Saturday, July 05, 2008


Asyndetic, Privative Adjectives in Sophocles

"Asyndetic" means not joined by conjunctions, and "privative" means altering the meaning of a term from positive to negative, by means of a prefix (e.g. a-, in-, non-, un-) or suffix (e.g. -less).

I recently noticed two examples of asyndetic, privative adjectives in Sophocles. The first example is Sophocles, fragment 386 (from the lost Women of Lemnos, tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones):
...the creature unapproachable, inexplicable, which I reared.

ἄπλατον ἀξύμβλητον ἐξεθρεψάμην
Lloyd-Jones thinks the speaker may have been Hypsipyle's old nurse Polyxo.

It is often difficult to translate short fragments because context is unavailable. Lloyd-Jones translates ἀξύμβλητον here as "inexplicable," which conforms to Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ), s.v. ἀσύμβλητος, II ("not to be guessed, unintelligible"). But the LSJ definition III for the same word is "unsocial," for which this fragment of Sophocles is cited. Hesychius gives ἀσυνάντητος ("not to be met, unsocial") as a synonym of ἀξύμβλητος.

The meaning "unsocial" arose from the failure of someone to pay his contribution to a common meal. In ancient Greek, a potluck was ἔρανος, and individual contributions were συμβολαί. The guest who arrived without a contribution was ἀσύμβολος or ἀσύμβλητος.

The same adjective ἀξύμβλητον occurs in another passage from Sophocles (Trachiniae 693-694, tr. Lloyd-Jones) as the second half of a pair of asyndetic, privative adjectives:
And when I was going out I saw a thing too strange for words, beyond human understanding.

ἔξω δ᾽ ἀποστείχουσα δέρκομαι φάτιν
ἄφραστον, ἀξύμβλητον ἀνθρώπῳ μαθεῖν.

ἔξω Lloyd-Jones: εἴσω codd.
Here the context makes it clear that "unintelligible" is the meaning of ἀξύμβλητον.

Other examples of asyndetic, privative adjectives in Sophocles are:I also just came across a good example of asyndetic, privative adjectives in English, in a paragraph from Edwin Way Teale, Journey Into Summer (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1960), p. 345 (on Pike's Peak, emphasis added):
As we stood discussing such things, two businessmen struck up an acquaintance nearby. They talked endlessly, loudly, always on the same subject: the clubs they had belonged to, how one had presided over a grand conclave, how the other had headed a committee that brought in twenty-two new members. All the while the great spiritual experience of the mountain was passing them by. Unseen, unfelt, unappreciated, the beauty of the land unfolded around them. The clubs of the world formed their world entire. It enclosed them like the home of a snail wherever they went. For them, the scene would have been just as moving if they had been hemmed in by billboards.

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