Who still speaks ancient Greek?


My thanks to Stephen Scully for the link: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/jason-and-the-argot-land-where-greeks-ancient-language-survives-2174669.html


By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Monday, 3 January 2011

An isolated community near the Black Sea coast in a remote part of north-eastern Turkey has been found to speak a Greek dialect that is remarkably close to the extinct language of ancient Greece.

As few as 5,000 people speak the dialect but linguists believe that it is the closest, living language to ancient Greek and could provide an unprecedented insight into the language of Socrates and Plato and how it evolved.

The community lives in a cluster of villages near the Turkish city of Trabzon in what was once the ancient region of Pontus, a Greek colony that Jason and the Argonauts are supposed to have visited on their epic journey from Thessaly to recover the Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis (present-day Georgia). Pontus was also supposed to be the kingdom of the mythical Amazons, a fierce tribe of women who cut off their right breasts in order to handle their bows better in battle.

Linguists found that the dialect, Romeyka, a variety of Pontic Greek, has structural similarities to ancient Greek that are not observed in other forms of the language spoken today. Romeyka’s vocabulary also has parallels with the ancient language.

Ioanna Sitaridou, a lecturer in romance philology at the University of Cambridge, said: “Romeyka preserves an impressive number of grammatical traits that add an ancient Greek flavour to the dialect’s structure, traits that have been completely lost from other modern Greek varieties.

“Use of the infinitive has been lost in all other Greek dialects known today – so speakers of Modern Greek would say ‘I wasn’t able that I go’ instead of ‘I wasn’t able to go’. But, in Romeyka, not only is the infinitive preserved, but we also find quirky infinitival constructions that have never been observed before – only in the Romance languages are there parallel constructions.”

The villagers who speak Romeyka, which has no written form, show other signs of geographic and cultural isolation. They rarely marry outside their own community and they play a folk music on a special instrument, called a kemenje in Turkish and Romeyka or lyra as it is called in Greek, Dr Sitaridou said. “I only know of one man who married outside his own village,” she said. “The music is distinctive and cannot be mistaken for anything else. It is clearly unique to the speakers of Romeyka.”

One possibility is that Romeyka speakers today are the direct descendants of ancient Greeks who lived along the Black Sea coast millennia ago – perhaps going back to the 6th or 7th centuries BC when the area was first colonised. But it is also possible that they may be the descendants of indigenous people or an immigrant tribe who were encouraged or forced to speak the language of the ancient Greek colonisers.

Romeykas-speakers today are devout Muslims, so they were allowed to stay in Turkey after the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, when some two million Christians and Muslims were exchanged between Greece and Turkey. Repeated waves of emigration, the dominant influence of the Turkish-speaking majority, and the complete absence of Romeyka from the public arena, have now put it on the list of the world’s most endangered languages.

“With as few as 5,000 speakers left in the area, before long, Romeyka could be more of a heritage language than a living vernacular. With its demise would go an unparalleled opportunity to unlock how the Greek language has evolved,” said Dr Sitaridou. “Imagine if we could speak to individuals whose grammar is closer to the language of the past. Not only could we map out a new grammar of a contemporary dialect but we could also understand some forms of the language of the past. This is the opportunity that Romeyka presents us with.”

Studies of the grammar of Romeyka show that it shares a startling number of similarities with Koine Greek of Hellenistic and Roman times, which was spoken at the height of Greek influence across Asia Minor between the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD.

Modern Greek, meanwhile, has undergone considerable changes from its ancient counterpart, and is thought to have emerged from the later Medieval Greek spoken between the 7th and 13th Centuries AD – so-called Byzantine Greek.

Future research will try to assess how Pontic Greek from the Black Sea coast evolved over the centuries. “We know that Greek has been continuously spoken in Pontus since ancient times and can surmise that its geographic isolation from the rest of the Greek-speaking world is an important factor in why the language is as it is today,” Dr Sitaridou said. “What we don’t yet know is whether Romeyka emerged in exactly the same way as other Greek dialects but later developed its own unique characteristics which just happen to resemble archaic Greek.

Many of the world’s languages are disappearing as once-isolated populations become part of the global economy, with children failing to learn the language of their grandparents and instead using the dominant language of the majority population, which in this part of the world is Turkish.

“In Pontus, we have near-perfect experimental conditions to assess what may be gained and what may be lost as a result of language contact,” Dr Sitaridou said.

The art and practice of it (5)

Why am I going over rhythm and meter?  Do I need to prove that there’s one way to look at it, better than all others?  No, I don’t; and in fact, I can’t—prosody is not a science but an art, and it’s  something on which poets and scholars tend to take strong positions, so I don’t expect to convert anyone who already has a way of thinking about it that can produce poems and readings of poems that deftly use or respond to the rhythms of English.  I’m one of the ones who does have a way of thinking about it, and who likes to think about it.  And so I do this for my own pleasure, as well as with the hope of clarifying something that to another reader or poet has not been clear, and most of all, simply for the lucky privilege—a privilege one can seize for oneself out of the air and the language, without taking it away from anyone, and without having expected anyone to give it away—of participating, as I write these little parts of my discussion, in the life of poetry.

I begin to feel impatient, and wasteful of my own hours, when I do not participate in the life of poetry.  That participation is a practice that sometimes includes working on a poem or a translation, but isn’t at all limited to this.  The practice has been a long process, for me, of thinking about language, about poems, about the artistic resources in language, about what people make of poetry at different times, about how some (good and bad) poems become admired, and for what reasons, and others do not, about what “good” and “bad” mean, in such a statement as the one I just made, about the kinds of roles poets have had in their communities and cultures since as far back as we can guess (about five millennia? or, with guessing that’s entirely vague, about ten?— or twenty?).

I know that such participation in the life of poetry is not very widely seen as a very useful thing, except in its being a part of remembering the myriad elements and aspects of being human that have marked us as a species—inherently, and in comparison to other animals, and in light of what the effect of human beings has been on each other and on our planet.  Only bad poetry, perhaps, minimizes the human, makes it more acceptable to a polite modern society; but also, bad behavior doesn’t necessarily make for good poetry, although it’s something that a lot of readers like to read about; nor does bad bahavior, at least in some poets, keep good poems from being written.

Our human being is a confusing and contradictory object of contemplation.  But to spend time thinking about how what we have been, in all its horror and beauty, has been represented, grasped, turned, troped (and has not been) in poems, is the worthy practice I cherish.  Perhaps it’s only in a country as shot through (I do not choose the metaphor at random) as ours is with the crude and desperate utilitarianism of those who have been economically excluded and even crushed, and—despite our worthy, inscribed ideals—with pretty brutal antisocial, inhumane, greedy, unethical, violent stances, in far too many with political and financial power, would what I’m arguing for have to be justified.

So that’s it.  I can’t pretend I’m interested in all poetry, from the earliest to what was published in the latest issues of any half dozen literary journals.  I’m not.  You have (as do I, as does everyone), a right to claim and hold onto your own personal history as a reader, and work from that.  (I first encountered that idea in an overheard conversation in a library in California, when I was a student; it stayed with me.)  So I hold onto my history as a reader, and I keep opening up new chapters in it as I go.

With the blessing of some time in which to do so, I have been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins from beginning to end, over the last week—poems, some diary entries, some letters, a little commentary by those who have studied his work.  I expect to look at him in one of these posts, although I’m not ready to do so yet.  And to use him in another essay I’m writing, about poetry and etymology (not for this blog).  I haven’t felt much more for his work, over the years, than admiration of a few of his great poems, as poems, and more generally for his intense seriousness in trying to re-conceive how to use the rhythms of English, in the second  part of his career, beginning with “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”  I don’t think I myself will ever write anything that is indebted to his poems; I never have, yet; and I don’t think I can admire the wreck of his psyche that submerged him in depression, but even earlier, in what seems to me an intransigent impulse, after a certain point, to be subjected, to be controlled, restricted, denied (and in this way sustained, held steady).  His self-abnegation as a poet and a person is striking; his self-condemnation sad.  I want to state emphatically that my immersion in his work for several days has been exhilarating for me not because his poetry is a “triumph” over all that, nor of course because his poetry succumbed to all that.  His sheer stamina is inspiring.  He seems to have believed that if only he could write the poems he wanted to write, he would have accomplished something that was worthy of himself and of the God in whom he believed.  Yet what he did accomplish in his strange, utterly individual way was remarkable in the handful of poems that seem to me likely to be remembered for as long as there are readers.   All of that, from beginning to end, was his (fitful) participation in the life of poetry; and because poetry is an art, in the modern world, of the page that preserves poems and more, I am able to go with him a little of his way.  I’m sure I fail to understand as much as I should about him and about his poems and even (or especially) about his poetic technique.  My trying to understand has been over the last week my participation in the life of poetry.

Amidst the continually unfolding catastrophes and suffering in all the world, I try to take heart—as one of my most inspiring friends did, when he was alive—in holding a little of the whole history of us in mind, and choosing from the riches and devastations of that history some poems and poets worth remembering and sustaining in our collective memory.

Back to rhythm and meter next time.

The art and practice of it (4)

A little more about how we got to free verse.  Ezra Pound’s early version of free verse is at work in his most famous poem (published, like “The Return,” in 1913; Pound was 28):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet black bough.

Let’s scan this:

………/……. /……… /…………../………../…………/

The ap |pari | tion of | these fac | es in | the crowd;

…/………../………../………….. /

pet | als on | a wet | black bough.

The first line is six iambic feet and has a light, swift tread because it has only three speech stresses.  The second line is a “headless” line of four iambic feet.  “Headless” is a metrical convention—it means that the poet leaves out the expected unaccented first syllable of the first foot.  Which we can guess at, as Pound meant us to: it would have been “like.”  But he didn’t want a simile, a comparison; he wanted a transformation.  So the faces are the petals, and the gloom behind them is the bough, and both petals and human faces are fragile and temporary.  And beautiful against the darkness of change and time.  And all of that he says in perfectly iambic lines, which we tend to read as free verse simply because the swift first line is followed by the very emphatic rhythm of the second line, with its speech stress in the first syllable and then the three in a row at the end, and what we hear is the contrast between the swift and the emphatically slow rhythms.

And by the time Pound wrote his Canto II, he was, in parallel with the work of other “imagists” and T. S. Eliot during the war and post-war years, writing a more truly free verse, with speech stresses packed close together, and by Canto IX he was extending the rhythms of the Cantos all the way to documentary prose.  His was the first documentary poem, I believe.  (His A Draft of XVI Cantos was published in 1925—Pound was forty.  The next great documentary poem in the U. S. was Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, published in 1938).

From Canto II:

Soshu churned in the sea.

Seal sports in the spraywhited circles of cliffwash.

Sleek head, daughter of Lir,

eyes of Picasso

Under black furhood […]

In these five lines, there are three sequences of three consecutive speech stresses, then a sequence of five, then another of three at the end.  I mean speech stresses, not metrical accents.  Speech stresses are apparent in any text or utterance; metrical accents are only apparent in metrical verse, and as I mentioned in the last post, it’s the interplay between them that makes for the rhythmic energy of metrical verse.  In fact, even these lines can be scanned as metrical!—but the feeling of meter is gone.  Pound is still thinking in meter—as how could he not, after all the ear-training he had done before creating a new way of writing—but he has broken it loose from the pattern of alternating syllables that have a considerable difference in emphasis, which is the basis of iambic meter.  So not only is his line broken up into short chunks, as in “The Return,” but now it also has really been packed with consecutive speech stresses that somehow, because of their emphatic rhythm, heighten the visual clarity of the description, give the visual images more vividness.  It’s a kind of high-def rhythm, you might say.

By 1923, William Carlos Williams, who turned forty that year, had been writing in truly free verse for a while and his themes were maturing; he published the book that broke the freedom of poetic rhythm open for him and for just about anybody else who wanted to be open, Spring and All.  After the opening sections in prose, the first piece in that book that is in lines (well-known as one of his best poems) begins this way:

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen […]

Then he keeps going in that modest, beautiful way–deferring the subject and the verb, continuing to “break” the lines just where the syntax absolute requires the next word (such as “the / waste”) , and letting these truly free rhythms of English go at a more relaxed pace (but without losing any of the visual vividness that Pound, too, wanted).  Williams uses the enjambment and the syntax to differentiate his lines from both prose, on the one hand, and from metrical verse, on the other.  (In contrast, and effective in a different way at creating a new kind of poetic writing, Pound avoided such strong enjambments and used other means to mark his free verse as being poetry—mythological and other allusions to evoke a vast context of poetry and history and language, speech stresses packed close together, elliptical narratives and trains of thought, and a diction that is not at all the everyday language that Williams preferred.)

Most of the poets—that is to say, almost all of us—in all the succeeding generations after Pound and Williams, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, and Marianne Moore, have tended to follow Williams rather than Pound.  It’s not that Williams couldn’t produce an emphatic rhythm, though. Here are lines 9-13 of that same poem:

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

[and] leafless vines

But Williams doesn’t let that “ghost” of iambic meter show—no, I’m only testing you; he does show it.  Here’s how: “All | along | the road | the red | dish purp| lish, forked, | upstand |ing, twig | gy stuff | of bush | es and | small trees | with dead, | brown leaves“— all of that, if it were disposed properly in a metrical poem, would be heard as iambic meter without a single substitution (except for the “headless” first foot).  But Williams, unlike Pound, takes his lines out of any metrical context, and simply uses the iambic rhythms that English gives him.  Well, perhaps he makes them somewhat more regular, but his lines feel free to us, nevertheless.  And in this same amazing book, he has the wonderful poem that begins this way (it’s part XVIII):

The pure products of America

go crazy—

mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of


with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deafmutes, thieves

old names

and promiscuity between […]

He too can set up a sequence of five consecutive speech stresses, or let the rhythms run quickly, in a way that we hear as very free and yet very expressive.

I had intended to stick with meter, but I got distracted by the way meter is re-mixed, if that’s the right word, as the first free verse.  There are some good sources on this, especially Charles O. Hartmann’s Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, which is still probably the best such, although I have not read it for so long that for all I know I got these very examples from it.  (And if so, then thank you, Charles.)

Next time I will get back to meter, and luxuriate in its more traditional modern practitioners, although I am also eventually going to go back to Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The art and the practice of it (3)

Now, after the last post, it’s time for more detail.  I’m sure I can’t contribute anything new to a discussion of rhythm (and meter), but I can at least give a very brief account of how I listen, and hoping it will be useful to others.  This exercise is not about “getting something right”—which would feel like a test.  Judgment in the arts depends on the ear or eye or kinetic sense of the judge—the better ear will hear pleasures or problems that the less trained ear won’t notice.  Well, virtuosity does have its tests, but they are for the sake, ultimately, of expressiveness, pleasure and the powers of the work.  I remember Michael S. Harper saying many years ago that the technical virtuosity of Gwendolyn Brooks’s first book, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), was the proof of the commitment of her civil rights politics.

Let’s look at Ezra Pound’s famous little poem, “The Return” (1913).  Pound was on the way toward creating his own free verse—by which I mean lines of variable length and also variable rhythm.  (Igor Stravinsky composed his “Rites of Spring” in 1912, making use of time signatures that change as frequently as every measure—with opening measures in 4/4, 3/4, and 2/4, and, to add even more complexity, containing notes grouped by three, by five, as well as two or four.  It’s impossible to hear such passages as being in measures, because it’s a kind of musical free verse.  Stravinsky also combines regular time signatures and irregular ones in the same piece—just as Moussorgsky had done in his suite “Pictures at an Exhibition,” although not nearly no strikingly.  The effect is that the rhythms sound more spontaneous, and in the case of Bartok, for example, we may hear the real song and dance measures of Balkan folk song, which are incredibly complex compared to the double or triple beat of folk songs of regions farther west.)

But Pound’s momentous experiment in “The Return” goes only halfway from metrical verse to free verse, for here Pound is using different metrical sequences of feet (rather than regular metrical lines)—sequences that he breaks into lines of irregular length.  This is not meter but rather the use of small metrical “figures”—that is, patterns shorter than a line that we can find in metrical lines all the way back to Shakespeare.

“The Return” poem is widely available on line, so you might try opening another window in order to see the entire poem as you read this brief commentary on Pound’s rhythms.  I’m not able to show the poem in a side-window.

I’ll scan the first four lines:

../………………../…………. /…………/……../…..

See, they | return; | ah, see | the tent |ative |


Movements,| and the ‘ slow feet,                                 [total = 3 feet]


The troub |le in | the pace |and the | uncertain


Wav |ering!

Once we have underlined both the speech stresses and marked the metrical accents, which takes only a moment (and which one quickly learns to do in the mind’s ear), we can see that the whole stanza (like the rest of the poem) is in iambic meter, with perfectly typical “substitutions”—that is, here and there a foot that is trochaic, or, as in line two, what I’m calling “that other thing” (see the previous post), which consists of two syllables with no speech stress at all followed by two that are both naturally stressed.  Together the four syllables make up two feet.

(Some readers—and poets—argue that both feet can be scanned as iambic, if one wishes to be consistent; but such consistency is really for the sake of creating a kind of system of meter that can naturalize as many different configurations of a metrical foot as possible, but to me that is a kind of arithmetic, and what I’m interested in is hearing what the lines do in relation to an unforced, more or less natural speech stress such as we use in conversation.  And I also think that my way of reading is a way of seeing the basic ground of meter as systematic, as in fact it is, while simply allowing for some variations that work, and counting on the poet’s and reader’s ear to hear that some just don’t.)

So line 1 is iambic pentameter, with the lovely touch that the last two syllables have no appreciable speech stress—let’s say (using the scale of 4 that I mentioned in the previous post) a 1 and a 2.  Line 2 has three feet, not one of which is iambic, but all of which are acceptable (by which I mean not only consistent with metrical verse but also enjoyable, rather than inept) substitutions: a trochee and then that “other thing.”  Lines 3 and 4—if we read them together across Pound’s enjambment in the middle of a foot—add up to to seven perfectly consistent feet in iambic meter.

Pound’s idea of free verse at this point seems to be that the poet needs to “break the back of the pentameter,” as he put it, simply by breaking lines in metrically iambic rhythm (with some emphatic substitutions) into irregular lengths, and even breaking a metrical passage in the middle of a foot.  Pound had a wonderful ear.  Scanning the lines (that is, reading them for the meter) shows us how he, like almost all English-language poets until the twentieth century, plays the speech stresses against the reader’s expectation of a regular iambic meter.  Nowadays, too few readers seem to hear this interplay, and so the rhythmic effects of a poem like this are only perceived as interesting somehow, or emphatic.  (Which they can be.)

(Again, an analogy from music: scarcely any of us can hear the emotional qualities of the different keys on the piano.  For example, A-major vs. E-flat, vs.  F-sharp minor, vs. C-major: Bach regarded C-major, precisely because its tuning, even on a well-tempered piano, was close to perfect, as the key of God.  We don’t learn to hear these expressive qualities of key signatures because we don’t hear that many pianos, and because the keyboard instruments that we do hear are no longer “well-tempered” but blandly tuned to match the tuning of electronic keyboards.  Nor, I think, do we much notice the emotional effect of how a composer moves a piece from one key to another and back.)

Hearing a free-verse poem or a metrical poem if we haven’t trained our ears can give us only a vague idea of how and why rhythms are interesting or emphatic.  And a poet who doesn’t hear the rhythmic workings of a metrical line or even a strongly rhythmic (which doesn’t necessarily mean “regular”) free-verse line won’t be able to hear what Pound soon realized: the metrical “figures” (such as a trochee followed by an iamb, and the that “other thing”) can be used in free verse, too.  They’re no longer “metrical figures,” but they’re still “rhythmical figures.”  A poet who doesn’t hear rhythms, even with intuitive responsiveness, isn’t able to do much with them in a new poem.

Pound’s favorites are, first, the initial trochee followed by an iamb: “See, they return,” “See, they return,” “These were the Wing’d-,” “Gods of the wing-,” “With them the sil-,” “Sniffing the trace,” “These were the swift,” “These the keenscent-” (the speech stress on keen is a 3 and on scent a 4, let’s say), “Slow on the leash,” Pallid the leash-” (there are more instances of this repeated pattern than we would expect to find in a more politely behaved iambic poem).  And second, a packing of speech stresses (iambic meter can do this without disrupting the pleasing iambic alternation of weak and strong metrical accents by using unequal stresses of 3 or even 3.5 before a 4, instead of 1 and 4); Pound puts two only slightly unequal speech stresses in the same foot, or uses “that other thing”: “and the slow feet,” “Haie! Haie!,” “and half turn back,” “keenscented,” “leashmen.”

Altogether in this poem there are 50-some speech stresses, out of just over 100 syllables.  Which is about what we would expect in English.  But Pound gets more forceful rhythms out of them.  And he also uses the line to create a rhythmic slowing down in the last nine lines by making them shorter and stopping each at the end with punctuation (whereas in the first four lines, which I scanned, above, the sentence flows easily past the enjambments at the ends of lines 1 and 3).  So the rhythms of the poem become more compact and more emphatic as it concludes, as it intensifies its feeling of awe and dread in this vision of the Greek gods, as if even now they might fly to see the world as it has become.  (Hermes had winged shoes, but all the Olympian gods seem to be able to fly wherever they want, instantaneously.)

When Pound then moved on to his Cantos, he began that sequence with an unmistakable nod in the direction of meter, and an unmistakable announcement that he was now writing something new that had the same power of rhythmical emphasis that metrical poetry has, but uses it more freely.  He went the rest of the way to truly free verse, but without losing the rhythmic power that meter had made possible.  In Canto I, he creates a mock-epic episode that he indicates he is translating or rephrasing from a Renaissance Latin translation of the ancient Greek original of the Odyssey.  (I’ll underline the speech stresses, all of them 3s or 4s).

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward

Bore us out onward….

The packing of speech stresses (in five out of six syllables from the end of line three through the beginning of line four); the use of emphatic alliteration in imitation of Anglo-Saxon verse (“set… sail…swart ship”; “bore… aboard…bodies,” etc.); and behind these lines, the lively “ghost of the pentameter”—as T. S. Eliot put it—create a potent narrative opening.  (The hovering of that “ghost” is notable in Eliot’s The Waste Land, especially in part III (lines 231-256), where he the ghost into view very expressively to suggest the squalor of a kind of  mechanical modern life—in his day, the mechanical music of the phonograph and the “mechanical” rhythm of loveless sex.

(More to come.)