Thursday, 13 January 2011

It's all Greek to me!

Reading between the lines

I was privileged to sit in on a friend's Ancient Greek lesson earlier this week. We practised writing the Greek alphabet on mini white-boards. It was all very therapeutic. I was fascinated by how, when copying them, you suddenly saw a connection between the shapes of the capital and lower-case characters. There were all upper-case originally and with no spaces between characters and lines. I'm told these only came in as people began to read silently, an ability Plato initially regarded as a major miracle.

My friend had a framed clay tablet from Ur of the Chaldees, the present day Iraq. He'd picked it up from a museum over there for an attractive price. The museum authorities were selling off papyrii and clay tablets by the dozen to ease the load on their archives. They've got hundreds of thousands of the things. Bills, inventories, accounts - all indelibly etched or pressed into wet clay and then left to dry in the sun. What a great way to ensure proof of delivery or demonstrate ownership.

They say writing developed as people abandoned a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle to live in towns and cities. There was much more reason then to label things and lay claim to them, to keep accurate records and accounts.

So that's what the first writings consist of. Boring stuff.

How fascinating then, that the earliest examples of the Greek alphabet that have come down to us are both poems, fragments of verse. They must have had their accounts and inventories too, of course, but I find it strangely heart-warming that a major Classical influence first bursts onto the scene with a couple of poems. And bawdy ones at that! All about getting drunk and getting laid.

Here - read them for yourselves.

Ok, so there's more to it than that. There's word play and scholarly debate. Ambiguity and tension between appearances and reality. All very philosophical.

I've been working on a poem inspired by the whole thing. I won't publish it here yet as I'd like to send it off to some magazines or a competition.

But isn't it interesting, language and meaning, the way writing developed?

Aren't human beings interesting? Isn't the world a fascinating place?

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