Friday, May 30, 2014


Alex Mullen, Patrick James (ed.), Multilingualism in the Graeco-Roman Worlds. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 389. ISBN 9781107013865. $110.00.

Reviewed by Rachel Mairs, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site


The publication of this volume in 2012 coincided with the tenth anniversary of one of the foundational works of the new wave of research on ancient multilingualism, Adams, Janse and Swain's Bilingualism in Ancient Society.1 There have been important developments in the field since 2002, and many of the innovative approaches pioneered in Bilingualism in Ancient Society have become established. This is especially true of the adoption and critical treatment of phenomena identified in studies of multilingualism in modern, spoken languages, such as code-switching, bilingual interference and diglossia. All of these concepts, and many others from sociolinguistics, are now recognised as part of the theoretical toolkit of ancient multilingual research.

Mullen and James' new edited volume builds on previous scholarship of this type, but offers many original insights into both ancient multilingualism and methodological 'best practice' in exploring it. It covers a geographical range from Ireland to Egypt, and in chronology extends from antiquity to the early middle ages—the 'worlds' of the title. The contributors remind us that multilingualism and language contact can be explored using many different forms of evidence, not exclusively textual. All of them combine theoretical reflections with detailed dissection of individual texts and contexts. The volume as a whole gathers in one place material and scholarship which an individual student or scholar might otherwise never come across. For that alone—in addition to its many virtues and accomplishments—the volume is to be highly recommended both to established researchers on ancient and medieval multilingualism, and to those exploring the subject for the first time.

Alex Mullen's excellent introduction sets the scene, both for the range of material to be considered in the volume, and for the methodological and theoretical concerns upon which all the contributors touch. She notes that disciplinary boundaries have, in the past, impeded research into ancient multilingualism. This is true of the division between sociolinguistic study of ancient and modern languages, and of the separation of the study of ancient languages (such as Greek and Egyptian) into different university departments. The present volume decisively breaks down these boundaries.

Scholars of multilingualism in the ancient world have, over the past decade or so, engaged critically with scholarship on linguistic interaction in the modern world, making particular use of the data available on interaction between spoken languages. This has been a strong point of three of the existing, comparable edited volumes on ancient multilingualism: Adams, Janse and Swain's 2002 Bilingualism in Ancient Society; Cotton, Hoyland, Price and Wasserstein's 2009 From Hellenism to Islam;2 and Papaconstantinou's 2010 The Multilingual Experience in Egypt.3 Adams' masterful Bilingualism and the Latin Language4 (2003) also demonstrates close engagement with sociolinguistic theory. Mullen argues that comparison between ancient and modern case studies is valid because "the bilingual phenomena attested are created through analogous linguistic interactions and are representative of similar human processes". She furthermore offers a theoretical template for approaching ancient multilingualism, in response to a tendency which, I would suggest, is widespread in studies of cultural interaction in the ancient world as a whole: the tendency to cherry pick modern theory for one's own immediate purposes, and not remain completely abreast of the latest developments and debates in anthropology and sociolinguistics. Mullen places a welcome emphasis on some recent themes in sociolinguistic research of especial relevance to the ancient world, such as the question of ethnolinguistic vitality.

Mullen suggests that scholarship on multilingualism and multiculturalism in the ancient world, has "entered a critical phase of refining, rethinking and elaborating, particularly with regards to interdisciplinary approaches." The contributions in the present volume demonstrate that ancient multilingualism has moved beyond its 'pioneer' phase and is now a mature discipline.

In addition to providing important discussions of material which the reader interested in ancient multilingualism would otherwise have to turn to many different volumes, often obscure, to find, each of the chapters engages with some important wider problems in ancient sociolinguistics.

In his chapter, James Clackson examines processes of language maintenance and language shift, in his discussion of the ways in which the spread of the Latin and Greek languages in the Roman Empire affected other languages and their speakers. He highlights the role played by gender: there were situations where women were linguistically conservative, others in which they acted as agents of change.

Arietta Papaconstantinou contributes to the growing debate about reasons for the success or failure of various languages around the time of the Arab conquest in the Near East. She looks at the social, political and economic context for language shift, with an emphasis on the range of factors which might cause a language to 'succeed' or 'fail'.

Oliver Simkin discusses the interaction between a large number of indigenous and colonial languages in the Iberian peninsula. He provides a valuable dissection of the problems inherent in trying to glean sociolinguistic information from bilingual inscriptions in which one language (e.g. Iberian) cannot be understood.

The chapter by Trevor Evans unpacks previous scholars' assumptions in their identification of bilingual interference in the Zenon archive. He sets out material for conducting a systematic analysis of the documents in this important Egyptian archive of the third century BC, with a view to identifying genuine cases of bilingual interference. The notion of 'bad Greek', enthusiastically debunked in much of the recent scholarly literature,5 raises its head. Earlier judgments of the quality of papyrological Greek were judged against the benchmark of "literary Attic prose, which the early editors really wanted the Greek of the papyri to be."

Broadening the chronological perspective, Alderik Blom offers an anthropological approach to ancient and medieval ritual languages. He examines the phenomenon of tag-switching into another language in sacred texts and argues that there might be reasons for deliberate "opaqueness of meaning", to both reader/speaker and scribe/composer.

David Langslow explores translation techniques in Greek and Latin. He differentiates between word for word renderings, which may also help the reader recover the original, and versions produced by translators concerned with reproducing the full effect and content of the original. Of particular interest are the choices of translators in deciding to retain, or to rephrase, specific items of terminology from the original text.

The status of Greek in medieval Ireland is discussed by Pádraic Moran, who explores the resources available to Irish learners of the language. He identifies Irish glossaries, which often compared Irish words to similar-sounding ones in other languages, as "an early stage in the history of comparative linguistics."

Paul Russell offers a selection of fascinating "views of multilingualism from the early medieval West", including some tantalising cases where we have evidence that multilingualism existed, but insufficient material to judge its nature and extent. He raises two particularly important points: the difference between active and passive command of a language; and the need to examine the processes of second language acquisition, as well as its use.

Scott Bucking reassesses the primary evidence and modern debates on Greek-Coptic education in Late Antique Egypt. His emphasis on the spatial and material context of bilingual learning offers an invaluable counterpoint to the textual analysis of the preceding chapters.

Andrew Wilson also looks at texts in context. He notes a major difficulty in the interpretation of multilingual neo-Punic, Latin and Greek inscriptions from North Africa, in that they have tended in the past to be published separately. His contribution examines inscriptions in which the two (or more) texts do not represent exact translations, but idiomatic renderings with their own cultural and religious referents.

Robin Osborne offers a concluding chapter which explores the many 'languages' of cultural communication, whether verbal language or forms of visual expression.

This volume is a welcome and important addition to the growing literature on multilingualism in the ancient world. Its range of case studies, across space and time, is impressive. The contributions demonstrate that exciting new interdisciplinary research is underway on interactions between a vast number of ancient and medieval languages. Scholars of ancient multilingualism have engaged fully and critically with the literature on interactions between languages in the modern and early modern worlds, adopting and adapting concepts such as linguistic interference, code-switching and diglossia, among many others. The next step ought to be for this dialogue between ancient and modern sociolinguistics to become two-way. Studies such as those contained in the present volume will, it is hoped, make a wider scholarly community aware of the excellent material available for exploring ancient multilingualism.


1.   Adams, James N., Mark Janse and Simon Swain eds. (2002) Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2.   Cotton, Hannah M., Robert G. Hoyland, Jonathan J. Price and David J. Wasserstein eds. (2009) From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3.   Papaconstantinou, Arietta eds. (2010) The Multilingual Experience in Egypt, from the Ptolemies to the ͑Abbāsids. Farnham: Ashgate.
4.   Adams, J. N. (2003) Bilingualism and the Latin Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5.   Vierros, Marja (2012) Bilingual Notaries in Hellenistic Egypt: A Study of Greek as a Second Language. Brussels: Comité Klassieke Studies, Subcomité Hellenisme, Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten.

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