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Language as an Indicator of Cultural Identity in Herodotus’ Histories

Emily Barnum

Hillsdale College

Herodotus’ Histories is seen as a clear marker of the beginning of unified Greek identity (Hall 2002). Several cultural indicators, such as religion, bloodline, language and custom, inform a complex portrait of group identity formation (Hall 1997). Social identity theory has traditionally characterized this formation as a process of drawing sharp distinctions between groups, maximizing differences, in order to bolster one’s own social identity through an intentional distancing from the often derogatorily construed ‘Other’ (Tajfel & Turner 1979; Hartog 1988; Harrison 2002). This paper applies critiques of social identity theory (Gruen 2011) to Herodotus’ Histories, a work read by many scholars as a commentary on ethnicity and culture.

I choose to focus on one of these indicators, language, in order observe how this significant factor informs Herodotus’ portrait of ethnic and cultural identity in Herodotus (Colvin 2014; Hall 1996; Harrison 1998; Thomas 1998; Munson 2005). First, I examine first Psammetichus’ inquiry into the first people (2.2), determining that in this case language suggests that culture and one’s identity to a particular culture is something shaped—fundamentally humans are rooted in shared ancestry and nurture yields later cultural distinctions. Next I consider king Croesus’ inquiry of the Greek people (1.56-7), which gives Herodotus opportunity to consider the Pelasgians and their relation to the Athenians. In this discussion, language serves as a marker of the resilience of a culture—the degree to which it retains its own identity or assimilates into another. Finally, I consider Herodotus’ account of Nechos II’s halt of the construction of his canal because he sees it will benefit a foreign people. The single line of distinction that Herodotus identifies is language (1.156-8). This example seems to most closely exhibit an oppositional framework but I demonstrate how Herodotus’ use of the Greek word βάρβαρος actually serves to draw parallels between the Egyptians and Greeks—an act of association rather than distancing. In addition, the oppositional response to the difference language reveals is a choice: though here self-definition does in fact involve delineating self and ‘Other,’ it does not require enmity between the two groups.

Together, these cases demonstrate how language functions as a significant and dynamic marker of group identity formation. Language contributes to lines of distinction between people that can be molded, altered, and shared (Thomas 2001; Munson 2005; Nippel 2002). It reveals both cultural resilience and assimilation. Herodotus’ nuanced portrait of ethnicity and culture requires a deliberate choice of how a group defines and relates to both itself and to others (Redfield 2002). Diversity then is not an opportunity to justify setting portions of humanity against one another but to better understand humanity as a whole. 

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