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Athenians, Amazons, and Goats: Language Contact in Herodotus

Edward E. Nolan

University of Michigan

Herodotus’ description of the Sauromatae’s origins has it all—love, language, and warrior-women. Most strikingly, it includes one of the first instances of an awareness of the effects of language contact, defined most simply as “the use of more than one language at the same place at the same time” (Thomason 2004: 2-3, Thomason 2001: 1). In the story, a group of Amazons travel far from home and end up among Scythians, whose territory they raid (Hdt. 4.110). The Scythians’ response is ultimately to send young men to woo the Amazons, which they do successfully by adopting their wild ways, living exclusively through hunting and plunder (4.111-113). When they finally marry, it is the women who learn the men’s language, because the men are unable to do the same. Still, the women do not learn to speak Scythian correctly, so the Sauromatae descendants of these new couples end up speaking a language colored by their Amazon mothers’ imperfect learning (4.117).

Unusual as it is that Herodotus describes so specifically how new features entered the language, the case of the Sauromatae is just one example of a time when Herodotus employs the idea of language change through contact to explain the origins of a people. Though this use of language contact assumes a frequent linkage between language and ethnicity, in practice Herodotus shows his willingness to question and subvert his own assumptions, often using language as a tool to explore a specific people’s history even as he acknowledges that language and ethnic difference do not always go together. I am the first to approach Herodotus through language contact, but my work is both related to and distinct from that of Pelling, Munson, and Miletti. Pelling shares an overall apprecitation of Herodtous’ critical stance towards Greek understandings of the Greek-Barbarian antithesis, but does not examine language difference per se (65-66). Munson and Miletti are interested in Herodotus’ representation of foreign languages and agree that Herodotus’ treatment of them often subverts a simple dichotomy between Greeks and barbarians (Munson 3, Miletti 151). Yet these two are not specifically interested in language contact, and how Herodotus’ conception of it shows that language difference does not always align with ethnic difference and conflict.

I will explore these ideas through several further examples. The Caunians, for instance, readily accept outside linguistic influences but are resistant to other cultural borrowings associated with ethnic identity such as religion (Hdt. 1.172; cf. 8.144). Subversive too of the narrator’s own categories is his use of language contact to explain the origin of Greek ethnicities in ways that betray their barbarian origins, such as his contention that the Athenians did not always speak Greek, but originated as Pelasgians who changed language and ethnicity at the same time (Hdt. 1.58). All this stands in stark contrast to the declaration at 8.144 that a common language defines what it is to be Greek and the assumption in many passage in the second half of the Histories that suggest that language difference leads inevitably to conflict. Nevertheless, I show that Herodotus’ treatment of language contact is for the most part considerably more nuanced and that language difference does not always lead to conflict. I suggest that the emphasis on the naturalness of conflict between language groups in the later books is a product of Athenian ideological constructs of the Persian War period and does not reflect the totality of Herodotus’ thought on language contact. 

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Historiography and Identity

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