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New Insights on What Ancient Greek Sounded Like

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An inscribed gemstone with an ancient Greek love poem shows how the spoken language actually sounded, according to new research. Credit: Peter Komjathy/BHMAquincum Archaeological Museum and Park

Reading like the lyrics to a popular song or poem from modern times, two ancient Greek inscriptions in the form of rhyming poetry have prompted new insights into the way the language was spoken in those times.

Ultimately, it is not possible to determine exactly how any ancient language sounded when spoken. But one clue has always been the changing of spellings over time — especially in those writings and inscriptions from more ordinary people rather than professional scribes.

Classicist Tim Whitmarsh from the University of Cambridge sees patterns and tendencies in these writings that point to just how the ancient language must have sounded. “In popular texts, spelling is more likely to be adapted to the sound of the word and less likely to be tethered to some conservative idea of ‘proper’ spelling,” he states.

Ancient Greek love poem inscribed on the gemstone provides linguistic link to the past

“λέγουσιν They say

ἃ θέλουσιν What they like

λεγέτωσαν Let them say it

οὐ μέλι μοι I don’t care

σὺ φίλι με Go on, love me

συνφέρι σοι It does you good”

The jewel on which it is carved, which is in the collection of the BHM Aquincum Archaeological Museum in Budapest, Hungary is spectacular in so many respects, serving as not only a rich repository of linguistic information but a beautiful sculptural object as well.

But it is not the only artifact from the past that provides clues as to how ancient Greek sounded. Whitmarsh recently researched a number of artifacts found in areas that were once part of the Roman Empire, including nineteen other gemstones and even writing inscribed on a piece of plaster in a house in Cartagena, Spain.

Incredibly, all of these objects contain the very same popular short poem written in Greek. The researcher’s conclusions may provide the best evidence available as to how people actually spoke at the time, which is reflected in how we speak today.

“Before the Middle Ages, many poetic traditions of the ‘classical’ cultures, such as Greek and Latin in what is now Europe, and Arabic and Persian further east, used a form of verse that was entirely different from anything we know of as poetry today,” Whitmarsh explains.

Related: How ancient Greek reprograms the brain

Until that time, poems had been created using the rules of classical meter. This involves the meter, or rhythm, of a poem being determined by how long it takes to say the long and short syllables of the work. Whitmarsh says: “Think ‘hope’ versus ‘hop.’”

The pattern of short and long syllables is referred to as quantitative meter, setting it apart from the qualitative, stressed, meter that was common in the Middle Ages and afterward.

Stressed meter is fairly subtle in spoken English, which has very nuanced stresses, but can be heard in the verse “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in which the initial syllables are stressed, with “twin” in “twinkle,” “li” in “little,” and “star.”

Before Whitmarsh’s research it had been settled theory that the earliest clear examples of stressed poetry were works created by the hymnist Romanos the Melodist in the mid-sixth century A.D.

Whitmarsh says, however, that the inscribed poem he has been studying, which dates back to the second or third century A.D., was recited using stressed meter, meaning people in the Greek-speaking Roman Empire actually used stressed speech centuries earlier than had been previously believed.

Whitmarsh says this written evidence must not have popped up all of a sudden. “This way of speaking must have been bubbling around in the oral tradition,” he notes. “Romanos wrote hymns using the stressed accent not to innovate spectacularly, but to plug in to the way normal people were speaking. This is a rare glimpse of how people actually sounded.”

The strikingly modernistic poem — which speaks to the universal human experience of loving someone whom perhaps they shouldn’t — is evidence of a cultural crossover from human experience to the written word.

And its attraction is likewise universal. “From Spain to Iraq, everyone wants this little gemstone and its poem,” Whitmarsh says.

This same Ancient Greek poem remained consistent through time and was copied verbatim across the Roman Empire from west to east, north to south. The Oxford University classicist says that the exquisite poem appears to have appealed to a literate, yet not  high-status, demographic.

The “gemstones” in this jewelry are actually only glass paste. Added to that fact is that the language of the poem is vernacular, including no adjectives or nouns.

“It’s about as simple as you can get,” Whitmarsh explains, adding “It’s a kind of playground chat that starts in the middle of a conversation and has an easily reproducible rhythm that sounds like the main verse of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Good.’”

Like the Greek world that inspired so much of Roman thought and material culture, the Empire’s vast breadth and wealth engendered the production of such jewelry. The Ancient Greek poem inscribed on it was surely one that was known by all educated people at the time.

“The Roman Empire produced wealth and opportunity that people had never had before and the chance to buy into culture and to travel and network in a way never before possible,” Whitmarsh points out. “This object spread like wildfire because the empire was an information superhighway.”


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