Greek in Italy

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A calque ‘under the sea’ ?

… with apologies to fans of The Little Mermaid.

The adjective ὑπό-σαλος ‘under the sea’ is suspicious as a Greek word. It functions, so it seems, as an equivalent to a prepositional phrase such as ὑπὸ τοῦ ἁλός (‘under the sea’, but more likely to mean ‘because of the sea or salt’). The chief cause of suspicion is that Greek ἇλς ἁλός, ‘salt’, did not begin with a [s], at least not in historical Greek. We should find ὕφαλος (see also Buck-Petersen, p. 357 i), as, indeed, we do in Sophocles’ Antigone and subsequently. Indeed, the adjective occurs as a name in the context of ὑπόσάλος.

Before the Greek language was even written down, it lost the sound [s] at the beginning of words and between vowels. By contrast, Latin kept [s] at the beginning of words, so we get sets like ἇλς, Latin sal, and English ‘salt’, ἑπτά, septem, and seven, etc. ([s] between vowels in Latin is a story for another day…). The loss of [s] in both enviroments means that there was no Greek stem sal– on which to build our compound adjective and, if there had been such a stem at the time of that compound’s creation, the [s] between vowels would have been lost subsequently.

Where we find Greek words that begin with a sigma, that sigma cannot be original (one problem is that σῦς, ‘pig’, appears in Homer alongside the expected ὗς; cf. Latin sus, English swine). Explanations include the simplification of a cluster of consonants or that the word in question came into Greek after the loss of initial [s] had ceased to operate. As examples of the latter, consider σιμικίνθιον (semicinctium an apron), σουδάριον (sudarium a towel), and συμψέλια (subsellia seats of a certain kind), words that were borrowed from Latin by Greek speakers alongside what we may call the lexical residue of the Roman Imperial jackboot, or sandal: e.g., κεντυρίων (centurion), λεγιονάριος (legionarius), and πραιτώριον (praetorium).

Here’s the context for that sole instance of ὑπόσαλος as ‘under the sea’ in the Periplus Maris Magni or ‘Voyage around the Great Sea’ (aka Stadiasimos or ‘Measuring by Stades’), as quoted by one third-century Hippolytus in his Chronicle:

(72) Ἀπὸ τοῦ Εὐσχοίνου ἐπὶ τοὺς Ὑφάλους στάδιοι οʹ· νησίον ἐστὶν ὑπόσαλον· ἔχει δὲ καὶ αἰγιαλὸν βαθύν.
‘From Euschoinos to Hypaloi, seventy stades; the islet is under water; and it has a deep (or thick) beach.’

Before we try to explain how the sigma in ὑπόσαλος could be the [s] lost from the Greek equivalent of English ‘salt’ and Latin sal, let us consider whether salt or the sea needs to be involved in the word at all.

The sigma in ὑπόσαλος is so suspicious that the other analysis given in the same LSJ entry is worth considering:

II. shaken underneath, undermined, γῆ Plu.2.434c (ὑπὸ σάλου codd.); ὀδόντες ὑ. loose teeth, Dsc.1.105.5′ [also in Dsc.5.102.2, but that’s the lot] .

On that analysis, the sigma is unimpeachable: it was always there in σάλος, σαλεύω, etc., whatever the origin of the word (Beekes, true to character, classifies it as ‘Pre-Greek’), and, hence, could be justified in an adjective like ἐπίσαλος, which is also used by our Stadiasmos:

(55) Ἀπὸ Ναυσίδος εἰς Πτολεμαΐδα στάδιοι σνʹ· πόλις ἐστὶ μεγίστη· ἐπίσαλός ἐστιν ὁ τόπος, καὶ νῆσον ἔχει· Ἶλος καλεῖται· ἀσφαλίζου.
‘From Nausis to Ptolemais two-hundred and sixty stades: the city is very big; the place is rough (subject to storms), and has an island; it is called Ilos: go carefully!’

Could the islet in (72) — named Ὕφαλοι ! — simply mean ‘shaken underneath’ or ‘undermined’, or even ‘slightly shaken or storm-tossed’, since ὑπο- can add the notion ‘slightly, a bit, somewhat,…’ (trust me, I am/was a lexicographer)?

There are only a few other compound adjectives in -σαλος (ἀ-, εὔ-, and κονί-; very different are βήσαλον and φύσαλος: see Buck-Petersen, p. 359 ii) and none support the idea that the -σαλος part could be the salt sea rather than ‘shaken’.

So, it is likely that since ὑπό with χρῡσός means ‘with gold underneath’ (of the ground), ‘underneath/covered by gold, gilded’ (of an iron ring), or ‘containing a mixture or proportion of gold‘ (so LSJ, for some of the children in Plato’s Republic), ὑπό with σάλος could describe the islet as ‘with turbulence below’, ‘covered by rolling swells’, or ‘somewhat storm tossed’. There might be some sense in that in the Stadiasmos, a guidebook for sailors. If so, we can delete the first section of ὑπόσαλος from LSJ and make an improvement on its Supplement and Revised Supplement.

If not, can we explain why a salty word in Greek has a sigma? Does any help come from the long-term contact between speakers of Greek and speakers of Latin, especially in nautical contexts in texts from the time of the Roman Empire?

Could the sigma reflect a Latin (partial) origin for our ‘under the sea’ adjective? If so, how?

One possibility is that we have a ‘hybrid compound’: one part of the word is from one language, another from another. If that seems strange, it is no stranger than a tele-vision or an auto-mobile  or a hetero-, homo-, or metro-sexual, all of which with a Greek start and a Latin finish. Perhaps, a seafarer who used Latin and Greek with some degree of mixture took Latin sal as the root of a new adjective and then qualified it with an element from his knowledge of Greek word-formation. Real ancient parallels would be ὑπο-καμίσ(ι)ον or ὑπο-καμάσιον ‘a shirt (Latin camisa) that is worn underneath (Greek), an undershirt’ and ὑπο-νοτάριος ‘a notary (Latin) who is underneath or subordinate (Greek), a deputy or sub-notary’.

Can we go a step further and see a ‘calque’ here? A ‘calque’ is an element-by-element translation of a term from one language into another. The Paradebeispiele or ‘Parade-Examples’ (or, in English, the ‘oft-cited examples’, if not ‘examples on parade’) are Modern Greek ουρανοξύστης, German Wolkenkratzer and French gratte-ciel, both based on English ‘skyscraper’, but not necessarily with the elements in the same order as in English.

In our case, the Latin term behind ὑπό-σαλος would be sub-salsus, ‘slightly salty’ (Oxford Latin Dictionary, p. 1848, s.v.), which is found in the medical writer Celsus and the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder, respectively of water and of a plant. The calquer did not think to drop the [s] in his element-by-element translation: ὑπό- for sub-, Latinate σαλ(ο)-, not ἁλ- for sal, and then adjusting the formation to a Greek pattern (without sigma before the ending). It migth be a problem that σάλος is a noun, but salsus is an adjective. Should we expect ὑπ(ο-σ)άλιος as a calque of sub-salsus (cf. ἐνάλιος)? That said, a compound adjective ending in -αλ-ο-ς would be fine. Indeed, as we saw, ὕφ-αλος is attested — as is ἔναλος.

As a further complication, could the direction of calquing be the other way round: from Greek into Latin? Pliny the Elder is a major source of evidence for us of Latin borrowings of Greek words and of Greek words known only (or chiefly) from Latin authors and their texts. Celsus, as a medical writer, is exactly the kind of borrower and calquer of Greek words that we would expect to meet. (I know nothing about how much Greek influence Celsus actually shows…) An element-by-element translation of the Greek adjective would give a Latin adjective — something like sub-sal_sus. Besides, compounding is so restricted in Latin that Greek is normally involved at some level. I do not know how common it is for Latin sub- to add the notion of ‘slightly’, whereas for ὑπό- it is somewhat ubiquitous. The Oxford Latin Dictionary, p. 1835, s.v. sub- prefix., notes, ‘Before verbs and adjectives it indicates a reduced intensity in the action or quality…’. When and why sub- does so and in which authors are questions for another time. Even if the calquing happened into Latin from Greek, the sigma in ὑπόσαλος would remain unexplained.

Further, if, in ὑπόσαλος, we do have a calque from Latin and if ὑπόσαλος, ‘shaken underneath’, was already in use by the same speakers and/or in nautical registers (the writer of the Stadiasmos also used ἐπίσαλος…), we have a loan-shift or a semantic calque. That is, a Greek word gained a meaning through the use of a Latin counterpart or near-counterpart. For example, the Roman Republican historian Sallust used amare as ‘to be in the habit of’ (as well as ‘to love’), because Greek φιλεῖν could mean ‘to be in the habit of’ as well as ‘to love’. One of my suspicions about the entry in LSJ, second to the sigma between vowels in a salty word, was how the same word could have two meanings that were so different: ‘under the sea’ and ‘shaken underneath’. If one meaning is to do with salt and the  other is to do with σαλός ‘shaking’, we have homonyms and should have two entries.

One final angle: with the meaning ‘under the sea’, ὑπόσαλος would be a ‘prepositional governing compound’, one, that is, that originated in a prepositional phrase. Let us suppose that a bilingual seafarer wanted to say ‘under the sea’ and began in Greek (ὑπό), then started to continue in Latin, either with sale (ablative of sal) or with the dative sali with the genitive salis (because Greek did not have an ablative for him to use), but finished with a Greek ending. Such a hypothetical prepositional phrase would be a peculiar kind of code-switch: a speaker’s (or writer’s) switch from one language to another mid-sentence, mid-phrase, or even mid-word. My favourite code-switch is still that in the title of a paper by Poplack: ‘Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish Y TERMINO EN ESPAÑOL’.

The last word: as St Paul was on his way to Italy by sea, the Acts of the Aposles 27:14 (a turbulent text) names a wind as εὐρ-ακύλων, which has a counterpart in Latin script in euro-aquilo (CIL VIII 26652: see below) a east-north wind. The first part is Greek, the second Latin (whatever the script). The Bauer-Danker Lexicon quaintly calls it ‘a hybrid formation of Lat.-Gk. sailor’s language’. Was the Greek element ‘borrowed’ into Latin and then the whole borrowed into Greek or was the Latin element borrowed into Greek and then the whole borrowed back into Latin?


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A new member for a new year

Happy New Year to everyone. We’re very pleased to welcome to the project Patrick James, who is joining as a post-doctoral research associate. Patrick previously worked for the Greek Lexicon project in the Classics Faculty here in Cambridge, and comes to us via the Tyndale House Institute for Biblical Research. He will be working on Greek loanwords in Latin, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing what he comes up with as we work together on the project. Look out for him introducing his work in more detail here on the blog!

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Lingue dello Stretto

It’s been a couple of months since I trailed mine and Livia’s upcoming trip to Messina to take part in ‘Lingue dello Stretto nella Documentazione Materiale dall’Ellenismo alla Tarda Antichità‘ (Languages of the Strait in Documentary Material from Hellenic Times to Late Antiquity), and I’ve been remiss in reporting back (it’s been a busy time! We had the Laurence Seminar in Cambridge the next week, on which James has already blogged).

There were far too many interesting papers, taking a wide range of approaches to the languages spoken around the Strait of Messina for me to talk about all of them (you can see the whole programme here – it opens as a .pdf). Particular highlights for me were Paolo Poccetti giving a tour-de-force analysis of the way linguistic, onomastic, literary and numismatic evidence could be combined to demonstrate how peoples in the area created a self-image; and Jonathan Prag’s demonstration of his amazing online corpus of inscriptions from Sicily (to go live soon. Follow updates at the project blog here), which is clearly going to redefine the state of the art (our very own Katherine McDonald has been involved in editing the entries on the Oscan inscriptions, which you can read about on her blog). And Livia’s talk on ‘Contact and linguistic prestige in the Hellentistic Doric of Sicily’ – but I’ll spare her blushes.

Apart from the brilliance of the talks, and the friendly and collegial atmosphere, the conference was one of the best organised I’ve ever been to: accommodation booked on our behalf, a bus laid on to take us to and from, and superlative food at lunch, dinner (and granita con panna e brioche in the coffee breaks!). We’re very grateful to Giuseppe Ucciardello, Alessandro De Angelis, Annamaria Chilà and Silvia Cutuli, who were the perfect hosts.

After the conference finished I popped across the strait to Reggio Calabria, but I’ll say more about that in my next post. I’ll finish here with an inscription I spotted in my wanderings in Messina: it’s a great example of how the spelling conventions used to write a text need not necessarily match up with thelanguage the text is written in.


Free wi-fi




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Allusions of grandeur

On Friday night I had a nice chat with Helen Zaltzman about alphabets, Oscan, Greek etc. She recorded it for her podcast, The Allusionist, which is about all things to do with language and languages. The conversation lasted about an hour, but she’ll be editing it down significantly, so hopefully I’ll sound a lot more articulate than I really was. That will take a while, so I think the podcast won’t be released for a couple of months – I’ll let you know when it’s available. In the meantime, keep an ear out for other editions featuring friends of ‘Greek in Italy’: Rachele De Felice and Lynne Murphy talking about politeness in British English and American English, and Miriam Wagner on the differences between German in East and West Germany.

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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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Latin grammarians, Greek words and reconstruction

Modern historical linguists often make use of reconstructions: that is, they posit a form of a word that – at least in theory – actually existed at some point in history, even though no language actually preserves exactly that form. Thus, for example, behind the Latin word frāter ‘brother’ lies a form *bhrātēr (an asterisk is used to mark forms which are posited in this way). We can get back to these forms by means of a process called the comparative method, essentially drawing, in a principled way, on comparisons between forms within individual languages (‘internal reconstruction’) and across related languages (‘external reconstruction’).

The scientific approach to reconstructions properly started in the 19th century, but the idea that words were descended from other words was already well established in ancient times. I’ve only recently discovered that the idea of a reconstruction also existed then. Quite a bit of work has been done on Varro in particular, who was a first century BC Roman antiquarian and grammarian: he says things like “‘pallia’ … ‘parilia’ primo dicta”, “pallia (cloaks) were previously called parilia“. But other grammarians did it too, so, for example, Marius Victorinus, in the 4th century AD, says “‘cluaca’, quasi ‘conluaca’”, ‘‘cluaca (sewer), as if conluaca”. Although they weren’t consistent, the grammarians often used quasi, ut or uelut ‘as if’ rather as we would use an asterisk, to mark the reconstructed forms.

They also discovered external reconstruction, so Marius Victorinus notices that d and l in Latin and Greek seem to correspond: “est et communio cum Graecis: nos ‘lacrimae’, illi δάκρυα, ‘olere’ ὀδωδέναι, ‘meditari’ μελετᾶν”, “And there is a relationship with Greek words: we say lacrimae (tears), they say δάκρυα, we say olere (smell), they say ὀδωδέναι, we say meditari (consider), they say μελετᾶν”.

Latin grammarians are often rather looked down on for their outlandish etymologies, and if you read through Varro or other authors, you will certainly find some things that will make you raise your eyebrows. But I think it’s pretty impressive that they had come up with the idea of reconstructing earlier stages of the language, and had noticed consistent relationships between Latin and Greek. It’s also important for classicists nowadays to be aware that this kind of thing is going on in these authors, because they often preserve old forms which aren’t found in any of our extant literature – but we need to be aware that some of these may be (sometimes considerably wonky) ‘reconstructions’ rather than words which definitely existed.