The paper analyses the dramatic function of Greek words in the comedies of Plautus. Previous studies interpret Plautus’ Graeca as evidence for the transfer of Greek culture and lifestyle (Middelmann 1938), analyse how Greek words are adapted to the rules of Latin morphology (e.g. Kahle 1918, Sturtevant 1925, Friedmann 1931, Maltby 1995), use the frequency of Greek words to establish achronology of Plautus’ plays (Hough 1934), or examine whether the use of Greek expressions is determined by the respective speaker’s age, gender, or social status (Leo 1883: 566, 1912: 106, Gilleland: 1979: 84-178, Jocelyn: 1999: 169-73). Little attention, however, has been paid to the dramatic function of the Greek expressions and to the question how they were perceived by Plautus’ Roman audience. The only exception is an article by Shipp (1953), who argues that the Graeca reflect a Greco-Latin slang that was spoken at Rome around 200 B.C. by slaves, foreigners, and members of the lower classes: “For Plautus the use of Greek is a mark of servile status or of frivolity“ (1953: 112). This view has often been repeated in Plautine scholarship (e.g. MacCary/Willcock 1976: 180, Thesleff 1960: 50-2, Petersmann/Petersmann 2003: 112-3), but does not bear scrutiny. Firstly, Shipp simply postulated the existence of a Greco-Latin slang on the basis of Plautus’ comedies and did not provide any additional evidence from other sources; hence, Shipp’s Greco-Latin slang remains a hypothetical construct. Secondly, Plautus carefully embeds the Greek expressions and prepares his audience for the code-switching by means of introductory particles (Pseud. 712: euge) or by explicit references to the change of language (e.g. Stich. 707: cantio Graecast, Pseud. 479) or the Greek setting of the play (Stich. 671: nunc Athenas colamus); such markers would be superfluous, if Plautus was simply imitating a Greco-Roman slang that was commonly spoken in Rome. And finally, an examination of the linguistic evidence shows that the Greek expressions which Plautus incorporates into his plays have close parallels in the remains of Greek New Comedy and are more likely to stem from Plautus’ reading of Attic plays than from contact with a sub-standard slang at Rome.
The objections show that Shipp’s interpretation is implausible and that it is time to take a fresh look at Plautus’ Graeca. Recent linguistic and literary studies have shown that code-switching can serve a variety of different functions. For example, speakers or authors may employ foreign language to evoke the exotic, to encode their message, to mark a quotation, to create a comic effect, to achieve euphony, or to characterize themselves or others (cf. e.g. Horn 1981: 226, Adams 2003:297–416). If we consider the Plautine Graeca in their respective context, we can observe that they serve similar functions. In some cases the switch to Greek indicates the quotation of a Greek saying (Stich.707: cantio Graecast: á¼¢ πá½³ντ’ á¼¢ τρá½·α πá¿–ν’ á¼¢ μá½´ τá½³τταρα) or produces euphony (cf. Most. 41, Poen. 137, Pseud. 211). More frequent is the use of code-switching for the purpose of linguistic characterization: Greek words are often put into the mouth of overbearing slaves and bumptious parasites (e.g. Cas.727–30, Capt. 880-3, Pseud. 483-9); the fact that these characters no longer employ the same language as their master or benefactor underscores their insolence. Most often, however, the code-switching has a comic effect: at Cas. 729, for example, Plautus translates the common expression magnum malum and produces an absurd, hybrid mix of Greek and Latin (dabo tibi μá½³γα κακá½¹ν), and at Capt. 881 he exploits the similar sound of Κá½¹ρα (Persephone) and Cora (an Italian city) for a wordplay (cf. also the similar puns at Bacch. 240, Pseud. 653-4, 712, 1197-9, Mil. 436-8).
The examination of the Greek expressions shows that Plautus employs code-switching very carefully and for a variety of effects. It demonstrates Plautus’ originality and challenges the conventional picture of the sociolinguistic realities in Plautus’ Rome.