Did the Byzantines speak bad Greek?

Jan 27 2011

Brian asks why the Enlightenment scholar Voltaire famously quipped that the Byzantines spoke bad Greek.

He was referring to the convoluted style of writing that the Byzantines preferred.  They considered the classical Greek authors to be the gold standard and did their best to ape the style.  Not only would they constantly reference snippets of Homer or Aeschylus to prove their erudition, but they tried to jam medieval Greek into the metrical and grammatical schemes of ancient Greek.  The result was an appropriately ‘byzantine’ mess of often tortured prose. (presumably like that last sentence)

Voltaire was also engaging in a bit of dripping condescension toward the spoken word.  Medieval Greek had changed in the thousand years since Polybius was writing and frankly it didn’t measure up to his standards- much the way King James English or Shakespeare sounds more majestic than our own vernacular.

Someone should have pointed out how barbaric his version of Latin sounded.

10 responses so far

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marinos, Lars Brownworth. Lars Brownworth said: Did the Byzantines speak bad Greek? http://bit.ly/eDaMkN […]

  2. How different was the Greek spoke between the corners of the empire? Was Greek in Trace different than the Greek spoken in Egypt?

    Also, how different was the Greek spoke been the ages? How different was the language in 500 AD and 1000 AD?

  3. A useful comparison would be the English that is spoken all over the world today. A Thracian and an Egyptian would probably experience the same difficulties as a Texan and an Australian- to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw they were ‘one people separated by a common language’. To a New Yorker, someone from the East Midlands of Britain might at times seem to be speaking a different language- certainly there is a different vocabulary and different usage- but they could be mutually intelligible if they took it slow enough. When languages are isolated differences creep in- a process which is slowed today by greater mobility and the equalizing forces of TV and movies. The nobility of Constantinople were fond of looking down on regional accents (especially when it was from a newcomer to the throne) but there was never a problem in comprehension. In the 5th century, the capital even produced some helpful phrasebooks for westerners explaining some common differences in usage for each area of the East.

    The effect of time, however, was much more serious. By the 15th century Greek had evolved different grammatical structures, pronunciation, and usage. Thanks to the Byzantine fascination with the classical past they tried to cram their writing into a style 1400 years out of date. The result was a (byzantine) mess of convoluted and tortured phrasing. That being said, however, it was still legible to the general public. Much was lost in translation- like a modern high school student trying to understand Shakespeare- but your average Byzantine could still read Homer in 1453.

  4. After Alexander, Koine Greek was the lingua franca – so when you say “by the 15th century Greek had evolved different grammatical structures, pronunciation, and usage” do you mean it had started to take on some of the features of Koine? My impression was ‘bad’ Greek (Koine) and Classical Greek had coexisted for quite some time before the Byzantine Empire existed.

  5. I have to admit I’m wandering outside of my area of knowledge here and am relying on a linguist friend. My understanding is that (as you point out) classical ‘Attic’ Greek evolved into Koine sometime after Alexander the Great (say the 5 centuries between 200 BC- 300AD). Koine is the basis for modern Greek and much closer than the classical form. But even though it is relatively close to the modern language (compared to the drastic changes in English from the time of Beowulf to today- or even Shakespeare to today), there are still some grammatical differences. I’m told that there is ‘bad’ Greek (Koine vs. Classical) and then ‘Bad’ Greek (Medieval Byzantine vs. New Testament) with the difference being that the Byzantines tried to ignore the evolution in language and attempted to make their modified Koine sound like ‘classical’ Koine or worse fit it into the metrical schemes of classical Greek. So in the eyes of Voltaire and his Enlightenment friends they were doubly dammed- they spoke the ‘degraded’ Koine and didn’t even speak that correctly. There are still native speakers of this ‘medieval’ Greek living on the shores of the Black Sea in Trabzon. You can see a Youtube clip here.

  6. You know, during the Age of Enlightenment and thenceforth there has been several movements to establish a linguistic orthodoxy, if you will, such as the nationalistic unification movements of the Germanic states and a history of our language in McCrum’s, “The Story of English.” These days, however, every linguist I have stumbled across has hesitated to say, or gleefully declared, that there is really no such thing as “good” or “bad” English…or German or Mandarin or Farsi, etc., simply because such things cannot be found. Proper language, from what I gather, is lost in the relativist pool of lacking authoritative definition.

    If so, then we must ask Voltaire, what is “good” Greek?

    On another note, Mr. Brownworth, I have finished your “12 Byzantine Rulers” podcast and I am in process of reading “Lost to the West”. Very good work, sir! I, like you, am a huge fan of Sir John Julius Norwich.

  7. Well, Voltaire spoke French, so he shouldn’t have complained about ‘degraded’ versions of languages. (Not that I think French is degraded, but it is a dialect of Latin.) I don’t know if that’s what you meant by “someone should have pointed out how barbaric his version of Latin sounded.”

  8. Yes, a good point. I assume he would have answered that ‘good’ Greek was the language Homer used in the Iliad. And I suppose ‘good’ French was whatever he spoke…

  9. Heh. A bit like how an accent is ‘something other people have’.

  10. Ἀντώνιος Ξαγᾶς

    Hello, I am from Greece. I have just discovered this site (and 12 Byzantine Rulers, and have been fascinated from your work). May I point out the Nobel Lectures of the Modern Greek poets Giorgos Seferis (1963) and Odysseus Elytis (1979), in order to provide some help with the history of the Greek Language? Also, for a more philological approach, Medieval And Modern Greek, Robert Browning, 1983, Cambridge University Press.

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