Friday, July 1, 2011

"Expunge it, or yourself"

A.E. Stallings translates Plutarch's anecdotes about Spartan women in the new issue of Poetry:
When her husband Leonidas set out for Thermopylae, she exhorted him to show himself worthy of Sparta. When she asked him what she should do in turn, he said, “Marry a brave man and bear strapping children.”

Another [anon. Spartan woman], hearing her son was safe and sound having deserted the fighting, wrote to him: “A bad rumor besmirches you. Expunge it, or yourself.”

Another, when her sons had slipped away from battle and returned to her, said, “Where do you think you’re fleeing to, you sorry runaways? Trying to slink back here where you came from?” and yanked up her robe and showed them.

Another, seeing her son approaching from battle, asked, “How fares Sparta?” He replied, “All are dead!” Picking up a roof tile, she brained him, saying, “And I suppose they sent you to give us the bad news?”
When a Spartan girl was asked if she had been free with a man, she said, “No, but he was with me.”

A Spartan so badly wounded he had to struggle on all fours was embarrassed to look so ridiculous. His mother told him, “Isn’t it better to exult in your courage than blush at the laughter of fools?”
Like everything Sparta-related the anecdotes are somewhat monotonous. Stallings remarks in her translator's note:
Spartans spoke a Doric dialect (a descendant of which is still spoken in the region), and English translators have sometimes rendered the Spartan into Scots to indicate the differences, linguistic and cultural, from the home counties of Athens. 

I do not know who these translators were but the lead seems worth following up. Speaking of Scots, Calista recently posted a delightful anecdote about quhen vs. when:
I wil tel quhat befel myself quhen I was in the south with a special gud frende of myne. Ther rease, upon sum accident, quhither quho, quhen, quhat, etc. sould be symbolized with a q or w, a hoat disputation betuene him and me. After manic conflictes (for we ofte encountered), we met be chance, in the citie of Baeth, with a Doctour of divinitie of both our acquentance. He invited us to denner. [...] Then (said Ij a labial letter can not symboliz a guttural syllab. But w is a labial letter, quho a guttural sound. And therfoer w can not symboliz quho, nor noe syllab of that nature. Here the doctour staying them again (for al barked at ones), the proposition, said he, I understand; the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false. Quherat al laughed, as if I had been dryven from al replye, and I fretted to see a frivolouse jest go for a solid ansuer.
The pronunciation history is not entirely clear to me: I think the Scots pronunciation was always distinct from "w" -- Dunbar doesn't alliterate "quh-" with "w-" sounds in his longest alliterative poem -- however, it's not clear whether it was "hw" or "kw" or "xw" (i.e., the loch sound, this would explain "guttural" above). The OED lists some variant spellings without h, which might tell against the first possibility though it's not clear that it does. "What" is a Grimm's law cognate of "quod"; it is possible that the Scottish court adopted the "qu-" spelling in the Middle Ages out of a generally stronger literary/Latinate bent than the English court.

Interestingly, names like Urquhart and Farquhar all ended up with quh being treated as k, but (e.g.) Thomas Urquhart the translator of Rabelais sometimes had his name written as "Urwhart."

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