Greek in Italy

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Migrating to the Hay Festival


Last week I gave a talk relating to the Greek in Italy project as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts. The festival is set in the beautiful Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye and attracts around 100,000 visitors each year. Around three hundred of them braved the torrential rain on Friday morning to come to my talk, ‘Migration and Language: Ancient Perspectives’. In the talk I was comparing some of the modern and ancient anxieties about the consequences of population movement on language. Nigel Farage’s disquiet at hearing foreign languages spoken on a London train and David Starkey’s fears (expressed after the London riots in 2011) that British youth had been corrupted by Jamaican patois can be set aside ancient views, found for example in Pseudo-Xenophon Athenian Constitution and Cicero’s Brutus, that the language of incomers leads to linguistic corruption. These worries about the effects of migration on language can be countered by the findings of the national census (in the modern case) and by consideration of the long-term picture of language change in the ancient world. Despite the massive influx of non-native speakers of Latin (many of them Greeks) into Rome, Latin continued to be spoken in the Western Roman Empire. Indeed, it was the other languages, Oscan, Umbrian, Etruscan, Gaulish, Iberian etc. that died out. In the same way recent census findings have shown the dominance of English in the British Isles, and that this is at the expense of the minority language, Welsh. The 2011 UK Census also asked for the first time about competence in English amongst those who did not use it as their first language, and found that only a tiny fraction (0.3% roughly 138,000 people) of the population were unable to speak any English at all ( A recording of this talk  – although unfortunately without the accompanying slides – is available here.


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Greek is in the eye of the beholder

Identifying the language of an inscription is not always completely straightforward. In my case, I’m often interested in whether a particular text is in Greek, or a different non-Greek language.

Of course, there are various clues we can use to try to determine the language of a text. The first hint is often in the alphabet – but this isn’t always enough. There are at least three areas in the western Mediterranean where the Greek alphabet is used (with some slight adaptations) to write languages other than Greek. Two of these areas are in the south of Italy, where Oscan and Messapic are also written, broadly speaking in the toe and the heel respectively. The other is in southern Gaul, now southern France, where Gaulish was written in the Greek alphabet for a few centuries before the Latin script became more usual. In all of these areas, Greek was being written at the same time period as the local language, and we often find both languages being used at the same site. This means we have to look beyond the script to identify the language.

Greek alphabet map

Ideally, an inscription might have vocabulary (lexicon) or word endings (morphology) that pin it down as one language or another. But this is where it gets tricky, as many inscriptions are very short indeed – very often, they contain only personal names, or words that are abbreviated. How do we assign these texts to a particular language? Well, we might decide that the name appears to be of a particular origin – for example, an inscription naming a Vibis Adirans would look very “Oscan” in origin, because traditionally Greek-speakers don’t have inherited family names. We wouldn’t want to rely on this too much, though, because it’s easy for people to have names that don’t match up to the languages that they speak – particularly if their parents or grandparents spoke another language, or had friends that did. Names can also be a matter of parents’ personal preference – not everyone called Siobhan is from Ireland, for example.

All of this can become particularly interesting when we take into account the trade routes between the three areas on the map. In the late twentieth century, a silver drinking cup imported from southern Italy was found in Alesia, a site in southern Gaul, inscribed with the Greek letters MEDA ARAGE (SEG 34 1035, if you are interested in looking this up). This looked like an abbreviated name, or two names, but in what language? Greek, Gaulish, or Oscan? Something like MEDA could more or less be the beginning of a name in any of them, and ARAGE looked suspiciously like the beginning of a word for “silversmith” (Greek arguros: so maybe this is not quite Greek?).

People have argued about this text a little bit, but whatever your opinion you have to agree that the language is not that clear. Since the object has travelled from one area to another, we don’t even know where the inscription was added. But it’s possible to look at a text like this in a different way. What if the writer, knowing that the cup might be sold in an area that spoke a different language but used the same alphabet as him, wrote his name in this abbreviated way so that the purchaser could read it in whatever language he or she preferred?

If we accept that writers of ancient inscriptions, especially if they were artisans producing goods for the export market, could be deliberately ambiguous in this way, that opens up some interesting avenues for us. Firstly, it means can’t always be sure what language a text is written in. And secondly, it gives us an interesting insight into the horizons of some of the people of the ancient Mediterranean – they’re wider than we sometimes think.

This post is based on a talk given at the Indo-European Seminar, University of Cambridge, 5th March 2014.