Was Dactylic Hexameter Suitable for Ancient Greek?

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Timothée
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Was Dactylic Hexameter Suitable for Ancient Greek?

Post by Timothée » Mon Mar 07, 2016 9:52 pm

A Finnish blogger read Harald Haarmann's brand new book Auf den Spuren der Indoeuropäer (2016) where Haarmann apparently says (I haven't read the book) that dactylic hexameter fits badly into the Ancient Greek language and thus is probably a loan from those mysterious Πελασγοί from the Minoan culture.

This raises two questions. First, I have long (but quite possibly naïvely) thought that the dactylic hexameter is superb for Greek language. I may simply have thought that as so much was written with it, it must have been a wonderful fit. Otherwise they wouldn't have stuck to it. And as the dactylic rhythm has been so easy for me (but not necessarily Greek metrics as a whole!), that may have corroborated my view of the dactylic hexameter nigh onto as Greek par excellence.

Martin West analyses the dactylic hexameter as two cola (GM p. 35, IGM p. 19) instead of six feet. According to West, these cola (hemiepes and paroemiac) appear also elsewhere in Greek metrics. If I interpret West correctly, he to a great extent thinks Greek metrics as a continuum. However, he says little of the origin of the dactylic hexameter (only that it belongs to the Ionian verse tradition and was in its origins two cola). This leads to the second point. Is it plausible that the dactylic hexameter was borrowed from the Πελασγοί? Or from some (non-Indo-European?) language in general?

How suitable is the dactylic hexameter for Ancient Greek in your view? Can anything be said of its origin, foreign or native, or is most everything mere speculation?

Hylander
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Re: Was Dactylic Hexameter Suitable for Ancient Greek?

Post by Hylander » Tue Mar 08, 2016 3:38 am

dactylic hexameter fits badly into the Ancient Greek language and thus is probably a loan from those mysterious Πελασγοί from the Minoan culture.
I think that's a somewhat outdated view.

It's true that it's difficult to compose Greek verse in the dactylic hexameter (iambics are closer to the rhythm of Greek speech, and much easier). However, archaic Greek hexameters--particularly the Homeric poems--were composed to a large extent by stringing together fixed expressions ("formulas") that fit specific metrical slots. A virtuoso aeidos would have had a huge repertory of these formulas in his head, and he would also have the ability to compose new material fitting hexameter metrical patterns on the spot, based on his training and experience. And even ordinary Greeks immersed in a hexameter culture would have some ability to compose hexameters on the spot, though not necessarily elegant ones. The crude 6th and 5th century Delphic oracular responses are a case in point.

As for the origins of the hexameter, it's all speculation. In the 1920s, Meillet showed how Aeolic meters (such as glyconics) resemble to an uncanny degree the metrical patterns found in the Rg Veda, suggesting that the resemblances point to a common Proto-Indo-European origin for these meters. Since then, others have shown that meters found in Slavic, Celtic and perhaps other Indo-European language families might be traced to a similar origin. But these meters are all isosyllabic--each verse has the same number of syllables, and substitution of two short syllables for one long one isn't allowed. From this, Meillet concluded that the hexameter, which is definitely not isosyllabic, did not trace its origins to Proto-Indo-European meters, but instead must have been adapted from pre-Greek, "Pelasgian", poetry. ("Pelasgian" is the term the ancient Greeks used for pre-Greek populations, but there's no evidence that these populations, scattered around Greece in the archaic and classical periods, spoke the same language or had any ethnic affinities with one another. It's a term that is to be avoided.)

In more recent years, other scholars, including M.L. West, have questioned Meillet's conclusion on this point. It's possible to see the hexameter as having arisen as a conflation of various Aeolic-type verse-forms, with at some point the allowance of the substitution of two shorts for a long, or vice versa, perhaps due to changes in Greek phonology such as contractions of two short vowels to form a single long vowel--without the need to resort to a hypothetical "Pelagian" origin. Again, this is all speculation, of course, but as far as I'm concerned, I think that the origin of the hexameter can probably be most plausibly explained this way (even if the details necessarily remain obscure) rather than by resorting to a "Pelasgian" hypotheses, which can't be proven or disproven.

Incidentally, I don't mean to cast aspersions on Meillet. He was a towering figure in Indo-European, as well as ancient Greek, studies. Among other achievements, he showed that Armenian was an Indo-European language with certain affinities to Greek. It was he who suggested to his student Milman Parry the idea of studying oral composition in Bosnia, where there were still living exponents of the tradition. This led to a complete revolution in understanding the Homeric poems, the consequences of which are still being debated and worked out to this day.

Timothée
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Re: Was Dactylic Hexameter Suitable for Ancient Greek?

Post by Timothée » Tue Mar 08, 2016 9:55 am

Thank you so much Hylander for your deliberated answer. It has given me much to digest.

I for one think that if I'm in the right mood and frame of mind (e.g. having read poetry in this metre), I'm able quite easily to produce Finnish hexameter (this could be a common feat, I don't know). I have to stress, though, that there is no guarantee that my lines would have much artistic value...

Are you perhaps referring to the oral formulaic theory? Doesn't it apply quite well to Greek poetry, as it does to Finnish poetry (the Kalevala)? I know the theory has been tried to use for Classical Arabic poetry, as well, where it has failed.

Hylander
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Re: Was Dactylic Hexameter Suitable for Ancient Greek?

Post by Hylander » Tue Mar 08, 2016 1:43 pm

Yes, the oral-formulaic theory, even in its least extreme manifestations, explains how long hexameter poems could be composed in performance by drawing in large measure--although maybe not exclusively--on a repertory of formulas that fit specific metrical slots, despite the difficulties of composing well-constructed hexameters. The language of hexameters is a specialized language that grew up around the hexameter, specifically and exclusively for the purpose of composing hexameters (and elegy, too). It's a Kunstsprache--an artificial language. Greek poets, who were immersed in this language, continued to use it even down to the end of antiquity and beyond for writing hexameters and elegiac couplets.

In the Roman period the chief form of literary expression in the Greek world was the epigram, usually composed in elegiac couplets, in a language that is essentially a continuation of the language of the Homeric poems. These poets were not "oral" poets, of course, but they were so steeped in the language of the Homeric poems--and not just the Homeric poems, but the entire body of Greek hexameter and elegy that preceded them--that you suspect they could think, and maybe even dream, in that language and could wield the difficult meters seemingly effortlessly, even though the poetic language was further and further removed from the language in which they conducted their daily lives.

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