Saturday, 12 October 2013

Its all Greek to Thee, Homeric Attic, Ionic and SP

Firstly, I would like to thank all present at the last gathering where we discussed Ovid. As usual we managed to cover extensive and unusual ground. I have had my eyes opened to Ovid and will certainly read more of his work both in translation and the original for the imagery and language alone is quite stunning and really sticks in the mind. As I rather bluntly exclaimed during the session (at a moment lost for words presumably!) ‘There are some good words here!’ Yes, well onto other matters – in fact the matter of Greek! And there is not just one sort of ancient Greek but quite a few as it turns out. Each has their own peculiar characteristics and distinctive style.

We will be looking at books XX-XXIII of Homer’s great Epic work the Iliad, which tells the story of the ‘wrath of Achilles’ and the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The language of Homers works differs from the ancient Greek I started out with at school (Attic Greek) and is aptly named Homeric Greek, details of which you can find here.

I might try and declaim some Homeric – don’t worry, I will keep it short but it might be fun to have a go at reading the Greek aloud – just for the pure theatre and atmosphere. I was not exposed to Homer as set texts until A Level and after a few years of Attic and some scattered fragments of Ionic – it did indeed strike me as quite different in its sound and orthography.

As I have said, the student of ancient Greek normally starts off with Attic Greek and learns the language as well as encounters most of the common greats of Greek literature, the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the comedy of Aristophanes and the historical writings on the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides. You can find more information on the peculiarities of Attic Greek here. Rightly or wrongly then we come to view Attic as the standard ancient Greek for the height of the classical period (with the exceptions of Late Greek and regional variations within the Greek speaking world or koine period (Hellenistic world in particular).

Last but not least is Ionic Greek, which is the language of Herodotus (as far as students of ancient Greek history are concerned). The later version known as New Ionic had appeal as a sort of bridge version between the Homeric form and Attic Greek, with which it holds certain affinities (you can see more details on Ionic here.) I note that some translators of Lucian where he writes for effect (archaic effect) (at least in the earlier Loeb Classical Library of Harvard Press) try to leave the translated ionic Greek in an equivalent attitude in the English so we have a translation deliberately in the style of Sir Philip Sydney or possibly mid Elizabethan prose. I am not sure if this works – but it’s an interesting point as to how we treat works in earlier forms of ancient Greek. If we put all of the works regardless of their position in the ancient canon into the same or similar modern English, it makes for good reading but perhaps we lose some of the effect that it must have had on ancient readers. So a sophisticated reader of Aristophanes age may have found Herodotus quite baroque and stiff or even alien sounding. I am not sure how to square the circle with this one though since any affected style imposed upon the ancient work will quickly date or lose relevance so perhaps it’s better to translate into as clear as possible a medium for the purpose of clear comprehension and readability hence enjoyment.

On a final note, I have deliberately not posted any text in actual ancient Greek. The reason is that your computer may not be able to render it. If you do not have the font for ancient Greek (called SPIonic Font), you can go here and download a free version. It’s very quick and easy to install and there are Mac and PC version of the download and full instructions. Once you have installed that in your font folder, the computer or device you have should automatically read any Greek posted up. I will recap on this when we next meet. I am off to read book XXI! I will post again soon re these books of the Iliad.


  1. The nature of translation is fascinating, we always seem to end up talking about it in the group. It would be interesting to see a translator do a selection from different periods of Greek side by side and try to indicate the differences in how they translate.

  2. That's worth looking into. I will look into that. Possibly a snippet of each type and look at the characteristics of each. I hope that everyone is able to download and install SPIonic font and be able to read text on the blog should I decide to upload some more Greek language and translation related stuff and it could be looked at as part of a session. I will sound out people re this at the next meet. I think it could work if presented clearly and with short extracts. I am also interested in how different eras of translators approach the same Classical text.