Sunday, May 8, 2016

Research Book Post #9

May 7

Book: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler

Section: More of Chapter 6 (Page 230 to 260)

Who is a Greek?


          Ostler starts by discussing how the Greeks, before 1821 AD, had only ever united politically in the aftermath of joint conquest by some outsider, beginning with Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander). Nevertheless, even before this other civilizations saw Greeks as a single ethnic group, even if some of the Greeks did not. Interestingly, this caused different groups which met the Greeks to name the entire ethnic group after the small tribe they met first, for example the Persians knew the Greeks as Yauna, as their first encounter was with Ionian Greeks. This is why the Greek name for themselves, Hellenes, never caught on outside of Greece. When Herodotus wrote about why Athenians said they would never betray the Greeks, they speak of Hellenikon, or "Greekness", referring to people who had the same blood, language, gods, and rituals. In this way, the Greek ethnic group begins defined, as in terms of blood they all looked related, their language was mutually intelligible, and they all at least acknowledged and respected the same gods and oracles. In reality, the Greeks tended to define themselves against the barbaroi, which was anyone who did not speak Greek, and this was how the Greek ethnic group was truly connected. The Greek language itself could be rather complicated, with a complex system of creating polysyllabic words using a complex system of prefixes and suffixes, resulting in almost every ancient text having at least one word with ten or more letters in it. In Ancient Greece, the language was also tonal, with each word having distinct high and low tones, in a way that is most closely paralleled today by accent in Japanese. This system gradually broke down in the first few centuries AD. Another factor in the language was the development of many dialects due to the separation of each early city state as a result of the mountainous terrain found in modern Greece and Anatolia. This led to small city states being cut off from each other to develop in different ways, and while still intelligible, meant that many different features were adopted into the language. This use of dialects meant that during the development of particular genres of literature, different dialects were used and assigned to each new genre, with most of the genre being written in the dialect of the city from which the genre originated. Lyric poetry is normally found in Doric, history in Ionic and tragedy in Attic, etc. Due to the high regard for politics and speeches in the Ancient Greek world, the Greeks developed different theories as to the use of language than Sanskrit. Unlike Sanskrit, who saw language and grammar as a way of preserving religion, Greeks saw language as being used to persuade others, making it more focused on practical application.
          The Greek language would spread through two different ways: the slow development of piecemeal Greek colonies in areas such as Sicily, and the rapid expansion through Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire. Much like the Phoenicians, the Greeks spread colonies across the coastlines of the Mediterranean, but never really moved inland except for in Sicily and Southern Italy. Different areas of Greece would colonize to different coasts, and while not all of the colony were of the same city, the dialect of the colony would come from the mother city of the colony. The spread of these colonies tended to have a small effect on local populations (except for Sicily, where dense colonization of 13 colonies led to friction with locals) due to the lack of growth beyond the coasts. This meant locals tended to remain in control of their territory for the most part. These colonies did, however, spread writing to areas such as Rome and Gaul. There was a wave of literacy, as writing spread from one tribe near Greek colonies, who spread it to their neighbors and so on, but it is important to note the alphabet spread was not that of the standardized Greek which would be created in Athens, but rather from a time when competing dialects still had many different features to them.
          About a quarter of a way through the three thousand year recorded history of the Greeks comes a decade that would change everything. This would be when Alexander III of Macedon, Alexander the Great, would conquer all of the Persian Empire and submit it under Greek rule. After dominating the empire and putting it under Greek rule, Alexander would start the process of Hellenization that would continue after his death under the rule of his generals. This Hellenization would cause southwest Asia to become effectively Greek, or at least culturally dominated by Greek, for centuries to come. Greek was gradually introduced as a language of administration, although some areas such as Israel would resist. In most areas, such as Egypt, the popular language before remained, and Greek became a language of the elite and immigrants. With the rise of the Romans, however, Greek would start to be seen as the language of education, due in no small part to the spread of the Greek alphabet to the Romans centuries before. Especially after the conquest of Greece, Roman elite were expected to be bilingual in Greek and Latin, and to now poetry and other arts in Greek. Much of the desire for Romans to learn Greek came from the Romans respect for the Greek culture and language, one which had a long recorded history, and had a language designed to sway others, something important in the growing Roman Republic.
          After the rise of the Romans, however, the story of the Greek language became one of pressure being applied from all sides. It came from many groups, from the Parthians and Turks of Asia to the Germanic tribes of the West. Despite total conquest in some areas, the death of Greek in these areas was very slow, as many cultures would continue the legacy of knowing or at least respecting Greek in their lands despite not being native speakers themselves. In fact, Greek would only really be deposed in most areas entirely with the coming of Islam and the spread of Arabic.

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