15.06.09, Hinterberger, ed., The Language of Byzantine Learned Literature

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A. R. Littlewood

The Medieval Review 15.06.09

Hinterberger, Martin, ed. The Language of Byzantine Learned Literature. Byzantios: Studies in Byzantine History and Civilization, 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. pp. 228. ISBN: 9782503552378 (hardback) 9782503552637 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
A. R. Littlewood
University of Western Ontario

This is an excellent book and, more important, it is one that substantially promotes the progress towards what has arguably been for many years the greatest desideratum in Byzantine scholarship, viz. a thorough descriptive grammar of the 'high' language in all its many registers. It consists of an introduction and seven essays, all in English, which were first presented, and discussed, at a workshop held at the University of Cyprus in 2011. To these have been added a further essay, in French but with an English summary, a general index, and a Greek index. Although the intended readership is clearly specialist, and a good knowledge of Greek and of grammatical terms is required for many contributions, the first two, on linguistics, and especially the third, on education, are accessible to anybody interested in the Byzantines and their language.

For four to five decades scholars have recognized and seriously explored the often innovative nature of Byzantine art, literature and occasionally also music, philosophy, and the natural sciences. Yet it is only recently that, despite the Byzantines' proclamation of their adherence to ancient norms, this examination has extended to the very language in which most of their surviving works were written. As this book makes abundantly clear, even a deliberately formal and conservative language is still a living language and, to take the editor's definition of Byzantine Greek, this is a language with a lifespan of some eleven and a half centuries. This book is not, of course, the earliest pioneering work in the field, for we no longer expect to find a real student of Byzantium (as opposed, sadly, to a writer for the general reader) castigating unclassical instances of morphology and syntax as 'blunders' and 'monstrosities.' The use, for instance, of a passive future subjunctive is not due to incompetence in imitating an ancient form of the language, in which such a form did not exist, but a development of the language that was deemed useful. Even the tradition, which goes back at least to Phrynichos Arabios in the second century AD, of condemning unclassical words is rarely considered acceptable today, although some scholars still deride Byzantine coinages for being artificial while simultaneously lauding the necessarily also artificial coinages of the ancient comedian Aristophanes.

Martin Hinterberger's introduction falls into two halves. The first attempts to define what is meant by the term "learned language" in the Byzantine context and explains the lack of scholarly interest that has long attended it in comparison with that lavishly bestowed upon the vernacular. The second half, summarizing and indicating the individual value of the eight essays, could serve as a very useful book review in its own right.

Io Manolessou gives a very clear explanation of the usually rather obvious reasons why historical linguistics has paid only very limited attention to the phonology, morphology, syntax, and vocabulary of the learned language. More interesting and important is her final comment that this language "would constitute an ideal field of study" (32) for attempting to answer the complex questions now being asked by sociolinguists and contact linguists.

Although it has long been recognized that no Byzantine text is 'purely' archaizing or 'purely' vernacular, in her essay, "What can Sociolinguistics Tell us about Learned Literary Languages," Marilena Karyolemou discusses the factors that need to be considered in any positioning of a text on a linguistic register. On the model of E. Sivas in quantifying the speech of Cypriots as standard Greek or a Cypriot dialect, she suggests the creation of "an index of classical-ness or vernacular-ness" (50) of classicizing Byzantine texts on a literary continuum with learned and vernacular poles. This is an idea worth considering, but, although it would undoubtedly produce some interesting and perhaps occasionally surprising results, for a classification thus based the weighting of the variables would be highly controversial.

In "Education and Literary Language in Byzantium," Antonia Giannouli presents a notably lucid summary of Byzantine education, not only of the subjects taught but, more important for her purpose, the methods by which different aspects of language were taught, for which she has recourse to information in material by Aelius Theon of Alexandria that survives only in Armenian translation. The result of this education (surely far superior to what obtains in most modern schools) on students, or at least on those whose parents could afford a lengthy schooling, i.e. the elite, is then shown in a few examples. One of her points, albeit made in a single sentence, which all critics of Byzantine learned literature should be well advised to heed, is that "similia in the works of various authors may be attributed more to their shared knowledge than to any direct influence that they might have had on each other" (69).

More technical are the other five essays, three of which concern grammar. Juan Signes Codoñer first surveys the growth from late antiquity to the fifteenth century of the belief that there is in Greek a middle voice on a par with the active and the passive rather than just "a formal anomaly only present in specific verbal paradigms" (73). "Middle" forms were traditionally assigned to active or passive in accordance with their reflexivity, either indirect or direct; and it was not until the fifteenth century, when Theodore Gazes put all the verbal forms in three columns as a pedagogical tool for teaching Italians, that the concept of a fully separate voice was properly established. Constructively for our understanding of Byzantine Greek, Codoñer goes on to show that, despite their grammarians repeating examples of these 'anomalous' forms as found and explained in works from the Hellenistic period, they themselves often used the forms in different ways.

In a short but fascinating contribution Steffan Wahlgren proves statistically that the dative appears more frequently in Byzantine texts than it does in classical, something that one would be likely to attribute simply to learned writers 'showing off.' This is, at least in part, true in the tenth century, as shown for instance in the greater use of the case in the more high-flown proem to Constantine VII's De ceremoniis than in the remainder of the text and is strikingly true in the fourteenth century, by which time the dative was "completely dead" (174) in the vernacular (Wahlgren examines briefly its expanded uses in Theodore Metochites and the letters of Matthew of Ephesos [Manuel Gabalas]). This does not explain, however, why even linguistically modest texts of the preceding few centuries may exhibit a greater use of the case than even classical texts. He gives a few hints why this is so, such as the increasing use of en with the dative for the classical eis with the accusative, but for further information readers are directed to his "Modern Greek in the Tenth Century AD" (in Filia: Studies in Honour of Bo-Lennart Eklund, ed. V. Sabatakakis and P. Vejleskov [Lund, 2005], 177-82). Clearly a desideratum is a thorough chronological survey of the employment of the dative in all registers of Byzantine Greek.

In the third grammatical essay Hinterberger himself examines the frequency of the synthetic perfect tense, characterized most commonly by reduplication and the suffix kappa after the stem, with a table (199-203) showing instances of its use in a sample of 6400 words chosen from each of 61 works ranging chronologically from Eusebios to the Escorial version of Digenes Akritas. In this he distinguishes between indicative, participle and infinitive, and between active and passive. An early conclusion is that there tends to be a greater consistency in use of the tense by an individual author in different genres than there is by different authors in the same genre, although in an earlier table (180) he fails to point out that there is large difference in the ratio of active and passive uses of the participle between his selected works by Theodoretos and Psellos in separate genres. Nevertheless, in general, as expected, there are decidedly more perfects in high-level as opposed to low-level texts. His percentage figures for the increase in instances of the perfect in Nikephoros Gregoras and Ioannes Kantakouzenos over Georgios Pachymeres (180) should be amended from 64% and 93% to 66% and 76% respectively. Hinterberger further notes that continued, though dying, use of the perfect in low-level texts is increasingly dependent upon a few verbs; that most authors used it for stylistic or metrical reasons as a substitute for the aorist, its semantic bitemporal nature as a stative present derived from a past action being often forgotten or ignored; and that its abandonment in the vernacular encouraged its increasing employment in the learned language as a mark of stylistic superiority to such an extent that in the later centuries it was used in such literature more frequently than it had been in the classical period.

Kateřina Bočková Loudová adds to the small quantity of work devoted to the use of particles in Byzantine learned literature with a comparison between the thirteenth-century Basilikos Andrias of Nikephoros Blemmydes and its early fourteenth-century metaphrasis. As a comparison it is of limited value because the metaphrasis, although fairly straight-forward in lexicon, morphology, and syntax, is considerably closer to the learned language in its use of particles than is common in many such works. More valuable, but not unexpected, is the finding that a highly educated man such as Blemmydes did not have the subtlety of understanding of particles as shown by classical authors. Loudová's English is at times awkward and should have been revised by a native speaker.

Jacques Noret adds (in French) to his previously published work on Greek accentuation to show that modern editorial practice dates from Aldus Manutius' publication of ancient texts and is based largely upon a system that was invented to facilitate the reading of the poets in the second century BC by Aristophanes of Byzantium, but not applied to every word before the eighth century AD. Noret compares the modern practice with the far more subtle use to be found in Byzantine mss in regard to the acute, grave and cirumflex accents, the apostrophe, coronis, trema, double gravis, the position of accents, and, most extensively, enclitics. He raises again (110-11) the problem as to what modern editors should do, a problem that your reviewer finds ultimately irresolvable. Byzantine modifications of the ancient system arose principally from changes in pronunciation, and although most Byzantinists today read their texts with at least an approximation of a modern Greek pronunciation (which is very similar to the Byzantine), Byzantine scribal practice is not completely consistent, at least during the centuries from which we have a sufficient number of surviving mss. Nonetheless, present practice could perhaps be modified to some extent on Byzantine lines, as certainly it should in regard to punctuation.

Proofreading has been very good and the reader is never left to puzzle out what a sentence means, although the survival of both "disregarding" and "discounting" (26: which verb does the author prefer?) may cause momentary bewilderment. Archbishop Temple once opined that any fool could spell, but that it took a genius to punctuate: his second claim is here largely disproved and readers who rely on a logical and grammatical punctuation are very rarely led astray.

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