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Spoken Greek and the work of notaries in the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon

Tommaso Mari

Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg

In this paper I shall look at how notaries produced the records of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and what such records can tell us about the spoken language of educated men in Late Antiquity.

            The theological controversies that arose within the Christian Church of Late Antiquity resulted in the convocation of several Ecumenical Councils, where bishops gathered from the whole Christian world to discuss matters of faith and Church politics. We possess the proceedings of Councils from the fifth century onwards. These include letters, documents relevant to the debates, and most interestingly, the allegedly verbatim transcripts of the discussions. These transcripts, the so-called Acts, represent for us the richest evidence of spoken language in Antiquity.

            Historians have recently started to focus on the Acts, for they have acknowledged how much these extremely long texts can tell us about the history, society, and language of Late Antiquity. Millar (2006) has opened the way by looking into the Councils under Theodosius II (408-450) and investigating, for example, aspects of the relation between Greek and Latin at the Councils.

            I shall focus on the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon (451), a turning point in the history of Christianity. While the Acts of this Council have received a good deal of attention from theologians and historians (e.g. Price and Gaddis 2005, Price and Whitby 2009, Amirav 2015), there has not been a linguistic study yet. Most of the attendees of the Council spoke in Greek. So my research question is the following: how did the attendees of the Council actually speak? In particular, how did their spoken language differ from their written language? Modern research on spontaneous spoken language has well defined its features as opposed to written language (see e.g. Miller and Weinert 1997): in spoken language a small quantity of information is assigned to each phrase, there is less subordination and more coordination or parataxis, the clausal construction is less complex, the vocabulary is less rich, and so on. My paper will show that such features can be found in the spoken statements of those who attended the council, when compared to their writings, and that there are differences between one speaker (and writer) and another. I shall also comment on non-standard or sub-standard elements that should appear in the oral statements, and possibly on features of regional variation depending on the provenance of the speakers.

            To be sure, processes of note-taking and editing must have obscured some features of spoken language. Modern transcriptions of political gatherings are an elucidating example of how this might have worked in Antiquity. Minute-takers are interested in the content rather than the form, so they have a tendency to normalize some features of spoken language that would not fit in a written text (phonetic mistakes, repetitions and so on). Also, given their crucial role, notaries at Church Councils worked under pressure and were at times abused. Some attention has been dedicated to notaries of other gatherings in Late Antiquity (see e.g. Teitler 1985). Here I shall try to outline the role and work of scribes at the Council of Chalcedon and how their recording policies affect our appreciation of the language spoken at this important gathering.

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Language and Linguistics

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