually knowing Slavonic (or Albanian), but let’s see how I can help. (Damn you, Language Hat, I was supposed to be doing my taxes!)

The “Hellenic” etymology is sourced from the website of the city of Kozani, which as you’d expect wouldn’t be eager to point to the parallel with that language. (Kozani prefecture turns out to be the furthest spread south of Slavonic in Modern times, with Greek and Slavonic villages mixed.)

[Non-Greeks will notice that I speak vaguely of Slavonic, when we all know *which* Slavonic language I’m talking about. But I’m not feeling like getting into needless argy-bargy with those of my readers who don’t want to call it “Macedonian”; and since I’m talking about 1400 and not 1950, I may just get away with it…]

The thing is, Kozdiani may not look like Кожани, but it doesn’t look particularly Hellenic either. Is there any way Kozdiani could originate from the same Slavonic form as Kožani? Although given it’s Epirus (Northern Epirus, as it turns out), and given the names of the other villages cited below, Albanian is more promising as an etymology.

This is what the Kozani city website has to say:

In 1392 colonists from Premeti, Bithikukio, and Kozdiani of Epirus {Përmet and Vithkuq, Albania}, fled chased away by Muslim Albanians to the region north of Selitsa {Selitsa, now Eratyra, Greece}, which is to this day called Old Kozdiani, and subsequently migrated eastwards, encountering the Christian settlement of Kalyvia. {The quite Hellenically named “Huts”; I’ve found one near Konitsa, on the Greek side of the border.}

The inhabitants of Kalyvia did not reject them, but they obliged them to build their houses further east. The new inhabitants called the region Tzamouria {i.e. Çamëria), preserving the name of their old region.

Nowadays the region is called Tzambra. {[dzamurˈja] > [dzamˈrja] by high unstressed vowel deletion > [dzamˈbra] > [ˈdzambra]}. They called the rocky hill over Tzambra Skrika or Skirka (Sk’rka), which means a rocky elevation.

Though there are different opinions of where the city name came from, the dominant opinion is that these colonists from Epirus called the new settlement Kósdiani, which then became Kóziani, and later scholars [i.e. in Puristic Greek] transformed it to Kozáni.

A few years later families from Servia {town in Greece} and Drepano move to Kosdiani, augmenting it.

From another site: “People speculate that the name Kozani is due to either the place of origin of its first inhabitants, Kosdiani or Kostiani in Epirus, or their main occupation of tanning: “coza” in Epirot means goatskin.” Tellingly, coza is given in Latin script, which you’d be unlikely to do if “Epirot” here meant “the Greek dialect of Epirus”.

The account derives from a 1924 history of Kozani, cited at this blog:

The name of the folklore group (Kóziani), stressed on the antepenult, shows a hardy genuineness, like the hulls of Sk’rka (Slavic: rocky protuberance; Albanian: hill). And given the opportunity: the definitive interpretation of the name of the city is stilll under research. I’m opening up the History of Kozani by P. Lioufis, Athens 1924.

  • The first inhabitants of the region one day saw … a she-goat running through the trees, and called the village Kózani or Kóziani; for kóza means a she-goat, and kózia a skin in “Bulgarian”.
  • Above the town of Selitsa (Eratyra) there is a region in its mountains called Kóziani, or rather Old Kóziani, where those pursued from Northern Epirus first settled, from the villages there of Kosdiani and Bithikukion. (The latter exists to this day.) Then they came to the region of Paliospita where the Kasmirtzidis Society have their establishment, as do many other settlers in the area, genuine or not.
  • The Turks called the town Kózana, from Koz (“walnut”, or Kákhta in pure Kozani dialect) and Ana “mother”, for the multitude of walnuts there.

And here’s a map of Përmet, Vithkuq, Kalyvia, Selitsa (now Eratyra, near Askion), Kozani, and Servia:

View Kozani in a larger map
At least one site says that the original Kozdiani was destroyed, which is consistent with Lioufis’ wording

So what do we make of all this?

  • The Turkish is a folk etymology, and nothing wrong with that.
  • Kozáni may be named for Kózdiani, but it’s quite possible that both are named for the Slavonic for “goat”; Lioufis certainly assumed so.
  • Kózdiani is in Northern Epirus, i.e. modern Southern Albania; Albanian and Slavonic are both possibilities for etymology, and Albanian and Slavonic would both have been trading words anyway (as appears to be the case with “Sk’rka”)
  • Tzamouria i.e. Çamëria is the name of Southern Albania, although we don’t know from this whether we actually have a record of the area around Kozani being called that at the time—which would confirm migration from Southern Albania—or whether this was Lioufis’ etymology of modern Tzambra. All of the Tzamouriá > Tzámbra etymology is plausible, except for the stress shift.
  • I’d like to know more about Lioufis’s sources, because the Greek Wikipedia article then adds that the first written reference to Kozani is in a firman of 1528.
  • I think 1392 is a little early for religious conflict in the Western Balkans—the reference is to τουρκαλβανοί, Muslim Albanians not τούρκοι. But I could be wrong. *shrug*
  • “The inhabitants to Kalyvia did not reject them, but” they kicked them out anyway.
  • I’m not at all convinced that the stress shift of Kóziani to Kozáni is a learnèd thing. Sure Kóziani violates ancient accentutation (because Κόζιανη looks like being stressed four syllables from the end—until you realise it’s [], but Ancient Greek did not have ι as [j]). But I’d have expected a learned form to go with Kozíanon, rather than preserve the feminine gender. And as Don Hat correctly noted, phonologically the shift from Kósdiani to Kozáni does seem a little forced.
  • So the derivation of Kozáni from Kósdiani has problems. But as it turns out, both Kozáni and Kósdiani seem to have a Slavonic origin anyway, so it’s a distinction that doesn’t matter.

So, that’s what googling tells me. If anyone actually knows any Albanian, Macedonian [there, I said it], or Greek dialect and can contribute, you’ll be doing the world a favour. Particularly if they can explain the accentuation of Kozáni.

Linguashmucks: Motorcycle Boy 1, Purity of Greek 0

By: | Post date: 2009-09-22 | Comments: 14 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
Tags: , ,

Enough teasing: at last, here is the translation of Motorcycle Boy’s post “Linguashmucks” (Οι Γλωσσοκόπανοι).

To lead in: my friend Diana, of the blog Surprised By Time (bringing the Mediaeval Peloponnese to life) forwarded me a link, and suggested I blog about it. The link was to an article in the Athens press (here in its Englished version), on a research project about high school students’ use of SMS spellings in their written work. It’s a phenomenon happening throughout the Western World, as the mode of literacy is changing. No shortage of instances in English: here’s a random instance from Zambia. And throughout the world, people make their woebegone conclusions about how it signals the End of Western Civilisation.

But in Greece, mobile phones were late to take up Greek characters; and SMS and Chat are still often the domain of ad hoc transliteration of Greek into ASCII, Greeklish—which had previously flourished in the 1990s, as Greek script was hard to get online at all. So SMS Greek intruding into schoolchildren’s assignments is even more ideologically loaded in Greece than elsewhere. And the attendant rhetoric on the End of Western Civilisation is even more unbalanced.

The Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ blog had noticed the rhetoric too; and derided it in a post called Τα γκρίκλις φταίνε (και) για την Άλωση!: “Greeklish is to blame for the Fall of Constantinople, too!” (The link is the Byzantine manuscript use of abbreviations, not a million miles away from SMS.) In the ever-informative discussion threads that Team Fortier manage there, someone linked to a discussion board where one of the original researchers had posted. And who’da thunk it: the researchers did not say the things the Athens press said they did. Journalists distorting scholarly research: you heard it here first, folks.

Because Nikos Sarantakos had covered the topic, and because SMS spelling panic is a commonplace thing in the world, I begged off posting. But in far-off Ulaan Bataar, a motorcyclist also noticed the rhetoric around the research project…

… so a week later, Nikos put a miscellanea posting up, including this:

Χάρηκα επίσης το άρθρο “Γλωσσοκόπανοι” στο ιστολόγιο Λευκός Θόρυβος και, γιατί να το κρύψω, το ζήλεψα λιγάκι.
I also enjoyed the posting “Linguashmucks” at the blog White Noise; and why hide it, I was somewhat envious of it.

Me too. Enough that I thought I should share in English. The posting is hilarious, and apposite in its righteous fury.

I’m inclined to quibble with some of its points, and I hope we can have a discussion through it here; but I don’t want to detract from any of its awesomeness. Except for the dig at Esperanto, but that’s something that’s worth talking through too: Esperanto is not dead, but how does it live?

And the answer is not denaskismo, the notion that Esperanto is only a real language if it has native speakers. That’s offensive to the overwhelming majority of Esperantists who aren’t; in fact, the link randomly googled above is the first instance I’ve found of a native speaker of Esperanto who’s stuck around—most of them (George Soros is only the most famous) want nothing to do with Esperanto.

And we could also bring up, as imposed dead languages “from above”, Classical Arabic and Hebrew; but it’s not clear how imposed they are, and how dead they are. The more interesting thing to consider, I think, is, could Puristic Greek have ever succeeded in displacing Demotic completely, or in maintaining its diglossia like Classical Arabic has—and if not, what was its fatal flaw? I have my suspicions, but I think they can wait for a future post. For now, I defer to the gentleman on the bike from Mongolia…

[I’ll try not to annotate, but the reference to “Kostopoulos’ publications” are contemporary “lifestyle” magazines (starting with recently revived Klik), who wear their fashionableness on their sleeve by frequent codeswitching to English. The Fat Man is the current prime minister.]

I was reading this someplace the other day: there was a survey done, apparently, by the Department for Kindergarten Teachers of the University of Western Macedonia, on High School students in Kozani. It showed that many of them write in Greeklish even in their school assignments. Comments on the results followed closely by various concerned citizens, worried about the extinction of Greek spelling and the consequences for the Greek language. I had a good laugh; that happens to me every time the results of some research undergo analysis by the clueless.

Now, if you don’t get the joke, pull up a seat, and let me remind you of a thing or two about the Immortal Greek Tongue. Who knows, we might have a laugh together.

So, we here in this country of stones have been cursed, to have had some utter loafers live here before us. These loafers didn’t know what else to do with their time, so they sat around and came up with philosophies. And any number of related sciences, too. As if it wasn’t bad enough that they came up with those philosophies, the bastards went and left behind some written texts—just so they could torment their descendants with them. These written texts were later taken up by Civilised Humanity, to their great admiration. (Insert exclamation point here.) Of course, Civilised Humanity then burnt most of those texts, in case they fell into the hands of unsuspecting serfs and gave them any curious notions. The ancient texts that weren’t burned were copied by pious monks, with the appropriate level of care to ensure there were no deviations from Christian morality. (And if there were any, then so much the worse for the deviations.) This bunch of stuff more or less passed on to Modern Greece as “Ancient Greek Literature”. And they turned our brains to chicken wire with it in High School, because it was compulsory to teach it to us from the original. (Original my ass.)

At any rate, There’s two things you should keep from this story:

  1. The pathological relationship of Greek citizens with the Ancient texts: texts they flipped off in school, and flip out on in middle age.
  2. The hysterical idealisation of the Ancient Greek language, because many of its words are used in modern Western science.

As the years went by, the Ancients died: wise they may have been, but they were not immortal. Then some Roman overlords came over to this country of stones, and the locals rushed to suck up to them. So much so, they even declared the Romans to be Continuators of Hellenic Antiquity, and they worship the Two-Headed Eagle to his day, considering it to be “Greek heritage”! Don’t talk to me about the European Union and all that crap: the Greeks had already worked that all out from the time of the Byzantine Empire! Lord have mercy, that’s how far ahead we were as a people!

As you know, then came the Turks, who we civilised as we do, even though we were their subjects. We would have accepted them too as Continuators of Ancient Greece (like we did the Byzantines), if the Europeans hadn’t poked their noses in, and set us straight. (Acting out of pure altruism, and motivated by their admiration for Ancient Greece. Of course.)

In a word, the spoken language of Greek territory has been through a myriad changes, like any living language in the world has. And when the Greek State was established, it ended up looking like a mutant puppy with two heads. Why so? Because, presumably in an attempt to efface the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Greek citizenry of the time, some people decided that “we don’t give a shit what you speak among yourselves, but the language of the country shall be ONE, and DIFFERENT.” A language also known as Puristic. In which some foreign-trained intellectuals (also known as “scissor-arses”) created a language which had NOT PREVIOUSLY EXISTED. And they imposed it. In school, in church, in public discourse and the public domain, as a language to impress on people and to oppress them with. Something even worse than Papa Stalin: he might have forbidden local languages, but at least he was replacing them with a LIVING language.

We know that dead languages are maintained exclusively in museum exhibits, and we know that languages created “from above” have never been alive (see the failed experiment of Esperanto). That’s why Puristic disappeared, leaving behind it some pensioner teachers, some uneducated politicians who keep using phrases like εις την παράταξή μας “in our side of politics” (the correct grammar is εις την παράταξίν μας), and some journalists with a bogus sense of decorum, admiring themselves for saying κατά παρέκκλιση “as a deviation”. You know what I’m talking about.

But it remains true that Modern Greece has never acquired a uniform language. Nor did it get uniform spelling, syntax, or anything of the sort. We transitioned from “wooden” Puristic to “Demotic Enhanced”, then we ended up with “Plain Demotic”, but we’re still trying to work out if you spell “train” as τρένο or τραίνο.

And while:

  • Greek teachers presume to do a linguist’s job, imposing arbitrary grammatical rules;
  • authors write however the mood takes them, either using local dialect, or following the vernacular of their suburb, or even inventing a language of their own;
  • the State communicates in a farrago of Demoticising Puristic;
  • the Church stays faithful to Old School Puristic—

the citizens of the country speak their own language. Which makes sense, right?

Language (any language) is, first and foremost, an instrument used to achieve communication (so the sender of a message understands the same thing as its receiver). At the next level, language is a semotic object of study, and its analysis a scientific undertaking. Why do we use the second person plural when we’re trying to be polite? Why do we use the word εξουσία [lit. “being out, being allowed”] where English power, or αυθεντία [lit. “being-in-oneself”] to describe what others call authority? And many other interesting questions like that, ranging from the classification of the vowels in a word, to accentuation, intonation, and so on.

Now, set aside the scientific side of the issue, and let’s look at the practical side. The practical side tells us that people choose to use the most descriptive, and lexically most economical utterance, to make themselves understood in daily life. When daily life is transfigured into artistic creation, what is lexically most economical is displaced by what is poetically apposite. So the two following cases are equally possible:

Case A:

Jimbo: Chief, gi’s a number eight, would ya?
Chief: Yer arms fallen awf, ‘ave they?
Jimbo: Aw, carn boss, I’m arse-deep in the chassis here!

Case B:

Jim, the wastrel, emerged from beneath the disentrailed car soaking with sweat.
“Could you give me a French key number eight?” he begged the workshop boss.
The Boss scratched himself languidly, turned another page in the sports section, and did not even deign to look at his tortured employee.
“You can good and fetch it yourself: I’m not your servant!” he spat.
Jim, the wastrel, sighed, feeling the full weight of the car pressing on him. It would be no use to remind the Boss of the awkwardness of his position: no Boss has ever understood the awkward position of their employee. He choked back his sobs and started to extricate himself from the car.

You can see from the foregoing the linguistic richness of an artistic work (or the linguistic onanism of the author, according to their talent), in contrast with the plain usage of language (strictly utilitarian usage, to put it like Soti Triantaphyllou), when it is used for primal communication.

But the trick is, that primal communication is what evolves language. The need for quick communication, as precise as is feasible, creates new words, expressions, and so on. And to achieve that, it grabs whatever it can find. I repeat: a living language grabs whatever it can find.

The first “percussive drill for home use” is imported into the country. People choose to call it /blakendeker/, because of its brand name. They do the same with “vehicles with a four-wheeled drive”, calling them /dzip/.

The first “personal electronic computer” comes in, and people decide to substitute that mile-long phrase with the initialism established in English, /pisi/. They do the same with /dividi/.

On other occasions, people hellenise French words, creatine /kuzina/, or they transform English infinitives, creating words like /parkaro/, /kularo/, etc.

That’s what people do. Throughout the world, at all times. They reconfigure, they deconstruct, they transform language at their convenience. FOR their convenience.

And that’s what the kids in the survey are doing, making an asset of the absence of Greek characters on their mobile phones and in their /tsat rum/ (or should I say “chambers of internet communication”?) They are creating new circumstances for communication: it’s as simple as that.

Does that put Greek teachers out? Well we never liked Greek teachers.

Does that annoy Hellenomaniacs? Well we never had much time for necrophiliacs.

Does that infuriate intellectuals? Well we never saw them eager to get off the throne of their language fetish.

Because museum rooms may be beautiful but they are not liveable, especially for living organisms—like language.

Two notes in closing.

1. The meaning of the direction the language is taking, which I’ve already noted, is yet to be analysed. But not by me: I’m simply observing the “new” language, though I am not taking any part in its formation.

2. The use of foreign words or expressions in our vernacular (as I’ve described it) is different from the La-de-da pretentious wannabe elitism, which has clustered around the publications of the neurotic jumped-up peasant Kostopoulos, and dictates that Greek words should be replaced with their English equivalents. (There was a similar phenomenon in the ’50s and ’60s with French words.) I can accept (if grudgingly) the dominance of English-language culture, which dictates that “I worship thee!” gets replaced with /respek/, and “we’ll talk” with /sii ja/. But I feel nauseous at crap like what I heard the other day, during The Fat Man’s interview at the Thessalonica International Fair: the Prime Minister is looking around to find the journalist, Tony Boy tells him “on your right side, Sir”, and the idiot journalist takes it upon himself to enlighten The Fat Man in turn, with the startling sentence: “over here, Sir, on the right /korner/.” I don’t feel nauseous because I’m obsessed with the Greek language, but because I loathe puffballs who picture themselves as Mr Halifax, Lord Intendant of Buckingham.

Here endeth the lesson.

A mutant optative in Galen

By: | Post date: 2009-09-21 | Comments: 19 Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics
Tags: ,

I feel guilty, on occasion, that I blog about soft linguistics here—language and identity, spelling conventions, linguistic geography—at the expense of hard linguistics: phonology, morphology, even *shudder* syntax. It’s easy to post about diglossia, because it’s fun social stuff that everyone has an opinion about; it’s much harder to get worked up about optatives.

Because I’m about to have a lot of fun with Motorcycle Boy’s nickel summary of Greek diglossia, I’m going to post now on a mutant optative (or subjunctive) in Galen. It’s my serving of brussels sprouts, as it were.

Those of you that were following The Other Blog three years ago (I know, I know) would have caught sight of my posting there on φαῖο: I unearthed an athematic middle optative of φημί in the new edition of Moschus. Because the grammars documented the old edition of Moschus, and because my command of anything athematic or optative is shaky, I spent an hour trying to work out what it was.

… OK, for the non-classicists among you, once again, slowly. Verbs in Greek are formed by attaching endings to a stem. Normally, a vowel comes between the stem and the ending; it’s called a thematic vowel, and is either /o/ or /e/, depending on the person. There is an archaic class of verbs which has no thematic vowels, so they’re called athematic. As is usual with irregular verbs, these are high frequency verbs—φημί “say”, ἵστημι “stand”, τίθημι “put”, δίδωμι “give”; so people had learned them by rote, and they stuck around when other verbs got their added vowels.

We’re going to look at subjunctives and optatives, and there’s two further things to know about those moods. The subjunctive thematic vowels are long, /ɔː/ and /ɛː/, and *all* subjunctives are thematic, whatever their indicatives are. Which is just as well, because that way the subjunctives and indicatives are still distinguishable. So




lú-o-mai “I am loosened”

lú-ɔː-mai “I may be loosened”


títʰe-mai “I am put”

*titʰé-ɔː-mai > tithʰɔ̂ː-mai “I may be placed”

If the subjunctive didn’t get a thematic vowel, the subjunctive of títʰe-mai would still be títʰe-mai.

The second thing to know is that, over and above any thematic vowels (or the absence of them), the optative mood gets an extra /i/ or /iɛː/ added in. And while the present subjunctive uses the same endings as the present indicative (the “primary” inflections), the present optative uses the “secondary” inflections, which are in common with the imperfect. So the present imperfect of “loosen” is e-lu-ó-mɛːn, with a thematic /o/, and the optative present is lu-o-í-mɛːn, with both a thematic /o/ and an optative /i/.

Oh, and a third thing: proto-Greek /s/ between vowels did not stick around for long, and nor did most instances of two vowels next to each other.

To illustrate all this, this is how the middle voice (and passive voice) subjunctive and optative present are formed, with a thematic verb, and an athematic verb.




































































There’s one more annoyance, which is that athematic optatives from the 3rd sg down also turn up thematic: titʰeîto but also titʰoîto, titʰeímetʰa but also titʰeímetʰa. But we’ll ignore that, mercifully.

Now, if we put the athematic φημί into the same machine and crank the handle, we get:



































And pʰaîo up there—φαῖο—was the form I failed to recognised in Moschus.

The thing about φημί is, Greek dialect used φημί in the middle voice, but Attic only used it in the active. So you have few instances of φημί in the middle: a fair few perfect participles (including one in Plato), a few middle aorists, and Homer has an middle imperative φάο and φάσθω and a middle infinitive φάσθαι. But we have no known instances of the middle present subjunctive of φημί; and until the new edition of Moschus, we had none recorded for the middle present optative ether. So out of that whole table I just gave, only the boldfaced form has ever turned up in literature.

(Grammarians knew how the rules worked, so they did make up pʰɔ̂ːmai: Heraclides of Miletus (Milesius) fr. 54 Cohn, Theodosius of Alexandria Canones isagogici de flexione verborum p. 97 Hilgard—although the latter intended it as an aorist. I have no evidence they made up an optative to match.)

We fast forward a few centuries to Galen. Galen is a medical writer who has a *lot* of text attributed to him. Partly because he was that prolific: “It has been reported that Galen employed 20 scribes to write down his words “, Wikipedia notes, to which a Wikipedia editor has inevitably added “Citation needed“. Partly because his stuff was useful, so copyists kept it around. Partly because he was a default medical author, for others’ writings to be attributed to.

Galen’s prose is supposed to be a workmanlike Koine, nothing too fancy. (The German word for it is Fachprosa, “specialist prose”—meaning scientific, as opposed to literary.) That said, he occasionally wanted to liven things up. And his misstep on one occasion that he did, gives us our second attested instance of a mediopassive optative of φημί.

Our instance comes from Galen’s commentary to Hippocrates’ Treatise on Joints. The Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de médicine, Paris V, have magnificently put online the old editions of Galen. Of course people have been reediting individual works of Galen since the 1820s Kühn edition, and must be furious people still refer back to what is a pretty crappy edition, even by 1820s standards. But I’ll refer to it anyway, given that it’s also the edition the TLG has, and it’s where I found this optative.

You can view the passage as published by Kühn; here it is again, with my rendering:

Ἀγαθοὺς πυροὺς τοὺς ἀρίστους δηλονότι λέγει. ταύτην γὰρ οἱ παλαιοὶ τὴν προσηγορίαν ἐπιφέρειν εἰθισμένοι κατὰ παντὸς τοῦ πρώτου ὄντος ἐν τῷ οἰκείῳ γένει. λέγουσι δὲ καὶ νῦν ἅπαντες οἱ περὶ τὴν σιτοποιίαν ἀρίστους εἶναι πυροὺς τοὺς πυκνοὺς τὴν οὐσίαν. οἱ γὰρ χαῦνοι πολὺ τὸ πιτυρῶδες ἔχουσι καὶ τὸ σταῖς αὐτῶν οὐ γίγνεται γλίσχρον, ὡς καὶ μυῶν. ὅλκιμον δὲ ὠνόμασε τὸ γλίσχρον ἀπὸ τοῦ συμβεβηκότος, ἐπειδὴ τεινόντων ἡμῶν αὐτὸ πρὸς τἀναντία μέρη, συνεχὲς μὲν οὐ διασπώμενον τοῦ μὴ γλίσχρου φθάνοντος διασπᾶσθαι κατὰ τὰς τοιαύτας ἐνεργείας. εἰ δὲ διασπᾶται, πῶς ἄν τις ἕπεσθαι φαίηται τεινούσαις χερσὶ αὐτό; εἰ δ᾽ οὐχ ἕπεται, πῶς ἂν ὅλκιμον ἔτι λεχθείη;
By “good wheat”, Hippocrates obviously means the best quality. The old-timers used to apply that description to anything which was the first of its kind. And nowadays everyone dealing with bread-making call “best quality” wheat whose substance is dense. Spongy wheat is very crusty, and its dough does not become sticky, like rats’ [?!] dough does. And Hippocrates calls sticky dough “ductile”, because of what happens when we pull it in opposite directions: it is continuous and does not break apart, while dough that is not sticky ends up breaking apart under that action. If it does break apart, how could one say that it follows along, when their hands stretch it? And if it does not follow along, then how could it still be said to be ductile?

As often happens with ancient commentaries, there is a fair ladling of the bleeding obvious in there. But what detains us is the verbs for “say” Galen uses at the end. The final λεχθείη is an aorist passive optative: “it would be said”, here meaning “it would be called”. Galen wants to use a different verb from λέγω in the preceding sentence, so he uses φημί, that old irregular verb, which by then would have been fast dying out.

For some reason, Galen wants to use a middle or passive optative, not an active. It’s hard to tell which of the two he intends, although that does not affect the form he uses, since passives and middles usually coincide (outside the aorist and future). If he’s going for the passive, which he does in the next sentence, then he means “how could it be said that it follows along, with hands pullng”—and with a nominative “someone” (τις) stuck mid-sentence doing nothing. If he’s going for the middle, the “someone” finds employment again: “how could someone say that it follows along, with hands pulling”; but then Galen has revived a quite antick middle of φημί.

Whatever he’s done, he cannot use an aorist for the optative: there has never been an aorist passive of φημί (outside the fertile imagination of grammarians: Theodosius of Alexandria loc.cit. p. 88 ἐφάθην, Etymologicum Magnum p. 496 Kallierges ἐφάθην ἐφάθημεν ἐφάθησαν), and the aorist middle is Homeric territory, and not the style he’s going for. So he has to use a present optative.

We know from the table above that the verb he should use is pʰaîto, φαῖτο. But that’s not what Galen comes up with. Instead, Galen does this:

  • Optative passive of φημί. OK, the optative active is pʰaíɛːn, pʰaíɛːs, pʰaíɛː
  • [Correct: pʰa-iɛː-n, pʰa-iɛː-n, pʰa-iɛː-Ø]
  • So my stem is phai-, to which I add…
  • um… how does the optative passive go?
  • ɛːtai?

So Galen starts with an optative, and ends with the subjunctive suffix. Instead of optative pʰaîto or subjunctive pʰɛ̂ːtai, he has ended up with a mooshed-up pʰaíɛːtai.

Why? Well, several things:

  • He’s in uncharted grammatical waters: remember, outside that one instance in Moschus, noone has ever seen a middle optative of φημί, and the copyists of Moschus didn’t believe it either—which is why the 19th century grammarians didn’t notice it.
  • When people are in uncharted grammatical waters, they lurch for familiar forms. And already the subjunctive was more familiar than the optative.
  • The active optative, which Galen knew well enough, has an extra /ɛː/ in it for its optative marker: pʰa-iɛː, not pʰa-i. So being in unchartered waters, he probably thought the passive should have an /ɛː/ in its suffix as well. After all, a native speaker would not know about the proto-Greek games with active optative /iɛː/ vs. middle optative /i/: they’d just know that there’s an optative ending -iɛː to imitate.
  • And the correct pʰaîto doesn’t give him an /ɛː/, but the subjunctive ending -ɛːtai does.
  • So the passive counterpart of -ɛː, um, must be -ɛːtai. Which is of course nonsense, because -tai is never optative, it’s only subjunctive: if he really wanted to keep his eta, he should have used -ɛːto, and come up with pʰaíɛːto.
  • But Galen was not reconstructing the optative morpheme by morpheme from proto-Greek, like we are doing here. He’s lurching about using familiar suffixes. He *can’t* take titʰe-ɛː-tai and titʰe-i-to apart, and realise that the /i/ belongs there but the /tai/ doesn’t. He just knows about morphemes as fusional blocks, ɛːtai and oito, and he sort of knows that pʰai is an optative stem.
  • And he comes up with what Motorcycle Boy, were he a pedantic grammarian, might call “a mutant puppy with two heads”.

Thanks to errors in Google Books OCR, btw, φαίηται shows up a lot more online than it’s supposed to, as a misrecognition of φαίνεται “it appears”. It also turns up in a second online copy of Galen, whose provenance I will not vouch for…

Lascaris Cananus: Updated

By: | Post date: 2009-09-18 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
Tags: , , ,

Well, I now have both the Lundström and the Blomqvist editions of Lascaris Cananus next to me, so I can update my preceding post on him.

Thanks to your intrepid correspondent, the 1902 edition, Lundström, Vilhelm (ed.) 1902. Laskaris Kananos. Reseanteckningar från de nordiska länderna. Upsala; Leipzig: Lundequist (Smärre Byzantinska skrifter; 1)—is now online at

The 2002 edition—Jerker Blomqvist 2002. The Geography of the Baltic in Greek Eyes. In Amdem, Bettina et al. (eds), Noctes Atticae: 34 articles on Graeco-Roman antiquity and its Nachleben. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum. 36-51—is on Google Books, which skips a couple of pages:

The text appears in a scrapbook kept by Gemistos Plethon on the geography of the north. The early Scandinavian scholars took Kananos at face value, flattered that a Greek bothered to talk about their countries, and pardoned his occasional exaggerations—no, the day in Bergen is not a month long, Bergen ain’t Finmark; and yes, they had money in Bergen by 1439.

A hundred years on, people are more sceptical; or at least, Blomqvist is. He finds that Cananus manages to simultaneously place Norway at the western extreme of the Baltic Sea, and East of Lithuania. He concludes Cananus did not go to Scandinavia; instead, he pieced together his account from contemporary mariners—presumably Italian, given the flavour of the place names; and Ptolemy. Mediterranean sailors had been monopolised out of the Baltic by the Hansa, so their information on the Baltic was sketchy—they all thought the Baltic was sausage-shaped. But their knowledge was still better than Ptolemy, who had first called it the Wenedic sea—and who thought Scandinavia was some island vaguely around Poland.

Cananus *may* have gone to Iceland, although Lundström notes his description of Iceland is a lot like that of mediaeval Englishmen:

Cananus: And I saw men strong and sturdy; and their food was fish, and their bread was fish, and their drink was water.
Eulogium Hist. IV 105: Whence the whole island lives in common off fish, the hunt, and meat for the most part. … That people is quite thick-set, robust, and quite pale, dedicated to fishing and the hunt.
Ranulph. Higden. Polychr. I. 31: Iceland … has a people that is taciturn, truthful, covered in furs, and given over to fishing.

The date of 1438–1439 comes from how Cananus describes the administration of Livonia: the central administration of the Teutonic Knights had briefly taken over the running of Riga. Blomqvist is not sure Cananus knew the difference between “under the control of the Duke of the Grand Master of the white robes and black cross”, and “under the control of the Duke, of the Grand Master of the white robes and black cross”—i.e. whether the Duke is the Grand Master, or the Grand Master’s deputy.

The bit in Cananus that Greeks as opposed to Scandinavians care about is the association of Lübeck with the Zygiotai. Since we can now second guess Cananus, I go back to Jakob’s remark that 1400 is a bit late for Lübeck to be Slavic speaking, and I’ll also note that there’s a country missing in Cananus’ list: it wasn’t on the Baltic back then, but we can no longer trust Cananus realised that. Lübeck is supposed to be the capital of Sthavonia (which is how the manuscript spells it), and noone disagrees that he means Sthlavonia, “Slavic Country”. I think Cananus thought Lübeck was in Poland.

To finish with Cananus’ geographical missteps, this is a map of Europe in 1400 according to Christos Nüssli’s exceedingly cool Euratlas Historical Map of Europe:

Wikipedia’s article on the Hansa has this map of our region—which is Hansa territory—from the same time:

The next map, courtesy of my Mad Graphix Skillz, is not a rigorous reconstruction of Cananus’ Europe at all; and I certainly wasn’t checking with the more correct Nüssli. But it will serve to prove the point that Cananus wasn’t talking about quite the same Baltic that Nüssli is:

Back to language stuff. The text has snippets of the vernacular: ἔφτασα (spelled in the ms. εὔτασα), for Ancient ἔφθασα “I arrived”, ὑπάρχουν for ὑπάρχουσι “there exist”, ἑξῆντα for ἑξήκοντα “sixty”. Messy spelling, although that’s pretty usual whenever there are snippets of the vernacular. Lundström argues that Lascaris Cananus must be the historian John Cananus, because the historian excused himself for his crap Greek. But everyone those days excused themselves for their crap Greek, so it proves little.

OK, revised translation, based on Blomqvist’s edition, and revised table of place names.

I, arriving much land of Europe (sic), and I have “walked” around its whole coast, from the Hyperborean Ocean. Here there is a very large gulf, called in Classical Greek Wenedic; its perimeter is 4000 miles, and its diameter from the northernmost cape of the so-called Cape of Norway, down to its corner in the district of Prussia, is 2000 Italian miles, which have 1000 fathoms per mile; in our [measurement], with 750 fathoms in the mile, it is 2250 miles. And it is surrounded, from its east and west side, [by six districts?]

“Wenedic” is Ptolemy. 2000 Roman miles is 2960 km. 2250 Greek miles is 2993.6 km. “By six districts” is Lambros’ emendation; Lundström also suggests “these districts”, or even “three districts on either side”.

And first of all, going from the east, and in its northernmost parts is the district of Norway, which also has a presiding city called Bergen Vågen. In that city engraved [currency] is not in circulation, neither gold nor silver nor copper nor iron. They exchange with merchandise, both buyers and sellers. Moreover in that city the day is a month long; from the 24th of the month of June until the 25th of July, the whole is daytime, and there is no night at all.

The German and Russian translators were thrown by ἀλλὰ ζοῦν “but they live”, and assumed it was instead a participle, referring to living merchandise—”barter in livestock”. But Lundström already knew this was an indicative, and Blomqvist emends it to ἀλλάζουν “they exchange”.

This is where Norway gets to be East of Sweden and Estonia, and Lundström hopes that Cananus meant to write “West” instead.

After that district is the district of Sweden, which also has a presiding city Stockholm. In that city they mint engraved [currency] which is adulterated silver. These two districts are ruled by the king of Denmark.

Under the Kalmar Union.

After Sweden comes the district of Livonia. And this district has a presiding city which is called Riga, and the town of Revel. These [cities] are ruled by the archbishop, in both secular and spiritual [matters]. And the district is ruled by the Duke [of] the Grand Master of the white clothes and the black cross.

καὶ χώρα Ῥήβουλε “and the town of Revel” had been misread as καὶ ἑτέρα Ῥήβουλε “and another one [called] Revel”.

The white clothes and black cross, as linked last time, are the uniform of the Teutonic Knights.

After that district and in the corner of the gulf is the district of Prussia. And it has a presiding city called Danzig.

After that is the district of Slavonia, which has a presiding city called Lübeck. From this district come the Zygiotai in the Peloponnese, since there are many villages there, which speak the language of the Zygiotai.

The manuscript has <Sthabunía>, and Lundström momentarily wonders whether this is meant to be <Esthonia>; but Livonia already includes Estonia.

After that district is the district of Denmark, which has a city called Copenhagen. That [city] is also the kingdom [seat] of the king of Denmark.

These are the six districts around the gulf.

I also arrived at the island of the Fish-Eaters, which is commonly called Iceland; but according to the wise Ptolemy, it seems to me, it is Thule. There I found the a day six months long, from the beginning of spring until the turn of autumn. For I passed from England1 to that island, and the sailing was 1000 miles; and I [erred] there for 24 days, and I saw men strong and sturdy; and their food was fish, and their bread was fish, and their drink was water.

ἐπλημέλησα “err” is a scribal error, and Blomqvist is reluctant to emended it as ἐπλήρωσα “I fulfilled, I spent”.

Then I turned back to England2.

And the mileage from the aforementioned city of Bergen Vågen to Sluis in south Flanders in a straight line is 3500 miles; and from Sluis to the Sacred Promontory in Portugal is 2164 miles. Namely, all together 5664 miles, without setting into harbours.

Both Lundström and Blomqvist think that 2064 in the manuscript is an error for 2164, because the text has ἑ- ξιντα, which could involve an eye skipping over ἑκατὸν ἑξῆντα.

And the revised place names:












Ptolemy: Venedic


Norbegías, Norbégias


Both genitives are consistent with a nominative <Norbégia> whose accentuation is Italian




Modern form *may* be analogy from Rōsía for Russia




Modern Greek has gone full /ˈ(m)ber(n)ɡen/ rather than just /ˈmberɣen/



Modern Greek has gone full /ˈ(m)ber(n)ɡen/ rather than just /ˈmberɣen/




Latin Suecia, Italian Svezia; again, recessive accentuation consistent with Italian




Italian Stocolma. Modern form preserves /k.h/, and makes it declinable.




Vasiljev speculates this is via Slavic, and may indicate Cananus went to Denmark via Novgorod. But Datia shows up elsewhere, e.g. a 1459 Italian map.




Inphlántē in Chalcocondyles, via Polish Inflanty. Livonia included modern Latvia and Estonia. Lundström had emended it to <Libonía>.






Now Tallinn; Revel was the name of the city since the Danish conquest of 1219. Latvian Rehwele, and Lundström thinks Kananos heard /w/ as /v/.




At the time, German -ig was not yet [iç].




(Cf. Slobenía “Slovenia”)

Assuming Sthabunía is an error for Sthlabunía, this uses the characteristically Byzantine epenthesis of /θ/ in /s.l/ (with which I derailed a comment thread at the Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ blog)




Middle German Lubek, Lubeke, Mediaeval Latin Lupeca, Lubicca. Again Modern Greek embraces /(m)b/ in transliteration, Byzantine doesn’t.




Danish København: Lundström quotes the original Köben(de)haffn, and attributes <Kupanábē> to a Nordic Köbanhavn, with <-e(n)> for vocalic /n/. Modern Greek and English from Low German (those Hansa people).




Modern Greek here has affixed the suffix -ia; ditto Greenland Groilandía, Holland Ollandía. However more recent -lands have been left as -landē (now with a delta, natch): Tailándē, Kuinslándē.




The English are Inglínoi in Chalcocondyles, but <ē> and <i> are both /i/. Googling hints that Inglini was in use in Latin as well.




Italian Inghilterra




Klózioi in Chalcocondyles, French l’Ecluse from Latin exclusa “gateway”



Phlamandía, Phlándra

The first Modern form is modelled on French Flamand “Fleming”, the second of French Flandre “Flanders”. Phlamandia seems to be locally modelled on the ethnic Phlamandos, and the only parallel I can find googling is Polish Flamandia. Lundström had emended < Philantría> to <Philantría> <Phlantría>, which is naughty.


Pórte Gále


<Portugallía> in Chalcocondyles.

Lerna: Epilogue

By: | Post date: 2009-09-15 | Comments: 21 Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek

Καλοσωρίζω κάπως καθυστερημένα τους αναγνώστες του Βήματος που ενδεχομένως να βρέθηκαν σ’ αυτό το ιστολόγιο, και τους καλώ να εντρυφήσουν όσο τους βαστά στα νερά της Λέρνας

I never did close off the Lerna series of posts, on the count of lemmata of Greek and the urban legends that have grown around its misinterpretations. Part of the problem with closing it off is, I already wrote my epilogue half-way through the series, at IIId, before I started counting—and pointing out the futility of counting, with a stinging anecdote from Richard Feynman about the Modern Greek relation with their forebears. From the Big Picture view, I don’t have much to add to what I said then:

Lerna is a hoax, and Lerna is an annoyance, and Lerna is an embarrassment; but it will not die, because more than anything else, Lerna is a symptom. It’s a symptom of what Feynman found. And the way to singe the head of the Hydra is to get over that nagging sense of not measuring up to the Hellenes.

Those following the Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ Blog (or as I choose to call them, Team Fortier), will know that the debate about How Many Words Of Greek has continued in the letters page of the Athenian press, in Eleftherotipia and Vima. The course of the debate, with its sleights of hand, has been tracked by Team Fortier’s Stazybo Horn. The newspaper Vima has just published a group letter from Team Fortier. (“A team of existing or non-existing individuals, whose scientific knowledge of Greek is impossible to confirm, has lately been attempting to dispute that the Greek language is the richest in the world.” The syntax of the original is considerably more tortuous.) The letter includes my signature and links back to this blog, so I’m acknowledging the debate here.

[EDIT: Oops, that’s monstrously unclear. “A team of existing or non-existing individuals” is what Team Fortier has been called in the pages of Eleftherotypia by its implacable foe, Theodore Andreakos.]

Not that there is much to acknowledge. Those who would claim that Greek has a gazillion bajillion words know not what words are, what a logical argument is, and how little an inflated word count pissing match proves. Their passion and love for the Hellenic tongue did make me almost feel a remote sympathy for them—especially once I started looking at them through an outsider’s lens, rather than up close, as an anthropologist rather than a fellow Greek. And when Stazybo Horn commented here that he wishes he could see their heads explode as they read my posts, I didn’t gloat in response, because I kind of felt pity at a Hellenism that has to resort to such flimsy grounds to assert itself.

My pity didn’t last long; what with the threats and accusations of unGreek behaviour, and the suite of non-linguists telling linguists their business, and the digging up of dirt on anti-Lernaeans (and on pro-Lernaeans, to be fair), and the parading of phantom 120-volume dictionaries of Greek. My pity certainly does not extend to missives like this (which launched the debate across from Eleftherotipia to Vima):

2009-08-19. From Theodore Andreakos: With this letter, I wish the inform my friends, the readers of Vima, that there exists a Team which proclaims that it admires the Greek language, while it does everything to mock it and put it down internationally, with all the misinformation they have long been spreading against it in print and the electronic media. The head of this team appears to be an N. Sarantakos, who goes by the title of author and translator, residing, so he writes, in Luxembourg, and maintaining a website. He and his team claim, in particular, (1) that English is supposedly the richest language in the world…

And what though Sarantakos has been online (maintaining a website) for close to twenty years, has published extensively works on language, on bridge, and fiction, and has been hiding in pretty plain sight as an EU translator, we clearly need sleuths of the calibre of Theodore Andreakos, Educ. Insp. (Ret’d), Hon. Prof. Tech Coll., to ferret out Team Fortier’s deep dark purpose. Whatever that may be. To which I can only say, (a) *I*’m Spartacus, and (b) what do I have to do to get in the employ of the Bilderberg Group? They’ve just convened in Athens and all…

Theodore Andreakos, Educ. Insp. (Ret’d), Hon. Prof. Tech Coll., won’t be convinced by anything anyone from Team Spartacus Fortier has to say; there’s plenty of evidence of that in the newspaper correspondence. And it was not for him that I wrote. I wrote for Dokiskaki, who demanded of the scholars, “it would be good for what’s correct to exist somewhere as an easy read; else the sensible will end up mad.” And because I had some facts to contribute to the debate, and it was meet that I did.

I note with disappointment though, that noone from the linguistics establishment in Greece has weighed in. (Foivos Panagiotidis did, but he’s a prof in U Cyprus.) It’s your field that’s being taken for a ride in hobbyhorses….

Islántē: Island Of The Fish-Eaters

By: | Post date: 2009-09-07 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
Tags: , , ,

[EDIT: This post has been updated]

The quiz I set last post gave me an excuse to Google Σαμῶται, and in the process to find that Lascaris Cananus is online—after a fashion. So this post is about him.

Lascaris Cananus wrote a page about his visit to Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland in the 15th century; the date seems to be 1438–1439. I knew about this text for a very long time, because it features in histories of the Greek language. It features in histories of the Greek language because it includes a single throwaway line, indicating that Slavonic was still spoken in the Southern Peloponnese in the 15th century, by the Zygiotai (who lived on the Zygos, the “yoke”, of Mt Taygetus).

Beyond that, Cananus answers the question I posed my friend Tania last week, home from Iceland: “what is the Icelandic native cuisine?” Most people call the place Islantē, Cananus reports; to him, it’s The Island Of The Fish-Eaters.

Lascaris Cananus may or may not be the same as John Cananus, who wrote an account of the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople of 1422. The Swedish Wikipedia article is about Lascaris but mentions John as possibly the same person; the English Wikipedia article was about John, and as of today mentions Lascaris as possibly the same person. Wikipedia links the two articles, and I won’t prevent it. Still, the author of this page is likely a merchant and not a scholar.

(The Catalan Wikipedia article is about John, and doesn’t mention Lascaris. The Greek Wikipedia doesn’t have anything on any Cananus, and I wish I was surprised 🙁 )

The text has shown up in scholarly attention as follows:

Jakob’s monograph is about Arab travellers in Germany, which sounds even more interesting than Byzantines in Iceland; but this is still a blog on Greek linguistics.

I have ordered the Swedish monograph (2 pp of Greek, 44 pp of Swedish); but to my delight, both the Russian and the German article (translated into Russian) have been put online by Russians, which inspires much gratitude. I’m finding a lot of Byzantine material gets put online by my fellow inheritors of Byzantine heritage.

And because both the Russian and the German articles contain translations of Cananus, I’m going to triangulate and put one up into English. I admit it’s unscrupulous to entertain the translation chain Greek > German > Russian > Babelfish English; but if I wanted to be scrupulous, I wouldn’t be blogging.

I’ll note that Jakob thinks 1439 is a bit too late for Slavic to be spoken around Lübeck, and thinks the reference is to a Sorbian factoria (trading colony) in Lübeck, under the Hansa, just as Danzig was a Prussian trading colony. (And Prussian back then did not mean German.) I don’t know where Sorbian was spoken in 1439 (it’s pretty inland now), but Cananus clearly had the impression there was contiguous Slavic speaking territory around Lübeck; and if it wasn’t Lübeck, it was somewhere close enough to allow the confusion. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Cananus actually set foot in Lübeck.

Jakob also wonders whether Cananus is talking about the Roma, who had recently arrived in both the Peloponnese and Lübeck; but we have evidence of the presence of Slavs in the Peloponnese from other sources. So the conflation with the Roma would be unmotivated. (I’m amused that Babelfish translates Циганы as “Roma” and not “Gypsies”, but fair enough, I suppose.)

So, here’s the Babelfish triangulation:

I have visited many countries in Europe, traveled all of its coast in the Hyperborean Sea. There is a large bay, called in Greek Uenedikos (“Venedic”, the Baltic Sea). Its circumference is 4000 miles and its diameter from the northern tip of the so-called Cape of Norway (Νορβεγία) to the farthest corner of the land of Prussia (Πουρσία) is 2000 Italian miles, where a mile is 1000 yards [сажень, клафтер]. In our reckoning, a mile is 750 yards, so it is 2250 miles. From east and west, it covers […]

First of all, starting from the east, the most northern part of the country around the Gulf is Norway, which has a capital that is called Bergen Vågen (Μπέργεν Βάγεν). [Vågen is a bay in the centre of Bergen.] In this city there are no hammered coins in circulation, either gold, silver, copper, or iron: buyers and seller exchange livestock. Furthermore, in this city day lasts a month, from June 24 until July 25 is continuous daytime, and there is no night at all.

After this country is the country of Sweden (Σουητζία), which has the capital of Stockholm (Στοκολμώ). In this city silver coins are minted. Both countries are governed by the King of Denmark (Δατία).

After Sweden comes the country of Livonia (Λιβονία). This country has a major city called Riga (Ρήγα) and another called Revel (Ρηβούλη, now Tallinn). These (cities) are controlled by bishops in both secular and ecclesiastical matters. The country is controlled by the Prince Grand Master of the white robes and black cross.

After this country in the inner corner of the bay is the country of Prussia. It has a capital called Danzig (Τάντζηκ).

After this is the country of Slavonia (Σθλαβουνία), which has a capital called Lubeck (Λούπηκ). From this country the Zygiotai (Ζυγιῶται) in the Peloponnese have originated, because there is a large number of small towns [in Slavonia], where they speak the dialect of the Zygiotai.

Next to that country is the country of Denmark, which has a city called Copenhagen (Κουπανάβη). It serves as the residence of the King of Denmark.

These are the six countries that lie around the bay.

I have also been to the islands of the Fish-Eaters (Ἰχθυοφάγοι), which are usually called Iceland (Ἰσλάντη), but for the wise Ptolemy, I believe, this was Thule. There I found the day lasted six months from the beginning of spring until the autumn solstice. I went to the islands from England (Ἠγγληνία). It is a voyage of 1000 miles, and I was there for 24 days. And I saw a strong and sturdy people; their food was fish, and their bread was fish, and their drink was water. Then I returned back to England (Ἐγγλιτέρα).

The distance in miles in a straight line from the aforementioned city of Bergen-Vågen to Sluis (Κλούτζη), in the south of Flanders, is 3500 miles, and from the Sluis to the Holy Cape [Promontorium Sacrum, Cape St. Vincent] in Portugal is 2064 [2164?] Miles, which is a total of 5664 miles [yes, I know that doesn’t add up], if you don’t count going into the harbours.

And since I was talking about different transliterations between Byzantine and Modern Greek, here is a comparison:








Short e, long e, what’s the difference? (Well, /norveˈɣia/ vs. /norviˈɣia/ for starters…)




Modern form *may* be analogy from Rōsía for Russia




Modern Greek has gone full /ˈ(m)ber(n)ɡen/ rather than just /ˈmberɣen/




Latin Suecia




Modern form preserves /k.h/, and makes it declinable




Vasiljev speculates this is via Slavic, and may indicate Cananus went to Denmark via Novgorod. But Datia shows up elsewhere, e.g. a 1459 Italian map.




Inphlántē in Chalcocondyles, via Polish Inflanty. Livonia included modern Latvia and Estonia






Now Tallinn; Revel was the name of the city since the Danish conquest of 1219




At the time, German -ig was not yet [iç].



(Cf. Slobenía “Slovenia”)

Uses the characteristically Byzantine epenthesis of /θ/ (with which I derailed a comment thread at the Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ blog)




Again Modern Greek embraces /(m)b/ in transliteration, Byzantine doesn’t.




Danish København. Modern Greek and English from Low German (those Hansa people).




Modern Greek here has affixed the suffix -ia; ditto Greenland Groilandía, Holland Ollandía. However more recent -lands have been left as -landē (now with a delta, natch): Tailándē, Kuinslándē.




The English are Inglínoi in Chalcocondyles, but <ē> and <i> are both /i/. Googling hints that Inglini was in use in Latin as well.




Italian Inghilterra




Klúzioi in Chalcocondyles, French l’Ecluse from Latin exclusa “gateway”

What’s Londínon in the language of the Inglínes?

By: | Post date: 2009-09-03 | Comments: 16 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek, Modern Greek
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been working on lemmatising the TLG for, oh, over six years. And lemmatising the TLG includes lemmatising its proper names. The TLG is, in quantity, a mostly Byzantine corpus, even though the point of the TLG was ancient literature: the Byzantine corpus is what survived most. And in the absence of a Byzantine gazetteer that I knew of, I ended up entering unrecognised place names by hand, prioritising the most frequent ones first. I haven’t exhausted them and doubt I ever will, but I have a threshold of frequency above which all place names are accounted for.

And because I did not already have a gazetteer digitised, this meant I noticed what places Byzantines talked about more, and what they talked about less. Which brought to life for me something I could have told you already, but was startling to see anyway. The outside world for Byzantines—and I start counting after Justinian—was the Caliphate, Bulgaria, occasionally Italy, Russia once or twice. Western Europe? They didn’t even notice it was there.

Which is startling to a Modern Greek, because we’ve successfully reoriented ourselves westwards. Nowadays I’m sure more Grecophones have heard of Charlemagne than Harun al-Rashid. At the time, I’m sure Grecophones had it the the other way round. In fact, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Theophanes the Confessor only knew of Charlemagne as Karolos, Pepin’s son—although by the time he was writing his chronicle, Charlemagne was already Holy Roman Emperor.

(That’s Grecophones, btw, not Greeks. There’s a reason John Tzetzes had a funny surname…)

Byzantine sources do become aware of the West outside Italy, but only at the very end of the Empire’s allotted time, when the Caliphate has become their Ottoman suzerain, and the West is where they’re soliciting a crusade from. That’s when Byzantines notice that there is such a thing as western theology, and translate Augustin (Prochorus Cydones) and Boethius (George Pachymeres, Manuel Holobolus, Maximus Planudes, Prochorus Cydones).

Even at the end, Byzantine historians are exasperatingly antiquarian, use Roman terms whenever they can, and don’t seem that tuned in to the subtleties of the distinctions between the Beef-Eaters. The Catalans, who ran chunks of Greece for a couple of generations? Tarraconians. The Hundred Years’ War? A war between the Celts and the Gauls. Straight out of Julius Caesar. And yes, *I* know the Gauls were Celts, and the English were no longer Brythonic. I’m not convinced the historian in question did.

Just like the Serbs were written down as Triballians, and the Bulgarians as Mysians, and the Turks, occasionally, as Persians. Just like the Mongols were written down as Tocharians—reviving some obscure Central Asian tribe name which at least had a Classical pedigree. (Oh, the people we now call Tocharians? Probably weren’t the same obscure Central Asian tribe. We did the same classicising revival.)

Just like John Cananus, around 1400, went on a trip to Lübeck, which at the time still spoke Sorbian (or whatever else it was called), and proclaimed “this must be where our Ezerites have come from”—because in 1400 a Slavonic language was still spoken in the Southern Peloponnese too. And John Cananus completely missed half a continent’s worth of Slavonic spoken between northern Germany and southern Greece.

So it’s startling when a bona fide contemporary Western place name does turn up in this corpus. Unsurprisingly, they’re more cities than peoples, since cities were harder to do a Roman-era vagueout on. In the former bits of the Byzantine empire that were already being run by the West, it was much easier to notice the West; and the vernacular Greek chronicles of the 14th and 15th century use the Western terms more forthrightly.

Which brings up another surprise to Modern Greek speakers. Learnèd Modern Greek used to Hellenise Western place names, and they’d do so by pretending the transliterations were still pronounced as they would have been in antiquity. Or rather, given the denial about phonetic change among Greeks, they used the spelling correspondences between Latin and Classical Greek, and put their hands on their ears.

So Dublin is written Δουβλίνο(ν), which is pronounced /ðuvˈlino/ but written in historical orthography as <Dublinon>. Nuremberg is written Νυρεμβέργη, which is pronounced /niremˈverɣi/ but written <Nyrembergē>. Brussels is written Βρυξέλλες, pronounced /vriˈkseles/ but written <Bryxelles>. Since <y> was IPA /y/ and French u, that is an exact transliteration of French Bruxelles.

(The < > are used in linguistics to notate graphemes, units of writing, just as / / are used to notate phonemes, units of sound. If the former is less familiar to you than the latter, it’s because the bias of linguistics over the past century has been to pretend orthography isn’t worth studying.)

The surprise in Byzantine names is that both the learnèd and the vernacular sources transliterate names differently from how they’re now done. On the one hand, the vernacular sources don’t bother rerouting names via Ancient Greek, and write the names as they heard them. Austria is now Αυστρία /afˈstria/ <Austria>; but it’s first recorded in vernacular garb (the same garb it had in the 18th century vernacular), as Ἀουστρία /auˈstria/. Bavaria is now Βαυαρία /vavaˈria/ <Bauaria>, but it is first attested in, of all places, the War of Troy, as Βαουβέρη /vauˈveri/. (Admittedly, that’s not that close to /bajern/, and was probably just a written form to the translator.) Hungary was called Ματζαρία /madzaˈria/ “Magyary”; Budapest is now Βουδαπέστη /vuðaˈpesti/ <Budapestē>, but Buda back then was Μπούντουνη, Πιτούνιν, Μπούδα: /ˈmbunduni/, /piˈtunin/, /ˈmpuða/. The Germans were Αλαμάνοι /alaˈmani/, when they weren’t Νέμτσοι and Νεμίτζοι /ˈnemtsi, neˈmitsi/.

Some of those vernacular names died later than others. We now call the French Gauls (Γάλλοι), just like the Byzantines did; but people still recognise the old name Φραντσέζοι /franˈtsezi/. The learnèd/colloquial doublet Άγγλοι/Εγγλέζοι /ˈanɡli, enˈɡlezi/ survives for the English, though the older /inˈɡlini/ does not, and nor do the eleven spelling variants of /enɡliˈtera/ for “England”. (You’ve worked out by now what the title of this post means, yes?) Tunis is now Τύνιδα /ˈtiniða/, Demotic for Τύνις, -ιδος <Tynis>. But, from either a song lyric or the angry retort to “oh?”, Greeks still know about Τούνεζη και Μπαρμπαριά /ˈtunezi ke barbarˈja/, “Tunis and the Barbary coast”.

You won’t be wrong, btw, in gathering that the Greek vernacular knowledge of Western Europe was filtered through Italian.

(And the angry retort? The Greek for “oh? is that right?” is “/ba/?” The echoic retort is Μπα-ρμπαριά και Τούνεζη!)

On the learnèd side, one surprise is that even though the 19th century clerks and the 14th century clerks had mostly the same approach to Hellenising place names, they didn’t always compare notes. That’s probably the 19th century guys’ fault, what with the ESP deficit in late Byzantium.

So Flanders now is Φλαμανδία <Flamandia>, via French; in Anna Comnena, it’s Φλάντρα <Flantra>. Normans now are Νορμανδοί <Normandoi>; to Anna they were Νορμάνοι <Normanoi>. Provence is now Προβηγκία /provinˈɡia/ <Provinkia>, but Atticist as Anna was, she was happy enough to leave it as Πρεβέντζα /preˈvendza/. So the 19th century hellenisations we now know were not handed down to us like family heirlooms: they look old enough to have been, but they’re not.

The other surprise is what learnèd transliterations do with voiced stops. By the time we’re talking, Greek didn’t have voiced stops: it had voiced fricatives which used to be voiced stops; it had voiceless stops; and it had prenasalised voiced stops. So, δ τ ντ /ð t nd/ <d t nt>. What then did you do when you had to transliterate a name with a /d/ in it?

The “La-La-La We Speak Classical Greek” school of thought was, if a delta was good enough for Decimus and Diocletian (Δέκιμος, Διοκλητιανός), then it was good enough for modern names with /d/ in them. That’s why Charles Darwin is still Κάρολος Δαρβίνος /ˈkarolos ðarˈvinos/ <Karolos Darbinos>, and not Τσαρλς Ντάργουιν /tsarls ˈndarɣuin/. The vernacular OTOH figured that /nd/ was as close as you’d get to /d/—and dialects were already starting to simplify /nd/ to [d] anyway. So the Danube, which was at first Δάνουβις /dánubis/ (and the Istros before that), turns up in the vernacular as Ντούναβης /ˈ(n)dunavis/, after its South Slavic name Дунав. (The contemporary form is in between: Δούναβης /ˈðunavis/ <Dunabēs>.)

There was a third path though. You could hesitate between /ð/ and /nd/, and go with /t/ instead, the voiceless stop. We see this already in Anna Comnena with her rendering of Dagobert: Τακουπέρτος, /takuˈpertos/—although Bohemund to her was still Βαϊμοῦντος, /vaiˈmundos/ <Baimuntos>. You also see it with Bohemians. When the Greeks first noticed Bohemians. it was because they noticed Jan Hus, as part of their negotiations with the Catholics; and the Bohemians got to be Βοέμιοι /voˈemii/ <Boemii>, with the classicising beta. But they also got to me Ποέμιοι and Πωέμιοι /poˈemii/, with a /p/ close enough to a /b/.

A few Greeks among you are reminded of Cypriot at this point. Greece transliterates video as βίντεο /ˈvindeo/ <binteo>; Cyprus uniformly transliterates as βίτεο /ˈviteo/ <biteo>, just like Takupertos. Cyprus has its own rationale for that: its choices are not /ð (n)d t/, but δ ντ τ ττ /ð nd t tʰ/. If Turkish tel “wire”, Standard Greek τέλι, is ττέλιν /tʰelin/ in Cypriot, that means ττ is for foreign /t/, and τ without an /n/ in front of it is for foreign /d/. Greece Greeks think that amusing, because Greece Greeks have no conception of a pluricentric language.

The Modern clerks did not compare notes with the Byzantine theologians on Bohemians, and the mainstream word is now Βοημοί /voiˈmi/ <Boēmoi>, with a long e. The bouzouki players noticed Bohemians too—via La Bohème; and Μποέμισσα /boˈemisa/, “Bohemian woman, tramp”, is a recurrent and quite vernacular figure in rebetiko songs.

One of the first people to notice Bohemians was Laonicus Chalcocondyles, one of the historians of the Fall of Constantinople. In fact, Chalcocondyles’ text is an explosion of hitherto unnoticed Westerners. It’s like, just as the door closes on the Roman Empire, a window opens to the West. Poland’s in there, and Portugal too—though as Polania and Portugallia, not the modern Polonia and Portogalia. Avignon’s there, and so is Austria without an /f/.

But Chalcocondyles is still a hardcore antiquarian: it does indeed take “a pen of brass” (χαλκοῦν κονδύλιον) to flip around your given name like that, and transmogrify “Nicholas”. His Englishmen are still Angli, and his Catalans are still Tarraconians, and his Danube is still the Istros. And his antiquarianism is enough to make hard work of knowing where he’s talking about.

And so I conclude with a little quiz for those of my readers patient enough to have persevered thus far. These are some European place names and peoples in Chalcocondyles. (And I’m counting the Caucasus as European.) Your challenge is to decipher them. It is possible to cheat (there’s a reason I know the answers); I invite you not to.

Hopefully you’ll nut these out entertainingly in the comments, and I’ll come back with the right answers in a week. Some of these are easy; some… are impossible. There are places in here I’d never heard of. Good luck, you can curse me in a week’s time. I never said I was not a sadist, did I…

(Nikos Sarantakos, I owe you big time for that puzzle you posed me on the Elbe, so I’m expecting a good showing from you! >:-)

(Language Hat, sorry to have just destroyed your evening… 😉 )


  • 1. Ἰνφλάντη Inphlántē
  • 2. Καχέτιον Kachétion
  • 3. Κεντία Kentía
  • 4. Μάρκη Márkē
  • 5. Δοβροτίκης Dobrotíkēs


  • 6. Βριξία or Πρηξία Brixía/Prēxía
  • 7. Γαΐτια Gaï´tia
  • 8. Γαντύνη Gantýnē
  • 9. Βρούγιοι Broúgioi
  • 10. Κλιτίη Klitíē
  • 11. Κλόζιοι Klózioi
  • 12. Νορόβεργον Noróbergon
  • 13. Ἀμπύργον Ampýrgon
  • 14. Σιβίνιον Sibínion
  • 15. Σιβίληνα Sibílēna
  • 16. Ταρβίζιον Tarbízion
  • 17. Καλέση Kalésē
  • 18. Βαζιλείη Bazileíē
  • 19. Βωκερίνη Bōkerínē
  • 20. Κιόζη Kiózē
  • 21. Νίτια Nítia


  • 22. Σαμῶται Samōtai
  • 23. Σαχαταῖοι Sachataîoi
  • 24. Τζαρκάσοι Tzarkásoi
  • 25. Κέχιοι Kéchioi

Your Fractal Analysis of Esperanto does not add up

By: | Post date: 2009-09-02 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Artificial Languages
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This is a blog on the Greek language. That is why it is called Hēllēnisteúkontos, “From the guy who has been a scholar of Greek”. But I arrogate the right to post here about other linguistics stuff that I find of interest. I have a below-the-fold arrangement, so you can bypass it easily.

This post is on misuses of numerical methods in linguistics, as applied to Esperanto.

I am no longer in any honest sense an Esperantist, or a Lojbanist, or a Klingonist. (Or, more self-consciously, mi ne plu estas esperantisto, .i mi ca ba’o lobypli, ‘ej tlhIngan Hol vIlo’ ‘e’ vimevpu’.) Not out of malice, indeed with a good deal of regret, but that’s where life has taken me.

But I mention my learnings from those languages on occasion, and in The Other Place, I just drew an analogy between the language politics of Esperanto cultural functions and Acadian cultural functions. Someone found the posting by googling “Esperanto”, and that made be follow some links, that led to some links…

… that led to mention of a recent couple of articles using computational methods to compare the linguistic profiles an English and an Esperanto text, and come up with the conclusion that English and Esperanto were different. And then to make the extra conclusion that natural and artificial languages are different. Here’s the articles: #1, #2.

I am grateful that the slices of the Esperanto blogosphere I sighted mocked this study: sample 1, sample 2. And I’m going to go to town on this here, because it deserves mockery.

Gillet and Ausloos, you are idiots. Maybe not in Computer Science, but on my turf, you have committed grand folly. You have taken two data points, English and Esperanto; you have compared the profile of their word lengths and word frequencies, and have decreed they’re different. Fine, they’re different. That says less than nothing about a comparison between artificial and natural languages! In God’s name, put up a study with Inuit, Turkish, and Chinese on the one hand, and Esperanto, Klingon, and Lojban on the other, and *then* you might have something relevant to say.

English and Esperanto word lengths and word frequencies are different. Oh come on.

See, this is the problem with computer scientists doing linguistics as if linguistics never existed. Just load some texts into a Multifractal Analysatron 2000, churn some gears, and that will tells us something interesting about language. Well no it won’t, not if you’re asking the wrong question, and have no framework to make sense of the answer. It’s not that we can’t learn anything new from the Multifractal Analysatron; but without building on what we already know, you’re guaranteeing that what you do build will fall over. It was computer science people that came up with “Garbage In Garbage Out” after all.

I was in the library yesterday, for the sake of melancholy nostalgia, and to see what I could get on French-Canadian linguistics. I walked by Diachronica, and leafed through it to see what was new in historical linguistics. April McMahon, who wrote a wonderful textbook on language change 15 years ago, has just co-authored a new book on… numerical methods in historical linguistics. My heart sunk. It shouldn’t have, because April McMahon has earned my trust.

As the review said, one of the things McMahon points out in the book is, there is a regrettable tendency in numerical approaches to linguistics to just put the raw data into the Analysatrons, and see what happens. And she said, in a more measured and thoughtful way than I just did, that this is nonsense: a linguist still needs to make sense of the input, identify what correlations are worth pursuing, and filter out what methodologically needs filtering out.

I mean, word lengths and word frequencies? Even Plato had a more sophisticated understanding of language structure than that; and that’s not saying much.

There are some more details I’ll rattle off, with regard to word length in particular. Triggered by the fact that in their preliminary studies, the authors were surprised to find more similarity with German and Spanish, and least similarity with French and English.

If you’re surprised to find affinities between German and Esperanto, you know nothing of the history of Esperanto. And with just word length as your tool, and a comparable amount of inflectional morphology, I don’t know how meaningful the affinity they discovered is anyway.

But in particular, Esperanto is agglutinating, so it likes its words longer than an isolating language like Chinese or English (I think it’s fair by now to call English isolating). And Esperanto as a literary language was substantially influenced by German, because its most influential authors worked in the shadow of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and German was a default model to them. (I’m thinking Ludovik Zamenhof and Kazimierz Bein in the first generation—Litvak Jew so culturally Russian, but with access to German; and Polish, respectively; and Julio Baghy and Kalman Kalocsay in the second—both Hungarians.)

The love of compounding is a way of dealing with the requirement to keep vocabulary minimal in an artificial language; but the choice of compounding rather than more analytical expressions is informed by German, not by interlinguistics. Not to mention the suite of compounds overtly calqued from German (verŝajna for wahrscheinlich “apparent”, for instance).

The second paper made the mistake of profiling sentence length, and that was even more boneheaded. Sentence structure in a literate language is decidedly influenced by cultural contact: all of Europe has the mark of Latin subordination on it. And again, Esperanto sentence structure did not happen in a vacuum: Esperantists emulated the examples of their teachers and writers, and the teachers and writers patterned after natural language models. Which again were substantially German.

When we talk about the “spirit” of a language, we’re normally not primarily talking about morphology and syntax. We’re talking about semantic maps, and discourse structures, and idioms. It’s not that intangible, it’s just somewhat harder to formalise than morphology and syntax. Inasmuch as the spirit of Esperanto has kindred out there, however tenuous, that kindred is German. But profiling word lengths and word frequencies is not going to tell you much about morphology and syntax. And it will tell you little more about discourse structures.

At any rate, why *would* Esperanto be so different to natural languages? Some regularisation in its inflectional morphology, sure; but isolating languages are even more regular, by not having any inflectional morphology at all. Agglutinativity, sure; but Turkish and Lakhota were agglutinative before Esperanto was. Ludovik Zamenhof was not Mark Okrand, easter-egging his language with violations of linguistic unievrsals.

The only quirk I can think of worth noting is Esperantists turning affixes into independent words. That quirk is artificial in origin: Zamenhof was supposed to say, in modern terms, that all morphemes of Esperanto are meaningful, and ended up saying that all morphemes of Esperanto are independent words. This has stuck: the diminutive suffix -et- is also the word for “tiny”, the object nominaliser -aĵ- is also the word for “thing”, the collective suffix -ar- is also the word for “grouping”. The trend has been taken far with successive generations of Esperantists, but was started by Zamenhof himself.

Yet even this is not alien to natural language. In fact, in its guise as degrammaticalisation, it was a favourite bone of contention between Lyle Campbell and Elizabeth Closs Traugott in the ’90s.

(Grammaticalisation theory claims that grammatical affixes come from particles and particles come from full words. So the suffix -like used to be the noun lich “body”. Degrammaticalisation is when the reverse happens; the canonical examples are from Estonian, but it also happens in English with up the ante: a particle—a preposition—turning into a verb. Is it an occasional exception under special circumstances? Or is it frequent enough to undermine the core premiss of grammaticalisation? Actually, that’s an ideological question, and it’s hard to resolve it one way or the other. Don’t know if anyone’s claimed victory.)

At any rate. Garbage On Garbage Out. Let that too be a lesson to… well, somebody.

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