What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

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Jefferson Cicero
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What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Jefferson Cicero » Sun Mar 30, 2014 3:51 pm

As everyone knows, for centuries in the post-Roman West, the study of Latin grammar was considered essential as the foundation of the Seven Liberal Arts. Of course it is unnecessary to go into the detail of why, except to say that the study of a foreign language was considered necessary in order for a student to properly learn how grammar works, since the study of the grammar of your native language was too easy and so the student wouldn't grasp it. Latin was the obvious choice for many reasons.

That begs the question, to which we already know the answer: what language did the Romans study to get that benefit? Of course they studied Greek.

By now you may already have figured out where this is leading, because that answer begs another question: What language did the Greeks study? Was the study of a foreign language part of Greek education, and if so, what language(s) did they study? Or did they just study Greek Grammar?
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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by bedwere » Sun Mar 30, 2014 4:30 pm

Maybe nothing like for the Americans? :D

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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Scribo » Sun Mar 30, 2014 8:49 pm

Ha! you're over-estimating how many people back then underwent anything like a course of study. There are essentially two elements to the answer.

i) Bilingualism was common in the ancient word and how a lot of specific encoded information was passed from one culture to another. But this didn't necessarily take a formal angle. No one really sat down as read the Akkadian Classics though we know of Greeks with access to such information.

ii) Grammatical study was rather rare and by the time it became in anyway common the Greek of the texts was sufficiently differentiated from the Greek of even educated speakers so as to make it challenging enough. Most work took the form of scholia on texts or dictionaries, grammar lagging somewhat behind.

So basically, yes they studied their own language and not a Latin equivalent but it was hardly native either.
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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Markos » Mon Mar 31, 2014 2:21 am

Persian would have been the logical choice.

Also, to a limited extent Homeric Greek would have served that function. It at least taught Athenians about morphological change.

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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Scribo » Mon Mar 31, 2014 11:27 am

No it wouldn't, Persian was spoken by actual Persians and perhaps understood with a little difficulty by other western Iranian speakers but the languages of administration were Aramaic, Akkadian and Elamite which would have made sense. Herodotus' famous blunder of confusing the word for "companions" (which, ironically, the Macedonians under much Persian influence got right) with "immortal" clearly stems from a mix up in spoken Persian. But that doesn't mean, necessarily, that he was much good in it or it was widespread. Especially because he had connections through the Carian Royal Family, right? So when Plutarch or whoever claims that Thucydides went and learnt Persian we should probably substitute that for some other language. Meh that entire episode smacks of typical nonsense anyway.

I dare say Homeric Greek could have served that function well, but honestly within the later Greek world people often over-estimate the concentration on Homer. It was too far different for all but a group of specialists and so concentration on what we call "Classical" Greek was enough for most people. But, guys, don't forget that literacy and study were not the norm and the overwhelming cases of bi-lingualism were from intermarriage, trading and other social contact.
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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Jefferson Cicero » Mon Mar 31, 2014 2:07 pm

Thank you, Scibo. Actually, I wasn't overestimating the number, as I was aware that it was mostly elites who got what we might call a formal education, and I'm not sure that it would have been all that formal in the modern sense anyway.

The first element of your answer is something that I had already assumed without knowing for certain, but it stood to reason, since many Greeks were merchants, sailors, soldiers, and mercenaries. I almost included a speculation on that idea in the original question but dropped it for brevity's sake. I'm glad you brought it up since it provides confirmation.

The second element in your answer is quite interesting. I didn't think of it. Greek has changed much more slowly over time than English, thus, classical Greek stands roughly in the same relationship to modern Greek as Elizabethan English does to modern English, and so I assumed that Homeric couldn't be all that different from Classical. Perhaps I should break open an Homeric grammar some time.

So Homeric could play the part instead of a foreign language. That makes perfect sense, since Old English or Middle English could do it for modern English speakers.

Markos, I agree that Persian would have been logical. I was thinking Phoenician, Egyptian, or Akkadian. On the other hand, Persian, Egyptian and Akkadian might have been a little much because of the writing systems. I would have bet on Phoenician because at least it was alphabetical.
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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Scribo » Mon Mar 31, 2014 2:46 pm

"Greek has changed much more slowly over time than English, thus, classical Greek stands roughly in the same relationship to modern Greek as Elizabethan English does to modern English"

No that's one of those tedious internet facts and the kind of stuff one finds on the lips of ignorant Greek nationalists. The two aren't even in the same ball-park. I'm pretty sure that's even came up here a few times...It's not even vaguely true.

As for the other languages, I repeat that Old Persian is not at all logical for the reasons I give above. It was highly restricted in usage throughout the Achaemenid Empire. If it wasn't, we'd actually have basic things like full verbal morphology (we don't). Tolman's lexicon and inscription is available online for free if you're curious about the language.

As for those other languages, we don't have real evidence for direct Greek engagement with those literary cultures but we have several examples of information/literature originally encoded in those languages making their way into Greek. Actually the most interesting examples for modern students would be Berossos (maybe the Babylonian priest Bēl-rē'ušunu) and Manetho (Egyptian priest).
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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Victor » Mon Mar 31, 2014 3:07 pm

Jefferson Cicero wrote: I would have bet on Phoenician because at least it was alphabetical.
Your argument seems to be that since the Romans studied Greek, a parallel phenomenon almost certainly occurred with the Greeks, and they likewise studied some foreign language with a longer history than their own. Wouldn't it be more logical to gather what evidence there is in the first place for any second-language study among the Greeks before permitting yourself to theorise about what that second language might have been?

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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Jefferson Cicero » Mon Mar 31, 2014 4:30 pm

Victor wrote:
Jefferson Cicero wrote: I would have bet on Phoenician because at least it was alphabetical.
Your argument seems to be that since the Romans studied Greek, a parallel phenomenon almost certainly occurred with the Greeks, and they likewise studied some foreign language with a longer history than their own. Wouldn't it be more logical to gather what evidence there is in the first place for any second-language study among the Greeks before permitting yourself to theorise about what that second language might have been?
Actually, I wasn't assuming any such thing. I simply wanted to find out whether or not they did, and rather doubted it to begin with. Perhaps my question was misleading in the way that it was worded so that one might assume that I thought a parallel case existed, but then you can't always think of everything when you ask a question.
'Greek had to be simplified, and Latin had to be replaced with Italian, because we barbarians stole so many Greek and Latin words.'

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Re: What Language Was Latin For The Greeks?

Post by Jefferson Cicero » Mon Mar 31, 2014 4:52 pm

Scribo, I said that the Greek language had changed that slowly because I had read it years ago in a book written by a linguist sometime during the late 30's or early 40's, and had seen it repeated elsewhere since then, in books and on the internet, but not on websites connected with Greek nationalists. Even so, it is easy to understand how such ideas can work their way even into books written by otherwise knowledgeable people. Propaganda invades every field of knowledge to some degree or other. You are the first person who has ever told me that Greek hasn't changed that slowly. I had never really given it much thought, but I believed it because of the slow rate of change in Icelandic, which at least proves the possibility of such slow linguistic change, but I always thought it rather strange that Greek would change so slowly considering Greece's total lack of geographic isolation and all the invasions, trade networks, etc.

Is there a good source from which can one find out how the Greek language has changed over time?

Lastly, you write as if you were a scholar. Are you a professor, perhaps a classical scholar or a philologist?
'Greek had to be simplified, and Latin had to be replaced with Italian, because we barbarians stole so many Greek and Latin words.'

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