University of Helsinki
Department of Classics


Change and Variation

Participants and Themes



Change and Variation in Greek and Latin

The project "Change and Variation in Greek and Latin", lead by Martti Leiwo, was first conceived in 1998 and became in 2006 part of the Centre of Excellence of the Academy of Finland "Ancient Greek Written Sources". It continues the firmly rooted traditions of Greek and Latin language research at the Department of Classics at the University of Helsinki, which have previously been manifested, e.g., in such outstanding works as Henrik Zilliacus' Zur Sprache griechischer Familienbriefe des III Jahrhunderts n.Chr. (P.Michigan 214-221)(1943) and Zur Abundanz der SpŠtgriechischen Gebrauchssprache (1967) and in Heikki Koskenniemi's Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n.Chr. (1956).

The Project aims to study Greek and Latin in everyday communication. Every level of language is dealt with: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Different registers and the control over them by people coming from varying cultural, educational, social and linguistic backgrounds are studied in relation to their use of language. Special attention is paid to source material, which, in the past, has sometimes been deemed to have little or nothing to contribute to our knowledge of the variations in question or which has only partially been studied from a linguistic point of view.

The project concentrates especially on 1) orthography and phonology ("Phonetics") 2) morphology and syntax 3) "speech acts" or performatives and 4) pragmatics.

Important questions to be tackled in the analysis are: What is the role of the writer and the recipient? What effects do scribes have on language? How was writing learnt? How does this correlate with the individual's orthography? What was the function of the document in question and how did that effect its language? What were the effects of language contact on orthography, phonology, morphology and syntax?

Earlier study of the language of nonstandard Greek and Latin documents has been mostly prescriptive in nature, and limited to listing different forms and spellings of words without setting them into their actual social and chronological context. Other publications have, moreover, acted only as a tool for understanding "more important" historical or administrative phenomena. The goal of the project "Change and Variation in Greek and Latin" is to shed new light on the evolution of Greek and Latin language (or any given language, for that matter) by studying synchronical linguistic variation in grammatical structures of all kinds of Greek and Latin documents. In this way the real changes in language can be detected as accurately as possible.

Issues that must be thoroughly dealt with are: 1) language use in different registers, 2) mixing of registers (interaction, intertwining), 3) linguistic variation and elements of permanent change, 4) the effect of pragmatics on syntax. In other words, how the language is moulded by its users when they try to respond to the demands of different social situations with their perhaps deficient ability to write, or, what effects does it have on the development of a language when the subject matter of the communication, on which the thoughts of the speaker/writer are concentrated, or the need to emphasize some parts of the message, override grammatical rules in informal registers. Special attention is also paid to the semantic shift of, not only words, but also expressions and larger syntactical units. The project offers enhanced possibilities to decipher the function and meaning of each and every document, and thus helps to understand language use throughout the antiquity.