Smyrilios

By: | Post date: 2017-09-20 | Comments: 13 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek

This post is about a mediaeval Greek bird name.

This post is, of course, not about a mediaeval Greek bird name at all.

I coauthored with George Baloglou an analysis of a vernacular mediaeval Greek poem, the Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds (Διήγησις Παιδιόφραστος των Ζώων των Τετραπόδων). The Tale recounts a parliament of animals, who declare a truce and assemble to enumerate their vices and virtues, before they resume battle. A fact that has escaped the more inattentive readers of the Tale (and the Tale has had no shortage of those) is that in the end, the herbivores win.

The Book of Birds (Πουλολόγος) is a roughly contemporary poem, which is similar, and routinely appears in the same manuscripts as the Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, but is set in the world of birds. Its premise is the same, though it reads rather differently: it is rigid where the Tale is free-flowing, allusive where the Tale is homely, and reactionary where the Tale at least hints at subversion: one scowl from the King’s hawks is enough to ensure that the birds behaved themselves.

Or at least, they did in the main version of the poem. In 1954, Georgios Zoras announced1 that he owned two manuscripts of the Book of Birds, which ended differently. In his variant, the birds revolt against King Eagle and his henchmen, led by the skylark. The variant is clearly derived from the Tale, and its outcome is stylistically from the same template—even though, true to its host poem, this variant has the birds of prey come out on top.

The revolt is triggered by the duck’s argument with the smyrilios, and the smyrilios is singled out for derision by the rebels. The smyrilios is also the bird that ends up killing the lead rebel, the skylark.

Τότε γυρίζει ὀ γέρακας, λέγει τοῦ βασιλέως:
«Ἐβλέπει ἡ βασιλεία σου τὴν τόλμην τῶν ὀρνέων!
Δὲν σώνει ἡ ὕβρις ἡ πολλὴ ποὺ μοῦ ’καμε ὁ λούπης,
ἀμὴ πάλιν ἡ πάπια ἤρξατο νὰ ὑβρίζη
τὸν ἀντρειωμένον, τὸν φρικτόν, σμυρίλιον τὸν μέγαν·
χωρὶς νὰ ἔχουν τήρησιν ἀπὸ τὴν ἀφεντίαν σου,
μᾶλλον τολμοῦν κατηγοροῦν, βρίζουν τὴν βασιλείαν σου,
τὸ πὼς ποιεῖς παράδικα, καὶ κάμνεις στραβὴν κρίσιν·
καὶ ἔστεψαν τὸν ἀσκορδιαλὸν αὐθέντην νὰ τοὺς κρένη,
διὰ τὴν σοφίαν του τὴν πολλὴν καὶ τόλμην ὁποὺ ἔχει.»

The hawk then turned toward the king and spoke:
“Your majesty can see the fowls’ defiance!
As if the kite had not bad-mouthed me enough,
the duck now seeks to denigrate the brave,
the terrible, the great smyrilios,
with no respect toward your majesty.
Indeed, they dare accuse and curse your reign,
claiming you are unjust and have poor judgement.
And they have crowned the skylark as their lord
to rule them, for his wisdom and his daring.” (101–110)

That’s my translation there, p. 422.

Now, if the Book of Birds were a classical text, noone would pay any attention to a late variant, let alone the words in it: the prestige of the classical author would have blinded out all. But this is mediaeval text; the scribes and adapters are not substantially inferior to the original authors, and what they dared do to the texts they scribed and adapted is far more interesting.

So the variant ending of the Book of Birds was published in Tsavare’s edition2 And its vocabulary was included in Tsavare’s glossary. (The variant ending was not published in Eideneier’s recent edition of the two poems; but Eideneier doesn’t have a lot of time for the Book of Birds anyway.)

But the variant ending is still a second class citizen in scholarship in one regard. There has been ample research, both in Tsavare’s edition and in Krawczynski’s earlier edition,3 into the identity of the birds mentioned in the poem. The smyrilios was not included in that research. And for the past 15 years, I’ve had no idea what bird it was.

I looked, God knows. I looked in Handrinos & Dimitropoulos’ book4 on Greek birds of prey. I looked in D’Arcy Thompson’s 1895 classic A Glossary of Greek Birds, and I looked in W. Geoffrey Arnott’s modern sequel, Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. No dice.

I worked at the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, the digital library of Ancient and Mediaeval Greek, when I co-wrote the book; and I kept working at the TLG until my contract was not renewed in 2016. I was responsible for the automated recognition of vocabulary, building on the Perseus’ project’s Morpheus lemmatiser (and I did a lot of building, none of if lamentably open source). I searched high and low for words; there was not a glossary or an index nominum in the country that I did not hoover up to improve it. But I set myself standards, and I maintained them. I would not add any new lexemes without the warrant of a dictionary or glossary behind it. (Admittedly, I did allow words to be derived from other words through productive derivational morphology.) My abstemiousness was often enough vindicated, as new-looking words turned out on closer reading to be variants of existing words.

Early Modern Greek texts exercised the automated recognition of Greek vocabulary and lexicon more than any others, and I always welcomed the challenge. The Book of Birds was added to the corpus during my watch. That means that the smyrilios was added to the corpus during my watch. And I added no entry for it. Kriaras’ dictionary of Early Modern Greek was going to get to smyrilios in Volume XX. I could wait.

And meanwhile, every new volume that came out of Kriaras, I would go through the unrecognised vernacular words starting with the right letters, and add the relevant entries manually. Up until Volume XIX.

Volume XX came out eight months after I lost access to the TLG. I got hold of Volume XX a few months later.

And there the smyrilios was.

σμυρίλιος, ο, Πουλολ. (Τσαβαρή)2 ΑΖ 26, 27, 35, 86, 127.

Από το ιταλ. smeriglio (Battaglia, λ. smeriglio2). Πβ. λ. σμιρίλλιν σήμ. στο κυπρ. ιδίωμα (Γιαγκουλλής, Κυπρ. διαλ.).

Είδος μικρόσωμου γερακιού, ο ιέραξ αισάλων (falco aesalon).

smirilios (masc): Book of Birds (2nd ed., by Tsavari): AZ 26, 27, 35, 86, 127

From the Italian smeriglio (Battaglia, s.v. smeriglio2). Cf. the word smirillin in the modern Cypriot dialect (Yangoullis, K. Small Ιnterpretive and Εtymological Τhesaurus of Cypriot dialect.).

A kind of small-bodied hawk, falco aesalon.

Of course, that was an occasion for me to kick myself. I should have realised that the word could have been Italian. I didn’t think it, because I was misled by its spelling: the upsilon betokens a Greek etymology. But of course, the upsilon has no authority at all: it was merely used by analogy with σμύρνη “myrrh”. (And note that Yangoullis, who knows better what the etymology is, spells it with an iota.)

Still. I have a copy of Yangoullis’ dictionary. I can’t fathom why I didn’t just look it up. Or Googled it.

And what is a falco aesalon?

As very often happens when I find a Linnaean name in Greek lexicography, Wikipedia indicates that the old Linnaean name has been superseded. There is controversy about whether the American and the Eurasian bird of the species are distinct species; if they are, the Eurasian bird was called Falco aesalon, 13 years after Linnaeus named the American bird back in 1758. The consensus appears to be that they are the same species, which is accordingly called Falco columbarius; the European bird that winters in Greece is deemed a subspecies, Falco columbarius aesalon.

So, the smyrilios is known in Modern Greek as the nanogerako “midget hawk”. In English, it is called the merlin. In America, it is also known as the pigeon hawk. In Old French, esmerillon, and in Icelandic, fittingly enough, smyrill.

If I’d googled smyril, when trying to work out what the smyrilios was, the first hit I would have gotten would have been the Smyril Line of Faroese ferry boats (and a ferry boat owned by a completely different Faroese company). With a logo to match.

Here’s a photo of F. c. aesalon; most of the photos of Falco columbarius online are of the three American subspecies. This guy’s in Kazakhstan:

And here’s the Icelandic and Faroese smyril, subspecies F. c. subaesalon.

Ok, a little pointillist. I’ll take the postage stamp instead.

I don’t know what happens now if you click on σμυρίλιος in the TLG. I really have lost access to it, and to all the work I did on it. In the best case, nothing happens, just as nothing happened when I was working on it, and waiting for Volume XX.

Actually, that’s not the best case. The best case is that after my dismissal, those who dismissed me had an epiphany, bought the last 10 volumes of Kriaras, and meticulously went through the thousand-odd vernacular words I’d left unrecognised, exercising the same probity and scrupulousness that I had done. And that the smyrilios is linked to a definition copied from Kriaras, and identifying it with at least the Falco aesalon, if not the merlin.

… Yeah.

The latest update on the TLG web site says that wordform recognition is now up to 98.25%, from 98.189% in June 2016. (Not coincidentally, June 2016 is when my contract was not renewed.) With 1.5 million wordforms, that means something like a thousand wordforms with their recognition added in the past year.

Maybe they’ve been done right. Maybe they’ve been done meticulously. Maybe they haven’t just had an eyeballed entry slapped in, with no definition, no lexicon as a source, and no care to prevent spurious duplicates of lemmata already well-defined in the corpus.

I don’t know, and if any of you have access to the TLG, I’d be curious to find out what does happen when you click on it.

But not too curious. I don’t work there any more, after all. I’ve had to move on. And I no longer hunt down indices nominum whenever I’m in a library. Fifteen-year habits are hard to break, but all things pass, and so did that.

This post is, of course, not about a mediaeval Greek bird name at all.

The relevance of the following song to what this post is actually about—is left as an exercise to the reader.

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    1. Ζώρας, Γ.Θ. 1954. Άγνωστα κείμενα και νέαι παραλλαγαί δημωδών έργων. Αθήνα: Σπουδαστήριον Βυζαντινής και Νεοελληνικής Φιλολογίας του Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών.

    2. Τσαβαρή, Ι. (επιμ.) 1987. Ο Πουλολόγος. Αθήνα: Μορφωτικό Ίδρυμα Εθνικής Τραπέζης.

    3. Krawczynski, S. 1960. Ο Πουλολόγος: Kritische Textausgabe mit Übersetzung sowie Sprachlichen und Sachlichen Erläuterungen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

    4. Χανδρινός, Γ. ϗ Δημητρόπουλος, Α. 1999. Αρπακτικά Πουλιά της Ελλάδας. Αθήνα: Efstathiadis.

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