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One of Lord Byron's most famous poems appears, in the earliest editions of his works, under the simple title of 'Song', but is now more widely know by its first line, 'Maid of Athens, ere we part'. The poem has a pretty hair-raising backstory; the object of Byron's affections was his Athenian landlady's 12-year-old daughter, and he actually tried to purchase her for £500. (Her mother, thankfully, refused.) But for this question, I am only interested in the correctness - or otherwise - of Lord Byron's Greek.

To make matters more confusing, the poem's Greek is actually printed slightly differently, depending on which edition of Byron's works one consults. However, the earliest editions - I have the honour of owning a very early edition of Byron's poetical works, which I compared to an edition available online - seem to agree on the printing given in the image below, and which I would render in Unicode as:

Ζώη μοῦ, σάς ἀγαπῶ.

Zoe mou sas agapo.

According this article, 'Byron's repeated address to Teresa, "My life, I love you [i.e. Ζώη μοῦ, σάς ἀγαπῶ]," is sweet but written incorrectly in Greek.' On the other hand, this article claims 'My Modern Greek language professor and his American wife, when breathless young wooers, English literature students both, had Ζώη μου, σας αγαπώ engraved on the inside of their wedding bands.' I am having difficulty reconciling the alleged incorrectness of the Greek with the story of a professor of the Greek language inscribing that same phrase on his such emotionally-charged jewellery.

I happen to have a Greek-born friend. When I confronted him with this riddle, he said the letters themselves seemed to be in order - σας is a bit old-fashioned, but the poem is over 200 years old - but there was something fishy going on with the diacritics. That first word - according to my friend - should be Ζωή and not Ζώη, and he could not swear to the correctness of the other diacritics. When that first article claimed that Lord Byron fluffed his Greek, are the alleged errors in the diacritics?

Of course, in 21st century Greek, as opposed to both Ancient Greek and 19th century Greek, the system of diacritics has been simplified drastically, such that the song's refrain would be rendered as:

Ζωή μου, σας αγαπώ.

But could Byron's phrase, with its original diacritics, be considered correct with respect to the orthography of any century, or any Greek-speaking region?

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    The first article you cite itself cites a letter by John A. Scott in The Classical Journal saying that the error lies in translating "Ζώη" as "life" instead of the proper name "Zoe". Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 22:29
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez Does the article actually say that? In fact, Scott says that Ζωή is the proper name, and makes no mention of Ζώη. But this contradicts what my Greek friend told me, and, for what it's worth, Wiktionary.
    – Tom Hosker
    Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 23:46
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    Mea culpa, Scott indeed wrote Ζωή. But the point remains that he was discriminating between "Zoe" and "life". Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 0:54
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    The problem here is that you're asking two questions: "are the alleged errors in the diacritics?", and "could Byron's phrase, with its original diacritics, be considered correct with respect to the orthography of any century, or any Greek-speaking region?". The first is easily answerable, the second is far more difficult. Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 10:07
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    @HolyKnowing But is this ancient Greek? Byron was addressing a real living Greek maiden in the 19th century.
    – Tom Hosker
    Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 11:42

2 Answers 2

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I am Greek and familiar with the poem, and I can say that Sumelic and Scott are right to interpret this as a misunderstanding of Byron. Ζωή μου means indeed My life, while Ζώη μου means nothing at all, given that the female Christian name is also Ζωή (stress on the penultimate), not to mention that the Maid's name was really Theresa (or Θηρεσία, in he formal Greek version).

The "circumflex" on σας was well applied, indicating a vowel that was in the past pronounced as a long one. (Today,the polytonic system has been replaced by the monotonic).

Lastly, I do not speak German but I cannot see why it would be ludicrous to say: Ζωή μου, σας αγαπώ. It's perfectly all right in Greek, as it would be in French.

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  • There's a long tradition in English love poetry of giving the woman poetic pseudonyms, to hide her identity, to flatter her, to make a poetic image, or to fit the meter better.
    – Mary
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 2:13
  • The alleged ludicrousness, according to Scott, is the clash between the intimacy of the address "My life" and the distancing pronoun. Like saying "Ma vie, je vous aime" rather than "Ma vie, je t'aime" in French. But I don't think I agree with Scott that this makes it necessary to interpret "ζωή μου" as a name: it just seems like Byron maybe made an odd choice of pronoun in using "σᾶς" here.
    – sumelic
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 0:55
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I don't know Greek (ancient or modern). The accentuation of "Ζώη μοῦ, σάς ἀγαπῶ" seems to be wrong, but that isn't what the Daily JSTOR article "When Lord Byron Tried to Buy a Twelve-Year-Old Girl" is talking about: it links to an article by John A. Scott ("The Refrain in Byron's "Maid of Athens"") that argues that it is unnatural to interpret "ζωή" as the noun "life" in combination with the formal/polite/distancing pronoun "σᾶς". So the objection that this article alludes to is not about Byron's accentuation or even, it seems, about his syntax: it is about word choice. Personally, I'm a little skeptical of Scott's argument about the word "ζωή", but there is another article by Thomas Macartney that supports the idea that "σᾶς" may have been an odd choice of pronoun.

Accentuation

From what I can tell, the accent in ζώη is in the wrong place: it should be ζωή or ζωὴ (the grave accent was formerly used in Greek as a variant of the acute in certain contexts). I don't know if that's Byron's mistake, or a printer's. The accent on the enclitic μοῦ also seems dubious, since what I've read indicates that when the pronoun was stressed its form would be expected to be the longer ἐμοῦ. In the case where μου is unstressed, ζωή would have to have an acute rather than a grave.

Scott cites Byron's refrain with the accentuation "ζωή μου σᾶς ἀγαπῶ". I am not sure whether the circumflex on "σᾶς" is correct, but I think I trust it more than I trust the acute in the image that you posted. Second person pronouns seem to have changed between ancient and modern Greek, so I'm having trouble finding a reference that shows me the polytonic spelling of this word.

In Scott's view, "ζωή" cannot naturally be interpreted as the noun "life" in combination with the polite/distancing second-person pronoun "σᾶς"

Scott alleges, on the basis of personal correspondence with "an educated Greek", that "no one in Greece would regard ζωή as anything but a proper name" in this context; hence, Scott thinks Byron errs in translating it as "My life, I love you". Scott thinks that as written, the line can only be read "My Zoe, I love you." Scott suggests Byron was misled by Juvenal's use of ζωή as a common noun rather than a name in Saturae 6.194: "quotiens lasciuum interuenit illud ζωὴ καὶ ψυχή".

Aside from the appeal to the authority of his Greek acquaintance, Scott argues that the use of the pronoun σας, a plural of politeness (see Nick Nicholas's Quora answer here), is incompatible with the emotive nature of referring to a beloved as "my life". (Nick Nicholas describes this pronoun as "a politeness plural, patterned after French Vous (and Early Modern English you) [...] it’s been mainstream in Greek since the 19th century, although Greeks in practice avoid out when they can—because to them it’s much more about distance than respect.") If you know German, Scott's analogy is that it would allegedly be equally ludicrous to say "Mein Leben, ich liebe Sie" in that language (rather than "Mein Leben, ich liebe dich").

It's possible that the use of the pronoun "σᾶς" was an odd choice in this context, but I'm not totally convinced that Scott is right that this allows us to exclude the interpretation of "ζωή μου" as "My life". Another article about this topic is "Ζωή μου Again", by Thomas Macartney (The Classical Journal, Vol. 11, No. 9 (Jun., 1916), pp. 552-553). Macartney says

I have sought assurance from several Greeks, one of them of fair education, that ζωή μου and ψυχή μου are still common terms of endearment. My feeling, too, is that the 'aloof' σᾶς is unnatural or incorrect in this poem, whether ζωή μου is "My life" or "My Zoe." [...] In his note on the poem Byron correctly translates σᾶς by you, apparently unconscious of the discord; while in the poem itself he uses "thy " and "thee" and names the little maid "sweet"!--out of all harmony with the "dignified reserve" of σᾶς. The use of σᾶς, then, does not seem to prove that ζωή μου must mean "My Zoe"; but it does raise a doubt as to Byron's knowledge of modern Greek in 1810. [...]

The source of this refrain, then, seems not to have been the passage of Juvenal (ii. 6. 195), which was an after-thought rather than a suggestion. And I venture to believe that the verse had better been written ζωή μου σὲ ἀγαπῶ and translated "My life, I love thee."

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