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Dorians are Allowed to Speak Doric: Theocritus' Idyll XV in the Context of Panhellenization

Sophia Decker

University of Kentucky

This paper will use sociolinguistic information about Hellenistic Greece to shed light on the cultural and metapoetic significance of the exchange between Praxinoa and the unnamed stranger in Theocritus’ Idyll XV.  For centuries, Ancient Greek, unlike most ancient and modern languages, had no standard variety.  This is shown by the sociolinguistic research of Carl Darling Buck, who finds that, with only a few exceptions, the local dialect of the writer, rather than that of the recipient or any third party, was used in dedications, epitaphs, honorary decrees, and arbitrations (Buck 1913:133-50).  Even treaties between two Greek-speaking city-states were written in the local dialects of the regions in which they were found (Buck 1913:155), and Buck quite reasonably suggests that the other party to each of these treaties may have kept a copy written in its own dialect. 

Following the conquests of Alexander the Great and the spread of the Koine dialect, the political unification of the previously autonomous Greek regions caused a linguistic hierarchy to emerge.  Koine Greek became the standard language of communication across Alexander’s vast empire as well as the variety that non-native speakers of Greek learned.  Because of the linguistic pressure exerted by the Koine dialect, individual local dialects seemed to be in danger of dying out.  While some Greek speakers preferred to discard their native dialects in favor of Koine, others made efforts to hold on to their local linguistic identity.  This desire to maintain local dialects manifests itself, for example, in the hyper-correct form “οιδενός” found in an inscription in Thessaly(Consani 2013).  Yet this very hyper-correctness itself shows that Koine was beginning to overshadow local variants of the Greek variation, because this hyper-correct form could only come to exist as a response to strong pressure from the dominant dialect.

In the midst of such linguistic tensions, the poet Theocritus, a native speaker of a Doric dialect, made the unprecedented decision to write hexameter poetry in Doric.  In his Idyll XV, Theocritus comments on the use of regional dialects through the words of a housewife named Praxinoa.  This paper argues that the conversation between Praxinoa and the unnamed stranger in lines 89-95 of Theocritus’ Idyll XV, in addition to being a commentary on the sociolinguistic situation of Hellenistic Greece, is a defense of the linguistic choices that Theocritus himself has made as a poet.  By writing Idyll XV in Doric, Theocritus implicitly endorses Praxinoa’s arguments.  In doing so, he argues not only for the right of individual citizens to speak their native dialects, but also for his own right to write Doric hexameter poetry.  In fact, the situation of Praxinoa mirrors the poet’s own situation.  Praxinoa and presumably Theocritus are both natives of Syracuse, and both find themselves in Alexandria: Praxinoa as a worshipper at the festival of Adonis, Theocritus as a poet at the court of Ptolemy.  Praxinoa’s arguments, then, have a double interpretation: at the surface level, they are arguments for speaking one’s own dialect and resisting the panhellenizing influence of Koine, while on the metapoetic level they establish the grounds for Theocritus’ choice to use literary Doric in his hexameter poetry.        Theocritus’ argument (15.89-95) is made even stronger by Praxinoa’s comment, “μὴ φύη, Μελιτῶδες, ὃς ἁμῶν καρτερὸς εἴη, πλὰν ἑνός (Persephone, do not bring someone to be our master, except one).” The “one” seems to be Ptolemy himself, who was born on Cos, a Doric-speaking island in the Mediterranean immortalized in Callimachus’ “Hymn to Delos.”  Praxinoa’s short apology for the Doric dialect is a complex metapoetic argument made by Theocritus which relies on the sociolinguistic and political situation of the time for its efficacy.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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