Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds

James Clackson, the classisist/historical linguist, recently published on book on sociolinguistics in Ancient Greek & Rome: Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds. I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t seen is before. I try to stay up on these things.

Publishers blurb:

Texts written in Latin, Greek and other languages provide ancient historians with their primary evidence, but the role of language as a source for understanding the ancient world is often overlooked. Language played a key role in state-formation and the spread of Christianity, the construction of ethnicity, and negotiating positions of social status and group membership. Language could reinforce social norms and shed light on taboos. This book presents an accessible account of ways in which linguistic evidence can illuminate topics such as imperialism, ethnicity, social mobility, religion, gender and sexuality in the ancient world, without assuming the reader has any knowledge of Greek or Latin, or of linguistic jargon. It describes the rise of Greek and Latin at the expense of other languages spoken around the Mediterranean and details the social meanings of different styles, and the attitudes of ancient speakers towards linguistic differences.
Even better, Staffan Wahlgren just published a review of the volume (link) in Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

To sum up, this is a really good book. It is up to date, well written and an easy read, and it is well produced with only a very few misprints. The factual errors are neither many nor, on the whole, serious. Perhaps it is not unfair to suspect a certain Anglo-Saxon bias: the bibliography mainly lists works in the English language, and there is an very slight tendency to present multilingualism as abnormal. More important, however, is that this is a work with a clear aim and a lot of coherence; it will serve its purpose as an excellent introduction to a vast subject. Comparing it with the many handbooks that are flooding the market, it seems fortunate that it was written by one person only.

I’ll be giving it a look when I get a chance. Introductory texts on topics like this are greatly needed, for classicists, historians, biblical scholars, and linguists alike.

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