I know, that I know nothing



The secret of magnetic inscription

JUNE 24, 2021 | LITOCHORO | 14 MIN

One time I bought myself a fridge magnet. Such a small, plaster, pressed with the stamp - a traditional souvenir from holiday travels. There are no sea, no windmills or a Greek donkey on it. There is Socrates and his most famous formula: “I know that I know nothing.”

In the small grocery store in Litochoro – right next to the 55 Peaks Outdoor Store – there were olive oil and olives of its own production, some real fruit and vegetables – fancifully twisted, many other varieties and not knowing why, some unusual magnets. Maybe the owner read Plato in the evenings and hence this Socrates? In any case, he was teaching me how to pronounce the famous ancient sentence in the original. I was repeating and repeating and after a few days I forgot. We have internet, though. I typed in “I know, that I know nothing” and I got a quick answer that in Greek it will be: “ξέρω, ότι δεν ξέρω τίποτα” [Xéro óti den xéro típota]. Now I was more diligent, I thought it would be good to start learning Greek with such a clever formula and I learned it by heart.

After some time, however, I realized that my magnet has a different inscription. Socrates said rather: “ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα” [en oida oti ouden oida]. After translating into English, I got the sentence from magnet „I know that I know nothing” again. Hmm, that’s right, but it’s quite distant from the original “Xero oti den xero”. So what did this Socrates actually say? And putting this question in a more general way: what can we learn about Greek culture by analyzing different versions of the famous ancient sentence?

Greek is the oldest of the languages spoken today. Approximate estimates it is about 3,000 years old. I understand the age of language here as the age of the oldest documents written in alphabet, which we can define as Greek. Two older cultures, which we recognize as proto-Greek – Minoan in Crete and Mycenaean in the Peloponnese – used the Linear A and B, which were not actually an alphabets, and certainly not Greek. Nevertheless, it is not decided what language people spoke at that time (XXV-XII century BC). The fact that Linear B was read only means that we understand the meaning of the texts written in it (in its entirety properly bookkeeping notes, lack of fiction), but we do not know nothing about the sound of words, and we cannot determine whether it was some old version of Greek or a completely different language.

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus fragment of Plato's dialogue of Republic in ancient Greek. Based on Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution content.

If the language is 3 thousand years old, it is obvious that it underwent many changes during this period. Most Poles have great problems with understanding the language of Juliusz Słowacki, which lived 200 years ago, no wonder that modern Greeks do not understand, without special preparation, the language of Homer, which lived 2,800 years ago! Nevertheless, it is the same language that has retained some of the grammatical structures and many archaic words. Awareness of this archaic origin is present among Greeks. Many times during conversations with my Greek friends I heard someone saying: this is an ancient word.

It is also worth realizing that this language continuity of Greek culture is something quite unique. The Latin of classical Rome is much younger than Greek, but today Italian is spoken on the Tiber, French on the Seine, and Romanian on the Wallachian Lowland. Not only that, historical Greece has experienced many more fundamental cultural (and state) changes since Pericles time than France or Spain since Julius Caesar. Classical Athens, the empire of Alexander the Great and Hellenism, the reign of Rome, Byzantium and the Turkish occupation – just to mention the most important ones.

These changes should wash Greek off the face of the earth and replace it with a dozen other languages, but that did not happen.

In addition, for many hundreds of years of existence, Greece did not create a single state organism, conducive to unification, linguistic unification as well. The same with geographical conditions: a huge number of islands creating separate worlds and the mountains which are everywhere, should contribute to disintegration rather than unity.

It’s all true, but I still don’t know what Socrates really said? Or rather, how did he say it? The Greek language has 3,000 years of continuous history, but during its development it underwent several significantly different stages. In a simplification, this cycle can be represented as the following sequence: archaic Greek – classical Greek – hellenistic Greek (koine) – folk Greek (demotics) – purified Greek (katharewusa) – modern Greek. And until recently there was a lively discussion on the Aegean Sea, which version of the language should be used by modern residents of Hellas. The dispute was between the followers of the catharewusa – a classical language cleared of later accretions, and the supporters of demotics, i.e. the simplified “folk” Greek, which began to develop in the Middle Ages. For some time, representatives of the classical school were the top, only in 1974 the option of demotics finally won, and now it is the official language in Greece.

Clay tablet (PY Ub 1318) inscribed with Linear B script, from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos. This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. Dating from 1450 BC. Based on Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution content.

Nevertheless, the Greeks have ‘extraordinary linguistic wealth’ on their daily basis. First of all, for six years of basic school education, they learn everyday (!) the classic language of Plato and Aristotle. On television and in the newspaper they have a demotic, but if they go to the church, they listen to the liturgy and fragments of the gospel in koine, which is the language of Hellenistic Greece, in which  New Testament is written (partly). If they have books published before 1974 on the shelf, they are probably in catharewus, but when they buy Homer’s Iliad or Plato’s Symposium today they receive a bilingual edition in which the original text is on the left and the modern text on the right. And what fascinates me very much, the original text is always a third shorter than the modern one.

I live in Greece too shortly to decide how all this affects the collective mentality, but I think the Greeks like their language. They like to use it, they talk a lot and willingly, I also get the impression that they have more care about the word, as if a greater celebration of the language than in other countries.

Apollo holds a kithara. Attributed to the Pistoxenos Painter. From a tomb in Delphi. Archaeological Museum of Delphi. Based on Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution content.

I remember my first contact with “live” classic Greek language. It was not on the Aegean Sea only in a small village near Lublin, Poland. Performance of the Antique Orchestra of the Gardzienice Theater. Hymns to Dionysus, fragments of the Orphic mysteries, prayers to Zeus. Music, singing and dancing. I came there with a rather stereotypical image of sunny, bright Greek culture, and thus also music, and here suddenly wild, ecstatic sounds, on the verge of dissonance. Dark, slightly hard but melodious language. I was in shock. Like a few times later, breaking off layers of stereotypical images about Greece. I was learning that classic temples were not white at all but painted in many colors, Greek myths are not the equivalent of holy books of the Bible or Koran type and therefore it is difficult to create an image of ancient religion based on them and Greece has the longest coastline in the world. Still, listening to the recordings of the song Iliad in the original (many examples on YouTube) I can’t get over how much Homer’s speech is different from the language used every day by my friends in Litochoro.

The Prologue in the opening chapter of Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-18). Contemporary graphics stylized as a papyrus original. Based on Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution content.

So in which version of the Greek language is Socrates’s sentence on my magnet written ? Paradoxically, virtually in none! It turns out that Socrates never uttered that most famous sentence associated with him. It was attributed to him in late antiquity or even in the Middle Ages. Nay. This is probably a translation from the Latin original. But if someone did it in the Middle Ages, i.e. in the era of koine (Hellenistic Greek), he did it in accordance with the rules of classical Greek, that is, as Socrates would say. It was not that difficult, because according to the accounts of Plato or Diogenes Laertois, Socrates actually said very similar sentences.

So you can see that language paths are sometimes not straight at all, more tangled instead. But isn’t that a greater pleasure to follow them?


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