Tracing change in a language over millennia

Reading Medieval and Modern Greek, we see the changes from Classical to Koine Greek, phonological and morphological. Most of such tracing I’ve learned has been with the Romance and Germanic languages and some of Slavic. My next one was supposed to be Indic but this Greek thing has been easier of access. I do have books on the Indic languages but they are comparative rather than historical. I’ll have to look for some more recent than the one I have, Jules Bloch’s Indo-Aryan: From the Vedas to Modern Times.
My knowledge of Ancient Greek of any kind is sparse but enough to follow the merging of passive and middle, etc. As a comparison, recall that the Latin passive disappeared without a trace, to be resurrected in the Romance languages with auxiliary verbs and past participles and, in Spanish especially, with the clitic se.

Sept. 10, 2020

Ten days later and I am reading this book more than I am amazing political stuff (John Dean, Stuart Stevens, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump). The book hits a perfect balance between deep knowledge of Greek and esp. ancient Greek (I have little) and general interest in language. It is not for people who do not have some depth in linguistics and being able to read the Greek alphabet is assumed, but pace that, it lays out nicely the major shifts from “expanded Attic” to Koine and beyond while jumping back to the archaisms that turned into Katharevousa and placed Greek among those unhappy/happy languages with a dual character. Happy because it enriches the vocabulary and gives people a sense of tying into their heritage; unhappy because it cripples one’s ability to express oneself in colloquial language. We can see the effect on a much reduced scale in English where most people will hang their heads when confronted with a need to write; this is a heritage of the 18th century British mania for regulating everything, including language. To compare further with English, I would hazard a trial at giving a contemporary English speaker the language not of Beowulf (completely foreign) nor of Chaucer (a little too comprehensible) but of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight as a model. A dialect of Middle English so far removed from present-day English as to be close to incomprehensible but employed deftly by the Gawain author, the Middle English of Gawain would be mined haphazardly for earlier grammatical forms, syntax, spellings, and esp vocabulary so that what resulted was nothing to pass for Middle English but a mishmash. That is what generations of Greeks had to deal with when writing formally. Imagine the troubles of our youth growing up in homes where standard English is not spoken and then multiplying that situation. 

Browning, the author, writes this out in unstinting  animadversions (my first time using this word) and shreds the underpinnings of the guardians of tradition who would guide our language (p. 49) thus:

In the ensuing two centuries [1st & 2nd centuries A.D.] this movement gathered weight and influence, came to dominate the teaching of Greek in schools, and greatly influenced all literary prose, leading to a conscious imitation of ancient linguistic patterns, real or imagined, and a deliberate rejection of the living and developing language as a vehicle of formal speech and literature. It was in this way that a beginning was made of the diglossy which has been so marked a feature of Greek throughout its subsequent history…..

p. 51  Speech was to follow writing….. No prose literature of the first century A.D. was unaffected by the Atticist movement (allowing only forms and meanings found in the literature composed five centuries earlier). In a society in which education was widespread, and in which it was education and way of life rather than racial origin which made a Greek a Greek, it could not be otherwise…… [illustrating the absurdities of this uninformed imitation of ancient forms] Either they admit Koine forms censured by the grammarians – this is too common to call for illustration – or they over-compensate and produce false Atticisms, hypercorrect forms which never existed in classical Attic. The literature of this period is full of middle voices where Attic uses in fact the active, of wrongly used datives, e.g. of duration of time, of optatives in conditional clauses introduced by ‘ean’ or in final clauses in primary sequence. [don’t worry, I don’t know what all this is either but it sounds hideous]At the level of morphology we find such monstroisties as rin for ris ‘nose’, on the analogy of the genitive of rinos, ……… [and so on, much into Greek, but you get the idea…………………………..


So think of French where an article written several decades ago warned of the coming disaster as written French continues to harbor obsolete forms to the extent and spoken French seems almost a foreign language – Rodney Ball’s Colloquial French is really fun to read for those who know French, esp if they learned the formal or francais courant. But look at my English sentence: ‘for those who know French, esp if they ….’ acceptable; but what if I had written ‘for anyone who knows French, esp if they ……’ Try to explain (or try and explain) to a 15 year old why ‘they’ doesn’t work with ‘anyone’ as an antecedant. But English isn’t close to the French yet. Other languages described by McWhorter are in a dissociated state, as when someone will write ‘abcd’ and say ‘mnop’ and look you right in the eye and swear what they said matches what they wrote, the written has such prestige. 

BTW, the Greek ethnic identity is similar to that found in Mexico where one becomes a Mexican rather than an Indian by change of language, dress, food, and customs. It is impossible to imagine a Native American here in the U.S. being able to change his ethnic identity simply by changing his dress, speech, food…………. wait, most of them do just that, so that makes my point. 

Where I think the U.S. may stumble is in our education system where little is understood about language acquisition. Where do you find teachers with any understanding?


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