Wednesday, April 27, 2016


James Clackson, Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2015. Pp. xiv, 204. ISBN 9780521140669. £19.99.

Reviewed by Staffan Wahlgren, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (

Version at BMCR home site


Students of Greek and Latin more often than not lack an overview of the many (other) languages spoken in the Mediterranean area in Antiquity and the extent of ancient bilingualism or multilingualism. Also, they often know little about sociolinguistics and the linguistic study of class, gender, religion, and the construction of identity. To all this, the present volume provides a handy introduction.

Chapter 1 ("The linguistic ecology of the Mediterranean") sets the scene. It aims at mapping the languages of the ancient Mediterranean (here, some more tables would have been useful) and describing the available evidence in the form of literary sources, inscriptions, documentary papyri etc. Further, it gives an introduction to relevant scholarship on linguistic diversity, the spread of languages and the like. Finally, it presents an overview of modern and ancient societies that may be considered parallel cases to those of the Mediterranean linguistic area (ranging, in the case of modern societies, from Northern Europe to South America, whereas, in the case of ancient societies, particular attention is paid to the Middle East in the preceding millennia). True, the evidence remains in some cases very scanty. However, the overview demonstrates in an impressive, and most encouraging, way recent advances in the understanding of languages such as Phrygian, Ligurian, and Gaulish.

Chapter 2 ("States of languages/languages of states") is devoted to the standardisation of language and the active promotion of languages and language forms. First, the case of Old Persian is discussed. Most of the chapter is devoted to Latin and Greek, and Latin is discussed before Greek. The narrative is very concentrated, and a somewhat fuller treatment of the Greek case would have been particularly welcome (longue-durée perspectives on Greek diglossia are missing; the road to katharevousa is never mentioned). Atticism/Classicism is discussed too briefly, and the reader is led to believe that it is more exclusively connected with the Second Sophistic than is the case (see pp. 55–58). Other points are also open to criticism. The mention of the use of Latin in Byzantine administration (p. 40) fails to recognise that domains originally reserved to Latin (such as law) were increasingly taken over by Greek, as illustrated by laws in Greek from as early as the 6th century and, more fully, by the late 9th-century collection known as the Basilika. The Art of Grammar by Dionysios Thrax is much more limited in scope than is implied here (p. 56). And the claim made on pp. 38 and 105 about the distortion of texts through transmission is in my opinion rather exaggerated.

In Chapter 3 ("Language and identity") major changes in the linguistic landscape, including those caused by colonization and conquest, are discussed. Language death (see, for instance, pp. 65–66 on the death of Gaulish) is discussed, as well as resistance to a dominant language (as illustrated by the use of Etruscan or Oscan instead of Latin because of an anti-Roman sentiment, see pp. 73–78). The evidence of bi- or trilingual inscriptions involving languages other than Greek and Latin is discussed (pp. 78–87, followed by a discussion of Greek and Latin bilingual inscriptions). More than anything else this demonstrates how little there is left to us and how little we know, and how difficult it is to arrive at anything but very hypothetical explanations as to why anyone would put up an inscription in Eteocypriot and Greek, or Latin, Greek and Punic, or Latin and Gaulish. Perhaps the most valuable point in all this is that it may be wrong to believe that all coexistence is resolved in swift death or victory, and that it may be wrong to believe that there is always a struggle between languages. It is convincingly argued that there may have been many stable, long-term cases of bilingualism (or multilingualism).

Chapter 4 deals with "Language variation". After a short introduction, in which, among other matters, the "mismatch between speech and writing" and the "problems" caused by this are laid out, there is a substantial discussion (pp. 99–103) of Labov's investigations into the social stratification of English in New York City. From this we proceed to "Tracking linguistic variation in the ancient world" (pp. 103–08), followed by sections on Greek (pp. 108–13, mainly on comedy) and Latin (pp. 114–18, mainly on comedy and the novel). Finally there is a section on "Language variation and language change" (pp. 118–22). All this makes for fascinating reading, and there are many good points (for instance on the connection between Vulgar and Late Latin). However, an underlying premiss seems to be that spoken language is a worthier object of study than written language, and this tends to take us into territory which is not so easily explored with regard to ancient languages (as illustrated by the discussion of Labov). We may ask whether ancient literary sources could have been exploited more fully in support of Clackson's arguments in this book.

Chapter 5 ("Language, gender, sexuality") deals with gender differences and female speech (pp. 124–34), male speech (pp. 134–37), and obscenity (pp. 137–42). Comedy is an important source of knowledge, concerning Greek as well as Latin. Other sources include Plato's Cratylus, Petronius' Satyricon, papyri and other kinds of documentary evidence, such as the Vindolanda tablets. Hints at gender differences caused by differences in education are played down, and the author seems wary of supposing that women were at a great disadvantage in this respect. Very interesting is the discussion (pp. 131–33) of the use of Greek vs. Coptic in letters (i.e. papyri) from the village of Kellis in Egypt's western desert. Women write in Coptic only, and men writing to women almost always do the same, whereas exclusively male correspondence is in most cases conducted in Greek. Why is this so, and what does it tell us about linguistic competence and gender, and the distribution of domains between Greek and Coptic? Also obscenity is given a good discussion, especially of the two verbs binéo and laikázo. A short note on a statement made by the author on modern languages may be permitted here: it is not universally true (as implied on p. 137) that "modern speakers" prefer obscenities to religious oaths at times of emotion. Scandinavian languages are remarkably much in favour of religious oaths, although obscenities are by no means rare. With other words, even though the preference for obscenities may hold true for English and many other languages as well, it is not safe to imply that there is a general cultural divide here between Antiquity and the modern world.

Chapter 6 ("The languages of Christianity") pursues several of the themes already discussed. The first section, pp. 143–51 ("Bible translators and cradle-snatchers"), deals with the development of a wide range of literary languages alongside Greek and Latin, and with attitudes towards these. There follows a section ("What would Jesus say?", pp. 151–56) on multilingualism in a specific corner of the Roman Empire at a specific time. Then comes a section ("Christian Greek and Christian Latin", pp. 156–63) dealing with the adoption of higher registers by Christian writers as well as with modern scholarship. The final section ("Christianity and local languages in the Roman Empire", pp. 163–70) starts with a discussion of the so-called Peregrinatio Aetheriae (or Egeriae, or Silvae) and the picture it gives of the linguistic situation in the East in the late 4th century. The discussion then moves on to the establishment of Syriac and Coptic as major literary languages and, at its very end, the dominance of Latin, the demise of other languages, and the limits of linguistic diversity within the Roman Empire (Bible translations seemingly thriving outside the Empire). It is not possible to comment upon all this in detail. Very interesting is the discussion of Augustine and his attitude towards Punic (pp. 147–48), as also the counterfactual discussion of what the linguistic future of Europe might have been had the Roman Empire of the West fallen earlier (pp. 167–68). Unfortunately there are some factual inaccuracies. That Mesrop invented alphabets not only for the Armenians but also for the Georgians and Caucasian Albanians is actually quite uncertain and may be a legend; here, it is presented as fact (p. 144). Bishop Wulfila of the Goths is placed in the 3rd century AD (p. 169). Had it not been for reasons of relative chronology (the invasions of the Huns in the 4th and the 5th century are described as taking place later than Wulfila), and for the claim that the Gothic translation of the Bible hails from the Balkans (i.e., it was not made within the Roman Empire: see p. 148 and the discussion of the lack of linguistic pluralism in the Empire), the placement of Wulfila in the 3rd century could be taken for a misprint (on p. 144 correct dates are given for Wulfila, and he is placed in the 4th century where he belongs). But as it stands, and because of its context, the wrong date is confusing. It remains an open question whether the author sees any good reason to doubt that Wulfila's translation was carried out in Nicopolis ad Istrum and therefore in the Roman Empire.

After the six chapters there is a "Conclusion" (with the subtitle "Dead Languages?") in which some general ideas are reiterated and threads tied together. The statement that it may be "pointless to attempt to make sense of ancient linguistic variation through the methods of modern linguistic research" (p. 174) is thought-provoking. Finally, there is a useful but rather too short bibliographic essay, followed by references and an index.

To sum up, this is a really good book. It is up to date, well written and an easy read, and it is well produced with only a very few misprints. The factual errors are neither many nor, on the whole, serious. Perhaps it is not unfair to suspect a certain Anglo-Saxon bias: the bibliography mainly lists works in the English language, and there is an ever so slight tendency to present multilingualism as abnormal. More important, however, is that this is a work with a clear aim and a lot of coherence; it will serve its purpose as an excellent introduction to a vast subject. Comparing it with the many handbooks that are flooding the market, it seems fortunate that it was written by one person only.

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