Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds

Language and Society

I’ve just finished reading James Clackson’s new book Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds – a book I will undoubtedly be adding to all my undergraduate reading lists before next term starts.

The book offers an accessible but thorough introduction to the languages of the ancient world and how they were used across time and space – essentially it’s an introduction to ancient sociolinguistics. It covers a lot of ground, including bilingualism, language contact, identity, gender, social class, age and diachronic change. Classicists may be aware that the major works on ancient sociolinguistics are by J.N. Adams (Bilingualism and the Latin Language, The Regional Diversification of Latinand Social Variation and the Latin Language). Those are fantastic, field-changing books but – frankly – they are over 900 pages each. If you’re a Classicist, linguist or student who doesn’t have the time or inclination to work through 2700 of ancient linguistics, then James Clackson’s summary is definitely the book for you. (If however you are one of our third year E3 students, I suggest you make yourself a big cup of tea and get started on Adams.)

Most importantly, Language and Society is not just a book about Latin and Greek. James uses examples from all kinds of ancient languages throughout. Although Latin and Greek are the best-attested ancient languages, we would be doing the ancient world a disservice to assume that we should talk exclusively about Latin and Greek, or that we should stick all the other many languages of Mediterranean in their own short chapter at the end. Not only would a textbook like that misrepresent the past, it would also deprive students and readers interested in ancient linguistics of the chance to discover the huge number of languages that we know something about. This quote from the introduction is very evocative of the diversity of the ancient Mediterranean:

[B]efore the conquests of Alexander (356-323 BC), Greek was but one of many languages spoken along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and, until the last century of the Roman Republic, Latin was a minority language even in Italy. For the bulk of the period under consideration in this book, the majority of the inhabitants of the lands around the Mediterranean spoke neither Greek nor Latin as their first language. By the end of the Roman Empire, this earlier linguistic diversity had largely disappeared.

And the case studies in the rest of the book follow through on this idea of diversity – we have examples from Oscan, Umbrian, Eteocypriot, Gaulish, Hittite, Old Persian, and many more. These languages are dealt with thoughtfully, and James is quick to refer back to the explanation in introduction that the difference between “language” and “dialect” is often artificial, and that our knowledge of the societies that used these languages is often sparse.

This book will probably also be my source of language maps of the ancient world from now on. James has very honestly left many areas of the map unshaded, because we don’t know what languages were spoken there, and put questions marks after languages that may not have really existed. This problem tends to come about either because modern scholars have artificially grouped together and named inscriptions that may not be examples of the same language, or because we assume languages which appear in later records must have existed earlier despite leaving no written evidence at that earlier period – and it’s very difficult to find maps that acknowledge this. This is a huge improvement over the Wikipedia maps I tend to use which, surprisingly enough, are often the best available depiction of areas covered by the lesser-known ancient languages.

Overall, this is an enjoyable and informative book. Whether you are a student, a Classicists or a linguist, there will be something new to learn. Personally, I got a lot out of the final chapter on the languages of Christianity, which is not a topic I know much about – you will have to read and find out why James thinks that Mel is more reliable than Mark (respectively, Gibson and Gospel of).