On Translating Homer by Matthew Arnold

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By Matthew Arnold

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Once oral poets master their special epic language, it becomes a language like any other.  This process of morphological replacement occurs more rapidly outside fixed formulae and more slowly within them, since formulae play an essential role in composition and may be retained for a long time even after they become unmetrical. While the Kunstprache is being used by oral bards for composition-in-performance, it will change along with changes in their own spoken language. To quote Milman Parry, to whom this crucial point is owed: The language of oral poetry changes as a whole neither faster nor slower than the spoken language, but in its parts it changes readily where no loss of formulas is   Several linguists have recently denied this (Hackstein : –; Haug : –; Hajnal : –).

The pattern is different in other linguistic features, some of which poets could have consciously manipulated in order to achieve particular literary effects. The seven more archaic features of the Hymn to Demeter are (a) the frequent use of the stem Di- instead of Zhn- in the name of Zeus; (b) the frequent retention of the archaic genitive plural in -†wn; (c) the retention of the archaic genitive singular in -ao; (d ) the retention of uncontracted –u both on its own and in compounds; (e) the retention of the archaic genitive singular in -oio; (f ) the frequent use of the accusative plural in -ouv before a vowel; and ( g) the frequent use of archaic t”kov rather than t”knon.

Every result was subjected to tests such as t-tests and c tests to make sure that it was statistically reliable, as my footnotes reveal; results based on inadequate sample-sizes were set aside. Again, when it is suggested that the diction was affected by ‘the preferences . . of composers’, this can only be partly true; in many cases, such as how many uses of the contracted genitive singular in -ou can be replaced by the uncontracted form in ∗ -oo, the bards cannot have been aware of this difference and had no experts in historical linguistics to advise them.

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