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Greek, Latin, Roman: Language and Identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Erik Ellis

Medieval Institute/Department of Classics, University of Notre Dame

Linguistic contact between Greek and Latin in the first thousand years of our era is often seen as a stream of ideas, concepts, and words flowing in one direction: from Greek East to Latin West. (Berschin, 15-17) While Introductory Latin textbooks are careful to point out Greek loanwords like poeta and philosophia, their Greek analogues are silent on parallel processes from West to East. Scholars who treat the subject of cultural influence usually frame their discussions from a Greek to Latin perspective (Hutchinson, 149-153). This view is encouraged by an emphasis on the atticizing literature of the educated minority rather than the daily cultural interchange between Latin and Greek that took place at every level of society, influenced by the formation and long duration of the civilization of the Greek-speaking Romans, the Byzantines. A broader view of the interaction between Latin and Greek shows a pervasive cultural influence flowing in both directions throughout antiquity and the early middle ages.

Central to any discussion of linguistic contact is the concept of prestige: adstrate (equal), substrate (inferior), and superstrate (superior). The standard narrative depicts Latin as strictly substrate to Greek, which was the source of numerous high prestige loans in the semantic domains of literature and philosophy. The use of such terms in Latin has been imagined as akin to the once fashionable and ornamental use of French by English-speaking elite in their day-to-day speech and correspondence. (Steele, 391-392) While partially true, this characterization ignores the Greek loanwords that found a permanent place in less exalted semantic domains across the lower registers of Latin. Indeed, many cultivated speakers of Latin regarded the use of such Greek loans as vulgar and preferred native terms and circumlocutions. Context, therefore, more than linguistic source, determined whether a Greek term was high or low register. The relative prestige of Latin and Greek was by no means absolute.

While Latin had little influence on the cultivated, written language of the literary elite, an examination of non-literary corpora shows Latin to have been a rich source of new words and concepts in the Greek-speaking East. (Dickey, 59-60) In recent decades, much progress has been made in the reconstruction of the spoken Greek of antiquity along with its various literary forms, and Latin is a prominent feature of this hitherto little-known but broadly-attested register of Greek spoken and written by the vast majority of people. This reconstruction has been the result largely of papyrological and epigraphic research that has traced Latin influence on the realia of everyday life. While scholars have gained a greater appreciation of Latin's influence on Greek, the evidence they use has tended to reinforce the idea that Latin was substrate to Greek, given the semantic domains attested and the social standing of the writers. Other sources of non-literary Greek, such as the encyclopedic works commissioned by Constantine VII in the tenth century, have attracted little if any interest from linguistic scholars. A fresh examination of this corpus, which preserves the political culture of the late antique Eastern Roman Empire, (Holmes, 56-60) shows that Latin was a permanent feature not only of the quotidian speech of traders and merchants but also an essential component of the ceremonial and bureaucratic life of vritually every Eastern Roman, from the emperor in Constantinople to the Anatolian peasant. This paper leverages the compilation literature to demonstrate that in the non-literary but highly prestigious domains of court and military, Latin occupied a firmly superstrate position. Just as Latin served early modern Europe as a sign that established and perpetuated a mental empire of Roman identity (Waquet, 258-260), so for the great mass of Greek-speaking Romans across ten centuries, the use of Latin by the government, the legal profession, and the military, was an indispensable source of continuity and legitimacy for a people who had lost their ancient capital and knew very little of the literary output of Vergil and Cicero.

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Language and Linguistics

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