Weird and Wonderful

Weird and Wonderful Classics: Sheep

The great thing about Classics is that even the most boring of animals (which, let’s face it, sheep generally are) can turn out to be quite weird and wonderful after all. As a philologist, I’ve always been rather fond of Greek sheep, for two reasons:

One: they provide important evidence for pronunciation changes in the Greek language. If anyone ever asks you to prove that Ancient Greek was pronounced differently from Modern Greek, by far the easiest way to do it is to point out that Ancient Greek sheep go βῆ βῆ [bē ]:

ὁ δ’ ἠλίθιος ὥσπερ πρόβατον βῆ βῆ λέγων βαδίζει

“The silly man goes around going baa baa like a sheep” (Cratinus, fragment 43)

Unless your interlocutor can find a breed of sheep that makes a noise like vee vee, you can at this point be regarded as having won the argument.

(The wonderfully onomatopoeic but sadly uncommon term βληχητά, “bleaters” [blēkhēta], will also do the trick.)

Two: I’ve always liked the word πρόβατον [probaton]– which originally could mean almost any four-footed farm animal, but in Attic almost always refers to sheep. LSJ has some boring explanation of this being because the smaller animals tend to προβαίνω [probainō], ‘go in front of’, the herd, but since προβαίνω more often means ‘go forwards’ I’d like to propose an alternative etymology, ‘a thing that goes forwards’. This could be connected with the old story about the Welsh [originally: Spartan?] sheep whose legs are shorter on one side than the other, so they can balance on hillsides more easily. Of course, this is fine as long as they’re only going in one direction across the hillside (so that the uphill leg is shorter than the downhill leg), but when they reach the fence they can’t turn round, because then the downhill leg would be shorter than the uphill leg, and they’d fall over. So the farmer has to drive out in his tractor [cart] to pick them all up and put them back at the other end of the field, to start all over again. Hence, τὰ πρόβατα [ta probata].

Before anyone starts accusing me of drawing wildly fanciful anachronistic parallels, I would like to call your attention to the following story from Herodotus 3.113:

“In Arabia, there are also two amazing kinds of sheep which are found nowhere else. First, there are sheep whose tails are so long – three cubits or more – that they would get sore from being dragged along the ground, if the sheep were allowed to trail them behind them. In fact, though, every shepherd knows enough woodwork to make little carts on to which they fasten the sheeps’ tails, one for the tail of each animal. The second kind of sheep have broad tails which are as much as a cubit across.”

Thus proving that farmers have been playing the “let’s fool the gullible townies with crazy stories about sheep” game for – well, probably ever since people first started living in towns.

23 thoughts on “Weird and Wonderful Classics: Sheep

  1. Do any Classicists still say that Modern Greek and Ancient Greek sound alike? I will be adding that bit from Cratinus to my collection of insults for Greek Scholars. Excellent article.

    • I should hope they don’t! I just went to a lecture years ago on “How do we know how Ancient Greek was pronounced?” – aimed at school students/the general public – which used that as an example, and I rather liked it so I put it in! You never know when someone will stop you in the street and ask you about Ancient Greek pronunciation, so it’s as well to be prepared…
      Glad you liked the Cratinus!

  2. I might have dreamt this (or was it in Vox Graeca? or one of Rupert Thompson’s lectures in Part IA?) that in northern Europe the small band of classical scholars were doing quite well with the pronunciation of ancient Greek until the Fall of Constantinople meant that native Greek-speaking scholars from there took refuge in European universities.. and of course because they’d never stopped speaking Greek they had a more modern pronunciation… and then when a few Cambridge scholars later proposed reforming the pronunciation all the old professors started moaning that they were troublemakers and deliberately making things incomprehensible… Rebels!

  3. I think it’s still kind of funny still to expect a sheep to be saying βῆ, βῆ. I mean, it’s still a [beː beː], and not [viː viː], but I would expect something more like βᾶ, βᾶ [bɑː bɑː]. I wonder if that’s what Doric πρόβαααατα say?

    • I’m sure Doric does indeed have πρόβαααατα :) But I’ve always thought most English sheep make a noise like [me:h] (not to be confused with [meh]), not [ba:] at all…

      • Although I suppose all that goes to prove is that English sheep are Attic-Ionic…this could add a whole new linguistic dimension to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s theory that English is descended from Greek!

  4. Just so you don’t have to fight with fonts anymore, I use to get it to come out just right and then copy and paste.

    • Thanks a lot, that looks like a very useful website! I actually have the SPIonic font which basically does the same thing but in Word documents – the problem was that some of the accents/breathings weren’t displaying properly in the post, so I thought the font I was using wasn’t compatible with WordPress and spent ages trying every way of generating Greek I could think of…turned out it was just my browser having a bad day! It’s so much fun trying to make computers cope with different scripts :)

  5. Pingback: Weird and Wonderful Classics: Warfare and Weapons | res gerendae

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  7. Proving the ancient pronunciation of η is easy by looking at different dialects of Greek today. For example, in Pontic Greek, η has been entirely replaced by epsilon. Wax in ancient Greek is κῆρ but in modern Greek they have preserved the ancient pronunciation by changing eta to epsilon as in κερί. Same can be said about the other vowels and diphthongs however I am not aware of any evidence for the diphthong αι and was wondering if anyone knows of any evidence as I am eager to know? Thanks

  8. Pingback: The cat’s mneow: animal noises and human language – MORPH

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