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The Dialect of Alcman: History of the Language
and the Text

This PhD thesis deals with the dialect of Alcman, who composed songs forgirls’ choirs and other cultic events in 7th century BC Sparta. Primarily, it aimsat a systematic and critical linguistic description, as no grammar of the pecu-liar dialect of Alcman exists yet, even though both the poet and the dialect arethe subject of relatively intense interest. At the same time, the thesis offers anoriginal suggestion as to how the dialect of Alcman relates to the dialect ofother poets, and how the text was established in its existing form.
The dissertation is divided into three unequal parts: an introduction, a lin- I. In the introductory chapter, ‘Archaeology of the Text’, I study partly how thepoems of Alcman were performed in antiquity, and partly the degree to whichthey were known to the public outside Sparta. I argue that the poems were theobject of constant re-performance until Hellenistic times, and that the individ-ual songs were integrated parts of cults rather than dead pieces of literaturewhich had hibernated since the Archaic age. The songs, I suggest, were com-posed not for a single occasion but for the sake of re-performance. It is true thata number of girls’ names are mentioned, but I render it probable that thesenames are nothing but roles which new girls performed generation after gen-eration for centuries. A written text, on the other hand, hardly existed in Ar-chaic and Classical Sparta.
Outside Sparta, Alcman was scarcely known before Hellenistic times. Plato, who shows a great interest in Spartan culture and Spartan music in general,does not mention him at all, and the partheneions, which we now consider tobe typical of Alcman, seem more or less unknown outside Sparta. The Atticdrama does demonstrate some knowledge of Alcman, but it only relates to alimited selection of his poems; and indeed, the same couple of fragments are referred to until the 3rd century BC, when knowledge of Alcman increases rad-ically.
I maintain that the songs that stayed in Sparta and the ones that were export- ed were not only different as poems (some were more appealing for exportthan others), but also unique for linguistic reasons. At any rate, all the poemswhich were positively known before 300 BC are characterised by the absence ofpeculiar Laconian features, and by their relatively neutral Greek (like thechoral lyrics of Pindar and the drama). I therefore conclude that the Laconiansurface of the rest of his poetry is a consequence of the local performance, andthereby point to the last part of the book.
II. The linguistic description itself is divided into three parts: ‘Phonetics’,‘Morphology’, and ‘Phraseology’. In this summary I cannot, of course, give anaccount of all the points made in this section, but I will outline a few highlights: ‘Phonetics’. The transmitted text shows both in the papyri and in the quota- tions several apparently vernacular features, e.g. retention of the long a. Openquality of the secondary long e, o (instead of spurious ‘diphthongs’). Assibil-ation, or affrication, of the aspirated dental. The mysterious digraph sd insteadof the zeta (which cannot be taken, I argue, as support for the hypothetical sdpronunciation of this phoneme). Doric accentuation of the text. However,besides these peculiar spellings, the regular ones do appear now and then, andmust have been an integrated part of the ancient text of Alcman already. I sug-gest that the orthography indicates the actual pronunciation of the poems asthey were recited in Hellenistic times with a certain influx of the koina. As tothe syllabic structure, i.e. the contractions, the initial digamma, and the 3rdcompensatory lengthening etc., the phonology of Alcman fits remarkably wellinto the general picture of archaic poetry.
’Morphology’. The transmitted text shows all the same variables that are fa- miliar from the other archaic and classical poets, some of which are in accord-ance with the vernacular, others not. For instance, in the dative plural both -ais,-ois and -aisi, -oisi, both -si and -essi. In the preterite the augment is sometimesomitted, and in the athematic plural one meets both -n and -san. In the futuretense the Doric -se- is only admitted when it is metrically indifferent, or the textsticks to the regular -s-. The short accusative plural, -as, appears not in Homerbut in other archaic poets. The short thematic infinitive -en is restricted to theposition before a consonant, an allophony (sandhi), which in my view reflectsits oral execution. It is true that the article is more frequent than in Homer and the other poets of choral lyric, but the fragments differ in this regard; this isprobably the result of different style, which depends to some degree on the ref-erentiality of the song.
‘Phraseology’. Alcman shares a great number of word collocations or ‘junc- tures’ with Homer, but only seldom does he echo the Homeric passages inquestion consciously; rather, a common word potential is realised similarlywhen one expresses the same or similar ideas. This is obvious in the case ofwhat I call conceptual complexes, where junctures are so frequent and inter-weave to such a degree that direct imitation is less than likely. The use ofepithets is also normally original. Few of the individual words are peculiar tothe Doric branch, and the majority of those words are cultic or names of plantsand animals. The rest are either known also to Homer and the other poets, orelse they are new formations with known elements, or else they are colloquial.
The words which appear otherwise only in the Epic are mostly epithets,whereas the words which Alcman has in common with the other poets (but notwith Homer) include several words describing the music or the cult.
III. The concluding part, ‘Synthesis’, starts with a division of the linguistic fea-tures described in part II into metrically exchangeable variables and metricallynon-exchangeable variables, depending on whether the alternative linguisticforms have the same metric structure and can therefore be replaced without al-tering the composition. I conclude that the features described as belonging tothe vernacular are primarily metrically exchangeable, and that the featureswhich are not metrically exchangeable primarily are common to all poetry. Iassign the exchangeable variables of the vernacular to an individual surfacestructure represented by the performance of the poem, and the common andmetrically non-exchangeable variables to a general deep structure, which Iidentify as the competence of poetry.
The same difference between a surface of the vernacular and a common depth occurs in the verse inscriptions, which are our only direct testimony ofthe actual pronunciation of archaic poetry. It seems that the surface structurewas not regulated until the classical age, when a literate culture was arising. Inthe Epic, the surface structure tends to develop vernacular features as far asthis does not alter the metre, and if this is impossible it tends towards artificialand borrowed variables rather than archaic ones. The dialect of Alcman, too,shows similar continuous updating, and the variables of the poetic languageare generally pronounced according to the vernacular. However, unlike the Epic, lyric poetry is not principally resistant to metrically exchangeable archaicand borrowed features.
The poetic competence or deep structure constitutes a unity of potential word collocations and the metric exploitation of certain words and forms. Thedactylic tetrameter, which Alcman is particularly fond of, is not epic per se, al-though it treats words more or less as Homer does. Even though different poet-ic productions do not show all the variables to the same degree, they appear asa coherent structure on the diachronic and stylistic level. The poetic languagemay trace its common origins back to Mycenaean (and ultimately Indo-Euro-pean) times, but common innovations, in general of Eastern Greek origin, sug-gest that the unity was primarily synchronic.
I maintain to have substantiated that the dialect of Alcman is basically the same language as in the rest of archaic poetry, but that the transmitted form ap-pears more like the Laconian vernacular because of local performance. Thetransmitted text is rather a Hellenistic transcript of that performance than a re-vised version of an archaic text.


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