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Tutorial Greek: Language as a cultural value: capita selecta from the history of ancient linguistic theories


Admission requirements

This course is open to MA and research MA students in Classics and Ancient Civilizations (specialization Classics). Admission requirements for other students: a BA degree in Classics obtained from a university in the Netherlands, or a comparable qualification obtained from a university outside the Netherlands. Moreover, students with an international degree have to contact the coordinator of studies to check admissibility.


In all of Antiquity, the Greeks have thought about language and logos and the relationships between language and their understanding of the world. Various disciplines were intensively involved in the investigation of language: philosophy, biology and natural science, rhetoric and poetic theory as well as philological scholarship.

The tutorial aims at helping the students to investigate the diversity of linguistic theories in Greek Antiquity from both a historical and systematic point of view. Four wide sections frame its thematic spectrum:
1. the position of linguistic thought in the context of ancient sciences and culture;
2. the relation between language, thought and reality;
3. language as system and the language of grammar;
4. use and usages of language.

In each section we will focus on the most central texts of the ancient theoreticians: poets, especially Homer and Hesiod, as language interpreters, Presocratics and sophists, Plato’s Cratylus, Aristotle (Poetics, Rhetoric, Categories and De interpretatione), the Stoic philosophers and grammarians such as Apollonius Dyscolus and Herodian. Finally, a selection of representative fragments of ancient Homeric scholarship and texts from Greek lexicography will illustrate questions like the nature of the poetic diction and linguistic correctness.

A survey of the themes and texts to be studied (‘syllabus’) as well as a list of bibliography will be provided at the beginning of the tutorial.

Course objectives

At the end of the course the students will:

  • Possess knowledge of the history of linguistic thought in Greek (and Roman) Antiquity, based on the reading and analysis of the original sources and texts related to the topic of the course;

  • Understand the way and the reasons the ancient views on language arose within several ancient traditions and contexts (such as mainly philosophy, rhetoric and scholarship). Also understand the origins of modern linguistic thought and terminology as well as the historical background of the contemporary theories;

  • Have the skill to read and assess the related original sources and understand them under consideration of their ideological and scientific background as well as within their cultural context. This should be also demonstrated in an oral examination;

  • Possess knowledge of cultural-critical and literary-critical apparatus enabling the student to analyze the material studied in this class. Develop and extend knowledge of the specific philological methods, especially when working with fragments and reconstructing their theoretical background;

  • Be capable of critical assessment of secondary literature.

  • ResMA students: Advanced research skills: independent formulation of complex research question, collecting materials (both primary texts and results of earlier research). Analyzing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions in an oral as well as in a written presentation;

  • MA students: Research skills as above, but with fewer material and more help, as specified in the first session of class. For both groups of students a list of topics to be examined in the presentations will be provided in the first session too;

  • Especially for the written presentations the following points are expected: setting out research results effectively, clearly and in a well-structured manner. The student will be capable to demonstrate in writing their grasp of critical issues in recent scholarship, and to test and assess recent scholarly contributions by confronting them with the original source material.


Please consult the timetable on the Classics and Ancient Civilizations website.

Mode of instruction

Tutorial; possibly with seminar style sessions.

A survey of all the themes and texts to be studied (‘syllabus’) as well as a list of bibliography will be provided at the beginning of the tutorial. Depending on the number of students, arrangements may be made in consultation with the participants to organize the tutorial more on an individualized basis (true tutorial style) or to have more regular sessions (seminar style).

Assessment method

  • Primary texts: from the corpus of the ancient texts and sources all students must read in Greek and study (also with the available commentaries) an amount of at least 100 pages;

  • Secondary literature: all students must study as an introduction to the subject of the course the article of J. Pinborg, “Classical Antiquity: Greece” (see Literature below), as well as a selection of the articles included in the History of the Language Sciences.

In addition, there are the following requirements and modes of assessment. When the course is taken for 10 EC, requirements are:

ResMA students:

  • Active participation and preparation, including a prepared response to another student’s presentation (see below, 20%);

  • A position paper (about 10 pp.) (25%);

  • An oral presentation on a self-identified problem (25%);

  • An oral exam on primary texts (30%).

MA students: see above, with two modifications: instructor will provide topic for presentation if student prefers; prepared response need not be based on extra reading of secondary materials.

When this course is taken for 5 EC, requirements are:

  • A joint final oral exam on source texts and on a special topic discussed in the secondary literature (the subject to be chosen in consultation with instructor): 40% for the exam on the source texts and 30% for the presentation and discussion of the secondary literature – in this case students should read an amount of ca. 60 pages of the Greek texts and about 150 pages of the secondary literature;

  • A well-informed prepared response (on the basis of a hand-out, and study of primary and secondary materials) to another student’s presentation (30% of grade).


In this course we make use of Blackboard. The corpus of the primary texts to be studied as well as a selection of the secondary literature will be made available through Blackboard.


Required reading: the corpus of primary texts to be studied as well as articles will be made available through Blackboard.

Introductory bibliography:

  • J. Pinborg, “Classical Antiquity: Greece”, in: Current Trends in Linguistics 13: Historiography of Linguistics, ed. Th. Sebeok, The Hague / Paris 1975, 69-126.

  • History of the Language Sciences. An International Handbook on the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present, ed. by S. Auroux et al., vol. 1.1 (= Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Bd. 18.1), Berlin – New York 2000, pp. 345-454 (XI. The Establishment of Linguistics in Greece), pp. 455-500 (XII. The Establishment of Linguistics in Rome).

  • V. Law, The History of Linguistics in Europe. From Plato to 1600, Cambridge 2003.


Students are required to register for this course via uSis, the course registration system of Leiden University. General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

In addition to the registration in uSis students are also expected to self-enroll in Blackboard a few weeks before the course starts.


Dr. S. Matthaios