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The Semantic Evolution of Δίγλωσσος

Robert Groves

The word δίγλωσσος underwent a powerful semantic shift over the course of the ancient Greek language. While early authors use the term in the most familiar sense, to mean “speaking two languages,” later readers needed glosses of this meaning and later authors use the mostly to mean “duplicitous” or “deceitful.” This paper traces the term’s history and argues that this shift is the result not of a calque, but rather of a long-standing cultural distrust of bilingual individuals, amplified by Hellenistic Jewish Greek texts.

                Thucydides is the first extant author to deploy the word, using it at both 4.109.4 and 8.85.2; in both cases he uses it to refer to barbarians who also speak Greek.  Later Greek historians use the same word with the same meaning, as do writers of many other prose genres.  In the Septuagint, other Hellenistic Jewish Greek texts, and Late Antique/ Early Byzantine Christian works, the word is not exceptionally rare but the meaning is starkly different.   In these texts, to be δίγλωσσος is to be deceitful and duplicitous, or to use the English idioms based on the same logic, to speak with forked tongue, to be two-faced. The earliest such use is the Septuagint’s Book of Proverbs 11.13: ἀνὴρ δίγλωσσος ἀποκαλύπτει βουλὰς ἐν συνεδρίῳ,/ πιστὸς δὲ πνοῇ κρύπτει πράγματα.  The contrast is between πιστὸς and δίγλωσσος and multilingualism is not irrelevant.  While LSJ (s.v. ii) provide “double-tongued, deceitful,” they do not explain why δίγλωσσος should mean this or what connection exists between the two meanings.

                The fact that this secondary meaning emerges in a famously translated text raises the possibility that this semantic field is not native to Greek itself, but rather is an artifact of translation, perhaps a calque of the Hebrew.  An examination of the Hebrew versions of Proverbs as well as similar sayings in the teachings of Jesus ben Sirach reveal that such a calque is unlikely.  The Hebrew version of Sirach consistently has ba`al-šǝttayim, literally “master of two” or more freely “one who has two” for δίγλωσσος but it is not immediately obvious over which “two” things one would be a master.  “Tongue” is excluded by its grammatical gender.

                If this later, “duplicitous,” meaning of δίγλωσσος cannot be attributed directly to an artifact of translation, one must look elsewhere for an explanation for the semantic shift.  I argue the best explanation for this later meaning of δίγλωσσος in these Jewish Greek passages is that the term had already come to mean “deceptive” in a colloquial sense in early koiné and it is this already established sense that the seventy scholars relied upon in making their translations. This explanation is sensible enough for metaphorical reasons (cf. “speaking with forked tongue”) and from the presence of (stereotypically) deceptive bilingual individuals in the milieu of Hellenistic Alexandria.

                Such a semantic shift would explain why later Greek lexicographers (including Julius Pollux, Hesychius, the Suda, and the Thucydides’ Scholiast) felt the need to explain the term, namely that for their audience, the word had a more powerful semantic valence than “bilingual”. This shift from “bilingual” to “two-faced” is seen in the parallel Latin term bilinguis, which Ennius used to mean “speaking two languages,” and Plautus used to describe an untrustworthy character.   If Plautus borrowed the Greek sense of the word, he provides early evidence of precisely this semantic shift.   If, on the contrary, Plautus’ use is independent, he thereby illustrates that such a shift could happen.

This paper’s argument on the origins of the semantic shift of δίγλωσσος is not meant to be parochial.  Rather, if the theory is correct, this linguistic change is indicative of a set of language and cultural attitudes possessed by (some) Greeks of the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic world wherein bilingual individuals were associated with duplicity.  That is, such a shift suggests a belief that the bilingual really could (and often did) speak with forked tongue.

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Language and Linguistics: Lexical, Syntactical, and Philosophical Aspects

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