Inscribed gemstone, plaque showing what ancient Greek looked like

A gemstone inscribed 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 of a popular song or poem in modern times, two ancient Greek inscriptions in the form of rhyming poetry sparked new insights into how the language was spoken at that time.

Ultimately, it is not possible to determine exactly how an ancient language sounded when spoken. But one clue has always been the change in spelling over time – especially in the writings and inscriptions of more ordinary people rather than professional scribes.

Cambridge University classicist Tim Whitmarsh sees patterns and trends in these writings that indicate how ancient the language must have sounded. “In popular texts, the spelling is more likely to fit the sound of the word and less likely to be tied to a conservative idea of ​​’proper’ spelling,” he says.

An ancient Greek love poem inscribed on the gemstone provides a linguistic link to the past

“λέγουσιν They say

Grecian Delight supports Greece

ἃ θέλουσιν What they like

λεγέτωσαν Let them say so

οὐ μέλι μοι I don’t care

σὺ φίλι με Go on, love me

συνφέρι σοι It makes you feel good”

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

But it’s not the only artifact from the past that provides clues 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 gems and even writings inscribed on a piece of plaster in a house in Cartagena. , in Spain.

Incredibly, all of these objects contain the same popular short poem written in Greek. The researcher’s findings may provide the best available evidence on how people actually spoke back then, which is reflected in how we speak today.

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

Related: How Ancient Greek Reprograms the Brain

Until that time, poems had been created using the rules of classical meter. This implies that the meter, or rhythm, of a poem is determined by the time 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 called quantitative meter, which distinguishes it from the qualitative, stressed meter that was common in the Middle Ages and later.

Stressed meter is quite subtle in spoken English, which has very nuanced accents, 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”.

Prior to Whitmarsh’s research, it had been established that the earliest clear examples of accented poetry were works created by the hymnist Romanos the Melodist in the mid-sixth century AD.

Whitmarsh says, however, that the inscribed poem he studied, which dates to the second or third century AD, was recited using accented meter, which means that the Greek-speaking people of the Roman Empire used makes it accented speech centuries earlier than before. believed.

Whitmarsh says this written evidence must not have appeared all at once. “This way of speaking must have bubbled up in the oral tradition,” he notes. “Romanos wrote hymns using the accented accent not to innovate dramatically, but to connect with the way normal people spoke. It’s a rare insight into how people actually sounded.

The startlingly modernist poem – which speaks to the universal human experience of loving someone he perhaps shouldn’t – is evidence of a cultural crossover of the human experience in writing.

And its appeal is also universal. “From Spain to Iraq, everyone wants this little gem and its poem,” says Whitmarsh.

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 the exquisite poem seems to have appealed to a literate, but not high-level, populace.

The “precious stones” of these jewels are in fact only glass paste. Added to this fact is that the language of the poem is vernacular, with no adjectives or nouns.

“It’s about as simple as it gets,” says Whitmarsh, adding “It’s kind of a playground chat that starts in the middle of a conversation and has an easily repeatable rhythm that resembles the main verse of ‘ Johnny B. Goode’ from Chuck Berry. .'”

Like the Greek world that so inspired Roman thought and material culture, the vast expanse and wealth of the Empire spawned the production of such jewelry. The ancient Greek poem inscribed on it was surely known to all educated people at the time.

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

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