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Review of Aperçu d'une histoire de la langue grecque
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 As will be discussed below, the book is naturally out of date in some respects; nonetheless, it has remained one of the classic works on the history of the Greek languages.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 language.
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 This is now rather outdated; Linear B was not yet deciphered when Meillet was writing, and Lycian, Carian and Lydian are now firmly established as Indo-European.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 language.
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: Oxford
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
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.