Monday, May 9, 2011


Geoffrey C. Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers. Second Edition. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pp. xx, 505. ISBN 9781405134156. $199.95.

Reviewed by Chiara Faraggiana di Sarzana, Università di Bologna (

Version at BMCR home site


The first edition of Geoffrey Horrocks' volume (London: Longman, 1997, 393pp.)1 went out of print many years ago. Since then, copies have reached exorbitant prices on the second-hand book market. As such, this new revised and enlarged edition of Horrocks' volume is doubly welcome. Horrocks' new volume makes for rewarding reading about a highly complex theme. In fact, although the structure and the main content of the text has not changed, the second edition offers noteworthy additions and improvements.

Readers without previous knowledge of the text should be aware that Greek is not a handbook. To appreciate Horrocks' contributions, a basic knowledge of Greek and of general linguistics is required. What should be emphasized is Horrocks' intention to offer an ambitious book that goes beyond the pattern of most language histories, as he aims to look «at the Greek language in all its varieties and in the context of the changing social and historical circumstances of its speakers / writers (p. 4)». His well-documented survey of more than three thousand years of language history is inspired by a desire to explain the development of the Greek language in its entirety, and to explore the logic of its conservative features. Horrocks invites his readers to keep in mind how crucial, in the history of a language, is the emergence of a true classical canon. He likewise underscores the fossilizing effect – on orthography, grammar and vocabulary – of the exceptionally early emergence (5th-4th centuries BC) of such a canon in Greek.

Coherently organized, the volume starts with a short introduction (pp. 1-5) articulating the book's scope and the author's purpose. The body is then divided into three main sections, with equal attention accorded to the Ancient (pp. 7-188), Byzantine (pp. 189-369) and Modern periods (pp. 371-470). After reading the book one may come away with the impression of a somewhat episodic account. However, this is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of the work's attempt to present long-term language usage, and the specifics of linguistic history, as completely as possible, while keeping the survey to reasonable dimensions. In comparison with the first edition, it is worth noting a number of areas that have been significantly expanded. For example, in Part I, more attention is devoted to the ancient dialects and literary 'standards' of Classical Greek; Part II now includes new references and further examples from literary texts (e.g. Theophylaktos Simocattes, p. 223, Michael Kritoboulos, pp. 240-242, Malalas p. 246). Nonetheless, works as essential as the English translation of Theophanes, which appeared in 1997,2 and Reinsch and Kambylis' invaluable edition of the Alexiad of Anna Comnena3 remain unidentified. In Part III, a section about written Greek today is totally new (pp. 466-470). The text of the volume, in its entirety, has been carefully revised. Additions and improvements address issues some of which are phonetic (inter alia, on p. XVII a very useful table of the international phonetic alphabet, revised to 2005, has been inserted, whereby the transcription of κ in καί is now the plosive palatal c for texts of the Byzantine and Modern period), some textual (for example, the passage from the Digenes Akrites is now offered in the edition of Elizabeth Jeffreys, with a few changes mentioned on p. 368, note 3) and others historical, particularly concerning the Byzantine period.

It is frustrating that in 2010 a historical linguist needs to remind his scholarly readership that the achievements of the Byzantines in the literary and linguistic field should not be compared disparagingly with the – relatively few – chefs-d'oeuvre of Ancient Greece that managed to survive. As such, Horrocks' clearly stated appreciation for the written language used in the Greek literature of the Middle Ages is particularly welcome. He sees it «as an affirmation of the continuing importance of a cultural tradition threatened by external forces» (p. 213) – not as a pastiche attempting a slavish imitation of ancient authors; he likewise urges his readers to keep in mind that «'Greek' in the middle ages represents a broad continuum between two extremes ('classicizing/literary' and 'popular/spoken')» (p. 230); he also masterfully deals with the question of diglossia by emphasizing the steady interaction of the learned written tradition and the vernacular of spoken Greek. Some of the most valuable pages of the book are surely those which describe specific linguistic features that in the Middle Ages and in the Ottoman period linked certain areas of the Greek-speaking world. In contrast, the highly complex period of the 7th and 8th centuries warrants a more careful analysis: defining this period as a 'dark age' (p. 211) marked by «isolation» that «inevitably led to greater cultural and religious divergence» (i.e. with Latin Europe), surely conveys an image that is inherently limited.4

We have very little suitable bibliography for students who need to be introduced to reading original sources (documents, literary texts, technical treatises, etc.) written in Greek of the Byzantine period. The booklet of Robert Browning5 remains a useful and pleasant guide to the topic; however, it is very concise and, thirty years after its most recently revised edition, is sorely in need of updating. Horrocks partially fills this gap with his noteworthy survey of the development of Greek and his attention to many grammatical and stylistic topics.6 For every period, these are illustrated by carefully selected texts. His annotated passages drawn from the Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern periods (including some new additions to this 2nd edition) are a precious tool for classroom use in teaching post-classical Greek. At the same time, it should be noted that Horrocks glosses each selected Greek text with an interlinear 'verbum de verbo' English translation. This might be appreciated by readers (do they exist?) able to make use of this volume with no previous knowledge of Greek vocabulary; but in many cases the result is misleading. In such a scholarly book, students of Greek would be better served by a method avoiding 'helps' that ignore the significance of syntax. Applying interlinear English glosses to a Greek text is arguably a sound approach to translation; in the best case, it does justice to the meaning of some grammatical forms (though not at all in the case of the Greek particles!), but it fails to make clear to undergraduate students that the proper translation of a complex sentence necessarily requires the thorough understanding of every word in its syntactic role. Hence, a second and in general excellent, translation of each passage is offered.

Some points would deserve a further comment. On p. 140, Horrocks translates a quote from Aelius Aristides, To Plato: In Defence of Oratory: ᾧ γοῦν συνεγένετο Ἀναξαγόρᾳ, οὐ τἀκείνου τιμήσας φαίνεται («So though he did study with Anaxagoras, he clearly did not respect his teachings»). Defending his translation of ᾧ, in a paragraph newly added in the 2nd edition, he writes: «The neuter dative relative ᾧ [ho:i], employed as a conjunction in the sense 'while/whereas', is extremely rare, and also illustrates a major Atticist tendency, namely the use of abstruse forms and contructions in an effort simultaneously to maximize the distance between the literary and the spoken languages and to impress one's rivals with one's knowledge». However, while Horrocks' comments appear authoritative, it is not clear that the proposed interpretation for ᾧ is correct. Why not rather connect the pronoun with Ἀναξαγόρᾳ, thus translating: He clearly did not respect the teachings of that Anaxagoras with whom he had studied? Beginning the sentence with a proleptic relative followed immediately by γοῦν and referring to a following noun is a construction attested by Dio Chrysostomus (Or. 33, 11, 9-11 von Arnim: ὃν γοῦν μόνον ἐξ ἁπάντων ἐβλασφήμησε Θερσίτην, καὶ τοῦτον λιγὺν εἶναί φησιν ἀγορητήν), and also by Aelius Aristides (Πρὸς Πλάτωνα ὑπὲρ τῶν τεττάρων, 312 [Jebb page], 11-13: ὃν γοῦν ἀξιοῖ σοφώτατον εἶναι θεὸν καὶ παρ' ᾧ πᾶν εἶναι τἀληθὲς, τοῦτον δή που τέλεον σοφιστὴν κέκληκεν). An additional note mentioning changes in the proposed pronunciation of ᾧ [ho:i] (with reference to pp. 163-167) would be useful. On p. 269: διά with the genitive in the famous passage of Maximos Planoudes relating to the introduction of Arabic numerals into Greek is probably better translated 'through' rather than 'for', thus: the wisest of the astronomers invented certain symbols and through them a framework of interpretation (οἱ τῶν ἀστρονόμων φιλοσοφώτεροι … ἐφεῦρον σχήματά τινα καὶ μέθοδον δι' αὐτῶν).

A necessarily selective but important Bibliography (pp. 471-492) closes the volume. However, one is surprised to find some notable contributions not included in Horrocks' list. For example, the still valuable Études sur le grec de la basse époque by David Tabachovitz (Uppsala-Leipzig 1943) is omitted, and on Ioannes Moschos (discussed pp. 253-256) Giovanni Mosco, Il Prato, translated by Riccardo Maisano (Naples 1982), with essential notes on the Greek text of this author.A critical evaluation of the theories of Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, whose writings are significantly absent, would have been welcome, particularly his Historia de la lengua griega de los orígenes a nuestros días, Madrid 1999, which has been translated into German (Tübingen 2001, with a final revision by Adrados himself, as indicated in the Nachwort of the translator Hansbert Bertsch), Greek (Athena 2003), and English (Leiden and Boston 2005) and has been widely reviewed.

Given the wealth of questions and issues addressed in this volume, a more detailed index of personal names, and of grammatical, historical and literary topics, would be a great help. The index as it stands (pp. 493-505) does not consistently reflect additions to the 1st edition, and an analytical index of cited texts is lacking. On the other hand, although the two maps (pp. 14, 208) have been reduced as compared with those included in the 1st edition, the volume has a very accurate layout and is neatly printed, with few, mostly trivial misprints: I call attention only to p. 97, lin. 5 (where we should read 168, not 169) and p. 146, lin. 34, 39 (παρασκεύασαι should be παρεσκεύασαι, or else the spelling of this perfect deserves comment).

These minor critical notes do not reduce the value of Horrocks' impressive achievement. Even if some scholars of the Greek language will close this book with the impression of having enjoyed plenty of appetizers, but not enough of substance to satiate their hunger, Horrocks' courageous book deserves the attention of a broad readership, from scholars in diverse disciplines to graduate students. The text is likewise to be recommended to individuals interested in the effects of politics, military history, and culture on the history of language. In fact, perhaps one of Horrocks' greatest achievements is the skill with which he demonstrates the special value of the history of Greek, thinking about the Greek language in terms of breadth and depth that are unusual among linguists working on Greek.


1.   For a valuable review, see Brian D. Joseph, in Diachronica 18:1 (2001), 166-171; available on the web at: (last access date: 5th March 2011).
2.   C. A. Mango - R. Scott - G. Greatrex, The chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern history, AD 284-813, Oxford, 1997.
3.   Annae Comnenae Alexias. 1: Prolegomena et textus. 2: Indices (CFHB 40, 1-2: Series Berolinensis), rec. D. R. Reinsch - A. Kambylis, Berolini [etc.] 2001.
4.   On this topic, one should perhaps find a place in the bibliography for such titles as W. Berschin, Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages: From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa. Washington D.C. 1988, English translation of the original German edition (Bern-München 1980); M. Lapidge (ed.), Archbishop Theodore. Commemorative Studies on His Life and Influence, Cambridge 1995; D. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture. The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Ἁbbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th c.), London 1998.
5.   R. Browning, Medieval and Modern Greek, Cambridge 1969, 2nd ed. 1983.
6.   Unfortunately, the valuable paper (with impressive bibliography) by A. Rollo, 'Greco medievale' e 'greco bizantino', in AION. Annali del Dipartimento di Studi del Mondo Classico e del Mediterraneo Antico. Sezione linguistica, 30 (2008), 429-473, appeared too late to be taken into account by Horrocks.

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