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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‘Greek in Italy’, the Lexicon of Liddell and Scott, and the ‘what’s-its-name, thingumbob’

Please scroll down for the lighter and less technical part of this post…, namely the ‘thingumbob’…

Recently, a colleague and friend asked me why it was that Liddell-Scott-Jones (from hereon ‘LSJ’ and, as available through the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, ‘TLG LSJ’) accented τριακντακις ‘thirty-times’ proparoxytone, not τριακοντκις paroxytone like all other adverbs in -κις, ‘-times’. The short answer is that LSJ doesn’t. The misaccentuation suggests that TLG LSJ was tripped up by the abbreviated headwords of the printed edition of LSJ. All that was printed of the headword was -κ̆ις, its accent inferred from τριακοντά-δραχμοι to give τριακοντάκις (rightly). The classic rant on the abbreviation of headwords is John Chadwick’s own in BICS 11 (1994) 1-11, at 2. Whether the accent was placed on TLG LSJ’s headword automatically or manually, I do not know.

It was then that the entry for τρῐᾱκοντάμερος came to my attention:

Dor. word, dub. sens. in IG14.256.27 (Phintias Geloorum); cf. Jahresh.4 Beibl.21.’.

This inscription is from Phintias of the people of Gela, which was the settlement that ‘replaced’ Gela, the Rhodo-Cretan colony where Aeschylus had his lethal encounter with a tortoise: something of a hotspot of Greek in Italy).

Entries that contain ‘dub.sens.’ are always intriguing, and this one is especially so in that its general meaning, if not its precise application and referent, are clear from the elements that form this compound: the two stems seen in τριάκοντα ‘thirty’ and ἁ̄μέρᾱ (or, as here, ἀ-) ‘day’ [Attic ἡμέρᾱ]. All this was put right in the 1996 Revised Supplement, which adapted a comment in the 1968 Supplement: (as a new word) ‘τριακοντά̄μεροι, οἱ, prob. a board of officials performing duties for thirty days,…; cf. πεντάμεροι’. The original entry is then signalled for deletion.

Of greater interest (and amusement) and of no less relevance is the entry for τραγέλαφος ‘goat-stag’. Apart from ‘a what’s-its-name, thingumbob‘ (s.v. I 3), there is also the quaint charm of the transition from (s.v. I 1) ‘a fantastic animal, represented on Eastern carpets and the like‘ to (s.v. II) ‘later, a real animal of Arabia, or on the Phasis, prob. a kind of wild goat or antelope, LXX Jb.39.1, D.S.2.51, Plin.HN8.120, etc.‘.

This word is thought by some to have appeared on the Nile Mosaic of Palaestrina (s.v. Wikipedia), whose captions were published as IG XIV 1302 (but see also SEG XLV 1452)  and feature other lexical and animal rarities, including the non-standard form ἄρκος, ‘bear’, known from the Zenon papyri, a Carthaginian curse tablet, and the Greek Bible. The mosaic has been dated either to 120-110 BCE or to the time of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE). A large and high-resolution image of the mosaic is available through Wikimedia Commons.

In the detail below, the ‘lynx’, ΛΥΝΞ (not the standard spelling, λύγξ), is clear, as are the letters ΔΓΕΛΑΡΥ (underline for underdot to mark a letter as difficult to read). However, that label is not closely associated with a depiction of any animal.


Georg Kaibel, the editor of IG XIV 1302, conjectured [ΤΡ]<Α>ΓΕΛΑ<ΦΟ>[Σ], which requires a certain amount of charity from the viewer-reader and their acceptance of an invisible ‘thingumbob’.

The re-reading, <Α>ΓΕΛΑΡΧ[ΟΣ] (see SEG XLV 1452), the ‘leader of the pack’, makes better use of the letters that are visible. But, a pack of what, exactly? Perhaps, the leader (bottom left of the following detail) of the relatively-distant three hunters (bottom right).

leader of the pack

An amusing alternative is that this label continues that for the lynx, who, then, is the leader of the pack of monkeys depicted elsewhere.

For more on the mosaic itself as well as its captions, see P.G.P. Meyboom, The Nile Mosaic of Palaestrina: Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy (Leiden, New York, and Cologne: E.J. Brill, 1995). For the reading and re-reading, see Meyboom, The Nile Mosaic, 25 and 238-239.

Since the mosaic is thought (at some stage) to have depicted an elephant (Meyboom, the Nile Mosaic, 25), we may recall that some time ago, Katherine posted about words for ‘elephant’. I encountered those boves lucas while teaching Lucretius last term (DRN 5.1302) in relation to the remarkable compound anguimanus, ‘such that has a snake for a hand’: itself a lexical rarity (an accusative plural of a fourth-declension adjective to boot!) and once described, as one of my supervisors used to quote, as ‘an atavistic zoonym harking back to a protohabitat, proper to an animal with an prominent appendage of ophidian resemblance’.

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An unreadable Oscan inscription - complete with uninterested bystander

An unreadable Oscan inscription – complete with uninterested bystander

Back in September, I said I would write about my trip to Pompeii, which happened in June: and now, six months later, I’m finally getting up to date!

The last time I’d been to Pompeii was back in 2001: I’d just finished the first year of my BA. So I was pretty excited to be back. And I was lucky enough to be shown around by Michele Stefanile, of the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, who has done a lot of work at Pompeii, in addition to his main research as an underwater archaeologist. Apart from getting us in for free, he was also an incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide – despite taking time from the last-minute preparations for his upcoming wedding.

Apart from generally reacquainting myself with the town (I’d forgotten just how big it was!), I was naturally keen to look at inscriptions, especially the Oscan ones. Because, although Pompeii is generally seen as being a quintessentially Roman town, during the Social War of the 90s and 80s BC its inhabitants were Oscan-speakers, and it actually fought against the Romans. After the war, when the Romans made it a colony, the official language of the city changed to Latin. But a lot of Oscan incriptions remained, either because they were inscribed on stones that were part of the fabric of buildings (or stones which were later re-used in buildings), or because they were painted in relatively inaccessible places and remained on show until 79 AD, when the explosion of Vesuvius preserved the town.

But there are a number of difficulties involved in finding these inscriptions, even armed with a partial map and Michele’s help. For one thing, parts of the site were closed off the day we visited, so we couldn’t see anything there. And even when you find an inscription, it’s often hard to read: the painted inscriptions are high up, and (quite rightly) covered in plexiglass to prevent damage. Unfortunately, the plexiglass also tends to prevent easy reading, especially looking from below (see above).

But the need for plexiglass protection becomes clear when you look at the following picture (courtesy of Michele). We spent a happy 20 minutes or so looking for the inscription on the column below, which is supposed to say vaamunim, which may be a borrowing of Latin uadimonium ‘bail’. But we were completely unable to find it. Even in the picture, the eye of faith is required to see a letter or two in red paint.



Another unanticipated difficulty was the sheer number of people on site – while there were surprisingly few people spending entire minutes staring intently at columns (and trying to work out which was the fourth from the north), probably the biggest draw at Pompeii these days is the brothel, which Mary Beard has written about on her blog. This has arguably one of the last Oscan inscriptions scratched into the wall, but there was no chance of getting in: the queue filled the street some distance from the building itself.

Despite these issues, which served to remind me just how difficult it can be to find and read inscriptions, let alone interpret them (a recurring theme on this blog!), I had a great time in Pompeii, and am looking forward to my next visit.

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Gambling in Greek

A new article by James has just been published on ‘The language of a Pompeian tavern: submerged Latin?’.* He discusses the ‘captions’ on a set of four wall-paintings from Pompeii, depicting two men chatting, getting drinks, playing a dice-game, and having a fight and being ejected. These paintings are now quite well-known, having featured prominently in the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition a few years ago (our colleague Mary Beard has mentioned it in her blog a couple of times, with helpful pictures). James’ focus in the article is what the words tell us about sub-elite Latin, and whether there are similarities to the language of the Roman playwright Plautus, two or three centuries earlier. No spoilers here: you’ll have to read the article to find out the answer.

But the inscriptions also show how commonplace Greek words were in Latin, even (or especially) at social levels for whose language we have less literary evidence. The first panel has one man saying to another ‘nolo cum Murtale uasu’, which probably means ‘I don’t want a drink with Myrtale’. Myrtale is a Greek name and the final -e is probably meant to represent the Greek dative singular ending -ηι (the final -ι would have been lost in speech by this time). In the third panel, one speaker says to the other ‘non tria, duas est’, ‘that’s not a three, it’s a two’, using the Greek word duas ‘a two, deuce’. This word doesn’t appear again for centuries, and there are no other examples of it being used in the context of numbers on a dice. If it weren’t for this inscription, we’d have no idea that it had this meaning in Latin, or that it had been borrowed so early.

This inscription is also particularly interesting for me, because I’ve been thinking lately about Roman spelling, and in particularly how features that tend to be described as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘archaic’ actually had a much longer after-life than we probably give them credit for – perhaps especially in the sub-elite educational tradition. These scenes can be quite accurately dated to between 62AD, when an earthquake hit Pompeii, and 79AD, since that is when Vesuvius exploded and destroyed/preserved Pompeii. Latin inscriptions had started using the letter y to represent Greek υ by the early first century BC, but here they are still using u 150 years later! And that’s not even the record; the captions spell the word ego ‘I’ eco, a mere three hundred years after the letter g was invented. But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised: spelling can be a remarkably conservative practice –  after all, English spelling largely carries on as it was established several centuries ago, often reflecting pronunciation from even before that, despite an almost-complete failure to match how we actually speak nowadays.

*The article is published in Early and Late Latin: Continuity or Change, edited by Jim Adams and Nigel Vincent, published by Cambridge University Press

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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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Did what with Hannibal?

From Wikimedia Commons (

Hannibal Crossing the Alps, by Heinrich Leutemann. Note the unfortunate elephant.

As I write, the final stages of the Second Punic War have begun. It’s not looking good for Hannibal – he’s holed up in the toe of Italy, his brother’s been killed, the Romans have taken control of most of Spain, and they’re preparing to attack Carthage itself. It all looked so promising earlier on, as he climbed over the alps with his elephants and swept through Italy (although, unfortunately, all but one of the elephants was killed in his first battle against the Romans). As he went he picked up allies from the local peoples, who were not necessarily particularly enamoured of Roman power (despite being officially ‘allies’ of Rome). Eve McDonald gives a nice example of this on p.115 of ‘Hannibal, a Hellenistic Life’, from a gravestone of an Etruscan man, Larth Felsnas, who lived to be 106 (a mere stripling, compared to Ahvdio from Teanum Sidicinum) and who claimed to have fought with Hannibal.

Now, apart from the fact that anyone who says they are 106 may well be inclined to telling tall tales, is that really what he says? The appropriate part of the inscription reads murce capue tleχe hanipaluscle (it is number Ta 1.107 in Rix’s Etruskische Texte ). I’m no expert on Etruscan, but it seems as though no-one actually knows for certain what either of the verbs murce and tleχe means: the best that can be said is murce is an active past tense verb, and tleχe (probably) a passive past tense verb. So the most conservative translation is ‘Larth Felsna did something at Capua and was somethinged in (?) the something (?) of Hannibal’. Clearly – if we’re to trust the inscription at all – something happened to him in the Hannibalic war: but which side was he on?.