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Pindar's language

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Pindar's language

Postby Hylander » Fri Apr 21, 2017 3:19 pm

To follow up on a discussion among some of us by private e-mail, here is what M.M. Willcock has to say on this topic in Pindar Victory Odes (Cambridge 1995) (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, "Green and Yellow Series"), p. 22:

Choral lyric was composed in 'literary Doric', an artificial dialect with a Doric flavor but containing also Aeolic forms from north Greece, and a very strong influence from Homer, which means not only an addition of Ionic, but also archaic features such as the masculine genitive in -οιο. Pindar himself coming from Thebes, his natural language was the Aeolic of Boeotia, but little evidence of that has been found in his poems; and it is a striking fact that, superficially at least, one cannot find much difference between his language and that of Bacchylides, who was an Ionic speaker from the island of Ceos.

The most obvious feature of literary Doric to our eyes and ears is the preservation of the original long alpha which had become eta in Ionic (and so in Homer) and for the most part in Attic. This gives a pervasive tone to the poetry, as it does, more surprisingly, to the choruses of Attic tragedy.


I think it may be better to think of a common, pan-Hellenic literary language that could be colored to a greater or lesser extent, depending on genre, Doric (for choral poetry, including dramatic choruses), Homeric/Ionic (for long hexameter poems and elegy), Ionic or Attic/Ionic (for history, dramatic dialogue, iambus), etc. The differences among these "colors" are really not that great and once they're assimilated, it's not too hard to recognize them in reading. Homer was of course the basis of instruction in schools throughout antiquity (and beyond), and Pindar was an instant classic who was intelligible and widely appreciated throughout the Greek world, not just in the "Doric"-speaking parts of Greece. In other words, this was pan-Hellenic poetry. Epichoric or local spoken dialects would have been quite different and much less widely intelligible outside their home territories than the literary dialects.

Later, in the Hellenistic period, Alexandrian poets such as Theocritus and Callimachus made a self-conscious effort to fashion hexameter poetry in a Doric-colored language, which nevertheless still seems to owe a great deal to Homer--Homer with long alpha. I think that Doric hexameter poetry, at least at a "high" literary level (as opposed, perhaps, to occasional verses, e.g., composed on the spot at symposia) would have been an inconceivable violation of decorum in the earlier age.

Maybe Michael could exercise some adult supervision over my ramblings here.
Last edited by Hylander on Sat Apr 22, 2017 12:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Pindar's language

Postby mwh » Fri Apr 21, 2017 7:37 pm

I am Michael and I approve this message.
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Re: Pindar's language

Postby anphph » Sun Apr 23, 2017 1:42 pm

I think it may be better to think of a common, pan-Hellenic literary language that could be colored to a greater or lesser extent, depending on genre, Doric (for choral poetry, including dramatic choruses), Homeric/Ionic (for long hexameter poems and elegy), Ionic or Attic/Ionic (for history, dramatic dialogue, iambus), etc. The differences among these "colors" are really not that great and once they're assimilated, it's not too hard to recognize them in reading.

I wonder how automatic this was. Whether someone could compose a poem in a specific register, only to have someone tell them to "make it more Doric", and proceed to go through the poem replacing specific features with the Doric equivalents, in a sort of expanded notion of what we now present in textbooks as "Doric features", or if alternatively a poem would be written in a specific dialect frame, and to alter it towards a stronger dialect colour or away from it would be out of anyone's mind.
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Re: Pindar's language

Postby Hylander » Sun Apr 23, 2017 2:19 pm

I strongly doubt that poets such as Pindar, whose normal poetic language was Doric-colored, composed in a neutral language and then changed the text to fit a specific dialect--the dialect coloration would have come naturally and inevitably to the poet writing in a specific genre and register. Even the Athenian dramatists had very likely internalized the Doric features that color their choruses. After all, most Athenians and many Greeks elsewhere would probably have grown up, and continued as adults, participating in Doric-dialect choral performances, and not only the dramatists, but their audiences, too, would have had no problems understanding the language of choral poetry.

Some of the earliest poems and fragments (e.g., Alkman), however, are thought to have been altered over the course of time to make them sound more "Doric." For example, the famous line in the Partheneion, as recorded in a papyrus possibly dating from the first century CE (but certainly not from the archaic period), is given as εστι τις σιων τισις, where my understanding is that the sound changes in the Lakonian dialect that transformed θεων to σιων are thought to have occurred much later than Alkman (fl. 7th c. BCE), perhaps in the 4th c. BCE, on the basis of epigraphic evidence.

I think the later, Hellenistic Doric of Theocritus and Callimachus was somewhat self-consciously contrived, with a lot of Homeric forms. Although these poets came from areas where local dialects were Doric, I suspect the local dialects these poets may have grown up speaking would be barely, if at all, intelligible in other parts of the Greek-speaking world and very difficult for us to read today, and not at all like the language of Theocritus' or Callimachus' verse.
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Re: Pindar's language

Postby mwh » Sun Apr 23, 2017 10:28 pm

I think Hylander has it right. There were generic proprieties, which poets in the archaic and classical periods respected without having to think about it. This goes not only for dialect but for all the other features of the poetry, meter, imagery, register, structure, etc. In the wake of Stesichorus (7th/6th cent BCE) the language of panhellenic lyric (Simonides, Pindar, Bacchylides, …) was more or less fixed, just as the language of hexameter and elegiac verse already was.

I think Hylander’s model of a panhellenic literary language “colored” according to genre has much to be said for it. (His “could be” colored is open to misinterpretation: it is colored, invariably, there’s no neutral.) It’s not at all at variance with what Willcock says, mind, and it’s not the only way of looking at it. Epic had its own established language, “Ionic” but really assignable to no single dialect, and “literary Doric,” while no less artificial, originated in Doric-speaking regions. So the epic/lyric divide can be seen in these more historical terms too. And then there’s the originally discrete Lesbian tradition of versification, dialectally assimilated to literary Doric in the panhellenic world (e.g. Pindar) and at Athens (e.g. tragic lyric).

A big change came in the Hellenistic era, from the early 3rd cent. BCE on, with Alexander’s expansion of the Greek world, when the inherited body of Greek literature was collected up in book form and became the object of systematic study at Alexandria and elsewhere. Now poets were acutely aware of generic conventions, and many of them took to mixing things up, writing non-epic hexameter poems in “doric” or “aeolic,” and so on.

This is an oversimplified and unduly schematic picture, needless to say, but it’s a workable outline.
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