Philology: Introduction to the Significance of Language Analysis

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When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.

DSCN0428BB - Clay Tablets with Liner B Script
DSCN0428BB – Clay Tablets with Liner B Script (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.

Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.

There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:

Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.

Cognitive philology studies written and oral texts in consideration of the human mental processes. It uses science to compare the results of research using psychological and artificial systems.

Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on th...
Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on the Rosetta Stone

Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.

Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.

Significant Examples:

The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.

How to Teach yourself Ancient (and Modern) Languages

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One of my main loves in ancient history and archaeology is the learning of ancient languages. This post is in response to one of my followers who is currently trying to teach herself Mayan glyphs. But I know there are many of you out there who have struggled to teach yourself languages or would like to be able to in the future. So here are a number of tips and ideas for you to help you out on that journey.

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscrip...
46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscript of the Epistles written by Paul in the new testament.

These preliminary tips can be used for any language either ancient or modern and can be used in combination with the language resources I supply in the menu bar for certain languages. If you have looked at my ancient Greek resources as well you can use these techniques to help you remember them or languages you are learning at university or elsewhere already.

Finding sources

  • Use social media and friends to discover the best books and sources to use
  • It is worth while finding them to save you time and to teach you better
  • Research the texts and their reviews
  • Avoid generic internet programs – they generally use methods that are more in touch with teaching basics to children rather than adults. Remember that the adult brain learns differently to a child’s
  • The best sources are usually in book or cd form from reputable suppliers
  • It is a good idea to see what universities use to teach language  basics – this information can usually be found in course descriptions and handbooks which are generally available online

Using sources

  • You generally want to learn as quickly as possible and often get over enthusiastic
  • Try and avoid this and slow yourself down and don’t skip ahead
  • This way you will learn properly and take in more
  • Take to doing one lesson or hour a day
  • Stick with one source book so you are following a program

Remembering material

  • Before each lesson review the day before and any exercises the sources set
  • Without looking at the answers from the previous day’s exercises, do all or some of them again and some from previous lessons even further back so you keep them in mind
  • Run through the whole lesson for the day before you undertake new exercises so you have the complete context for what you have to do
  • Literally do it every day, if you miss a lesson then at least take 15 minutes to go over an exercise from a previous day

Tips for memorising information

  • Write out the stuff you find difficult and stick it around the house where you are going to see it regularly or at work, for example:
    • Behind the bathroom door
    • Above the sink
    • In the kitchen
    • On the ceiling above your bed
    • Beside your computer
  • Another little used technique which works ridiculously especially for grammatical concepts well is a walk about memory exercise:
    • Make a list of what you want to remember
    • Pick a room in your house
    • Start at one corner of the room and move around the room allocating an object in the room to each thing on your list
    • Then find a link between each object and each idea
    • Ie. A participle – a chair – a chair is used for sitting – sitting is a participle
    • No matter how abstract the connection is the memory of it will help you remember concepts through physical associations
  • For vocab literally stick labels on things in your house
  • Or make up songs or rhymes – it is amazing how your mind works

Tips for if you can’t find one particular source for a language

  • Look at sources for another language. Ie. Latin
  • Make a note of how the lessons are set out and how grammar is taught
  • Then use what sources you do have and apply the information into that format
  • Grammar is the basis for all language and stays the same in ideas throughout the majority
  • By applying an accepted and working format from another language you can help yourself learn another.
  • If lesson one is on the alphabet and then verbs, then look up the alphabet and common verbs in your array of sources for the language you want to learn, ie. Mayan glyphs.
  • Sometimes this will take longer because there are varying lengths of alphabet for instance but readjust the time you spend on it to suit.
  • If you have the sense and desire to teach yourself a language then you should be able to work it out

Remember to be patient with yourself and the material

These things are not learnt over night

Translation and Textual Criticism of Ancient Sources

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Translation: a rendering of something written in one language into another which does not misinterpret the meaning or sacrifice the feeling of the original. So what makes a good translation? It is difficult to know where to begin in answering this question due to the multiple theories throughout the centuries, so it is important to provide a base.  Definitions of a good translation include that a translation ‘Must neither be ‘free’ nor ‘literal’…faithful…a faithful imitation (not adaptation or approximation) of the original.  It must be faithful both to the language of the original text and to the idiom into which it is being translated.  It must be faithful both to the letter and to the spirit.’ Rees provides a definition which is quoted above but also adds that faithfulness is significant as ‘he is the best translator whose work is nearest the original.’  Knox highlights three simple rules for when creating a translation; be accurate, be intelligible and be readable, but this in some ways is too simplistic.  Peyser contributes one of the more comprehensive arguments concerning what makes a good translation by stating that ‘Comparative naturalness of expression should be the first aim in a translation, and whatever mars that should be discarded.  Sometimes it may be achieved by the retention of literalness, by rhyme, by metrical forms; sometimes it can be obtained only at the price of one or more of these.  How best to compass it is for the translator to decide’

By looking at such definitions it becomes evident that there are many ideas of what makes a satisfactory end-product.  So, is it really possible to define what makes a good translation? Through the study of different translations and theories, we see that different purposes involved in translating mean that different sets of criteria have to be issued.  Many aspects are considered when exploring the idea of correct translation: content, use, the nature of the translator, cultural production, text survival and the recognisation of limitations. When looking at these aspects, we see that there is no single set definition of what makes a good translation.


Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher
Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher

When looking at theorists, Schleiermacher comes into the foreground. He highlights many of the problems faced in translation and outlines what he considers makes a satisfactory translation.  Schleiermacher asserts that all translators are under the sway of the language they speak and in many cases there is little difference between better and worse renditions. The translator cannot fully understand concepts beyond the boundaries of the language he was educated in. Schleiermacher is a strong advocate of the idea that the translator, while endeavouring to keep his language sounding foreign, often fails to observe the fine line between undesirable extremes. Schleiermacher’s discussions highlight that with people understanding the concepts in what is to be translated, a satisfactory rendition can indeed be created. The idea of a good translation is fully dependent on the ideals of the individuals viewing it.


One must also consider Schopenhauer’s theories.  Schopenhauer points out the difficulty in rendering an accurate translation as it is not always possible to find an exact equivalent in one language for a word in another.  He states that it is almost never possible to transpose a sentence pregnant with meaning and character from one language to another so as to make precisely the same impression on a speaker of the second.  The equivalence of words issue in translation can be seen even in the translation of Schopenhauer, as seen in the two examples in your handout:

It is not always possible to find an exact equivalent in one language for a word in another.  Thus concepts signified by words in one language are likewise never exactly the same as those signified by words in another.

(Trans.: D.Robinson)

Not every word in one language has an exact equivalent in another.  Thus, not all concepts that are expressed through the words of one language are exactly the same as the ones that are expressed through the words of another

(Trans.: P.Mollenhauer)

Much of Arthur Schopenhauer's writing is focus...
Much of Arthur Schopenhauer’s writing is focused on the notion of will and its relation to freedom.

Couldn’t both of these translations be seen as good, as they maintain the essence of the original? Yet there are obvious differences in the choice of words and phrase.  As Schopenhauer himself says, this is the necessary inadequacy of all translations.  Schopenhauer, like Schleiermacher, also explains that in many cases concepts cannot be so easily transmitted. Addressing that words and concepts cannot be transferred, it is easy to fall into the trap of accepting that there is no such thing as a good translation.


Humboldt, also presents a comprehensive analysis of translation in his work entitled ‘The More Faithful, The More Divergent,’ a title which clearly illustrates one of the more prevalent of Humbolt’s views.  Like his contemporaries, Humbolt asserts that no word in one language is ever entirely like its counterpart in another, outlining a particular issue when one considers the idea of literal translation.  According to Humboldt, a good translation is one which is not a commentary and contains no obscurities resulting from ‘wishy-washy’ choice, with which the translator would do violence to the text by arbitrarily clarifying and so distorting.  Humboldt attempts to avoid these inadequacies himself by trying with every new revision to eliminate what was not stated equally plainly in the original text; recognising that the translator is tempted to add ‘alien trinkets.’


Nietzsche focused on the translator in relation to the historian and what makes a good translation. He states that ‘The degree of the historical sense of any age may be inferred from the manner in which this age makes translations and tries to absorb former ages and texts.’  Translations influence historians.  Nietzsche pays particular attention to the idea that a good translation is one that fulfils the purpose and use set out by the translator. ‘Should we not make new for ourselves what is old and find ourselves in it?’ This was the idea of the Romans, and it remains a focus of theorists.  Differences in purpose and material will affect the character of, and the process of making a translation; it is no wonder that it is difficult to define what is ‘good’.  These theorists show explicitly that the question of what makes a good translation, and the act of translation itself, is subject to the opinions and interpretations of the individual and the period in which it is created and studied.

Discussion in relation to Examples

A good translation is in some ways like the concept of myth, you will know it when you see it but it is not easy to define.  To better understand the theories that we encounter, we must look at various translations and forewords.  Let us look at the translation of Ammianus Marcellinus by Walter Hamilton.  Wallace-Hadrill comments that cuts have occurred throughout to better fit the volume of the penguin edition and to remove tedious aspects, such as Ammianus’ digressions, to better accommodate the modern reader. This embodies the idea set out as early as Jerome, who asserted that a good translation fits its purpose.  Venuti makes a particularly relevant study of ‘translation to fit purpose’, explaining that it is fundamentally determined by a cultural political agenda in the present and asymmetrical relations, such as the economy.  Hamilton’s translation also demonstrates the difficulty in accessibility of original texts, as Hamilton relies on a single 9th Century corrupted manuscript, which would be unreadable if a close rendering to modern English was attempted.

Literalness, Equivalence and Use

What is particularly enlightening is the comparison of two renditions of the same text.  From these we can isolate the differences in style, choice and purpose set out by the translator.  Beowulf, translated in 1979 and in 1995 by Michael Alexander, highlights problems and how a good translation cannot be given one definite definition.  Both translations keep the content and essence of the text and attempt to maintain the concepts set out by the original author; however the 1979 version takes a non-literal approach in an attempt to maintain the epic composition.  In comparison, the 1995 rendition alludes to the difficulty in cultural accessibility for the modern reader and instead gives a word by word rendition devised for those who wish to study Beowulf in old English, and to work out the meaning for themselves.  Each version is translated to best suit its purpose and use.  Does the difference in translation mean that one is particularly better than the other? These translations also provide an interesting case between literal and non-literal translation; and yet Alexander himself asks scholars to consider whether a literal prose version of a verse epic, is properly, a translation.

Carson and Shaw’s translation of Sophocles’ Electra provides an excellent example of what theorists may consider to be a good translation as well as illustrating many of the problems.  This translation demonstrates the issues of finding English equivalents, such in the case of the verb λυπειν, as well as issues of context and diction.  When translating one is frequently confronted with analogous terms; perfect equivalence after all presupposes an identity of cultural or socially shared experience between two separate ‘speech communities.’ Carson and Shaw also demonstrate that in order to make a satisfactory translation, one must know the subject explicitly; they know for instance, that it is typical of Sophoclean heroes to set themselves cosmic parameters of moral action.  With such knowledge and understanding of the subject, they have better transferred concepts between languages.

Preservation of concepts and values of the original text

Prevalent theorists such as Schleiermacher assert that what truly makes a translation accurate is not so much the words that are preserved, but rather the virtues, thoughts and ideas. Bruni says that it is in understanding these that translators can reproduce accordingly. While various scholars have come to accept this idea, it is also related to several problems of translation.  This is supposedly due to significant fault in the nature of the translator as seen as early as Cicero who explains that every composition is subject to one’s own individuality. Most translators want to, or unconsciously add to, the original translation, even when attempting to preserve the thoughts and graces of the original composer. As Tytler says ‘a translator uses not the same colours of the original, but is required to give his picture the same force and effect.’ With this in mind we see that the nature of the translator is significant to the colours he chooses to use.

Understanding and standing of the translator

Theorists often make the hypothesis that a good translator understands and attempts to deal with the limitations of translation.  Like with the historian, the translator cannot simply create anything near an accurate account without first understanding the task ahead of them.  For instance, the ideal translator should be equally proficient in the languages concerned; be bicultural as well as bilingual. Von Herder remarks that the best translator is in fact the best critic. Unfortunately, the projection of the translator into the translation can hardly be avoided. It seems that the question must be asked of where the meeting ground is between the ‘personal’ and the ‘other’ text?  Batteux put it thus; languages are like men, who have one common nature which unites, and peculiarities which separate them.  It is hardly likely that one can reproduce perfectly a text considering this idea; but with the limitations in mind, the translator may be able to produce the next best thing.

Cultural Production

Much of what is translated is of cultural production; made in light of present circumstances, cultural moralities and ideologies.  These determine the translation of chosen texts.  Burian addresses the question ‘What possible excuse is there for new versions of texts?’  An approved answer for this is that translation is an ‘activity as fully implicated in its own world as any other form of cultural production.’ Anderson provides a valuable look into translation related to cultural production, asserting that the choices made by the translator are determined by changing goals and stylistic preferences within a cultural period. This cultural influence is seen in the many interpretations of Vergil and his views on heroism. Not only is a translation almost forced to conform with the culture for aesthetic reasons, but also for reasons of survival; no doubt that in a few generations, current translations could be considered obsolete.  For further study into this area it is useful to examine the works of Anderson and Eliot.


Among the theories of what makes a good translation is the prevalent debate between non-literal and literal translation seen throughout the examples discussed. The Beowulf translations demonstrate that literal and non-literal can both be considered good based on purpose; modern scholarship though tends to sway towards the non-literal side.  D’Ablancourt states that at times it is necessary to retrench one part to give birth to all the rest. Denham asserts that translations should fit the foreign text naturally and easily as fluency is impossible to achieve with close or verbal translation. No word in one language has an exact equivalent in another. It appears that what, in the minds of most theorists, makes a good translation is transference of ideas and concepts rather than literal word for word, despite earlier scholars such as Horace implying that word-for-word translation is the faithfulness of a translator.

But while these two theories of what makes a good translation are prevalent, we must also consider whether this opposition is in itself a problematic simplification. Literal and non-Literal are indeed simplistic in definition and yet are valid definitions which relate to basically all theories of translation.  Unfortunately, theorists and translators often focus more on the literal/non-literal debate in general opposed to looking into why and/or how a translator has produced a rendition. In saying this, we see that that the habit of defining a translation based solely on its literalness is too simplistic because it often ignores the more integral reasons for the form of a translation.

How do the choices we make in answering this question relate to our idea of what a historian should be?

We have discussed what theorists and translators believe make a good translation, and the problems that arise, which often make constructing a faithful translation difficult. But how do the choices we make in answering this question relate to our idea of what a historian should be? In answering this question we must look back at what we have accepted as our idea of what a translator should be and ask how this relates to the historian. In this case it seems that our idea of what a historian should be relates significantly to the ideas that are confronted when one studies what makes a good translator.

The Historian, like the translator, sets out to create an account based on events, while being physically, culturally and emotionally removed from the events in question.  What makes a good history and what makes a good translation are in many aspects similar.  Readers and scholars deem that both should be faithful and accurate to the original.  We choose to look at translations in relation to the problems that may or may not be overcome; the influence and bias of the translator, the difference of interpretation and creation based on the period, purpose and use of the rendition.  The same can be said of how we approach the historian.

In choosing to look at specific theorists and translations we see various ideas of what a translation should be; the preservation of virtues, thoughts and ideas from the period, that which suits the purpose and period, faithful and accurate, literal or non-literal; and what the translator should be; understanding of limitations, extensively knowledgeable and yet still subject to the issues that face the translator.  In identifying these factors it is easy to relate them to the historian who is often subject to the same factors.  But much like with the question of what makes a good translation, what makes a good historian is based purely on interpretation. Here is one interpretation: What a historian should be is as faithful and accurate as possible, while recognising the limitations and influences that affect their work. A historian should attempt to avoid these issues but not to the extreme as to do more damage.  Isn’t it interesting that the same can be said for the translator?

Ancient Greek Learning Resources

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Currently I am back teaching Greek at my University so here are Greek resources for both students and those interested:

Important Rules to Remember When Learning Ancient Greek Part 1

Important Rules to Remember When Learning Ancient Greek Part 2

Important Rules to Remember When Learning Ancient Greek Part 3

Important Rules to Remember When Learning Ancient Greek Park 4

Additional information and resources can be found above under Language Resources.

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