No cheating now: Based on the Greek letters that you’ve learned from math and science, can you figure out what the title of this post says?
If you can’t figure out any complete words, try sounding them out. There are enough clues there that you might possibly be able to guess some of it correctly.
OK, here’s one more clue. It’s the title of a famous book, which you can probably deduce from the cover image — although the book is famous in its original English version, not the ancient Greek version.
Ah, you’ve got it! It’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone translated into ancient Greek by Andrew Wilson. I am attempting to read this translation, even though my Greek is rather rusty at this point. Yes, I did take six years of Greek, but that was rather a long time ago. Probably I should read this book side-by-side with the English version, in the style of the Loeb Classical Library, which doesn’t have the world’s best translations (but that’s OK as they’re there just to help you with the Greek or Latin original). For instance, here is the Loeb version of the first page of The Odyssey:
It might strike you that there must be some difficulties in translating a modern (and very English) work of fantasy into an ancient (and very non-English) language, and you would be right, but the difficulties are even greater than you imagine. Check out the translator’s comments, which go into more detail than you might want, even if you’re a translation nerd! You can do that on our own, but for the moment let’s just take an entirely different point of view and briefly explore what little can be gleaned linguistically from the title alone:
Ἅρειος Ποτῆρ καὶ ἡ τοῦ Φιλοσόφου Λίθος
Here’s your ancient Greek lesson for the day:
- Your knowledge of Greek letters from math and science tells you that the first word is apparently something like “Areios”; you might correctly guess that the last two letters are a masculine singular ending, as in names like Christos and Stephanos — but what happened to the H in Harry? The answer is the initial strange-looking superscript punctuation mark: We start with Ἅ, not Α, where the Α is modified by a combination of an acute accent, indicating both the stress and a rise in pitch, and a so-called rough breathing (a backwards apostrophe), indicating that there is an H sound before the initial vowel. Wow! A lot from a single word.
- Moving on, we have what looks like “Poter,” where the mysteries are the single “t” instead of a double and the strange circumflex accent over the second vowel. You guessed it: it indicates both stress and a rise-plus-fall in pitch, just like the shape of the accent mark! (You did guess that, didn’t you?)
- Now we have “kai,” which you are highly unlikely to guess unless you’ve studied Greek or you’re reasoning from the English title. It means “and.” The only clue that I’m aware of in English is the common word for fear of the number 13: triskaidekaphobia, if you want the best transliteration of the Greek. The first four syllables mean “three and ten”; you know the rest of the word.
- Now it gets even cooler. Since you know about rough breathings now, you can deduce that the next two words are pronounced “he” and “tou,” with rising-and-falling intonation on “tou” — but what can they possibly mean? Let’s skip ahead for the moment to the last two words, which clearly mean “philosopher’s” and “stone” (think English words beginning with litho-), so why do we need two more tiny words before them? If you have studied Latin you may recognize that there’s a genitive (possessive) case in there, but you may be thrown by the fact that Greek, unlike Latin, has a definite article. That opens the door to nested expressions, just like parentheses in algebra: it‘s “(the (of the philosopher) stone)”, where the first article is the feminine nominative to agree with “stone” and the second article is the masculine genitive to agree with “of philosopher” — one of the many delights of ancient Greek in comparison to Latin. We won’t wonder what happens if you have a female philosopher.
Categories: Books, Linguistics