Talking about lament in Ancient Greek drama. Historical metapragmatics and language ideology in Sophocles’ Ajax


Abstract In this paper, after a theoretical introduction, I will first reconstruct ancient Greek notions of female speech, in particular that of lament. This reconstruction will show that female speech was considered to be genuinely more emotional and less controlled than, and thus inferior to, male speech, and that, accordingly, lament was considered to be a genuinely feminine speech act. I will then discuss the tragedy Ajax by Sophocles (performed probably around 455 BC in Athens) as critically engaging with and challenging these notions of female speech by pointing out their ideological character. This play does indeed present Ajax as a character who very much adheres to the notion of lament being a genuinely feminine, and thus inferior, speech act. However, instead of confirming this notion, Sophocles deconstructs it by juxtaposing Ajax’s metalinguistic utterances with the linguistic behavior of a female character, his slave Tecmessa. In order to show how Sophocles does that, I will make use of the sociolinguistic concept of language ideology. The challenge presented by the Ajax to the traditional notion of lament being genuinely feminine will then be contextualized within both the genre of tragedy and the ancient Greek discourse on language.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22390359v31p219

Keywords: Historical Metapragmatics; Language Ideology; Criticism of Ideology; Ancient Greek Tragedy; Sophocles


Bergk Th. 1879, Verzeichniss der Siege dramatischer Dichter in Athen, in “Rheinisches Museum für Philologie” 34 [2], pp. 292-330.

Bublitz W. and Hübler A. 2007 (eds.), Metapragmatics in Use, John Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia.

Caffi C. 2006, Metapragmatics, in Brown E.K. et al. (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics vol. 8, Elsevier, Boston, pp. 82-88.

Cairns D.L. 1993, Aidо̄s: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Cook-Gumperz J. and Gumperz J.J. 1976, Context in Children’s Speech, in Cook-Gumperz J. and Gumperz J.J., Papers on Language and Context, Working Paper 46, Language Behavior Research Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley.

Coupland N. and Jaworski A. 2004, Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Metalanguage: Reflexivity, Evaluation and Ideology, in Jaworski A., Coupland N. and Galasiński D. (eds.), Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 15-52.

Dover K. 1974, Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Du Bois J.W. 2014, Towards a Dialogic Syntax, in “Cognitive Linguistics” 25 [3], pp.359-410.

Dué C. 2006, The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy, University of Texas Press, Austin.

Easterling P.E. 1984, The Tragic Homer, in “Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies” 31 [1], pp. 1-8.

Englebretson R. 2007 (ed.), Stancetaking in Discourse: Subjectivity, Evaluation, Interaction, John Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia.

Foley H. 2001, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Gal S. and Irvine J.T. 1995, The Boundaries of Languages and Disciplines: How Ideologies Construct Difference, in “Social Research” 62 [4], pp. 967-1001.

Gal S. and Irvine J.T. 2000, Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation, in Kroskrity P.V. (ed.), Language Regimes: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities, School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, pp. 35-84.

Goldhill S. 2000, Civic Ideology and the Problem of Difference: The Politics of Aeschylean Tragedy, once again, in “The Journal of Hellenic Studies” 120, pp. 34-56.

Hall E. 1989, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Heinimann F. 1945, Nomos und Physis: Herkunft und Bedeutung einer Antithese im griechischen Denken des 5. Jahrhunderts, Reinhardt, Basel.

Hesk J. 2003, Sophocles, Ajax, Duckworth, London.

Huang Y. 2014, Pragmatics, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hübler A. and Bublitz W. 2007, Introducing Metapragmatics in Use, in Bublitz W. and Hübler A. (eds.), Metapragmatics in Use, John Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, pp. 1-26.

Irvine J.T. 2012, Language Ideology, in Oxford Bibliographies. (18.2.2019).

Kerferd G.B. and Flashar H. 1998, Die Sophistik, in Flashar H. (ed.), Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie: Die Philosophie der Antike, vol. 2.1, Schwabe, Basel, pp. 1-137.

Kitzinger R. 1991, Why Mourning Becomes Electra, in “Classical Antiquity” 10 [1], pp. 298-327.

Kovacs D. 1995, Euripides II: Children of Heracles, Hippolytus, Andromache, Hecuba, edited and translated by D. Kovacs, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Kroskrity P.V. 2000, Regimenting Languages: Language Ideological Perspectives, in Kroskrity P.V. (ed.), Language Regimes: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities, School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, pp. 1-34.

Lloyd-Jones H. 2014, Sophocles I: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus, edited and translated by H. Lloyd-Jones, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

McClure L. 1999, Spoken like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Nooter S. 2012, When Heroes Sing: Sophocles and the Shifting Soundscape of Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Suter A. 2003, Lament in Euripides’ Trojan Women, in “Mnemosyne” 56 [1], pp. 1-28.

Taavitsainen I. and Jucker A.H. 2010, Trends and Developments in Historical Pragmatics, in Taavitsainen I. and Jucker A.H. (eds.), Historical Pragmatics, de Gruyter Mouton, Berlin, pp. 3-30.

Verschueren J. 1999, Understanding Pragmatics, Arnold, London.

Verschueren J. 2004, Notes on the Role of Metapragmatic Awareness in Language Use, in Jaworski A., Coupland N. and Galasiński D. (eds.), Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 54-73.

Full Text: pdf


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia License.