A post of Caterina’s reminded me of one of my favorite Byzantines, John Tzetzes (c.1110-c.1180), a poor boy (of ethnic Georgian background) who scrabbled his way to a precarious position in Constantinopolitan literary society and wrote an enormous amount, valuable to scholars for its copious quotations from otherwise lost works. The Byzantinist Robert Browning says:
Born in Constantinople of a family that had seen better days, he received a good education and obtained a post as secretary to a provincial governor. But he was soon dismissed as a result of some adventure involving the governor’s wife, and worked for some time as a secretary in Constantinople. For most of the rest of his life he gained a poor livelihood by teaching and writing, though for a time he enjoyed the patronage of a lady of the imperial family, and had the sons of distinguished men as his pupils… Tzetzes was a very erudite man, and at the same time as vain and touchy as a child. Reduced by poverty to selling his library, he relied a great deal on his extraordinary memory, of which he was very proud; but it often let him down.
Another great Byzantinist, Alexander Kazhdan (editor of the magnificent Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium), gives this piquant description of his writing in his Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (I trust the referents of those his‘s are clear):
His intimacy with antiquity is best reflected in his correspondence, which he annotated with a long series of epigrams, creating a previously unexampled literary form. In these epistles, which are addressed both to real and to fictitious people, Tzetzes treated personal concerns and contemporary problems along with details of Hellenic culture. For example, he described his stay in an apartment badly in need of repair. The tenant in the rooms above was a priest who, in addition to having too many children, kept swine; they rained dirt and urine down on the poor writer. This prosaic fact, however, is framed by a series of classical images; for instance, the priest, according to Tzetzes, had fewer children than Priamus or Danaos or Egypt…, but they were more numerous than those of Niobe or Amphion; the children and the swine are contrasted with the cavalry of Xerxes: the horses of Xerxes dried up streams, whereas Tzetzes’ cohabitants brought forth navigable rivers… These epigrams as a whole form the so-called Histories, an immense poem without any noticeable structure, in which Tzetzes treated everything from history and geography to myths and monuments. He seems to have simply enjoyed the queer tinkling of strange names.
As do I, as do I. And that brings us to the main reason for my featuring Tzetzes in Languagehat, his boast about his own linguistic abilities in the epilog to his Theogony (quoting again from Change in Byzantine Culture):
One finds me Scythian among Scythians, Latin among Latins,
And among any other tribe a member of that folk.
When I embrace a Scythian I accost him in such a way:
“Good day, my lady, good day, my lord:
Salamalek alti, salamalek altugep.”
And also to Persians I speak in Persian:
“Good day, my brother, how are you? Where are you from, my friend?
Asan khais kuruparza khaneazar kharandasi?”
To a Latin I speak in the Latin language:
“Welcome, my lord, welcome, my brother:
Bene venesti, domine, bene venesti, frater.
Wherefrom are you, from which theme [province] do you come?
Unde es et de quale provincia venesti?
How have you come, brother, to this city?
Quomodo, frater, venesti in istan civitatem?
On foot, on horse, by sea? Do you wish to stay?
Pezos, caballarius, per mare? Vis morare?”
To Alans I say in their tongue:
“Good day, my lord, my archontissa, where are you from?
Tapankhas mesfili khsina korthi kanda,” and so on.
If an Alan lady has a priest as a boyfriend, she will hear such words:
“Do not be ashamed, my lady; let the priest marry you [to mounin sou ['your cunt'–LH]].
To farnetz kintzi mesfili kaitz fua saunge.”
Arabs, since they are Arabs, I address in Arabic:
“Where do you dwell, where are you from, my lady? My lord, good day to you.
Alentamor menende siti mule sepakha.”
And also I welcome the Ros according to their habits:
“Be healthy, brother, sister, good day to you.
Sdraste, brate, sestritza,” and I say “dobra deni.”
To Jews I say in a proper manner in Hebrew:
“You blind house devoted to magic, you mouth, a chasm engulfing flies,
memakomene beth fagi beelzebul timaie,
You stony Jew, the Lord has come, lightning be upon your head.
Eber ergam, maran atha, bezek unto your khothar.”
So I talk with all of them in a proper and befitting way;
I know the skill of the best management.”
Aside from the unfortunate display of typical medieval anti-Semitism, this is a delightful passage, and I must admit to a guilty fondness for the imprecation “bezek unto your khothar.”
Update. See now this detailed post at Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος, complete with reconstructed Proto-Ossetic.