W is Di-Gamma

Published April 27, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

There’s no W in ancient Greek.  But there used to be.  It’s called the di-gamma.  (By scholars.  Not sure if that’s what the ancient Greeks would have called it.)

How do we know about it, you may ask?  Like many things about the Greek language, we learned it (indirectly) from “Homer”.  (Quotation marks, btw, because we don’t know the real name of the poet who composed the Iliad, if he was the same one who composed the Odyssey, et cetera.  The Greek word “homeros” may have originally been an adjective describing the poet’s style or professional lifestyle (I believe one of the translations is “wandering”) which was mistaken as a name over time.  It seems slightly unlikely to me that it was actually the poet’s name.  And I am, personally, of the opinion that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed by different people, but it’s more a gut reaction than anything I can prove.  Especially since I no longer read ancient Greek.  I’m sure there are whole books–shelves and shelves of them, no doubt–arguing both ways in the debate, written by people who have pored over every line of both epics in the original.)

So, as you probably already know, the Homeric epics were composed in dactylic hexameters; each line of the poem is composed of six dactylic feet, a long syllable followed by two short ones, or a dactyl can be replaced with a spondee, which is two long syllables.  So each foot in every line of both epics (and other works composed in the Homeric style) is supposed to have one of only two possible configurations:  long short short or long long.  But there are places where that isn’t the case.  The example given in the book where I read all this (I’ll give credit at the end) is line 25 of Book 22 of the Iliad, in which the fourth foot is composed of three short syllables, which is absolutely not permitted in dactylic hexameter.

Well, no one ever wanted to believe that “Homer” had made a mistake!  So what had happened there?

I would love to know what the ancient commentators and scholars thought about lines like that, but my source is silent on that subject.  Perhaps there are no commentaries or scholia that address these seemingly broken lines?

It wasn’t until 1713 that someone of the (more or less) modern era figured out what had happened:  there was a letter missing.  But not an “oops, the silly copyist left out a letter” kind of letter missing.  Logically, the only letter that could have been there was one that didn’t exist in Greek.  By comparing the Greek verb stem id-, “to see,” with other Indo-European languages, it was clear that it was originally wid-, like the Latin vid-.  (Which is more like than you might think, if you’ve never studied Latin, because they pronounced V like the English letter W.  So whenever you hear someone quoting Julius Caesar (the man, not the Shakespeare play) they’re probably mispronouncing it:  properly, his most famous quote is pronounced “weni, widi, wiki.”  (Every I being a long one, btw.  So it’s “wiki” to rhyme with “tiki.”))

Anyway, one of the other places in the Iliad where there were such seeming mistakes was in front of the name Ilios, because the name used to be Wilios, but by the time of the poem’s composition the di-gamma was no longer in use.  Meaning that in newly minted phrases, the line was not composed as if the di-gamma was there, but in inherited, stock phrases that had been passed around poetic circles for who-knows-how long, there was a metrical “mistake” caused by the loss of the di-gamma.  And why is that significant?  Ilios is the other–more commonly used in the epic–name for Troy, and we have Hittite texts talking about Wilusa, which is very similar to Wilios.  (But I’ll talk about that sometime after classes are done in May.  I just asked inter-library loan to send me a whole book of/about the Hittite texts that are believed to reference the Mycenaean Greeks, so I’ll put up a full report once I’ve read it.  (I’m very excited to think it’s on the way!))

I’m not actually clear on why it took until 1713 to figure that out, however, because a few pages later it’s pointed out that the dialect spoken by Sappho still used the di-gamma.  Since fragments of Sappho and her contemporary Alcaeus still existed (though there are more fragments now, thanks to papyrus finds (sometimes in the wrappings of Hellenistic-era mummies, of all the unlikely places)), you’d think the idea would have occurred to someone sooner.  But maybe it did and they just never wrote it down?  Or maybe no one talked about Sappho because she wrote love poetry to other women.  I can see that being the case.  (That is, after all, why most of her poems have been lost.  Or one of the reasons, anyway.)

And there you have it, in a nut-shell, the former W of the Greek alphabet, di-gamma.

Not, perhaps, the most exciting of post of the month (or even week), but I hope it’s at least interesting to people other than me.  (Obviously I find it interesting, or I wouldn’t have written about it!)  I’m sorry it couldn’t be more technical, but since I no longer remember ancient Greek (I really gotta start working on re-learning it!) I don’t really understand the complicated linguistic discussions of the subject.

Anyway, my sole source for all this, apart from general references to the Greek of the Mycenaean Greeks having the w- sound in it (recall in talking about Patroclos‘ name, I said that Linear B tablets had been found that ended in -klewos, so it was possible his name could have existed back then), is the book Troy and Homer:  Towards the Solution of an Old Mystery by Joachim Lactaz.  It’s out of print, but if you can find it in a library, it’s well worth reading, though you should be aware that he’s perhaps a little too over-enthusiastic in trying to prove that the site at Hisarlik is, in fact, “Homer’s Troy.”  Admittedly, it is the Troy described in the poem, but there’s a difference between “the poet was describing these ruins not too far from the area where he lived” and “the war was inspired by historical reality” and this book does tilt a bit closer to the latter than a scholarly work probably really ought to.  (Not excessively so, though.  At least, I didn’t think it was excessive.)  In any case, I guarantee this subject is covered in any number of texts on Greek linguistics, but I haven’t read any books on Greek linguistics.  The scholar in 1713 who made the di-gamma connection was named Richard Bentley, so if you look him up, I’m sure you’ll find the same information.  (I should have done so myself before posting this, but this is my reward-to-myself for finishing draft one of my interview transcript, before I dive back in for draft two, so I really didn’t have time.  I’ve goofed off like this too long already, in fact…)

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