THE RISE AND DESCENT OF THE LANGUAGE
OF THE HOMERIC POEMS
The aim of this chapter is to underscore the importance of an adequate understanding of the language of the Homeric poems for all the purposes of the papers in this collection. For reasons of simplicity, let me immediately replace the full term 'language of the Homeric poems' by the shorter term 'epic dialect'. My point of view is that of a linguist who is interested in the development of the Greek language from the second to the first millennium BC. I shall present an overview of our actual understanding of the epic dialect and of its prehistory, concentrating naturally on the Mycenaean and Homeric periods. My reference is the famous debate between Martin L. West and John Chadwick in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, namely West's 'The rise of the Greek epic' (West 1988) and Chadwick's 'The descent of the Greek epic' (Chadwick 1990; see further West 1992; Wyatt 1992). A similar controversy can be found in the different arguments formulated by Joachim Latacz and Wolfgang Kullmann (Latacz 1998 and 2001; Kullmann 1995 and 2001). Latacz is in favour of a hexametric poetry already metrically fixed in the sixteenth century BC with a strong tradition through the Dark Ages, while Kullmann supports the idea that the essential parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey were inventions of the eighth or seventh century. To make it clear: West and Chadwick on the one hand, and Latacz and Kullmann on the other, are, so to speak, representatives of two different attitudes in the scientific debate, basing their conclusions on a whole range of research done by a long line of outstanding scholars. The important question is whether the linguist is able to furnish arguments for one or the other of these positions, and what a scenario based on linguistic features would look like.
My paper consists of four parts: (1) general remarks; (2) the characteristic features of the epic dialect; (3) the presentation of a few linguistic examples which illustrate, on the one hand, that the epic dialect had a longstanding tradition going back to Mycenaean and pre-Mycenaean times, and on the other hand, that the epic dialect was in a state of permanent change until the monumental composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey; (4) conclusion.