We don’t speak mediaeval round here…

By: | Post date: 2017-10-04 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek, Modern Greek

I recently reported on a translation of the Gettysburg Address into Ancient Greek, that I found on the Textkit forum. As a show of my new-found liberality with my time online (now that I am no longer on Quora), I have joined Textkit; and as part of my sign up, I’ve said hello to people there in Ancient Greek.

Now, as I occasionally confess sotto voce, I may have styled myself a world expert on the history of the Greek language, but I have never actually formally studied Ancient Greek. Which means that when I do try to write in Ancient Greek, the results are strongly coloured by what Modern Greek speakers know of Ancient Greek. In other words, what comes out is Puristic, which in turn is often enough Byzantine. When I wrote to Michael Masiello in Ancient Greek on Quora, he worked out that was what was going on in comments.

Oh, the comments on Quora don’t export, but I’m still not linking direct to Quora.

So what happens when I unwittingly introduce a whole bunch of mediaevalisms in my Ancient Greek? What happens is the exchange in Νικόλαος Νικολαόυ, Τεξτκὶτ θαμῶσι εὐ πράττειν, where site moderator Jeidsath says “huh?” a fair bit.

I thought it interesting to relay my missteps. This is what I wrote:

Νικόλαος Νικολαόυ, Τεξτκὶτ θαμῶσι εὐ πράττειν.

Τοὺς τῆς ἑλληνικῆς γλώττης ἐνθάδε φίλους χαιρετῶ. Νικόλαος μὲν ἐμοὶ τὸ ὄνομα, γλωττολόγος δὲ ἐμοὶ ἡ παιδεία. Εἰς τὸν Θησαυρὸν τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς Γλώττης (TLG) ἐπὶ δεκαεπτὰ ἔτη ἠργασάμην, τὸν δὲ αὐτόματον ἐκείνου τῶν λέξεων ἀναλυτὴν ἀνέπτυσσον. Ἱστολόγιον περὶ τῶν ἑλληνικῶν καὶ περὶ τῆς γλωττολογίας γράφω, ἄλλ’ οὐκ ἔξεστί μοι ἔτι ἐνθάδε τὸν σύνδεσμον κοινοποιεῖν, καθότι καινός εἰμι. Ἐκεῖ πρότινος τὴν τοῦ Δαμοίτα ὑμῶν ἐσχολίακα μετάφρασιν τῆς εἰς Γεττισβοῦργον ὁμιλίας.

And this is what I thought I said in Ancient Greek:

Nick Nicholas, to the regulars of Textkit, salutations.

I greet the friends of the Hellenic tongue here. My name is Nicholas, and my education is linguistics. I worked at the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae for seventeen years, and I developed its automated word analyser. I write a blog on Greek and Linguistics, but I am not yet allowed to publish the link here, as I am new. [The forum has fire and brimstone about publishing links when you first arrive.] I commented there recently on a translation by your Damoetas of the Gettysburg Address.

And this is where I confused Jeidsath:

As every Greek blogger knows, a θαμώνας is the cutely archaising term for a customer of a café, bar, taverna, and other such places; and by extension, it’s applied to regulars at online cafés—that is, fora and blogs.
Jeidsath has excellent reasons not to know that word. It’s not just because he doesn’t hang out in Modern Greek cafés. As the Triantafyllidis Institute’s dictionary notes,

[λόγ. θαμ(ών) -ώνας < αρχ. επίρρ. θαμ(ά) `συχνά΄ -ών σφαλερή δημιουργία αντί π.χ. θαμιστής, συχναστής (επίρρ. και αρχ. επίθημα -ων, που παράγει ουσ., δεν μπορούν να συνδυαστούν) μτφρδ. γαλλ. fréquantant (les cafés)]

Learnèd θαμών (modernised to θαμώνας) < Ancient adverb θαμά “often” + -ών, an erroneous formation instead of e.g. θαμιστής, συχναστής “frequenter”: the ancient suffix -ών, which produces nouns, cannot combine with an adverb. Calque of French fréquantant (les cafés)

So the word did not exist in Ancient Greek, and it couldn’t have. θαμιστής has not been recorded either, whether for Ancient or Mediaeval Greek; but it least it would have been regularly generated from the verb θαμίζω “to frequent”.

γλωττολόγος δὲ ἐμοὶ ἡ παιδεία
Yes, yes, I know that’s horridly awkward.
αὐτόματον τῶν λέξεων ἀναλυτὴν
“automated analyser of words” seems to have thrown Jeidsath (“you don’t mean a relaxer who lets something loose, so what do you mean”); yes, our modern notions of “analyse” are a metaphorical extension from the original meaning of the verb, “to unloose, undo”; but meanings like “resolve into its elements” and “investigate analytically” are clearly old. Yet, checking LSJ, not quite old enough: Pseudo-Phocylides, Aristotle, Archimedes. In other words, Koine, not Attic. Plato would not have understood my talk of parsing.

… Of course, Plato would not have understood any talk of parsing: morphology as we know it was a creation of Roman times, and its language was Herodian’s Koine.

Mediaeval Greek has a habit of running words together, which modern editors of Ancient Greek (and usually Mediaeval Greek) texts print separately. Even to the extent of printing “whatever” as ὅ τι, where Mediaeval and Modern Greek write ὅ,τι (using the hypodiastole, which corresponds to the Modern English use of dash to link words together). In fact, the cleanup of words run in together in modern editions of the Classics reminds me of the scrubbing of Ancient statuary clean of ancient colouring.

Editors of Mediaeval texts separate out the more egregious instances of run-in words; but there’s still a healthy tradition of it in Modern Greek, and I succumbed to it: πρότινος is πρό τινος “before-something”, meaning “a short while ago”. In fact, in my response to Jeidsath, I ended up committing two more instances: καὶ οὕτω καθεξῆς (καθ’ ἑξῆς) “and thus according-to-what-follows” = “and so forth”, and τουτέστιν (τοῦτ’ ἐστιν) “this-is” = “namely”.

All of these are my fault, not Jeidsath’s; he’s under no obligation to know anything about Mediaeval Greek—let alone the fantasies of Modern Greek calquers of French.

I wish I could guarantee that I won’t do the same kind of thing again…


  • […] I posted a commentary on the first of two translations that I found online of the Gettysburg Address into Ancient Greek, emulating the style of Gorgias. That find has prompted me to join the Textkit forum for people learning and writing in Latin and Ancient Greek—with the hilarity of a Modern Greek speaker trying to write in Ancient Greek that I have documented. […]

  • John Cowan says:

    Respect to all parties, but why doesn’t he have an obligation? In the 19C it was routine to learn both Classical and Koine. Oscar Wilde (who admittedly was a particularly brilliant scholar) won prizes both for his extempore translations of the Agamemnon and for his superior performance on a New Testament exam. There’s a story that during his viva he was asked to translate Acts 32 (which is about St. Paul’s shipwreck and is loaded with obscure nautical vocabulary). It took three tries for his examiners to get him to stop, as his performance was fluent and accurate; when he finally did stop, he said “Oh, do let me go on, I want to see how it comes out”!

    It’s easy to see that if you are only interested in Modern Greek, there’s no reason to learn earlier versions of the language, any more than educated anglophones are normally expected to read Beowulf in the original Beowulfian. But if you are going to become a Greek scholar, you surely ought to learn the language as a whole from Homer (or Linear B) up to Modern Greek and the intermediate varieties in the process, even if you are more thoroughly trained in one variety than the others.

    • “Oh, do let me go on, I want to see how it comes out”

      Oh, that’s lovely!

      But if you are going to become a Greek scholar, you surely ought to learn the language as a whole from Homer (or Linear B) up to Modern Greek and the intermediate varieties in the process, even if you are more thoroughly trained in one variety than the others.

      Hm. You’d like to think so, but of course that’s not what happens, and there’s cultural reasons why that doesn’t happen. I dislike a lot of what is posted at Eidolon, because of its parochial identitarian preoccupations; but I had a lot of affection for the piece On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek. (Its companion piece On Not Wanting To Know Ancient Greek, on the other hand, I had no time for. But as I admitted in comments, I wouldn’t.)

      • Joel Eidsath says:

        Thank you for the write-up and detailed explanations. They were a pleasure to read both in Greek and then in English.

        (The version of the Oscar Wilde story that I heard was that he was translating the passion. The last chapters of Acts make for a more believable, but less Wildean story.)

        I’m afraid that I mistook your σύνδεσμον κοινοποιεῖν as well — thinking that you were afraid of being too friendly, barely knowing us. But having seen your other posts, I suppose σύνδεσμον is a hyperlink. (And now I see that you also posted a translation! The last sentence remained beyond me until I saw your English.)

        I’m afraid that I’m still fairly new to Greek. Once I’m fluent in Attic and Koine, Medieval Greek is a reasonable goal, I imagine.

        • Oh, you don’t need to be across Mediaeval Greek (or even the Learnèd Attic and Koine which is the bulk of what is actually recorded from the Middle Ages.) Still, I might drop off the odd paragraph for discussion there!

          The friction between Attic vocabulary and what follows is intriguing to me, as an understudied aspect of the history of Greek; and I believe I have a lot to learn from you too.

          You get to be Ἰωήλ instead of Ἰειδσαθ now, of course.

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