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Review of  Aperçu d'une histoire de la langue grecque

Reviewer: Nicholas Zair
Book Title: Aperçu d'une histoire de la langue grecque
Book Author: Antoine Meillet
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Greek, Modern
Issue Number: 22.431

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AUTHOR: Antoine Meillet
TITLE: Aperçu d'une histoire de la langue grecque
SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Library Collection
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2009

Nicholas Zair, Peterhouse & The Faculty of Classics, Cambridge University


This book is a digitally scanned reprint of the 3rd edition of Meillet's
''Aperçu d'une histoire de la langue grecque'', originally published in 1930 by
Hachette. It is published as part of CUP's Cambridge Library Collection, which
'aims to bring back to life books of enduring scholarly value'. As will be
discussed below, the book is naturally out of date in some respects;
nonetheless, it has remained one of the classic works on the history of the
Greek languages. Its current audience is likely to be undergraduates with some
knowledge of Greek who are embarking on a study of the historical linguistics of
the language.

The book consists of three parts. Part One treats the prehistory of Greek, Part
Two the Greek literary languages, and Part Three the creation of a common Greek

Part One contains four chapters. The first chapter ('Les origines
indo-européennes du Grec') provides a brief introduction to the Indo-European
languages and Proto-Indo-European. The concept of the regularity of sound change
is introduced, along with shared morphology as a sign of the relatedness of
languages. The sub-grouping of the Indo-European languages is discussed, along
with possible dating for when Indo-European was spoken (Meillet's 3rd millennium
BC now looks slightly late; see Mallory & Adams 2006: 86-105). The second
chapter ('Structure du grec commun') covers the phonological system which can be
reconstructed for common Greek, along with the changes from Proto-Indo-European
which created it, followed by the verbal and nominal systems. The third chapter
('Le grec et les langues voisines') consists of a tour of languages in the
vicinity of the early stages of Greek. This is now rather outdated; Linear B was
not yet deciphered when Meillet was writing, and Lycian, Carian and Lydian are
now firmly established as Indo-European. Meillet concludes that Greek was
remarkably little affected by neighbouring languages: the greatest influence on
Greek was the borrowing and adaptation of the Semitic alphabet, and the
substrate language responsible for the characteristic place-names ending in
-ssos and -nthos. The final chaper of Part 1 ('Les dialectes') describes the
four main dialect groups of Attic-Ionic, Arcado-Cypriot, Aeolic, and 'the
Western group' (Doric plus North West Greek) in terms of their main phonological
and morphological identifying features. This is followed by a section noting
that many shared features exist across the dialect groups as traditionally
reconstructed; for example, the tendency within the Aeolic group of Lesbian to
have features in common with Attic-Ionic, while Thessalian and Boeotian agree
with the 'North-West' dialects.

Part Two has twelve chapters, of which the first five are dedicated to literary
language in general (Chapter 1) and Greek literary language in particular
(Chapters 2-5). In these chapters Meillet discusses the vocabulary of Greek
poetry, the beginnings of the Greek literary languages, the origins of Greek
metre and the reliability of the texts which have come down to us (on which he
is generally optimistic, especially for metrical texts). The majority of Part
Two concerns the languages of the individual genres, beginning with Homeric
Greek, with a following chapter on the creation of the Greek definite article,
and moving on to the lyric poets, Attic tragedy, comedy, and Attic and Ionic
prose. Part Two ends with a rather unnecessary three-page chapter on 'Le style'
-- it is essentially an encomium to Greek's perfection for a variety of
literary purposes. The chapter on Homer is similar to the sections on the
dialects, consisting of a description of the most characteristic features of
Homeric Greek: the presence of digamma, not written in the text, but required to
be reconstructed by the metre; the undoing of contractions, as in the genitive
singular -ou, which must often be read as -oo; the appearance of both Aeolic and
Ionian forms; the formulaic nature of the Homeric poems.

The chapter on the lyric poets is structured rather similarly, dealing with
elegy, Ionian iambic-trochaic poetry, Aeolic lyric, and choral lyric in turn.
Three questions are emphasised: to what extent each genre was affected by the
influence of Homeric language; to what extent each genre's dialect reflects the
spoken form of that dialect; to what extent the genre is 'poetic' rather than
being close to everyday speech. As with the Homeric poems, perhaps the epitome
of an 'artificial' poetic language, it is clear that all types of lyric poetry
were 'artificial', but to varying degrees. This is true also of the language of
tragedy, whose 'Doric' choruses consist of only very lightly 'Doricised' Attic.
Literary prose, too, was distanced from everyday speech, not least because its
dialects of Attic and Ionic were often written by authors who spoke a different
dialect. Conversely, Attic writers like Thucydides avoided features which were
too 'Attic', for example replacing -tt- with the Ionic and largely pan-Greek -ss-.

This creation of a literary de-, or rather lightly-localised Greek can be seen
in the light of the third part of the book, which is dedicated to the question
of the creation of the koine, the single dialect of Greek which was briefly
spread across much of the known world by Alexander the Great and which is the
basis of Modern Greek. The first two chapters are dedicated to the definition of
koine, and the historical conditions which led to its creation and spread.
Chapters three to six consist of our sources of evidence for the koine, a
linguistic description of the main features of the koine, the dialectal bases of
the koine and the influence of Latin upon it (which was very minimal, apart from
technical vocabulary to do with Roman institutions). The last three chapters
describe the aftermath of the koine: the utter loss of the other dialects (with
the minor exception of Doric Tsakonian); the eventual divorce of the koine as
the official language of the Byzantine empire from spoken Greek, and the
development of Modern Greek. Throughout this part of the book Meillet emphasises
that the koine was a result of political and social factors: the beginnings of
the koine can be seen in the prestige acquired by first Ionic and then Attic
literature, following but outlasting the political dominance of those dialect
areas; the adoption and spread by conquest of ('de-localised') Attic due to the
extremely Hellenised Macedonian kings Phillip and Alexander; the consequent
learning of Greek as a second language by many new speakers, which encouraged a
more uniform dialect with the loss of some features such as the optative; and
the fairly swift retrenchment of Greek to a smaller area under unitary political
rule, which prevented its break-up into very different dialects and encouraged
the use of an 'official' Greek.


It would be extremely unfair to criticise a book published in 1930 on the basis
that it is outdated eighty years later. In fact, in the main, '' Aperçu'' holds up
remarkably well, partly because it provides a general survey rather than
approaching any aspect in great detail. Nonetheless, it means that the book is
naturally silent on the subject of Mycenaean Greek. The decipherment of Linear B
by Ventris and Chadwick in the 1950s brought the dating of the earliest form of
Greek into the mid-second millennium BC (by which time dialectal developments
had already occurred). Palmer's (1980) introduction to Greek devotes as many
pages to Mycenaean as to the Greek dialects of the 1st millennium. Clearly, the
absence of Mycenaean in the ''Aperçu'' has an effect on its value as a textbook.
Other instances of ''Aperçu'' showing its age are less important. Some cases have
been mentioned above and two more can be noted here: Greek 'prothetic' vowels in
words like ane:r 'man' are now explained as the result of initial laryngeals
(Mayrhofer 1986: 125, 134-5, 142); Hittite, along with Greek and Iranian, has
singular verb with neuter plurals.

In general, ''Aperçu'' is weakest in its first part, especially the first chapter.
It is not surprising that Meillet's treatment of the Indo-European background of
Greek is rather cursory; it is largely a prelude to the main subject of his
book, and is probably of less interest to the majority of his readers.
Nonetheless it is a little disappointing to find it so unfocussed, in particular
with regard to the subgrouping of the Indo-European languages. Meillet discusses
the following isoglosses: the so-called centum and satem languages (which appear
to reflect labialised and plain velars vs plain and palatalised velars
respectively); the falling together of *a and *o in Germanic, Baltic, Slavic and
Indo-Iranian but not Armenian, Latin, Greek and Celtic; the absence of the
augment in Latin, Oscan, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic or Slavic vs. its presence in
Greek, Armenian and Sanskrit; lexical similarities between Greek and Armenian.
To demonstrate Greek's (apparently historical/genetic, rather than geographical)
separation from Latin he uses the lack of shared vocabulary, concluding that we
can posit two 'civilisations' defined by this zone of vocabulary -- one
consisting of the future Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic 'dialects',
the other of Greek, Armenian and Indo-Iranian.

To the present-day reader, these examples seem almost to have been chosen to
demonstrate isoglosses which are not useful for the establishment of
Indo-European subgrouping, because two important concepts, which must be made
clear to the non-specialist to avoid the appearance of arbitrariness, are
missing from the discussion. Firstly, only shared innovations vis-à-vis the
original inherited language system are acceptable for the purpose of subgrouping
(thus the lack of *a and *o merger or the augment tells us nothing about
relatedness of the languages in which it occurs). Secondly, apparent shared
features must be considered with regard to typological and phonetic evidence as
to the likelihood of their occurring independently, and with regard to the
possibilities of borrowing and substratum influence (see e.g. Nichols 2003). For
shared vocabulary the likelihood of borrowing is very high, and the satem/centum
developments may well be independent changes to an original system of velars,
the nature of which is still under dispute (Mayrhofer 1986: 102-6).

It is a little surprising that the chapter on the dialects is found in the
section of the book dedicated to the 'prehistory' of Greek, since the
inscriptions on which our knowledge is largely based could hardly be anything
other than historical. The structure of ''Aperçu'' gives the impression that
non-literary language stopped from the beginning of the literary record until
the beginning of the koine. This is particularly strange since one way in which
Meillet has not dated at all is his awareness of language as a social artefact.
The book is continuously aware of the importance of language as a way of
constructing identity. This is manifested in the existence of a pan-Greek epic
in the form of Homer, which was a shared source of poetic language for
subsequent genres; in the 'localised' versions of official inscriptions which
show that the writers were however operating on the basis of the standard
language; and in the existence of the Aetolian League, which developed a sort of
North West Greek koine, clearly in opposition to the Ionian-Attic koine. Meillet
is always alert to the existence of different audiences and different types of
language: personal, official and literary versions of the same dialect vary in
important ways. It is this awareness that makes especially the second and third
parts of ''Aperçu'' still valuable as an introduction to the history of the Greek

The book is a scan of a much earlier printing, which leads to one or two minor
problems. In general the type is very clear, but it can be slightly fainter at
times, which tends to make the Greek sometimes a little difficult to read. There
are one or two typos in Greek forms, and on occasion corrections have evidently
been made to the copied text in pen -- whether this is due to sharp-eyed editors
at CUP or to a public-spirited reader of the book from which this edition was
scanned is unclear.


Mallory, J. P. & D. Q. Adams. 2006. ''The Oxford Introduction to
Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World''. Oxford University Press:

Mayrhofer, Manfred 1986.''Indogermanische Grammatik I/2: Lautlehre''. Heidelberg:
C. Winter

Nichols, Joanna. 2003. Diversity and stability in language. In Brian D. Joseph
and Richard D. Janda (eds.), ''The Handbook of Historical Linguistics'', 283-310.
Blackwell: Oxford

Palmer, Leonard R. 1980. ''The Greek Language''. London: Faber & Faber

Dr. Zair is a Research Fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has recently finished his D.Phil on 'The Reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European Laryngeals in Celtic' and is now working on the historical phonology of the Sabellic languages. His research interests include Proto-Indo-European phonology and morphology, the Celtic and Italic languages, and sound change.

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