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The Lives of Formulas: Linguistic Productivity and the Development of Epic Greek

Chiara Bozzone

University of California at Los Angeles

This paper introduces a new method for assessing the relative antiquity of Homeric formulas and formulaic expressions, based on the notion of linguistic productivity (borrowed from morphological theory). From the work of Parry and Lord we know that the technique of an oral traditional poet includes very old, traditional expressions (inherited formulas and formulaic expressions), which the poet learns and reproduces from earlier singers, as well as new and original expressions (new formulas, formulaic expressions, and “free” expressions), which the poet creates based on the competence acquired during training. Distinguishing between the traditional and the innovative was in fact Parry’s original goal in the Épithète (Parry 1971:4). Yet, assessing the antiquity of an expression has proven challenging.

Up to now, the standard method for establishing the antiquity of a formula was to verify whether it appears to contain a linguistic archaism that is guaranteed by the meter, such as expressions containing metrical traces of the sound [w] (Passa 2016: 167–9). Additionally, a few expressions have been traced back to Proto-Indo-European using comparative evidence, such as the PIE formula *ḱléwos n̥dhgwhitóm ‘imperishable fame’, reconstructed by comparing κλέος ἄφθιτον ‘id.’ (Il. 9.413) and śrávas akṣitám ‘id.’ (Rig Veda 1.9.7) (Watkins 1995: Ch. 15). Both of these methods are limited, in that they only work for a few “lucky” expressions — we cannot use them to paint a complete picture of diachronic layering in Homer’s technique.

This paper introduces a third and more powerful method, based on the notion of linguistic productivity (Baayen 1992, Sandell 2015), which assesses whether an expression patterns and behaves as if it is old in the poet’s technique. This method can be used to test the accuracy of the other methods, as well as to study the evolution of the technique as a complex dynamic system.

The method has two parts: first, it describes the poet’s technique in terms of constructions (a notion borrowed from usage-based linguistics, which encompasses formulas, formulaic expressions, and more flexible expressions) (Bozzone 2014). Second, it looks at the type and token frequency of each construction (i.e., how flexible the construction is and how frequently it occurs), in order to establish its relative “age” in the technique. Crucially, this method argues that constructions go through a predictable life-cycle (from youth, to maturity, to fossilization), and that linguistic productivity can help us locate expressions along that life-cycle.

This paper illustrates this new method by discussing two case-studies:

1.  The two competing formulas for Hera βοῶπις πότνια Ἥρη ‘cow-eyed lady Hera’ and θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη ‘white-armed goddess Hera’ (Hainsworth 1978): this case-study illustrates how the diction regularly replaces an old, fossilized expression (low-type, high-token frequency) with a new and flexible expression (high-type, high-token frequency). While the assumption has often been made that flexible formula uses mark the decay of the formulaic system (Hoekstra 1964), this case-study shows their function in the natural renewal of the diction.

2.  A small set of speech-introduction constructions employing the verbs προσέειπε, προσέφη, and προσηύδα is used to illustrate the evolution of the technique between the Iliad and the Odyssey: while developing at different paces, all constructions seem to “age” between the two poems, suggesting that the Odyssey is later than the Iliad.

Overall, the paper points to the potential of this new field of research. Beyond solving philological puzzles, studying the productivity of Homeric formulas allows us to paint a more precise picture of how Epic Greek developed over time.

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New Approaches to the Homeric Formula

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