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What Is Classical Philology?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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The written works of classical antiquity were sometimes rewritten, copied, or translated centuries after they had been conceived and composed. The work of classical philology is to determine whether Greek and Latin texts preserved from antiquity are true to the meaning and intent of the original authors. A classical philologist is in essence attempting to determine whether we possess a correct version of the original manuscript. This involves a close examination of the individual words within the text and a close reading of any commentaries or annotations added to the text over the centuries.

The term philology is from the Greek word philologos. In antiquity, philologos referred to a commentator on ancient literary manuscripts. It meant “one to whom the word is dear.” These works contained many words the meaning of which might be unclear, uncertain, or mistranslated. A classical philologist tries to ensure that the interpretation of these texts is as correct as possible.

To discover and understand the correct meaning of an ancient text, the classical philologist must in a sense enter the linguistic and historical culture of antiquity. He searches for the precise meanings of words as they would have been understood at that time. The premise is that the literature of every culture and age should only be interpreted by reading the work the way the original author intended it to be read by his contemporaries. This entails not imposing modern interpretations or meanings on the words in the text. The complexities of language and ideas existing at the time the work was written must be uncovered through careful research.

In classical philology, the context of the words in individual passages of a manuscript is important. Inconsistencies in word usage among different sections of the work could point to errors in copying or a mistranslation. There should be consistency in the meaning given to a word throughout the whole text. Sometimes research into the writer’s complete body of work is necessary to determine what the author’s overall ideas were. This methodology does not always result in certainty about the meanings of specific words, but it does create fixed boundaries for the meanings.

Critics of the field of classical philology argue that there are too many ambiguities in words to fix any definite meaning to them, especially after centuries of linguistic change. There can be changes in idioms, shifts in meaning of words, or the complete disappearance of a word’s usage. The lapse of time alone makes objective determination of word meanings impossible.

The response of classical philology is that even if there is no certainty as to the meaning of some words, it does not mean that this is true for all words. Evidence regarding word meaning can be gathered from comparing an author’s work to his other texts and those of his contemporaries. Exhaustive research can result not only in fixing meaning to a word but in understanding how any why the author was using it.

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