Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 5.

Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010[2]. Pp. xx + 505. ISBN 978-1-40513415-6. UK£110.00.

Philippa M. Steele
Lumley Research Fellow, Magdalene College, Cambridge

The first edition of Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers, published in 1997, was widely greeted as an innovative and impressive piece of scholarship, taking a broad diachronic approach to the study of the Greek language in both its spoken and written forms. This second edition preserves the original thematic focus on ‘the effects of early standardization and the consequential state of diglossia on the long-term evolution of the language’ (p. 20), but a number of changes have been made, some of them substantial, to the content, structure and references.

In the preface to the new edition (p. xv- xvi), Horrocks outlines some of the ways in which he has taken account of reviews of the first edition, as well as a 2006 translation of the work into modern Greek,[[1]] in order to correct some errors, and in particular to address two new aims: to improve the section on Medieval Greek generally, and to appease Classicists by giving a more expansive account of the ancient Greek dialectal situation at the beginning of the book. The changes have brought the work up to date and strengthened its argument, allowing the diachronic development of the Greek language to be made all the more clear through the addition of further examples and elucidation of certain sections.

It is easy to understand why Horrocks had originally omitted any thorough discussion of the ancient Greek dialects, since the book’s aim was to trace the history of one particular variety of Greek, namely the Attic dialect, the legacy of whose early standardisation has been felt in Greece for more than two thousand years. However, the substantial expansion of Chapter 1 (p. 9-42; originally only fourteen pages in length), now titled ‘The Ancient Greek Dialects’, is of great benefit to the work as a whole, because it gives a firm sense of the wider context of the Attic dialect in the ancient period and so provides a much fuller beginning to the story of the Greek language. Even though Horrocks labels his discussion ‘simply an attempt at a consensus view’ (p. 17) in place of a thorough treatment, this section could be recommended as a starting point to anyone interested in ancient Greek dialectology, with its impressively comprehensive account of methodological concerns, wealth of examples and informed references; indeed as an informative and concise overview of the current state of knowledge on the ancient dialects, it is for the moment unparalleled. It might further be added that many sections of this book could be praised in a similar way, with consistently clear and accessible explanations throughout that enable and encourage the audience to read further into the various topics addressed.

One of the potential weaknesses of a work such as Greek is that the sheer breadth of its scope might go hand-in-hand with some limitations in the amount of detail that can be included, but the first edition did not fall into this trap and the second edition outdoes it by including even more examples and improving on the already systematic approach to the way in which material is presented. Naturally, a book can only take one path from beginning to end, and the overarching chronological narrative employed here is not without its disadvantages (for example making it impossible to survey the development of a single feature through multiple time periods in a single section), but Greek benefits from a good index and may be read either as a continuous narrative or by focusing on particular sections/themes as the reader wills it. The only disadvantage of the latter method is that it somewhat undermines Horrocks’ aim to present a continuous history of the Greek language, but it is inevitable that it will frequently be used in this way.

As with any published work, Greek is not entirely without errors or omissions, and because it covers such a breadth of scholarship it will be the specialists in each discipline who most notice any problems within their area of expertise. For this reviewer, the absence of an example of the ancient Cypriot dialect, even though most others were included, seemed an oversight: Arcadian does not represent the Arcado-Cypriot dialect sub-group as comprehensively as one might assume.[[2]] Furthermore the references supplied for ancient Cypriot epigraphy are not the most appropriate, and it would have been better to cite a work such as Olivier’s contribution to the 2006 Mycenological colloquium as a reference for the continuation of Greek literacy on Cyprus from the Early Iron Age onwards.[[3]] However, these are small issues, and only tangential to the central thrust of the book as a whole.

More broadly, it is difficult to find fault with either the content or the design of the book. The Table of Contents (p. v-xi) and Index (p. 493-505) provide two very comprehensive guides to the book’s structure and content, making Greek easily navigable; the newly included International Phonetic Alphabet chart (p. xvii) is also helpful, enabling readers to understand the many phonetic transcriptions that appear in this work. However, no list of the passages used as examples throughout the book (which range from a Late Bronze Age Mycenaean Greek administrative document to pieces of journalism and draft legislation from 2009) is included, and I think this would have been a useful addition.

A comparison of the first and second editions of Greek gives an interesting insight into the revision process, with alterations ranging from minute stylistic changes of phrasing (e.g. ‘incidentally’ in place of ‘for example’, p. xviii) to implicitly political changes of tone (e.g. ‘the Balkans’ in place of ‘Greece [including Macedonia and Thrace]’, p. 210!), and of course the inclusion of some new sections and expansion of others. Several of the alterations are worthy of note, among them the following: the notion of ‘identity’, a somewhat thorny topic in recent years, has been visibly removed from sections 8.3 (p. 210-12) and 8.4 (p. 212-20) on the status of the Greek language in the Byzantine Empire; a new conclusion to the chapter on Greek in the Byzantine Empire is included (p. 229f.), bringing that whole of chapter 8 more obviously in line with the aims of the book; at the end, an extra section giving five examples of contemporary written modern Greek is included.

The newly added final section of the final chapter is notable in itself. The first edition ended with a rather more traditional conclusion, which has now become the penultimate section of the second edition, on ‘Standard Modern Greek’ (section 17.7, p. 462-66); the concluding sentence (which still appears, p.466) looked forward to a ‘universal acceptance of the fact that the only fully standardized languages are dead ones, and that experimentation, diversity and change are a cause for celebration rather than concern.’ In the new edition, section 17.8 ‘A Range of Styles’ (p. 466- 70) has been added to illustrate the diversity of modern Greek today, with texts in more formal registers recalling the features of katharévousa, while fictional narrative is more fluid and inventive. A few comments are made before the five examples are given, but no further commentary on these passages is provided. As Horrocks says at the end of the final paragraph, ‘If this book has done its job, none will be needed’ (p. 467).

It is fair to say that this book has done its job, and done it well. Through its comprehensive survey of the Greek language it has achieved its aims to ‘explain, summarize and exemplify the principal facts of change’ and ‘render comprehensible’ the long-term language situation that still has relevance for Greek speakers today (p. 4). This second edition has corrected and improved on many aspects of the first edition, forming an up-to-date and impressively full and informative volume that deserves a place on every Hellenist’s and Hellenophile’s bookshelf.


[[1]] G. Horrocks (ed. M. Staurou and M. Tzebelekou), Ελληνικά: Η ιστορία της γλώσσας και των ομιλητών της (Athens 2006).

[[2]] Cf. J. Chadwick, ‘Differences and similarities between Cypriot and the other Greek dialects’, in J. Karageorghis and O. Masson (edd.), The History of the Greek language in Cyprus. Proceedings of an International Symposium Sponsored by the Pierides Foundation. Larnaca, Cyprus, 8-13 September, 1986 (Nicosia 1988) 55-66.

[[3]] J.-P. Olivier, ‘Les syllabaires chypriotes des deuxième et premier millénaires avant notre ère. État des questions’ in A. Sacconi, M. del Freo, L. Godart, and M. Negri (edd.), Colloquium Romanum. Atti del XII colloquio internazionale di micenologia. Roma 20-25 febbraio 2006 (Pisa/Rome 2008) 605-19.