Monday, July 19, 2010

Why inflected languages are the best thing ante-sliced bread.

Slightly different to normal, but here is a small ἀπολογία for inflected languages, and why reading something in it's original language is a fantastic thing. 

First, what is an inflected language? It is a language that relies on it's word endings to get across the person or tense of a verb, or number or gender of a noun (That is only an example, they do that and so much more in fact). We call these morphemes, they are the smallest parts of language with meaning, and basically all inflected languages use these on the end of words (sometimes the whole form of the word is changed, but for now we will stick with word endings) to tell you how to read them. The result is a flexible word order. I will give a small demonstration of this:

ἡ γυν πείθει τὸν ἄνθρωπον

This is in english word order and is translated 'the woman persuades the man'.

Now, lets mess it up a bit...

τὸν ἄνθρωπον πείθει ἡ γυνὴ


πείθει ἡ γυνὴ τὸν ἄνθρωπον

These all still mean the same thing grammatically. No change is made by the order of their place. Now see where I have highlighted the word endings? They are the key to unlocking a Greek sentence.

So, observe this small excerpt from Euripides 'Medeia

ἀπωλόμεσθ᾽ ἄρ᾽εἰ κακὸν προσοίσομεν

νέον παλαιῷ , πρὶν τόδ᾽ ἐξηντληκέναι.' (Medeia, lines 78-79)

Now the nurse (Τροφός) as just learnt that there is a rumour flying around that her mistress' kids and her mistress are to be exiled from Corinth. So she exclaims:

"We are destroyed, if this new evil is added to the older before this (older evil) has run its course" (My translation)

Now, that is all very well and good as a translation, and you have grasped the basic meaning of the nurse, and  her anguish. What you will miss though is some of Euripides juxtaposition of new and old. The word for new is νέος and is here put right up against the word for old which is παλαιός. They are in purple above in the Greek quote. Now, Euripides invites his readers to speculate about what is the former (we have been introduced to Medeia's current state of mind) and why it is so bad so as to be compared to being exiled. Euripides here uses simple word order to pack quite a fantastic amount of meaning.

There will be observations from the Medeia to come; some more fantastic linguistic observations which will further demonstrate the fantwhismicallness of the inflected language.

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